As a cub reporter for LIFE Magazine I was assigned to head five street teams to cover the streets at the Chicago Convention of 1968. The characters are Roger Snider, the magazine’s top political writer who was demoted for having offended a U.S. Senator in one of his articles. Roger thinks himself the brightest mind on earth, an idea which makes him the most boring. But even his superiority becomes overwhelmed when the violence occurs.
Other characters are Crown, Roger’s photographer, and Barnaby Hart, who is another reporter.
I covered the event with Howard Bingham, Mohammed Ali’s personal photographer. I was witness to the police brining up the saw horses in front of the Haymarket Inn. I escaped. Richard Sale
Grant Park was not the usual park; it displayed belts of greenery that had been cut into major parallel streets between Michigan Avenue and Lake Michigan one and a half miles away. After the attacks of the afternoon, the police wanted to pen the kids up in Lincoln Park, keeping them away from the Hilton, but there were a variety of bridges and overpasses that went north and south and which crossed over the railroad lines and they led into Michigan Avenue. Many of the kids who had escaped the attacks up at Lincoln Park were now heading there. The exodus from Lincoln Park speeded up after the National Guard began to gas the kids and it found that there were too many bridges, too many choices, and the authorities had been outwitted. The wind suddenly shifted west, causing eyes to tear, faces grimacing, people stopping to try and put a handkerchief to their eye, many of them never having to sniff tear gas before in their lives.
Worse, the beatings in Lincoln Park had attracted hundreds of newsmen, all of whom had now headed to the Hilton to cover what was soon to be called, “The Wednesday Night Massacre.”
Roger Snider stood squarely out in the middle of Michigan Avenue, next to the Hilton, behind the police line, his hands thrust into the pockets of his white gabardine jacket, wearing expensive, tasseled loafers and dress slacks. He had eaten a steak dinner, had two scotches and now he felt full and contented and less anxious. He had spent his afternoon drinking at a local bar where Norman Mailer, who had suddenly left to go speak at the bend shell, leaving him with McCarthy staffers most of whom were in a glum mood. (Roger would only learn later that Mailer was watching the spectacle that violent night from the safety of the nineteen floor of the Hilton.)
A lot of whisky had made Roger feel brave. The sight of the revolving blue lights of the numerous police cars was hardly cheering to his spirit, and what he felt now was a gloomy foreboding. The crowd was keyed up to an extraordinary pitch of frustrated despair, disgusted rage, and helpless indignation. Seeing that both the kids and cops were edging towards a more lawless mood, the situation had, minute by minute, manifested a more menacing character. A slow fuse was burning towards one final, horrible explosion, Roger thought. It was just a matter of when.
On his right, he saw the dense throng contained by the Guard in Grant Park while to near to his left was the impressive, illuminated Hilton Hotel, its entrance ringed by blue figures. To the north, the intersection was filling solid with people, coming from the band shell, and the street before him was lit up by harsh, stark lights, and it was starting to fill up.
Roger was a cool, methodical man, hard to frighten, alert to atmospheres and able to interpret what they meant. As he looked on, he assumed his usual a patronizing air, animated by his usual sense of seeing things from a greater mental height than others did, and he frowned tensely: one thing was clear. In the case of both the cops and the kids, Roger knew he was witnessing a case of mental contagion. The cops hated the kids. Because of that, they would set out to break the kids’ spirit, ruin their will, and pursue them into their innermost recesses in order to make them afraid of the police. To a cops, frightfulness pays, Roger thought.
The protestors were different. They had persuaded themselves that the war and the activities of government were the sole cause of their troubles. They apparently believed that their victory would engender a new age of bliss and justice. Good things would come into existence as if by enchantment. Roger knew better. Revolution comes from the top, not the bottom. Neither the kids nor the cops were very nice people. Under authority the cops would behave, but remove all restraints, and they would give free rein to their worst instincts.
“Where the hell was Crown?” he thought, irritably. When they had arrived from the Bandshell, Roger’s photographer had gone inside the Hilton, passing through the police to go and “take a leak.” Roger hadn’t seen him since. He thought he’d spotted Barnaby Hart’s broad, powerful bearlike form looming up in the moving crowd, but as he moved to approach it, it disappeared.
“Come on, Crown,” he thought. There had been no sign of him since he’d gone in. If Roger found he had gone into the hotel to get a drink, he would strangle him.
In the beginning, as Roger came out, the evening seemed calm and casual. The cops had lounged against cars, leaned against vehicles, joking, or they had strolled around talking to reporters wandering around, and reporters had talked to them amid the news trucks and police vans.
But then had come the gassing at the band shell, the acrid, pale clouds drifting spiritlessly to settle on the darkening trees of theGrant park, following by the streaming people, coughing, vomiting, handkerchiefs closed tight on their sick faces.
Since then the mood had grown uglier by the hour.
At the far end of the street, where the line held back a huge, teeming crowd there were gatherings of police among the vehicles that stood in a jammed tangle on the pavement.
But just to the left of where he stood, a fair number of cops and knots of newsmen, mingled out on the pavement. Roger stood just below the gold-lettered window of the Haymarket Inn, where some onlookers had lined the sidewalk to look on, except as Robert watched, the police had quickly herded them together until they had formed a dense mass against the wall directly under the bar. For some time now, he noticed that the police were not letting anyone leave. A very puzzled Roger was watching when, to his astonishment, he saw a cop carrying a wooden sawhorse, painted blue. He carried it cumbersomely, and then put it down right in front of the people who waited massed by the bar. He was followed by another cop, carrying another sawhorse, and still another, until a kind of fence had been put up around the onlookers whose mood was clearly becoming more fearful and anxious with each minute. What, they asked, was happening?
Roger, fearing the worst, had taken care not to be trapped behind the sawhorses. He now stood out of the way of the cops, looking on.
He frowned, puzzled as to why you would want to pen people up, especially since you were shouting at them to keep moving and keep the street clear. He was still trying to discern what the police’s purpose was when a gigantic uproar burst out to the north. Roger flinched. Already on edge, he felt an unnatural clarity of mind, a cramped feeling in his chest, the blood rushing to his heart. In brief, fear.
He stared at the north, the intersection solid with people in the stark, harsh lights, looking like a vast speckled quilt spread out.
He felt a nudge in his back, and felt a huge relief. Crown! But it wasn’t Crown. It was Alex Barnes, pale, breathless, sweating, disheveled, acting more like a flustered hen than the editor of one of the town’s biggest dailies.
They shook hands, Roger returning the pressure of Barnes’ hand, but then he saw Barnes pointing. Roger had no idea of what he was trying he was pointing at –stupendous noise drowned out everything. Roger merely shook his head, pointing to his ear.
Except Roger’s eye was caught by some unusual animation taking place in the line of police to the north. Then he saw something coming: some object making its way through the crush of the crowd — an object burrowing its way through the brightly colored, yelling forms that surged around it on all sides. It was a train of wagons. The Poor People’s Campaign had arrived. Roger watched as a spontaneous group of 80 to 100 kids formed behind the train of mules, and the kids stretched across the width of Michigan Avenue. The kids began to move south on Michigan Avenue in the gentle, gray twilight, and the avenue soon became jammed with people of all kinds: young and old, swelling the numbers of the earlier group until there were a few thousand people out in the street, including onlookers from the Hilton who joined in. demonstrators wanted to go the Amphitheatre,, and they called out to the crowd on the sidewalk, “Join us! Join us!”
The din was so loud and persistent that was unpleasant to listen to, Roger thought, and he made a grimacing face.
Suddenly, the train halted short. Clearly, the police were not letting it through their lines. The clock ticked away yet the train didn’t move. For thirty minutes, nothing happened. Everyone was waiting for it to move, when Roger spotted the sinister preparations taking place behind the police line. He saw the arrival of more paddy wagons, the unloading of more squadrons until Roger saw that there were moving groups of police assembled all over the pavement, still mixed with the knots of newsmen and TV trucks whose lights glared down on everything.
The train waited, the mules flickering their ears, but then, after more police activity, a path was finally cleared. A flurry of movement, figures running, blocked out Roger’s view, but slowly the wagons plodded through, the heads of the mules wearily going up and down, the drivers in overalls standing up on the seats and shouting something that, from reading their lips, seemed to be: “Join us! Join us!”
There was a volley of bright pops from flashbulbs going off down in the crowd.
The crush of people in the street had been mobbing the rustic vehicles until they reached the police line, but the cops made a short rush at them, forcing them to suck back, and the police line closed up quickly. Roger saw a kid get clubbed. He had tried to muscle through and there had been a sharp, vicious scuffle: he saw a cop step up, his club rise and fall, then a melee that blocked out his sight. About 200 to 300 police were now confronting about 4,000 to 5,000 demonstrators, maybe more: and now a vast, speckled, colored sea of people jammed into a small area, were screaming: “One two three four! Why don’t we stop this goddamned war?”
“Dump the Hump! Dump the Hump!”
The stalled train once again stood in front of the brilliantly illuminated hotel.
Some of the demonstrators, being thwarted, had tramped off to pour down Balbo and other side streets, but Roger imagined they would be blocked by police or the kids would find the street choked with vans, police cars, paddy wagons, the walks full of tourists and citizens, just as it was here.
The crowd toward the north continued to build. Roger’s spirits sank. He cursed himself for not drinking more whiskey. He looked at the angry, shouting faces of the kids, the increasing numbers of police, and felt the heavy, mysterious atmosphere of menace that hung oppressively over the scene. Dread was in the air, and nervous despair and anxious fear was displayed on everyone’s face. More and more paddy wagons were pulling up in front of the Hilton, and several police got out, leaving the doors open. Other cops piled out of squad cars, straightened, taking practice swings with their clubs, their faces tense, pale, and deadpan. Out by the police line, the crowd surged close. One female hippie in a tight blue dress lifted it up and began to move her hips lewdly, saying something to a cop who sent a jeer back, his comrades guffawing coarsely.
The din grew more earsplitting, more unpleasant.
A young man, in his twenties, detached himself from the crowd and came walking out, naked, his clothes dripping from a long stick. A big cop broke from the line and flailed at him, jolting him with a sharp blow. The clothes fell to the ground; the man drew back into the dense, agitated mass, still naked. The man was on drugs, Roger thought.
“Clear the streets! Clear the Streets!” crackled sharply from a police megaphone.
A menacing roar from the crowd was the reply.
“Clear the streets. Go into the park for demonstrations or you will face arrest. Please clear the streets,” rasped the police call.
The incredible, deafening clamor went up a notch. The crowd was in an uproar, enraged and defiant. And suddenly Roger watched a stir spread through the throng as the bulk of it suddenly sat down on the pavement like a crowd taking their seats at a concert. A megaphone blared from within the crowd: “You don’t have to move. Hell, no we won’t go. You don’t have to move.” One of the marcher’s marshals.
Up where the kids were confronting the cops, a bare-chested kid, with greasy, disheveled locks, his face disfigured by rage, screamed at the police: “You hear that, asshole? We don’t have to go!”
Roger felt a paralysis of fear creeping over his soul. He looked over and saw that terror had completely possessed Barnes.
From somewhere behind him came an announcement that chilled him to the bone: “Anyone who is not part of the group, any newsmen, please leave the group. I repeat…”
This aroused the fury if the crowed but the second part of the message was drowned out as the unending, earsplitting racket went up another notch.
“Disperse, go home,” the voice crackled flatly.
Out by the line, where a handful of kids still stood heckling the cops, there was pushing and shoving, and the incredible clamor increased. Roger, awestruck, listened to it: it was unimaginably vast, a sound that stupefied because there were no fractions,, no gradations, so that it’s whole force descended on you all at once, confusing, deafening, accentuating every kind of fear. Even the cops and newsmen were possessed by it now, standing hunched, bewildered and frightened like white-faced cattle.
This was greeted by a chorus of boos, catcalls, taunts, embedded in the din. More insulting, vicious taunts broke out. A white-shirted officer with a serious face went out to report to another white-shirted officer out in the center of the street, behind the line.
The second officer listened to the first, his face serious, facing the solid crowd now seated in the middle of the street. He nodded solemnly, once.
The first officer departed.
Another roar. A rippling motion as more people toward the back of the crowd, up the street, sat down too. The noise rose up a notch, lung splitting with yelling, the crowd screaming its head off. It was as if, Roger thought, the very air was hanging breathless, a suspense holding everything in fragile equilibrium.
Suddenly it gave way: a group of police rushed, clubbing and chopping, into the midst of the seated crowd as a huge roar rose.
Very timely and very raw. It was like being grabbed by the scruff of the neck and having one’s face rubbed in it. Good job.
Thank you. It was a difficult time.
Excellent description and pacing of a growing ominous danger, a sense of doom when the situation slowly escalates until it is out of anyone’s control. A sense that a future calamity is now certain and unavoidable, but not quite arrived yet.
I very much admired use of freighted adjectives with words most commonly used without qualification: e.g., “frustrated despair, disgusted rage, and helpless indignation”.
The narrative structure of the story is puzzling in that it starts out as a first person testimony, includes disparaging remarks about Roger, but then switches to a narration which can see into Roger’s mind and report his emotions.
This could only be truly plausible as story telling, if Roger had later set all this information down in writing, and the original narrator is reporting what Roger had written about his mental state and experiences. Otherwise, Roger is a creation of the author, and the first person narrative is wholly fictional. But if so, the story loses some of its authenticity: was the author there at the event or not?
excellent writing about riveting history!
Roger was there. He usually basks in his superiority but as the danger grows he notes it down.
Thank you very much!