Commentary: The 1968 Chicago riot that everyone seems to forget
By Susan Grigsby
Fifty years ago last week, the Democratic Party held a convention in my hometown of Chicago and every August since it seems that someone, somewhere is doing a retrospective of that tumultuous time. Why? Because it represented a fundamental change in the way we looked at our government. Because the issues that divided us then have never been resolved, and that event still haunts us. What has always haunted me the most from that long ago week in Chicago was the seemingly unprovoked anger of the busloads of police that were unloaded on a small group of protesters as I was walking by. I wrote about it several years ago:
Beyond the cones of light cast by the street lamps, it was very dark. I don’t recall any traffic on Clark Street, which was unusual. I do remember two busses pulling up alongside us mid-block, where they clearly didn't belong. I had barely enough time to register how odd it was that there were no lights on inside the busses when all of the doors flew open and a seemingly endless stream of black-uniformed, helmeted men came pouring out of all of the doors, cursing and growling. Feeling like a boulder in a river, I stood embedded on the sidewalk as the police swirled around us and charged into the crowd standing in front of the auto showroom windows.
...when I see or read about police brutality, I wonder, as so many others do, what the victim did to provoke the attack. Born and raised in a law-abiding society, where we are taught that obeying the rules will keep us safe, we tend to believe that only rule-breakers get hurt. Surely, they must have done something to cause the police to react the way they did. They must have done something that the video doesn’t show or the story doesn’t tell.
But then I remember that night. No one provoked those policemen. They came out of those busses swearing and swinging clubs. There were no taunts from the crowd; there were only screams of fear and pain. These men were supposed to protect us. They were supposed to keep us safe. When those whose job it is to protect, attack, where do we turn for help?
Today it seems that we are more accepting of police brutality. There have been far too many Fergusons, too many videos of excessive force, too many children killed on our streets by government bullets. We may have become somewhat acclimated to it and in a way, it has become normalized.
But it wasn’t always normal. At least it wasn’t considered normal to white, middle-class Americans, because until that convention, it wasn’t their children who were being brutalized. The victims of the police were usually people of color.
As they still are.
In the spring of 1968, I lived in what was surely the only slum tenement in the Gold Coast of Chicago. A block north of Division Street, on North State Parkway, my third-floor walk-up studio apartment shared a bath with the apartment down the hall (which always seemed to be vacant). The public telephone was on the floor below. Hugh Hefner’s Playboy Mansion was a block or two up the street, and Cardinal Cody’s residence was a couple of blocks beyond that. Cabrini Green, Chicago’s notorious public housing project, was a few blocks in the other direction.
My roommate and I had moved in during the previous fall, but she met a man, started dropping acid, and moved out shortly after the new year began. We had both been raised in the western suburbs, and at the time, I was working for a black dry cleaner out in the Lombard area, west of the city.
And so it was that early in the evening of Friday, April 5, I traveled home by train through Chicago’s west side, as I did every work day. But this day was different, because on this day the city was on fire. Columns of smoke rose up in neighborhoods all along our route as the tragic loss of Dr. Martin Luther King to an assassin’s bullet cracked open the fragile year of 1968 and completely changed our city and our nation. As Gary Rivlin wrote for the Chicago Reader:
When the have-nots of a society lash out aimlessly and violently against the desperate conditions of their life, it undoubtedly is a momentous event in the history of any city. And a good case can be made that these particular riots affected this city in ways the convention riots did not even approach.
But I, like everyone else, did not know that at the time. We did not know that the turmoil began when high school students walked out of class in the middle of the day, angry and frustrated. There was not a Bobby Kennedy in Chicago to give voice to their pain and their rage.
A collective anguish burdened the people of the west side. In a sense King had been one of them. In '66, when he brought his campaign for open housing to Chicago, he had lived among them for a time; rather than take advantage of his privilege, he had chosen to rent an apartment on the west side, in a run-down Lawndale building typical of the prevailing squalor. King was one person who had proved that he cared about them, and now he was dead, killed by a white man. The white world would deny them even Dr. Martin Luther King. The young people, high school students, reacted first, leaving school at mid-morning. By afternoon there were mobs on 63rd Street on the South side and Madison on the west, smashing windows with anything handy. By evening chaos ruled the streets.
Arriving at Union Station, I decided to splurge on a taxi cab that I couldn’t really afford instead of relying on public transit. For some reason, the cab driver took a round-about route to my apartment on the near north side instead of just heading north on Clark Street or LaSalle. Assuming that it was to avoid any rioting, I said nothing until, on a residential street, close to Cabrini Green, our car was surrounded by angry young black men.
The taxi driver, an older black man, rolled down his window and assured the crowd that I was with him, that I was okay—basically pleaded with them not to damage his cab. I thanked him as he immediately turned east and headed towards one of the main thoroughfares. That night, in my apartment, I could hear the gunfire from Cabrini Green. Chicago was like that when I lived there. Great wealth and great poverty were sometimes only separated by a block or two.
That night, Chicago saw some of the worst rioting in the nation. Before it was over, nine black men were dead and 500 more were injured. From Christopher Chandler’s 2002 anniversary observation for the Chicago Reader:
Several witnesses, including a small-business owner who'd sat in his store all night and watched the looting and burning along Madison, talked about a blue Chevy. They called it a "killer squad." Four white officers in the unmarked blue car, each with a shotgun, had appeared at intervals during the night, firing into stores without warning. Two of the victims had been found in the backs of stores and two in the alley just south of the stores. A store owner on that block, the 4100 block of West Madison, said there were hundreds of spent bullets on the floor of his shop the next morning.
Heineman checked with the coroner's office. He was told all four men had died of wounds from shotguns whose shells had been packed with extra shot to be especially lethal.
One of those four men men, walking home with his wife, threw her to the ground as the sound of police gunshots filled the air. He was shot in the back and landed on top of her. It took 30 minutes for a squad car to arrive, 15 minutes after he had passed away.
Ben Heineman Jr. was a reporter for the Chicago Sun-Times who fought to get the story of the anger and grief into his paper. But it was this brief passage that apparently caught Mayor Richard Daley’s eye:
Returning to those deaths, the story said, "When mobs of looters tore into stores on W. Madison, police were ordered 'to take aggressive action in arresting violators of the law.' Did that include the use of weapons? 'There were no blanket orders pertaining to firing, one way or the other,' says a police department spokesman. One policeman told the Sun-Times 'We were told to use our own judgment.'"
After reading that story the mayor established a commission to review the rioting and police response, and issued his infamous “shoot to kill” orders:
"I have conferred with the superintendent of police this morning and I gave him the following instructions, which I thought were instructions on the night of the fifth that were not carried out. I said to him very emphatically and very definitely that [he should issue an order] immediately and under his signature to shoot to kill any arsonist or anyone with a Molotov cocktail in his hand in Chicago because they're potential murderers, and to issue a police order to shoot to maim or cripple any arsonists and looters--arsonists to kill and looters to maim and detain."
Daley said he thought these instructions shouldn't have been needed. "I assumed any superintendent would issue instructions to shoot arsonists on sight and to maim looters, but I found out this morning this wasn't so and therefore gave him specific instructions."
The uprisings were a dangerous place even for photographers with press credentials. “It was kind of tough in the beginning because it was crazy,” says Bob Black, who grew up on Chicago’s South Side and joined the Sun-Times photography staff a month before King’s assassination. “Things were moving all around you. You had to be careful not to be too involved. You were careful not to get in the way of the police and not get too close to the people creating the situation. It was a juggling act.”
Black was injured during the riots after being beaten by police. “It was dangerous,” he recalls. “The cops were, they were very aggressive, over-the-top aggressive. It was tough. You had to be very careful.”
On that Saturday morning, while the rioting continued in isolated areas throughout the city, my father met me for breakfast at the diner on State and Division, hoping to talk me into going home until things settled down. But like most 18-year-olds would, I refused to consider it. In the middle of our conversation, an armored vehicle, like the one pictured above, drove down Division Street, turning onto State Street where National Guardsmen patrolled in pairs, with bayonets affixed to their rifles.
If the city felt like it was occupied in the Gold Coast, it looked like it had been bombed on the west side. More than 200 stores and businesses had been burned. That part of the city has never fully recovered and is still littered with vacant lots where once-thriving businesses stood.
Mayor Daley, only a few months away from hosting the Democratic National Convention, was furious with the way the rioting made his city look. Yeah, he was worried about appearances, but not the institutionalized racism of our city that created the conditions that left black residents with no other choice but to riot to gain his attention. Sadly, it did them little good, as the city resisted efforts at rebuilding the west side.
But Daley figured he learned one lesson from the rioting, and that was to make sure that it did not recur during the Democratic National Convention.
Daley placed the city's 12,000 cops on 12-hour shifts; recruited 5,000 National Guardsmen to the city; and flew in 6,000 combat-ready Army troops. Including the private security guards hired to work inside the convention center, this defense force of 25,000, as Royko put it, gave Daley "an army that was bigger than that commanded by George Washington." And this army had its orders: the city refused to grant the demonstrators permission to sleep in Lincoln Park; the park was to be cleared each night at the 11 PM curfew. The stage was set for disaster, and the disaster came.
What he failed to appreciate was the attention that the convention would garner—not for the beautiful city he had helped to build and run, but for the actions of those very police officers who could still hear the echo of his April words. While they beat up still photographers in April out of the public view, by August many of those photographers were carrying video cameras, and still others were broadcasting live. And the media in those days really didn’t like it when its members got roughed up by the government. So yes, the whole world was watching what Sen. Abe Ribicoff called the “Gestapo tactics in the streets of Chicago.”
According to the Walker report:
“During the week of the Democratic National Convention, the Chicago police were the targets of mounting provocation by both word and act. It took the form of obscene epithets, and of rocks, sticks, bathroom tiles and even human feces hurled at police by demonstrators. Furthermore, the police had been put on edge by widely published threats of attempts to disrupt both the city and the Convention.
”That was the nature of the provocation. The nature of the response was unrestrained and indiscriminate police violence on many occasions, particularly at night.
”That violence was made all the more shocking by the fact that it was often inflicted upon persons who had broken no law, disobeyed no order, made no threat. These included peaceful demonstrators, onlookers, and large numbers of residents who were simply passing through, or happened to live in, the areas where confrontations were occurring.”
Rights in Conflict. Convention Week in Chicago, August 25–29, 1968. A Report submitted by Daniel Walker, Director of the Chicago Study Team, to the National Commission on the Causes and Prevention of Violence. Introduction by Max Frankel. New York: E.P. Dutton, 1968. pp. 1, 10–11.
Indeed, the violence was shocking, but only to a white world that had no first-hand knowledge of the policing of the black communities of America.
People of color had known it for a long time.
Editor's note: This article was originally published at Daily Kos, which states that its "content may be used for any purpose without explicit permission unless otherwise specified."