I have the dubious distinction of being one of the first journalists to be beaten by the Chicago police in 1968.
My own personal cop clubbing came in a different era in a different city at a different Democratic National Convention. It was exactly 40 years ago Sunday night in the initial stage of what would later be described as a “police riot.”
The whole world was watching.
Richard J. Daley, Chicago’s first mayor-for-life and father to the second one, was hell-bent on making sure that his city was show-cased as the world class city he knew it to be.
No unwashed, longhaired, commie sympathizing hippies were going to disrupt his party’s party in his city. No how. No way.
So when 11 p.m. rolled around, on August 25, 1968, more than 6,000 riot-gear laden cops marched into Chicago’s Lincoln Park to make sure that the less than 5,000 protesters gathered there understood that the welcome mat was about to be rolled up and carted away. “The park closes at 11 p.m.,” an authoritative voice announced through a bullhorn. The anti-war demonstrators were ordered to clear out.
No sooner than the announcement was made, I saw in the distance an unidentified sailing object, highlighted by the lights from the TV cameras, launched from within the ranks, over the demonstrators into the ranks of the Chicago police. It would be months later before we’d learn that the bottle had been thrown by an undercover cop acting as an agent provocateur. But right then, right there, all we knew was that all hell was breaking loose. The riot-helmeted blue mass moved toward the long-haired mass. Soon I saw one person after the next staggering south on Clark Street, with blood and tear-stained faces.
For me, an Indiana University college student who was interning in Newsweek's Chicago bureau, this was TV drama in the flesh. John Culhane, the Newsweek correspondent who was showing me the ropes, and I ran against the crowd to get a first-hand look at the action.
We didn’t get far.
"The police had formed a club-swinging gauntlet along the curb. Every four or five feet there was a billy club wielding cop wailing away. We were beaten from one cop to the next to the next."
After advancing a little more than 100 feet, we ran into reality. The Chicago cops were beating down anybody and everybody not dressed in a blue police uniform.
John and I took refuge in the tiny, fenced-in yard that fronted the Mt. Hermon Baptist Church, thinking we had found a sanctuary. Two policemen stood at the gate to the yard. “Come out of there, mother------s,” one yelled, after lifting the plastic face shield on his riot helmet to make sure his voice was plain and clear.
At that point, it was obvious that the DNC-issued press credentials dangling around our necks were no protection. As we obeyed the police order, shuffling through the gate, it was just as obvious that the Newsweek-issued riots helmets we wore would offer just a little protection. The blows rang our bells but drew no blood. We were hit and hit again until we were knocked into the stream of screaming and cursing civilians stumbling south on Clark Street. The police had formed a club-swinging gauntlet along the curb. Every four or five feet there was a billy club wielding cop wailing away. We were beaten from one cop to the next to the next.
I had two thoughts simultaneously running through my head. One was the sense of fear and hopelessness knowing that the ones who had the power to protect were out to do harm. The other was to find some other body to dart behind so that it might absorb the next blow rather than mine.
As suddenly as the beating started, it was over for John and me. We had been clubbed to the intersection of LaSalle and Clark where we could flee with others in the bruised and bloodied crowd.
When we got back to Newsweek’s makeshift headquarters, we anxiously reported our painful ordeal to our editors. They thought we had brought it on ourselves. We were taken off the streets and confined to answering the phones on Monday night. Then came other reports of other journalists who had been discouraged by the brute force of the CPD from covering the street demonstrators. Our editors immediately understood it wasn’t us, it was them: The police were out to beat the press.
[The top photo is across from the Conrad Hilton in Grant Park. I'm the young reporter in the riot helmet with Reporter's Notepad in hand. Above is a photograph of Newsweek's journalists beaten by the Chicago police. John Culhane is the white reporter with the mustache. I'm standing on the right, next to him.]
For the next three days and three nights, I was back on the streets, witnessing history unfold. Experiencing it too. I was tear-gassed. I stood face-to-face with National guardsmen, who stood shoulder-to-shoulder, their rifles in hand. I wiped my watering eyes after tear-gas shells were launched to disperse demonstrators. I furiously scribbled in my Reporter’s Notebook and I watched as more protesters and press landed on the wrong end of a policeman’s nightstick. By the time Hubert Humphrey delivered his acceptance speech on Thursday night, 700 civilians and 83 police were injured. Thirty-two newsmen had to receive medical attention. Some 653 American citizens had been arrested.
America and the Democratic Party were not ever the same. So much law and so little order shoved the nation to the right. And just two Democrats, Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton, have been elected in the four decades following the billy club bash.
Last night, on the eve of the Denver convention there were a few hundred protesters on the streets, but, unlike Chicago 1968, there was no disorder among those charged with enforcing the law. Lessons were learned and times have changed.
This convention, 40 years later, is going to be another historic one. But rather than history being made on the streets, this time it will be made inside the convention hall.
I was a witness to the action outside back then, I’m a witness on the inside this week.
Throughout this convention, I’ll share with you what I see.