Special Convention Fever Issue -- Chicago '68
by Art Shay
Cops shooting teargas
© Art Shay 1968
(Swans - June 2, 2008) That other long-ago summer of discontent, 1968, and that fateful last week of a doubly hot August, came back to me last week reading the account of my old friend Frank Rich, the New York Times' best writer. Although Frank's brilliant piece, "How to Cover an Election" (in The New York Review of Books), was largely a paean to Norman Mailer's Miami and the Siege of Chicago, it did remind me that our infamous Democratic Convention was also covered by the likes of Jean Genet and William Burroughs.
By the happy circumstance of being a lucky photojournalist (I was shooting for Time Magazine), I was in a gaggle of journalists blinded by teargas who stumbled out of Lincoln Park, across Clark Street, and into the minuscule lobby of the Lincoln Hotel.
Ten feet into the door -- coughing and wiping tears with me were small, sturdy, egg-bald Jean Genet, the Gallic Sartrian bête noire, his momentary girlfriend of the week, poet Allen Ginsberg, and drug company heir and heavy user author William S. Burroughs. For lagniappe, there was William Styron leaning on a plastic-marble wall.
My first picture was of Genet tissuing a slight wound on his left forehead and muttering imprecations against the police in French, as Allen Ginsberg comforts him. Fortuitously I included the small wooden sawhorse in the lobby displaying a long green and yellow sign dispensed by the city: Welcome to Chicagoland.
Ginsberg told one and all, "I was just chanting Aum...Aum... a holy prayer with a hundred kids joining me under a fucking tree -- when the tear gas came from all these cops advancing on us behind a fucking National Guard tank. There was no reason to it. They just wanted us out of the park by 11 PM. Their sacred park." Burroughs said, "They were like vicious dogs -- yapping, snapping, every bit as hysterical as their fucking handlers."
Those fucking cops would later be accused of fomenting "a police riot" by an investigating committee. I owe this crooked finger to a cop -- one of the few who kept his badge on -- named Aberdeen, who whacked me with his billy club when I photographed him -- big belly and all -- swinging the club at a hundred pound Hippie girl with a hat that said "Peace and Love" on it. This would be the next day at Grant Park, where we'd made the mistake of climbing a hill across from the Hilton Hotel to photograph a hundred kids eluding the blueclads -- motto: We Serve and Protect -- by climbing up an equestrian Civil War statue.
Frank Rich's article reminded me of the story actually written by Genet for his employer-of-the-week -- Esquire Magazine. The French genius playwright and jailbird led his piece with an admiring account of looking up at the thick, powerful blue thighs of the Chicago police. Chacun à son goût as we say in Chicago.
But in that Lincoln Hotel lobby I told Genet that the first I'd heard of him was the account my pal Nelson Algren passed on to me. Simone de Beauvoir had told him "of this French junkie-jailbird Sartre had sneaked extra toilet paper to so he could complete his account of prison life for the Sartre-Beauvoir Magazine Les Temps Modernes."
I think he understood "Sartre" and "de Beauvoir" and maybe papier de toilette, which I Marcel Marceaued with an ass-wiping gesture topped with a swirl of an invisible pen.
William Styron, who seemed a little drunk in addition to gassed, kept saying he wished he had a camera. I'm fairly certain Terry Southern was there too but I didn't recognize him. I would have told him I was a friend of Nelson Algren's whose rave review of The Magic Christian made it a best seller. My best shot showed the wounded Genet, the indignant Ginsberg and Burroughs, and in one frame, Styron retching in the background. I wouldn't see Mailer for two days, and then in Grant Park, working the vasty crowd (including a revived Genet, Burroughs and Styron) waiting to speak. The police formed a single forward wall a few yards away to contain the audience. My wide angle picture of these chubby, hostile men with thick blue thighs made up the wrap-around cover of the best book that would be done on the police riot.
The difference between a good cop and a bad cop is that the good cop will at least do no more than give his own salted version of events -- the bad cop will make up his version. That is why the police arrested the pedestrians they pushed through the window of the Haymarket Inn at the Conrad Hilton: the guiltier the situation in which a policeman finds himself, the more will he attack the victim of his guilt.
Perhaps. I have read most of the varying accounts of our own kristellnacht but none agrees with mine. I was there, being pushed into the hotel's shop windows just south of the Haymarket Inn, a restaurant-bar named for another infamous Chicago police riot.
It all began at twilight Wednesday a day before Hubert Humphrey would be nominated. The police and National Guard were arrayed just south of the hotel, the Hippies and other anti-war demonstrators (Imagine! Antiwar activists in 1968) and most of us journalists were just to the north.
Even in the dusk, the battle-order was clear -- as in one of those stupid movies just before the arrows fill the air and swords smite shields.
But wait! From around the corner of Balbo Drive, making a right turn on Michigan Avenue, there suddenly clattered a mule train! Yes, a mule train!
Cotton wagon after cotton wagon -- a few yards apart -- no more than ten -- carrying real bales of cotton, each mule led by a black man in southern field uniform -- cotton field -- pushed its way south at curbside, forcing us -- and an instant later -- the cops, to give way. The word passed around that the mule train was Jesse Jackson's idea of reminding one and all about the plight of the American Negro. This was but five months since the assassination of Martin Luther King and the tornados of self-inflicted terror that hit burning slum after slum in the big cities.
So those of us up to five feet in the street were swept back to the sidewalk to make room for the mule wagons. As we gave way, we naturally moved to our right, up to the Hilton's posh shop windows. Suddenly those thick blue thighs were propelling thick blue cops and their billy clubs sideways. Then the windows began breaking.
The first aggressive tinkles of sound of that police-invoked kristellnacht put the cops into a frenzy of flailing. They swung like Chicago Cubs, but making more hits. If ever a bunch of victims was further victimized -- that was us. The carnage at the windows was calculable by insurance adjustors ultimately, but the carnage against Chicago's name and repute was irreparable. It would take seven decades for the smiling African or Tibetan tribesman to reply to one's admission he/she was from Chicago to change the response from "Cheecago Yes I know... Al Caponeee. Rat a tat..." to "Cheecago (thumb up) Michael Jordan...Yes...good..."
But many another citoyen du monde would diss Chicago on the perceived 1968 news that Sandburg's vital city of broad shoulders (and Genet's ville de thick thighs) had a then-Mayor who would say to Ivy League convention delegate Senator Ribicoff, who complained on national TV and ultimately in a lawsuit, of police Naziism in Chicago. The then-mayor screamed back from the Convention floor: "Fuck you, you Jew son of a bitch, you lousy motherfucker, go home..." An old, lasting wound, leaving a scar worse than Genet's welcome to Chicagoland knock on the noggin.
As I write in May 2008 at 86 years old, I've lived here 60 years and know something about our city. Chicago has ruled out Hillary Clinton as a troublemaker and will surely vote heavily for local hero Barack Obama over McCain. Despite the obvious reasons for preferring the untested Obama over McCain -- McCain's age; his melanoma; his never having met a contributor whose business he didn't improve because of his congressional seat; his escape from serving prison time for his role in the savings and loan scandal... Despite all this, I and my insider Chicago friends, even the Republicans, fear most of all McCain's kowtowing to the far right with signals, messages, and promises to keep stacking the Supreme Court with judges who will extend the fetid George Bush, Dick Cheney, and Karl Rove agenda to move the country sideways to the right until we break the windows of our liberty forever and the thought police come for us loudmouths with truncheons raised high for blows of Orwellian patriotism.
Now permit me a slight digression, because as a 53 combat mission Air Force navigator against the Nazis, holder of the Distinguished Flying Cross, five Air Medals, and the French Croix de Guerre, I am ever mindful of those 4,000 body boxes Bush and company have sent back to us, while giving up golf for a few days in penance. As Jon Stewart has observed: "He doesn't want the mothers of those dead kids to feel sad."
I take you back to that fateful Thursday, the last night of the Convention, when Hubert Humphrey returned from the Amphitheatre in triumph to his suite at the Hilton. He swept right by the thousands of Yippies, war veterans against Nam, and other sympathizers -- in Grant Park, into the lobby, up the grand staircase to the private elevator going up to his suite. Past me, waving cheerily to us photographers positioned in the lobby.
Then he went upstairs to watch reruns of his victory and accept congratulatory calls, among others, from every lobbying ass-kisser in the world who could get through.
In that moment not only did Hubert Humphrey lose the election by less than a million votes -- to Bush-like Richard Nixon -- BUT (I've felt all these brooding years) he became accountable for the long, terrible political procession that resulted in the comic-tragedy of the Bushes. How?
Had the usually amiable Humphrey, whom I had photographed when he was the mayor of Minneapolis, delayed going into the Hilton... Had he merely crossed Michigan Avenue and gone into Grant Park and addressed the encamped Hippies! Perhaps saying something like: "I need you young people. Help me set this country straight again. Join me. Let's work together for a better America together... Tell me what you want..."
With all of the TV cameras in the world trained on that spot -- remember the cry: "The whole world is watching?" -- JFK would certainly have made his peace with the young demonstrators. Even Jesse Jackson -- especially Jesse -- would have hit that park like a shot when he saw the TV trucks...And furthered his own momentary agenda...
And Humphrey, had he gone ungently into that dark park would have certainly picked up the half million or so votes he needed to beat Nixon.
Had he done so -- I weep to ratiocinate -- our nation's recent history might have absented Nixon and both Bushes and might have kept those 4,000 kids alive and well, saved three trillion dollars, and given me a better answer than I had to give my grandson last night to his question: "Do you think President Bush will invade Iran before he leaves office? He still can't find Bin Laden. Doesn't he know Iran has 70 million people?"
Sometimes an experience like the above for a photojournalist is better encapsulated by an outsider than the rush of hate, love and history one feels sitting down to recreate les temps perdus.
In my case it was done for me by movieman-playwright David Mamet, who wrote the forward for my recent book, Chicago's Nelson Algren.
David has a 16x20 print of mine over his desk. It shows a big backlit sign over the side entrance of the Hilton. The sign reads "Welcome Democrats." Arrayed under the sign is a sidewalk corps of a dozen bayonet-lofting Guardsmen. They are keeping several delegates from entering their hotel. Some welcome!
Says Mamet: "I enjoy seeing the picture every morning. I was a young reporter then for a radical paper. 'Welcome Democrats' sums up for me the whole Convention and that whole terrible week."
This year's Convention bodes to be wild -- but that last week of August 1968! In my long lifetime, that was the week that really was.
Demo at the Convention
© Art Shay 1968
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