Tuesday, August 28, 2018

Murfin’s Chicago Summer of ‘68—A Commotion in Grant Park

An aerial view of the crowd assembled at the Petrillo Band shell in Grant Park for the Mobilization rally Wednesday Afternoon.  Amy Kesselman and I were standing near the front out of this shot just to the right.  We were lucky not to get trapped in the seats.

Note:  This is the eighth installment in my series of memoir posts about the Democratic Convention in Chicago in 1968 and my small role in the streets action surrounding it.  In today’s episode Amy and I make it Grant Park, where a certain literary lion makes an appearance and the Cops go ape, again.

Everyone knew that Wednesday of Convention Week was going to be the Big Day.  That’s when the Democrats down at the International Amphitheater were supposed to select their Presidential candidate.  The press and cameras of the nation were on hand for the event. 

For the first time I had a running buddy when I left the church Movement Center that morning.  My friend Amy Kesselman came with.  Amy stood a good 5 foot nothing.  She had short black hair, deep brown eyes, and a little mole on her upper lip.  Cute as a bug’s ear.  Hey, I was 19 and noticed such things.  But I would never dream of putting a move on her. She was so intensely serious, in her 20’s and a dedicated SDSer of the community organizing stripe.  Out of my league, for sure.

I met Amy when she was working with 49th Ward Citizens for Independent Political Action (CIPA), in Rogers Park in the spring of ’67.  She gave what would now be called technical advice and support to our high school organization—the fighting Liberal Youth of Niles Township (LYNT)—which may be the lamest acronym ever—when we put on a program called Up Tight About the Draft? That summer she helped get me credentialed as the youngest voting delegate to the New Politics Convention held at the Palmer House where I met—or at least shook hands with—Rev. Martin Luther King and assorted other movement leaders and/or heroes.  And it was Amy who got me my glamorous slot as baby sitter, cook, and dishwasher to the high school kids back at the Movement Center.

We took the train down town.  It was a very pleasant day, the warmest of the week, but still cool enough for me to wear my denim jacket.  Tuesday the city was under a high haze or light clouds, but that day there was a glorious clear blue sky.  Most of the seating in front of the Band Shell in Grant Park was taken when we got there.  Speechifying had already begun.  The park swarmed with cops in their baby blue helmets, but they seemed to be keeping their distance.

We found a spot just to the right of the seats but within ten feet or so of the stage.  We had a very good vantage point for the program.  Phil Ochs was there to sing again, but this program was more about the speeches.  Boy was there a parade of them.  All of the by now usual suspects—Dellinger, Gregory, Ginsberg, Rubin, and Hayden made appearances. 

Norman Mailer harangued the crowd.   A furious Tom Hayden is on the right with his back turned. 
Then Norman Mailer was introduced.  He was the only man in the park in a three piece suit.  He looked just like the crumpled photo that had been showed to me at that party back at Eileen Claire’s earlier in the summer.  Maybe his mop of curly hair was a little longer, a little more hip.  Mailer had a lot to say.  At least it was stuff we hadn’t heard a couple of times already.  But he was full of himself and droned on.  Tom Haden prowled the edge of the stage not far from me, growing angrier and angrier.  He wanted to move the program along, but Mailer was too into his moment.

While we were listening to speeches in the Park, so were delegates in the Convention Hall who were debating a “Peace Plank” to the Platform proposed by Eugene McCarthy’s forces.  Word got to the rally that it had been soundly defeated.  As the crowd booed and jeered someone started to haul down the flag from a pole on the left of the stage, just across the crowd from us.  I couldn’t get a good view, but evidently a gaggle of cops surged forward to arrest him starting a small melee around the flag.  After he was dragged off others succeed in bringing the flag down and hoisting a shirt smeared with real or fake blood.  It later turned out one of the hoisters was an undercover cop.


The police charge the Bandshell crowd pinning many against the seats.

Realizing that this would bring a full scale assault the word went out for Mobe marshals to deploy around the crowd.  I never heard the call, which undoubtedly saved my ass.  Most of those in the seats still watching the stage were unaware as the cops closed in from three sides, swinging their clubs.  The line of marshals was pinned against the seats, many beaten senseless, including Rennie Davis.

The crowd stampeded many falling and stumbling amid the seats.  The cops beat them unmercifully where they fell.  Amy and I had room to maneuver and stayed out of harm’s way.  We could see a few objects being thrown back into the police lines, but the battle was one sided.

If you ever say the movie Medium Cool, you may remember a blurred shot of the red-headed leading lady streaking across the screen in terror.  Haskell Wexler was filming with his cast on the scene and they were caught up in the attack.

After a few heart pounding minutes, the police retreated dragging their prisoners with them.  People began to attend the wounded.  I dabbed blood from a few broken heads from the collection of my father’s old handkerchiefs that I carried in the old ammo pouch on my utility belt. 

From the stage Dellinger and Hayden tried to regain control of the crowd.  Except that they couldn’t agree on what we should do.  Dellinger wanted to go ahead with the announced big march from the rally to the Amphitheater.  Hayden, recalling the tactics of Lincoln Park wanted people to break up into small groups to try and infiltrate the city then join up on Michigan Ave. for a march.

Like most of the crowd, I decided to stay with the March.  I figured there was safety in numbers.  The far more adventuresome Amy, I believe, opted to go with the small groups.  Anyway, we got separated.


Cops block the attempt to march from the Band Shell to the Amphitheater.  As we waited in the sun for more than an hour top brass and Red Squad dicks prowled the line identifying individuals.   I was surprised when I was pointed out and a Red Squad guy said, "We know who this is."

We lined up on a sidewalk alongside the Band Shell, but headed north, probably to get to the nearest bridge over the Illinois Central tracks.  But we were unable to move.  The police blocked the march for lack of a permit.  Dellinger and others tried to negotiate a deal to let us pass.  We stood in that long line for at least an hour.

After while a small knot of cops, a couple of brass in uniform and hulking Red Squad cops in mufti came down the line.  They had a young guy with them—either a stool pigeon or an undercover agent.  He was picking out people in the line and identifying them as one of the Red Squad goons scribbled furiously.  When they got to me one of says, “Oh we know who this guy is.” I didn’t recognize the guy from either of my two earlier personal encounters with Chicago’s finest. Now I admit with my cowboy hat I stood out, but I was astonished that any one as insignificant as me would be even be noticed.  Later I figured that because of the SDS folks, our Movement Center was probably under much more intense surveillance than other places.

After it became apparent that the March was going nowhere, the crowd began to break up to try and find a way out of the park.  This was not easy as most paths were quickly blocked.  A large group of us headed into the park in search of a route.  We were hemmed in at a distance on either side by cops. 

We came on a set of tennis courts each surrounded by 10 foot high chain link fences.  But there were narrow open doorways and on the far side an opening to what looked like an open road to the north.  Those in the lead plunged into the courts. I dutifully followed, but was sure that once a two or three hundred of us were inside the cops would shut the gates and we would be trapped.  I will never know why we weren’t, but it was an immense relief to get out of those cages.

Our first glimpse of the National Guard defending bridges over the railroad tracks from the park to Michigan Ave.  We finally found an open bridge at Jackson.
We were finally headed north on Columbus Drive.  We tried to get across the tracks at Congress.  But the first Illinois National Guard troops we had yet seen were blocking the way.  The same was true at Jackson.  A suburban mom type in a respectable sedan drove passed us up to the road block.  Where she came from or how she got there I don’t know, but she didn’t seem to be a demonstrator.  She had picked up an injured kid who was in the back seat.  She argued with a Guardsman that she just wanted to get the kid to a hospital.  The trooper was having none of it.  She tried to inch forward, which is when another Guardsman punctured her front tire with a bayonet.

We kept moving north through the park until we found a bridge unattended at Jackson.  Somehow I was near the head of the column, which probably happened when we reversed directions.  We could see something moving south on Michigan Ave.  We surged out of the park, across the bridge, and into what we could not expect.

Next—The Whole World Was Watching, the Battle of Michigan Ave.



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