Sunday, August 26, 2018

Chicago Summer of ’68—Tuesday Out of Lincoln Park at Last

Irony of ironies, the Chicago Coliseum was a sports arena and exhibition hall built inside a war trophy--the castle like walls of infamous Libby Prison.  It had hosted political conventions including the 1896 Democratic Convention where William Jennings Bryan delivered his Cross of Gold Speech.  It had housed massive rallies by the German American Bund before World War II and rallies led by both Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. and the Honorable Elijah Mohamed .  Not to mention hockey matches, wrestling, eight day bicycle races, roller derby, and the Rolling Stones.  Now on it's crumbling last legs Abbie Hoffman rented it for his unbirthday party for LBJ.

Note:  This is the sixth installment in my series of memory posts about the Democratic Convention in Chicago in 1968 and my small role in the streets action surrounding it.  In today’s episode I attend LBJ’s Birthday Party at the Coliseum, visit Grant Park for the first time, am plied with Malort by old radicals, and walk into the fog of Lincoln Park.

I woke up sore as hell on Tuesday morning in the Church basement. Even when you are 19, days of fitful sleep on a cold, hard floor will get to you. Not that anyone slept a lot.

Coffee by the gallon in big white enamel pots boiling on the stove was the order of the day. Sugar was in short supply. So was milk that wasn’t powdered. Kids who had never had a cuppa joe black hung on to heavy mugs with both hands.

The big event of the day was LBJ’s Birthday Party. This was an Abbie Hoffman extravaganza to be held that afternoon at the old Chicago Coliseum. Big name musicians and speakers were advertised. And since the event was held in a rented and paid for hall, even the most jaded of us expected that it would come off.

The kids scattered either to head for the Coliseum or Lincoln Park. After cleanup, I headed out, too. I jumped on the EL at the Diversey Station right across the street from the Church. The trains were still running despite the wildcat CTA strike. I had no sense then that I was scabbing on the strike by hopping on board.

By the time I got to the Coliseum on Wabash south of the Loop and only a block west and a couple south of Police Headquarters at 11th and State, it was already pretty full.

The castle-like stone exterior of the Coliseum had been the facade of the infamous Libby Prison in Virginia where thousands of Northern prisoners of war perished in harsh conditions. After the Civil War, the victorious Yankees had dismantled it stone by stone and re-assembled it after the Chicago Fire on burnt out ground south of the Loop. Inside the walls promoters built a sports arena, which also doubled, ironically enough as a convention hall. Democrats had assembled there in 1896 to hear William Jennings Bryan declaim his famous Cross of Gold speech.

But by this time the Coliseum was pretty rundown and only a couple of years away from demolition. It was still used for occasional wrestling matches and as a rock concert venue and rented out on the cheap to outfits who could not afford better digs for their events. Which, of course, fit the Yippies to a tee.

In Hoffman’s view it also had the advantage of putting a large crowd closer to the Convention site at the International Amphitheater at 43rd and Halstead than any permitted demonstration was able to get. That is except for a bunch of old time pacifists led by the Quakers who did get a permit and staged the only picketing near the Convention Hall all week with nearly 1000 participants on that very day. Neither the Yippies nor the media paid the slightest attention to those pacifists and their demonstration has vanished from memory.
I had last been in the building in April of ’67 where it was the site of a rally following one of the biggest of Chicago’s anti-war marches. I had seen Dr. King that day giving one of his early anti-war speeches.

The place was pretty much as I remembered it. Except because it was a cloudy day the sun shining through holes in the roof did not dapple the crowd.


Country Joe McDonald was nearly as ubiquitous that week as Phil Ochs.  He led us in the Fish Cheer at Abbie Hoffman's LBJ Unbirthday Party.

My main memory of the program was Country Joe McDonald and the Fish Cheer:


For it’s one, two, three

What are we fighting for?

Don’t ask me I don’t give a Damn!

Next stop is Vietnam

And it’s 5, 6, 7, open up the pearly gates

Well there ain’t no time to wonder why

Yippie! we’re all gonna die.


Phil Ochs was there, of course, and the literati, supposedly journalists for Esquire—Allen Ginsberg, Jean Genet, William Burroughs, and Terry Southern. How they were going to justify their press credentials after this was anyone’s guess. Hoffman, and Dave Dellinger and Rennie Davis of the Mobe provided the oratory. At the end comedian Dick Gregory took the stage and invited everyone over to his house on the South Side, which would take them by or near the Amphitheater.


With typical Yippie cheek, a mock Convention was part of LBJ's Unbirthday Party at the Coliseum .

We surged out of the Coliseum and headed south. The vanguard of the 2000 people or so got no more than a couple of blocks before it was turned back by police. Reversing course the cry was now “Grant Park! Grant Park.!”

We made it to the park and took up the space across from the Convention Headquarters Hotel the Conrad Hilton on Michigan Ave.  The Hilton also housed the offices of Gene McCarthy’s campaign.  We mingled and chanted on the expanse of lawn in front of the General Logan equestrian statue.  For the first time, some climbed the statue, the site of a later bloody melee.  There were more speeches.  Because TV cameras were set up in the upper windows of the Hilton, for the first time national viewers got a good look at the protests, most of which had been held virtually out of sight of the bulky cameras.


We gathered in Grant Park across from the Conrad Hilton.  Convention Delegates and McCarthy staffers drifted over from the hotel and mingled with the growing crowd.
Curious or supportive McCarthy staffers and volunteers and even some Convention delegates crossed the street to mingle with us.  Other than some tussles at the edges, there was no major confrontation between police and demonstrators.  In fact the police allowed some demonstrators to remain in Grant Park all night unmolested.

As evening approached, I decided it was time to get back to the Movement Center.
I cut over to State Street and began walking north from there. Pretty soon I was alone. Across the river somewhere I moved over to Clark St. It is a very long hike from the south end of Downtown to the North side. By the time I got to Division I was tired and thirsty. I ducked into the bar of the old Mark Twain Hotel for a beer. Unknown to me, it was a hangout for the remnant of the old Bug House Square radicals, several of whom had gathered from the cheap rooming houses nearby to watch coverage of the convention on the saloon TV. When they saw me, it was not hard to for them to tell I was a demonstrator.


The Mark Twain Hotel and its bar had seen better days when I stumbled on a nest of old Bug House Square radicals who plied me with Malort.
Three or four of them, yammering in various European accents, surrounded and peppered me with eager questions. They were also glad to stand me for a round or three or four. Beer, brandy, even Malort, once described as “incredibly bitter, with notes of earwax, fire, poison, and decaying flesh” offered to me out of respect for my supposedly manly willingness to face “the damn bulls.” I gagged down the Malort, although I think I would rather have been tear gassed. After an hour or so I stumbled out of the saloon and resumed my journey,

I passed through Lincoln Park that night, although my memory of it is hazy—damn that Malort. That was the evening the Black Panther Bobby Seals showed up just long enough to give a little speech about “resisting the pigs by any means necessary.” That little episode, the only thing he did all week in conjunction with the convention, was enough to get him indicted and eventually tied and gagged in Julius Hoffman’s courtroom.

It was also the evening that 200 clergymen raised a giant cross and prayed, for which the police were more than happy to crack their skulls.  Some witnesses called the attack on the clergy the most brutal of the whole week.

Tomorrow—The tale of Ginsberg et.al. and more about the Battle in the Fog Tuesday night in Lincoln Park.


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