Thursday, September 15, 2011

The Summer of ’68 Chicago Style—The Run-up to the Big Event

Wherein the adventures of a hapless youth in the big city in an eventful year are continued.  An expanded version of his memoirs as being serialized in Third City Blog.

The party at Claire’s was not the only time I got into the city that summer.  I was weekly visitor.  I had signed up for a class at something called the Free University at Roosevelt College.  Every Wednesday I made the long trip via the Skokie Swift and the El to take a class with Staughton Lynd.

Lynd was a pretty big deal in those days in left wing and academic circles—a prolific writer who had lost his job a Yale for his activism and outspoken opposition to the war, leader of delegation to Hanoi, advisor to SDS and pal of Tom Hayden.  He had relocated to Chicago to give community organizing a go.

To tell the truth, I remember more about those long train rides, reading Ramparts, Evergreen, The Progressive and other lefty magazines than I do about the classes.  That is until the one where Lynd suggested that we try to document the demonstrations planned for the upcoming Democratic National Convention as “participant observers.”  That got my attention.  One after another student’s volunteered for this or that demonstration, march or program—mostly serious and sober actions by recognized liberal and radical groups or Clean for Gene McCarthy supporters.  But no one picked the obvious one.

“Doesn’t anyone want to do the Yippies?” Lynd asked.  Immediately my hand shot up. I’m not sure why.  I didn’t know much about them except that the press was outraged, City Hall was in a near panic at being invaded by hoards of drug crazed hippies who were probably planning to put LSD in the water supply, and it sounded like fun.  Looking back on it is possible that my classmates may have known something I didn’t.

A week or so later on a hot night, I made my way to the one place in Chicago where I knew any Yippies could likely be found—the offices of the underground newspaper The Seed then on LaSalle Street just south of North Avenue within blocks of ground zero for the staging area for the Yippies in Lincoln Park.

The door was wide open to a dimly lit, cluttered and chaotic office a few steps below street level.  Two dudes with suitably long and unkempt hair were sweating over a table.  “Hi!” I said, “I’m looking for Abbie Hoffman or Jerry Rubin.”  I was greeted with incredulous stares and deep suspicion.

Let’s review how I looked that summer—the frayed white short sleeve salesman-cast-off shirt, the store brand jeans with the cuffs turned up, the heavy Wellington work boots, the natty red kerchief knotted at the throat, scoungey orange goatee, thick horn rim glasses, topped by a battered white Stetson.  I looked like I may have just graduated from the J. Edgar Hoover Academy for Stool Pigeons and Spies.

“They’re not here,” one of the guys said without volunteering any information on their whereabouts or how I could contact them.  I could have been staring at both of them that very minute and I wouldn’t have known it.

A brief but cool conversation followed.  I was beginning to detect full blown drug induced paranoia from them.  But they did give me some handbills and other information about the publicly announced plans for Convention week, all of which relied on free camping at the Park.

Armed with this intelligence, I retreated to Skokie to contemplate my next move.


The Friday before the Convention was my last day at the air conditioner plant in Skokie. Joe, the Iranian foreman knew that I was not due back at college for two weeks and was put out that I was leaving early.  I had spent the summer covering for vacationing workers in different parts of the plant.  I had rotated through sub-assembly, polishing and buffing, coil making, and the final assembly line.  Despite a few mishaps, I had apparently done well enough to be asked to come back to work over my six week semester break.

My co-workers viewed my plans to leave work to participate in what was being advertised in the hysterical press as a planned riot with some amusement.  Ralph, the chief inspector, a middle aged man with a grey brush cut and the only Hitler mustache I ever saw on a live human being, had opinions on the limits of free speech.  He considered himself the plant intellectual.  Because we both read books at lunch time, he had taken a reluctant shine to me, even though I may have been the cause of more air conditioners being rejected than any other worker. 
On the whole I got a warm send off from most of the guys.  Buckwheat—I’m not making that nickname up folks—the skinny black dude with the pomaded hair, pegged pants and Cab Calloway moustache who ruled the tool room.  Mingo the grinning little Mexican dude and gang banner proud as punch of his club sweater who was always asking me to line him up with hippy chicks.  Roy the young hillbilly who introduced me to the joys of listening to country hits of WJJD as we sweated in sub-assembly.  The assorted Pollacks and D.P.s on the assembly line.  They were all so cheerful that I suspected there was a pool on the date and time of my demise.


On Saturday I made my way to the city, just with just an old gas mask bag stuffed with a couple of changes of shirts, socks, and underwear; a bedroll tied up with clothesline; and a little gear to be described later.

First stop was the north end of Lincoln Park, the big open meadow by the softball diamonds and near the path to the pedestrian overpass of Lake Shore Drive to the North Avenue Beach.  You know the place.

According to the flyers the guys at the Seed gave me, there would be intensive training going on there for the week ahead.  In fact some folks had been out there for two or three days already practicing street demonstration maneuvers.  There were already a few hundred folks there that sunny afternoon.

They were all practicing a kind of snake march perfected by Japanese radicals, who were famous the world over for their disciplined and aggressive street tactics.  People set up four or five abreast.  The front ranks held a bamboo pole tightly at their waists. Rank upon rank followed, each clasping tightly to the waists of the ones in front of them.  The stepped heavily in unison shout/chanting “Wasshoi! Wasshoi!  Wasshoi!”  Long columns moved in swooping lines across the field.  I was told that the chant meant something like “Heave Ho! Heave Ho! Heave Ho!”

The object of this maneuver was to build up such compact energy that the marchers could crash trough any police line.  And I am sure it worked great for the highly disciplined Japanese with their matching white headbands inscribed with radical slogans.  It was a lefty Banzai charge.

Even as I watched the spectacle unfold before me, I had my doubts that stoned hippies and nerdy college kids could really pull it off.  My guess was that Chicago’s Finest would break that charge with about as much carnage as General Picket’s ill advised foray at Gettysburg.

But being game for anything, I latched on to the tail of a passing column and gave it my best.  Being one of the clumsiest human beings on the planet, I was unable to maintain the rhythmic alternation of feet.  I was soon snarling with those in front, to the side, and then behind me as more joined in.  Panting and working up an unwelcome sweat, about ten minutes into the exercise I tripped and brought the whole tail of the snake collapsing on top and around me.  

Unharmed, but ashamed I slunk away.  The line reformed and Wasshoied their way on.  

Despite all of the attention to this training, during the week that followed I never once saw any one attempt to use the march on the street.  Maybe I missed something.  Or maybe the whole thing was just to get into the heads of the many plain clothes and uniformed cops who were watching the proceedings.

I did have a more specific training purpose that day.  My friend Amy, an SDSer who was part of the Rogers Park community organizers who had helped out my old high school group, the Liberal Youth of Niles Township (LYNT)—which by the way had to be the wimpiest acronym in radical history—had signed me up to be a demonstration marshal.

Marshals were common on all of the big peace marches.  They generally marched ahead and to the sides of the main bodies.  Their jobs were to keep the marchers moving in good order, discourage any break-out of violence, and act as a buffer with the cops.  For the Mobilization folks who envisioned that the demonstrations in the upcoming week would pretty much resemble those peaceful marches this made perfect sense.

After wandering around for a bit I found a knot of people who turned out to be Marshals and their trainers.  Our instructions were amazingly simple.  On Sunday night, the first night when large numbers of people were likely to be in the park attempt to camp for the night, we were to place ourselves so that when the police tried to close and clear the Park, we would form a skirmish line between them and the protestors.  The idea was to safely evacuate the Park onto the streets of Old Town.  What would happen then was a matter of some disagreement.  The Yippies wanted to “take it to the pigs on the streets.”  The Mobilization and SDS people wanted the crowd to disperse safely to re-assemble for planed marches later in the week.

I asked if we were to get arm bands or badges to identify ourselves as marshals.  The trainers looked at me as if I had just arrived from Venus.  No, we were told, that would just make us targets for the Pigs.  But the People would supposedly understand who we were by our actions.  Well, okay then.

By then it was late afternoon.  It was time for me to check into my Movement Center.  Movement Centers were expected to provide housing and food for demonstrators.  There were several supposedly scattered across the city, each designated for an interest group or organization.  My friend Amy again set me up with one for high school students which was organized by the SDS folk.  Since I was just a year out of high school, I was supposed to be a monitor and mentor—as well as a cook and baby sitter.

My Movement Center was at the Methodist Church at Diversey and Sheffield, a fair hike up Lincoln Avenue from the south end of the Park.  When I got there kids were already unrolling sleeping bags on the basement floor.  I found a place to stash my bedroll and was put immediately to work in the kitchen making dinner—opening industrial size cans of pork and beans, boiling weenies, and slapping together peanut butter and jelly sandwiches.  Someone brought out a portable record player. Simon and Garfunkel were playing.

I got to meet my fellow monitors, pleasant but very hard core SDSers.  They were looking for opportunities to educate the youth.  The youth were looking for places to smoke dope and sleep with each other. 

I talked the longest to a guy named Ted Gold from Columbia University.  He would go on to be a key figure in the Weatherman faction in the breakup of SDS.  In March of 1970 Gold and Diana Oughton, a pretty blond girl who was also at the Movement Center, were among four who would blow themselves up making bombs in a New York Brownstone.  But they seemed pleasant enough that night and worlds away from making explosives. 

About eight or nine o’clock some kids drifted in from the park.  There had been some scuffling and rock throwing when police closed the Park and tear gas was used on the streets of Old Town.

Things were beginning.  

To be continued.

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