Big Head Press

L. Neil Smith's
Number 413, April 15, 2007

"And so it goes. . . ."


Recollections of Chicago—1968
by Jan K. Peterson

Special to The Libertarian Enterprise

As a graduate student in architectural college in 1968, I had gotten my very first summer job working for a big architectural firm—in Chicago. Chicago is considered the birthplace of the high-rise building (and a principal of the firm I would work for had been an instructor in my studio classes the previous semester), so I was excited to have gotten a job there. I drove up from St. Louis on my Yamaha motorcycle with a small suitcase strapped to the back, and settled into a rental room at a fraternity house on the IT campus. It was my first visit to the Windy City since I had been a small child. The company I was to work for had just moved their offices to the second floor of a building on Michigan Avenue, the eastern edge of downtown that faces Lake Michigan. It had sixteen-foot-tall windows overlooking a lakefront park not far from the Art Museum.

Coincidentally, the Democratic National Convention would be in Chicago that summer. The convention was being held—it turned out—at a hotel just a few blocks down Michigan Avenue from my office. As the date of the convention approached, a colorful collection of tie-dye-clothed "hippies"—and many other less-flamboyant people—began to swarm into Chicago from all over the country.

America was then embroiled in the Vietnam War, but it was a far different experience from the Iraq War that currently engages America: the "cold war" with Russia was in full swing and being fought—by proxy—in Vietnam; Communists were the enemy; the military draft was in place; young male adults were being forced into the military, and the country was split into vehemently pro- and anti- war factions. Some Cole students, who were about to lose their student deferments from the draft, (and others in that age bracket who were eligible for the draft) left the US and fled to Canada just to avoid the draft.

Arlo Guthrie had a hit song (that lasted an unheard-of 15 or 20 minutes) called "Alice's Restaurant," in which (among other things) he went to Chicago for his pre-induction physical and ended up siting "on the 'Group W' bench." That's meaningful to me because I had to take my pre-induction physical in Chicago that summer, although I didn't end up on the Group W bench.

I remember going to a city park on a Sunday, when the crowds were arriving in town, before the convention. There was some kind of a scuffle that broke out between the police and some hippies. Police reinforcements were called in, and a line of policemen was formed on a grassy knoll in the park, standing shoulder to shoulder with their batons at the ready. I walked calmly over to them, along with a great many others who were in the park at the time. I thought that it would be a good idea to initiate a dialogue to ease tensions, so I attempted to engage someone—anyone—in the police line. I don't remember what I said, but the response I got was, "I'll bet your mother's real proud of you"—said with sarcasm dripping from every word. I cheerfully responded, "Well, yes, you're right! My mother is very proud of me. I'll soon be the first person in our family to graduate from college." Whereupon the officer started towards me, raising his baton, and had to be restrained by his fellow officers. Nothing came of it, but I got a foretaste of things to come.

In the late 1960s, a great many people—including a large percentage of college students (who were disproportionately affected)—were protesting what they considered to be an immoral war. "Be the first one on your block to have your boy come home in a box. Whoopee, we're all gonna' die!" went the popular refrain from an anti-war song by "Country Joe & the Fish." Some protesters went so far as to burn ROTC buildings on college campuses. Protesting students at Kent State University in Ohio were shot and killed by a panicked ROTC contingent. Tensions ran high.

Against this backdrop, I was working diligently at my drafting table, one day, when I heard a sound that I did not recognize. I looked out the window and saw a military helicopter headed directly towards the building, at about second-story level. I froze. The chopper abruptly turned it's belly to me as it swung upward, seemed to halt in midair as it rotated 180º and swept in a vertical arc back down until it could go back in the same direction from which it had arrived. Yes, that caught my attention! An office coworker told me that there were news reports of demonstrators gathering in the park—because the convention was opening that evening.

At the close of office hours, I made a small sign that read "Suppression of dissent is (ugly) fascistic!" The "ugly" was written in cursive, as an afterthought, to compliment the bold letters of the rest of the sign. I thought it was a well-reasoned statement in response to the "Love it or leave it" crowd.

Because the motorcycle was my only transportation, and the office would be locked once I left, I had to take my helmet with me. It was a white full-head-wrap-around helmet. On the back, I had applied a large graphic flower sticker that had "Eugene McCarthy" printed in the middle of the flower. McCarthy was the Democrats' newly-anointed "peace candidate," and the sticker appealed to the anti-war "hippies" (a term used by those who supported the war as a catch-all phrase to encompass all young people who opposed the war). "Hippies" were also collectively called "flower children," and they rallied around the idea of "flower power," which was an oblique reference to the buds of marijuana plants—something that had just been discovered by the middle class and student population. John Lennon famously placed a flower in the barrel of a gun held by a soldier. Upon graduation from college I would instantly become eligible for the military draft, so I supported McCarthy's nomination to become president and—hopefully—end the war.

I carried the helmet and the sign over to the park across from my office where I joined a large crowd of people. It was a sunny afternoon with pleasant temperatures and a speaker in a band shell exhorting the crowd to let the Democrats know how we felt. As we approached sundown, the crowd began moving—en masse—towards a bridge over sunken railroad tracks that separated the lakefront park from the buildings of downtown Chicago. I happened to be standing on that side of the large crowd, and so, found myself near the forefront as they all moved in my direction. As I was swept up into the movement, I asked someone what was going on, and was told that the crowd was moving to the front of the hotel where the convention was being held—so that the Democrats could hear us better.

Unfortunately, there were national guard troops stationed on the bridge who would not let us pass. Not to be denied, the crowd surged northward to the next bridge—which also was cordoned off. And so it went: the crowd moved northward to bridge after bridge until the national guard could not cover any more bridges. Nearly at the Art Museum, the crowd finally spilled across an unpatrolled bridge onto Michigan Avenue. And there was Jesse Jackson!, in a covered wagon, with a team of mules, headed southward down Michigan Avenue towards the convention hotel.

The crowd moved, with Reverend Jackson, to the street intersection at the northeast corner of the hotel. A cordon line of police was in front of the hotel, standing shoulder to shoulder, stretching across Michigan Avenue, with their batons held in their hands, to stop the protest march. So the marchers settled into the street and chanted anti-war chants. Rev. Jackson spoke from his "platform," but I believe he was gone long before the mayhem started. In the next morning's Chicago paper, there was a half-page picture of the crowd, taken from overhead, that showed the streets filed with people. And in the very middle of the crowd was a clearly-visible white dot: as I later told my associates in the office, "That's me!" I had put the white helmet on my head, just so I wouldn't be forced to carry it with my hands. Much more convenient!

Time dragged on with nothing much happening. I was in the center of the intersection when people got tired of standing, so we all sat down in the street. Ho hum. Then, suddenly, and without warning, we heard a thumping noise: police in riot gear, with batons and shields, were marching up the side street next to the hotel, beating their batons against their shields as they stomped their feet in unison. The crowd jumped to it's feet. We didn't know what was going on, until people at the edge of the crowd next to the side street began screaming! At a signal from their leader, the police had run headlong into the peaceful crowd, swinging batons and hinting people on the head, on the back, in the ribs, across the backs of their legs. There had been no announcement. No request to disperse. No deadline for action. They just waded in and started swinging. I stood in disbelief and watched, too shocked to move.

If you have ever seen the movie, "Little Big Man," you know that there is a scene where Dustin Hoffman (as Little Big Man) is in an Indian encampment with "Grandfather" (who is blind), when the cavalry attacks. Grandfather decides that it's a good day to die, but Hoffman wants to get him out, so he teals Grandfather: "Remember the dream you had? Where you were invisible? That's a sign! You are invisible; the soldiers can't see you." Grandfather accepts this, and saunters out of the teepee. He walks nonchalantly through the killing fields all around him, as the cavalry is firing indiscriminately at everyone—women, children, old men, everyone—and escapes without a scratch.

I had a similar experience in Chicago. I stood in the middle of the intersection and watched the carnage going on all around me, without ever being involved in any of it. I watched police officers wielding batons rake them across the backs of peoples' legs as they were attempting to flee, causing them to fall to the ground, where they were further assaulted with batons until the officers got tired. I saw someone pushed through a plate glass window on the facade of the hotel, and sharp shards of broken glass came falling down on him. I watched innocent people with blood flowing from gashes on their heads, being shoved—with great force—into all-steel paddy-wagons. People were pleading for restraint, but the troops screamed back at them while they continued to flail away with their clubs. I was aghast!

I had not moved more than a few feet. I was transfixed by the outpouring of hatred all around me, transforming into screams and blood. Then, in a sudden burst of fear, it occurred to me that I should look around behind me. There was the line of officers stretched across the street in front of the hotel—about 15 feet away. They had not moved. I was now standing in a nearly deserted street, while the vast majority of the crowd had fled northward, up Michigan Avenue. In hindsight, I believe that it was the helmet that saved me: the police were all in riot gear, which included white helmets with visors. I believe that, in the "fog of attack," the police thought that I was one of them, since I was also wearing a white helmet (even though it had the McCarthy sticker on it). So there I was, standing in a deserted street—except for those who couldn't move, and those who were being "processed" by the police.

I decided that it was time for me to move, and headed northward up Michigan Avenue. People from the protest crowd were mad, now! Incensed individuals from the crowd began setting fires in trash barrels along the street. And occasionally, some object was thrown back in the general direction of the hotel. I guess the police were too busy "taking care of" those they had caught to mount any kind of drive up the street after the fleeing remnants of the crowd.

Many people went home at that point, but many others stayed. And at least one person from my office told me (the next day) that he was so incensed, watching it all unfold on TV, that he left his comfortable suburban home and came downtown to join the protest. The crowd moved back across the bridges, to the park where the sunken rail lines separated us from the police on the street.

Eventually, I ended up back in front of the hotel, with a still rather large contingent of protesters. It was late at night, by now, and very dark in the park. We called for the TV crews (who were in front of the hotel) to keep their camera lights on—in hopes of preventing another police charge into the crowd. They obliged us—for a while—but eventually, they had to shut the lights of. TV lights use too much energy, and burn out too quickly, for them to keep them on for long periods of time.

I was in the middle of a grove of trees. The lighted hotel facade was visible past the foreground silhouettes of the trees, when I noticed a young man prying up pavers from a park pathway and throwing them towards the hotel. I rushed over and grabbed his arm as he was starting to throw another. "Stop," I said. "If you do that, that's just giving them an excuse to come back and hit us some more." As I said that, another man—who apparently had seen what was going on and had the same reaction as I did—came up and reinforced what I had said. The stone chucker acknowledged that we had a point, dropped the paver, and disappeared into the night.

The other guy grabbed my sign (which I had retrieved on my trip back up Michigan Avenue) and turned it so he could read it in the light. "Pretty lame," he said, and walked away.

History happens to you before you realize it.

Copyright © 2007 by Jan K. Peterson


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