“The Priceless Lesson” By Richard Sale

The demonstrations in Turkey and Brazil have stirred to life
a lot of half-buried memories.

It was the late summer of 1968. I was a new reporter at LIFE Magazine and had been living with a
4,500 member black gang in the Southside of Chicago. My home base was New York.
I had very infected tonsils, and was told by my doctors that I had to spend a
week in the hospital to have the infection calm down and the tonsils removed. I
was at the end of my energies.

But then a telegram came telling me I was to report to
Chicago to cover the coming Democratic Convention, advertised as bloody clash
between the Democrats and anti-war protestors, I ignored my doctors and went to

At that time, I was a shy person, almost neurotically shy. I
had been a badly abused kid, and I disliked crowds. For years, it took me a lot
of nerve to enter a crowded restaurant, and, here, in this infuriated city, there
was nothing but crowds, and they were intimidating and deafening.

The characteristic of a riot should be noted. First, there
is a large assembly of people, noisy, arrogant, and full of impunity. They
gather more members. The excitement increases notch by notch. They began
suddenly to move, rushing to a fresh point, why is never known nor does the
movement make sense. They send up more deafening noise, and they began to rush
to a new place. The noise and the excitement increases. More meaningless rushes
occur as more members gather.  Then, when
the excitement reaches a towering crescendo, the violence bursts out, like huge
lighting unleashed by a thundercloud. 
Covering the Chicago convention of 1968, I witnessed and was part of
riots for six or seven days.

I was the leader of the reporter covering the
demonstrations, teamed with Mohammed Ali’s personal photographer, a warm, kind
black man.  Mayor Daley was accusing the
Blackstone Rangers of trying to assassinate presidential hopeful, Vice
President Hubert Humphrey, and Howard and I went down to talk to the gang. Most
of them had fled.  The story was a malicious

Beginning with Sunday night, Howard and I were beaten and
gassed repeatedly for five days. I was struck on my head twice, hit in the ribs,
hit on the collar bone, my skull and then so badly gassed that one day I simply
collapsed in the street. On Tuesday, August 26, I was up at Lincoln Park where
fighting had broken out early in the evening. By then I had little sleep and my
nerves were frayed. We were walking up a street, when I had seen the surge of
activity, heard the clubbing, the anguished screams, the sickening groans, and
had tried to write in my notebook, but people were flying past me with scared,
sick faces, and I stopped to catch my breath.

I was suddenly searching for Howard but didn’t see him. He
had just been there, and then disappeared. The cops were in motion everywhere, and
I backpedaled and saw a mild, short man that worked for Reuters, and he called
to me, “Watch out!” He was retreating, looking this way and that, while the cops,
their faces full of menace, bore down on us.

We eluded them and came back, going down a side street and
coming back by another network of alleys, when I came upon an old woman, frail,
in a baggy dress, her face as grey as old packing paper. She called to me.

"Are you a reporter?”

“Yes,” I said.

“This is just terrible, this is just terrible.”

“Do you live here?” I asked.

She had lived in Chicago for twenty five years. Her husband,
a retired insurance official had died four years ago. She was sixty nine and
had been shopping for a sweater and had stopped to see what was going on when
she was surrounded by the police.

“Are you all right?” I asked.

 “No,” she said, “I’m
disgusted.” Her face was pale and tense.

 “I mean, were you
hit?”  I asked.

 “No. but they wanted
me to hit people. Can you believe
that? One of the police said to me, ‘Hey lady; you want us to help bust some
heads?’ And he tried to hand me a club. Can you imagine that? ‘Bust some heads?’” She repeated the phrase as if it
were soiling her lips. “Why, I don’t even talk like that at all.”

  “You should go home.
Do you want me to help you?”

“No, I’m fine. But you should go home too. They mean
business, these police.”

 “I’ll walk you home,”
I offered.

‘I’m fine,” she said. “You take of yourself – that’s what
important.” She touched my arm.

“Are you sure you can get home okay?” I wanted to make sure.

“Oh, yes. My goodness, I’m not that old. I’m just
frightened.” She shortly left, and I was waiting, trying to get my bearings when
an abrupt crash stiffened everyone in the street.  My mind clouded like breath on a mirror. I
was standing very near the massed police with their helmets and visors. Men in
the back of the ranks peered around the shoulders of the men in front to see.

I was now among the police up in Lincoln Park, and the rank
was facing the townhouses across a broad, deserted boulevard. It was close to
ten at night. The police line, restless, scowling and muttering abuse stood
close to deserted Lincoln Park. I gazed at the police and their shields, and then
I returned to gaze at the townhouses. Suddenly, atop a distant roof, I saw a
figure stoop and bend, and felt a sudden, puzzled shock when a bottle suddenly
burst in the street nearby, sending fragments sailing very close to me and the
standing police.

“Stand fast,” shouted a shrill, tall, lanky officer in a
white shirt. d He He

  He had spoken for
the first time. He shouted again, “Stand fast!” and then nervously looked out into
the street. We all were staring at townhouses across the road.

There was a sudden noise. A car engine. It was a police car
arriving.  Rocking with speed, it rolled along
in the grass that fringed the grass under the trees, parallel to the massed
ranks of police.  Then, with a swift
pivot, it turned and stared at us straight on, lights burning. It stopped dead.
The car had come out of the park, and the windshield displayed a huge, gaping
hole with sharp, jagged edges. With faces white as flour, two men got out on
the passenger side, and then the driver got out. He looked even more shaken and
pale than the first two.

Several voices, male, called out questions. They were all staring
quietly at the ruined windshield.

I immediately went up to the driver. The man, not taking his
eye from the jagged hole in windshields said, “I don’t know .It was back there,
by the corner of the street. It looks like a brick.”

“Can you believe that?” his partner said to me angrily.
Recovering from his fright, he became furious once he was safely out of range.

“Who did it? What happened?”came several voices. A policeman
came up to me, his face mean and angry. “Look at that. That’s what your friends
did,” he sneered and he grabbed me by my shirt. My LIFE credentials hung from my neck.

“We reporters don’t throw bricks,” I said hotly. My pulse
was pounding.

“Simpkins,” called a voice in a cutting tone.  It was the officer in command. The cop released

But now the police officer in the white shirt came up to me,
his face pale, tense and angry.  “Get out
of here!” he snapped. “You newsmen don’t belong here. You’ve been instructed not
to interfere with the police. Stay behind the police line. That’s what you’ve
been instructed. Stay back!”

“Where is the
police line?” I asked, angry.

“You’ve been instructed,” the man practically screamed.

I went back up to the driver of the wrecked police car. “I’m
glad you weren’t hurt.” He had just started to talk when a huge crash made
everyone flinch. “Get back!” screamed the officer. “Get back!”

  It had been a
bottle. It had smashed to pieces against a parked car in the street.

The driver of the police car said to me, “You have to be
careful,” and he grabbed my arm and pulled me into the shade of the trees
across the house. He was anxious and fearful, looking across the street at the
row of houses.

There was a loud: Ponk! A bottle had burst on the street.

Then a brick struck the side of a parked truck. Another
bottler burst nearby, and above these sounds was the incredible growing din, and
I could hear dull, heavy noises of different pitches as the projectiles began
to rain down thick and fast.  Everyone
was ducking and pulling back into the trees.

Another bottle burst. 
The rank of cops shrank back under the cover of the hanging leaves. The
dark leaves hung still, and men stood in their shelter as if waiting for a let
up in the rain.

Another bottle burst, and this time out near the center of
the well lit street I saw white geyser of shattered glass, the star-shaped scar
on the pavement.

A huge uniformed figure clutching a club burst out from
under the thick oaks.

“Fuck this shit,” he yelled. To the stunned shock of the
group of police, he bolted out of line, running cumbrously across the street,
heading like an overweight arrow for the row of townhouses. A fringe of people over
there scattered at his approach, and we lost sight of him as terrified people on
the street bordering the townhouses scattered in a sudden, disorderly stampede.

“Where is he?” yelled a voice.

“Do you see him?” several voices were heard saying.

This was my moment. I thought of General Grant, who was at
that time, a personal hero of mine. Gen. Grant simply took things as he found
them and simply set to work. He was never taken aback, and was never resigned
to anything but triumph. He felt that when you were in despair, an effective
person was required to do two things — plan and then act. He seemed to have a
faith that he would, if he left nothing undone, enjoy success, and he put heart
into the people around that made them feel the same way. Most important, he
didn’t scare.

I wouldn’t either.

 And suddenly I was gripped
by a sense of my own invincibility. The policeman who had charged the crowd —
he had been like General Grant, as brave as Grant was, casting off the shackles
of fear — and as I gazed out at the brick and frame town houses I saw where
all sorts of people now stood straight in profile, throwing things at the
police. Suddenly a door, a bright oblong, opened up on the roof, and figures
could be seen going inside, trampling on each other heels. Then the oblong
vanished: the door had shut.

Cleary these people had been throwing the bottles, and I
squinted in the poor light of the street lamps, tying to see what was happening.

The missiles were still coming down, thick and fast. I could
hear them as they struck things. There was another burst of glass, and the
sound of things falling. The police rank sucked further back under the trees,
but I remained out front of the walk, my emotions strong and under control.
Behind me were the reluctant, frightened police.

“Watch out!”  I heard
a voice call out and I turned. “You don’t have a helmet,” he said earnestly.

This acknowledgement thrilled me to the core.

“It won’t hit me” I declared. I was full of somber
confidence. I was sure it wouldn’t.

But the first man’s attention had attracted the attention of
others and some were sympathetic.

“You’re crazy!” a cop shouted. Another shouted, “You make
your living with your head, a brick would –“

Crash.  They flinched.
Knowing now that all eyes were on me, I felt a strength I had never felt before.
Now I had a chance to let the police know who I really was.

Another sudden, unexpected crash. A policeman jumped. Other
police flinched. A bottle burst not three feet away from me. I glanced at the
glistening shards, the sharp edges. I had lost my breath and quickly wondered if
I had shown fright. The police had shrunken back farther under the screen of
the leaves. My pulse was hammering away in my neck.

“Those goddamn bottles scare the shit of me,” yelled a voice
and other voices assented agreement

By now I was pacing up and down, out in plain sight, in an
area of clear danger from the falling bottles. I was scared but not frightened;
exhibiting what I thought was the unruffled imperturbability of Gen. Grant.
Across the street, I could hear the huge din of the crowed, their taunts and insults,
in awe of the earsplitting strength of the tumult.

An object whizzed past me, very close.

Intellectually I thought, How Frightening! But I felt
detached. But I could remember clearly Lincoln staying calm while being shot
at, Grant atop a barricade cool, determined, indifferent to danger. They weren’t
afraid, and I realized then that I wasn’t afraid either. I was elated as I
walked up and down before the police back in the trees. I thought of the image
of the war horse, pawing the ground, rejoicing at battle or Clemenceau who
always felt pleasure at exposing himself to peril: “C’est mon grand plaisir.”
And that thought lofted me even higher.

Such men had conquered themselves.

A few minutes later, still parading out front, five yards
away, on the sidewalk a short, ordinary, clean-shaven man, dressed in a creased
suit, was hastening towards me. The man was unimpressive. His carriage conveyed
no authority. He was looking this way and that, obviously scared to death, and
I felt contempt. I watched his totally unnerved face with pity. He turned his
face to the street and clearly saw something terrible because he threw up both
of his hands, and, his face contorted with terror, he screamed a shrill,
piercing “Eeeek! And he ran straight at me. I don’t know what happened. The man
had left the walk empty, but my composure, my bravery had entirely collapsed.

The world suddenly was seething with fear, and I had fled
from the street scene until I reached a puny sapling and tried to use it for
shelter. The thin tree already had a line of people behind it like a line at a
ticket window for a movie.  I was the
last to arrive.

I was baffled.

Something had stolen my will. My inner questioning began. How
I had gotten there? What had happened?  I
was frantically trying to sort it out. Then I knew. “It was that damn little
runt,” I thought spitefully. No, I wasn’t afraid of the bottles or bricks. It
was the man’s screech, his undignified squeal – that had done it. It had taken
me when I was off guard, when I wasn’t ready.

I don’t tolerate humiliation well at all. I resent it immediately.
I realized that being startled was not the same as being overwhelmed by fear. I
assembled my forces to a single point of great power, and came back. I don’t
know how long I stayed behind the puny tree, but the sleeting of objects had
continued as I came back out and regained my position before the townhouses, once
again facing the bottles, the pieces of cement and bricks raining down. I was
resentful at having left. I flinched when a man near me, a cop, went down with
a loud groan, but I stood my ground, facing the sleeting of heavy objects. I
was determined to regain my former glory, and while it took more effort, I was
able to stand my ground.

And for the rest of the beatings and assaults, I behaved reasonably
well, disarming three police as they began beat others. I was singled out for
my bravery by my editors and colleagues, yet at the time, I had no idea I was being
observed. They apparently had not seen my flight to the sapling.

But I had learned a priceless lesson. I know some who are
born constitutionally incapable of being afraid. But for some of us, life
consists of fighting back, and that was the priceless lesson of that night.   Richard Sale

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14 Responses to “The Priceless Lesson” By Richard Sale

  1. Thanks very much Richard for this thoughtful personal history and knowledge. The Chicago Riots were captured all most entirely by the TV and MSM. Probably cost HH the election but few realize how close he came to winning. Repudiation of LBJ just not in the man who LBJ had made VP!
    And a Timely post! Why? Few in the Active Duty forces, Reserve, and National Guard have had training in Riots and Civil Disorders. But from the late 60’s on the Riots and Civil Disorders were closely studied. The HUGHES PANEL Report one such study.
    30% of my basic training company [entered on active duty September 10th, 1967] were Blackstone Rangers drafted off the streets of S. Chicago that summer by judicial action and many were Chiefs and other officers of the GANG! High levels of natural leadership and brains. Almost all went to Tigerland [Ft. Polk}from Ft. Leonard Wood [nicknamed Little Korea] and almost all went to RVN. Another group in the company were PROJECT 100K [bottom fourth quarter of Armed Services examine] and then also went on to Tigerland and Viet Nam. I went to Artillery AIT at Ft. Sill. Where I completed OCS.
    We may have more long hot summers ahead. Since the formation of DHS I have written personally to a BUSH AG asking for formal study and updating of plans by the Federal Government. No response received. The plan during my time in government was called GARDEN PLOT.
    Twice during OCS I was alerted with other OC Candidates for potential riot duty. First for death of ML KIng and then for Robert F. Kennedy.
    Fortunately was not deployed.
    Thanks again Richard for your post skillful as always.

  2. turcopolier says:

    I was in combat at the time of the Chicago riots. Fortunately I was not exposed to all this trauma in the states. pl

  3. wcw says:

    Great writing, thanks.
    Wpl, I didn’t read Wrc’s comment as making a comparison.

  4. Charles I says:

    Compelling story Richard, thanks. Very fortunate you were not more seriously injured. I can’t imagine disarming three cops set on a good beating nowadays.
    Pat, I don’t see a comparison, I read a warning.
    There is no comparison between Vietnam and the streets of Chicago. That might be remembered if soldiers trained for foreign combat are to be deployed as urban anti-riot brigades against today’s protesters and gangs over the upcoming issues that will matter to them.

  5. steve g says:

    Ah, yes ’68, that inauspicious year. Let’s
    quickly recap the major events. The Pueblo
    Incident, MLK assassination, RFK likewise,
    the aforementioned Chicago riots, and the
    Olympic protests. Last but not least, Nixon
    gets his lifelong wish. Spent my time in boot
    and schools battalion MCRD, San Diego. Watched
    most of it on B&W telly and read about it in the
    San Diego Union. If we would have had the info
    then we have now would have seemed even more
    earth shattering. Did I leave anything of con-
    sequence out. Tet Offensive anyone?

  6. Steve G! Soviet invasion of Chezchoslavkia[sic] spring 68!

  7. VietnamVet says:

    I spent all of 1968 in Corvallis, OR. I attended RFK’s and Nixon’s campaign speeches. Nothing much else happened in that small college town that year. But, I remember a street dance with the Doors “Light My Fire” playing as loud as possible from the loudspeakers and I waiting to be drafted.

  8. Cronin says:

    Riots in Paris, flight of DeGaulle.

  9. optimax says:

    The 1968 Pontiac GTO. That was when a young man with or without a high school education could get a decent paying job and buy the muscle car he always dreamed of. Those days are gone forever.
    Today’s equals are the Snowdens that earn “master mechanics” status by tinkering with computers and getting good paying jobs, without formal education. The problem being there aren’t enough of these high tech jobs to create a large middle-class.

  10. Kunuri says:

    Great story Mr. Sale, one month ago I would have read it with the usual detached fascination I have for stories of this kind. But for the last month I know exactly what you mean, what you have experienced, the fear, the anger,the unreality of it all and how similar all of it is to me now.
    I always maintained with my small community of ex-pat friends here in Istanbul that Taksim protests are closest in nature to 68 Democratic Convention unrest than Takhrir or others of similar nature, but that was before Brazil.
    I don’t know what Chicago has achieved, but Taksim seems to have done something.

  11. David says:

    1968 did end on a positive note with the Apollo 8 mission, the first manned space flight to reach the Moon.

  12. jonst says:

    Richard, off topic question, if you are still checking this thread. I heard you the other day on Ian Masters (they put the Col’s picture up next to your name!)At the very beginning of your segment you made reference to a ‘cyber incident’ in San Diego. But then you quickly moved on. If you have the time, and it exists, could you please point me to any public info on the incident? Thank you in advance for any help you can provide. Jonst

  13. Booby says:

    ’68 was an interesting year. I, like the Col. & several others on the site, was having a Far East experience and focused on staying alive another day. One of my friends was a Company Commander at the Marine Barracks at 8th & I. While the DC riots raged, his Company in full combat gear with live rounds & CS gas was bivouacked in the basement of the Capital. The experience was enhanced by one of his Marines who accidentally set of a CS grenade. May you live in interesting times.

  14. Peter Brownlee says:

    Thank you for sharing this, Mr Sale. Will 1968 be seen as the 1848 of C20 with unruly populaces being squashed by adamantine authorities, mostly successfully over time? I was in school (so doing nothing) and still remember my father telling me that Soviet tanks were in Czechoslovakia — what WAS going to happen next? And was de Gaulle totally surprised by 1968 since his policy seemed largely based on the principle of “apres moi, moi” — and see where M. Cohn-Bendit is now! As an aside, what would have happened if those Chicago bottles been turned into Molotov cocktails (http://chemistry.about.com/od/firecombustionchemistry/a/molotovcocktail.htm)? I usually take MCs to be the hallmark of a really serious riot.

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