Chicago, That Toddling Town

By Gary Clarke

“Chicago, Chicago, that toddling town,” sings Frank Sinatra. To which I can only say: “Frank, you don’t know the half of it. I was there when it was really toddling.”

The time was the summer of 1968, the last week in August. The Democrats were in town to nominate their candidate for President, and I was there, along with four or five others, to write about it for Time magazine. At the beginning of the month we had also been in Miami Beach for the Republican convention, which, to nobody’s surprise, nominated Richard Nixon. But com-pared to what I was to see in Chicago, Miami Beach was a long, sunny snooze.

Nineteen-sixty-eight was not a good year in America, an annus horribilis of assassinations, riots and protests against the war in Vietnam, for which the Democrats, led by Lyndon Johnson, were held responsible. In the weeks leading up to their convention, there were rumors of possible disruptions by protestors of various stripes. Some of the threats were serious; some were ludicrous. Among the latter was a purported plot to pour LSD into the water supply and cause the good citizens of the Windy City to hallucinate and possibly levitate. Taking no chances, Mayor Richard Daley, a man born with a frown on his face, dispatched guards to the city’s water filtration plants.

I flew in from New York on Sunday, August 25, the day before the opening gavel, and I got a hint of the chaos to come even before I touched the ground. As my plane was finishing its descent, mere moments from landing, it suddenly swooped upward into a steep and scary climb. Looking out the window, I saw why. Army transport planes were blocking the runway, and troops were being brought in to help the police and the Illinois National Guard protect the city.

Monday and Tuesday, my colleagues and I wandered around, watching the street shows. The Yippies were parading their own choice for President, but their candidate, a pig called Pigasus, looked as if he knew that, sooner or later, he would end up as pork chops. Nights we spent at the convention, for which the International Amphitheatre had been turned into a fortress surrounded by barbed wire and and patrolled by dozens of police and security agents. What they couldn’t keep out was the distinctive aroma from next door—a small mountain of manure in the Chicago stockyards.

Two nights of listening to predictable political blather were enough. We could have stayed home and heard all that on TV. On the third night—Wednesday, August 28—three of us played hooky, and, after an early dinner, walked to the Conrad Hilton Hotel, where Hubert Humphrey, the prospective Democratic nominee, was staying. A poor people’s demonstration, the only one allowed by the city, was supposed to take place on the other side of the street, and we wanted to see and hear it—songs were on the menu. By the time we got there, the area in front of the hotel was already crowded with people who had the same idea, forty or fifty men, women and children, ordinary people in ordinary clothes, not a protestor among them. One man had even brought his little boy, who sat on his father’s shoulders, legs dangling and all smiles, eager for the singing to start.

One of our trio ducked into the hotel in search of a men’s room, and Robin Mannock and I took our places in the middle of the crowd. An Englishman with a rich red beard, a generous stomach and an easy laugh, Robin had served in the British army, then used his military experience to report on the wars of the day—the civil war in the Congo for the AP and the Vietnam war for Time. That summer he was on temporary assignment in New York—and not at all happy about it. He couldn’t find a laundry that could do justice to his silk shirts, he complained, and he was bored sitting behind a typewriter. He was used to being in the action.
He found it that night without moving an inch. Shortly after our arrival the hotel locked its doors behind us, and dozens of policemen appeared, surrounding us on the other three sides.

They had placed us in a box, and they wouldn’t let us out. Then, without warning, they started shoving and beating those at the outer edges, and those people pushed back against the rest of us, forcing us all into a smaller and smaller space. Within a couple of minutes I heard the crackling of glass. Those at the very back had been pushed through the hotel’s plate glass windows.
Why were they attacking us? It wasn’t to move us away. They had made sure we couldn’t leave. The answer, I’m sorry to say, is that they were enjoying themselves. That was also the conclusion of the Walker Commission, which later examined what went wrong. “A police riot” was the phrase the commission used. Whatever it was called, it had consequences, and the seventeen minutes the beatings lasted were shown over and over again on television in the months that followed. They became a symbol of disarray in the Democratic party and they may well have cost Hubert Humphrey what turned out to be a very close election.

A year later, Hollywood presented its own version of what happened. Medium Cool, the movie’s called, and it includes TV footage of the events at the Conrad Hilton. I’ve been told that I’m in that footage. The film is shown on Turner Classics from time to time, but I’ve never bothered to watch it. I saw that show. Once was enough.

1 comment on Chicago, That Toddling Town

  • Lee Smith

    Good story, Gary. I was there, too, for Newsweek, and my cousin Trudy was there as a copygirl for NBC. A cop grabbed her by her long red tresses and slammed her petite body against a wall. Her offenses were being a member of the media and being from a coast (East or West, didn’t matter). I escaped a beating , but a bunch of us newsies gathered at noon in Hyde Park to hear French playwright Jean Genet, hired bizarrely by Harper’s to help cover the convention, talk about I’ve forgotten what. Cops on motorcycles surrounded us and roared their mighty machines to within a few inches of our knees. Those memories came back to me during this summer’s troubles. Don’t defund the police…but keep them on a chain.

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