Friday, August 16, 2013

Chicago Summer of ’68—Preliminary Maneuvers

Practicing the Washoi snake march in Lincoln Park Saturday afternoon.

Note:  This is the third installment in my series of memory posts about the Democratic Convention in Chicago in 1968 and my small role in the street action surrounding it.  In this chapter I arrive in Lincoln Park for alleged training, and check in at the Church Movement Center that would be my base for the week.

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 south 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 Kesselman, an SDSer who was one 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 magically 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 11 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.

1 comment:

  1. I got married in Evanston the Sunday following the Convention so, as much as I wanted to go, I stayed away. Thank you for this wonderful inside account. I wish we had one from the late Alan Copeland who was there covering the convention for an underground paper (I think it was The Berkeley Barb). He showed up at our wedding rehearsal party replete with a much-used gas mask and a battered helmet.