Sunday, August 7, 2016

Chicago Summer of ’68 Memoir—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 Martin Luther King and the Honorable Elijah Mohamed .  Not to mention hockey matches, wrestling, and the Rolling Stones.  Now on it's crumbling last legs Abbie Hoffman threw an unbirthday party for LBJ.

Note:  This is the sixth 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 I attend LBJ’s Un-Birthday Party at the Coliseum, visit Grant Park, and am plied with Malort by old radicals.
 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 Unbirthday 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 T.
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.

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

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.
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 Ed Sanders of the Fugs. Hoffman, Dave Dellinger and Rennie Davis of the Mobe and comedian/activist Dick Gregory, and others provided the oratory.  
There was some confusion as to what we should do when the rally wound down.  We were wound up.  Some surged out of the Coliseum and headed south in another attempt to reach the Convention site at the International Amphitheater. 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 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.

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.  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.
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. 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 looked much the same in '60 minus some of the neighboring signage.  It's bar was a hangout for old Bughouse Square radicals.

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 must have passed through Lincoln Park that night, although I have not a shred of memory of it. 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.
A dense fog rolled in.  I encountered Alan Ginsberg chanting Om.*
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.  Away from the TV cameras the cops in Lincoln Park were more than eager to enforce the 11 pm curfew.  Some witnesses called the attack on the clergy the most brutal of the whole week.
*Important Note!—I have learned that nearly fifty years after the fact my memories were scrambled.  Imagine that!  The encounter with Ginsberg and the Battle in the fog I described in yesterday’s entry actually occurred Tuesday night.  Instead of getting there from the Movement Center after an afternoon on the picket line, I entered the Park on that long walk from Grant Park, myself befogged with Malort.  If a book ever comes from this I will fix all this.
Next—Wednesday afternoon at the Band Shell and searching for a breakout from Grant Park.

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