Saturday, September 1, 2012

The Summer of ’68 Chicago Style—Tuesday—Out of Lincoln Park at Last

They raised the Viet Cong flags a top General Logan's Grant Park statue.  Moments later the police charged..

Note: Sixth in a series of memoirs.  The Coliseum, General Logan, and some Malort.

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 Birthday 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 few 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 tee.

In Hoffman’s view 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.

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 the literati from the night before—Ginsberg, Genet, Burroughs, and Southern. How they were going to justify their press credentials after this was anyone’s guess. Hoffman, and Dave Dellinger and Rennie Davis of the Mobe provided the oratory. At the end comedian Dick Gregory took the stage and invited everyone over to his house on the South Side, which would take them by or near the Amphitheater.

We surged out of the Coliseum and headed south. 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.!”

As we headed north, I found myself near the rear of the crowd. At some point we cut over from Wabash to Michigan Ave. I was still on the east side of Michigan in front of the Conrad Hilton. The majority of the crowd before me had surged across the street and made a bee line to the raised equestrian statue of Union General John Logan. This had been the site of scuffle between demonstrators and police a day earlier. This time the crowd occupied the hill and several climbed the statue where two or three waved Vietcong flags against the grey sky.

It was my experience that week that nothing set Chicago cops off like the sight of those Vietcong flags. I watched as massed police attacked the hill. This time there was no tear gas, but batons were swinging with zeal. It didn’t take them long to take the hill and chase most of the crowd across the Balboa Bridge into Grant Park.

A couple of hundred of us were stranded across the street on Michigan. Some tried to cross to join the main group but were turned away. A smaller knot of cops seemed to be making a move to get us away from the Hilton, which was convention headquarters and where many delegates, including most of the McCarthy delegation stayed. We started moving north eventually scattering in small groups.

I cut over to State Street and began walking north from there. Pretty soon I was alone. 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.

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. 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.

But if I saw any of that, I was oblivious. Damn that Malort.

1 comment:

  1. Great stuff, great recollections. A few clarifying details about the Chicago Coliseum though ... the building opened in 1900 and was dedicated by Pres. McKinley. William Jennings Bryan did not speak at the Coliseum at 15th and Wabash, he spoke in 1896 at the older version of the Coliseum at 63rd and Stony Island, which burned in 1897, thereby causing the need for a new arena. Also the stone castle-like facade was not part of the original Libby Prison. The former Civil War museum on the site (which opened in the early 1890's in time for the Columbian Exposition) was built from timbers from the old Libby Prison. The stone facade was actually mined from a quarry in Indiana and suburban Lemont and was shipped by train cars to (near) the site. Source of info on this was Fred Morelli Jr. whose father was one of the Coliseum's owners along with Leo Seltzer. The Coliseum's last event was a James Taylor and Carole King concert in March 1971, just a few days after the famous Ali-Frazier fight which was closed circuit broadcast into the Coliseum. On that night 3/8/71 the closed circuit broadcast went out in Round 3 and they couldn't get it going again. The patrons rioted inside the Coliseum and basically trashed it. The next day the building got hit with multiple fire code violations. The final event was allowed to take place (the Taylor-King concert) a few days later as a compromise between the city and the Coliseum's owners. The Coliseum then stood basically vacant until April 1982 when it was demolished.