I grew up on stories about the 1960s and ’70s. Not the sanitized ones, the ones where flower children smoked weed and made love and everyone was happy: I never heard those at all, except an occasional aside about obnoxious losers who just wanted to get in the way. No, I heard about the blood and hell part of the ’60s and ’70s, the part where people were beaten and left for dead, where civil rights and anti-war activists knew the lash of the baton, where the cop was an enemy, never an ally. (I found out recently, when my beta reader read a first—or fifth—draft, that this was unusual among families of European descent. I don’t know why I hadn’t realized that, before.)
Those blood and bone stories of the 1960s and ’70s—and the knowledge that both my parents, including my liberal but distinctly non-activist scientist father,1 had been victims of police brutality—gave me a unique fascination with Chicago’s 1968 Democratic National Convention, the one that got us a reputation the world ’round for brutality. In case you’re wondering, as a native South Sider, this reputation—which of course continues—drives me up a wall. No, we are no longer Al Capone’s town; no, you won’t immediately die if you set foot south of the river; yes, we are the city that hosted the 1968 Democratic Convention, and did you realize how bad it was that year everywhere?; no, we aren’t uncouth barbarians, though it’s true that we are a bit different—I figured that out in my four years on the academic job market, as I cycled around the country evidently wearing a neon pillbox that screamed SHE’S FROM CHICAGO!!
I don’t remember when I first read about the Walker Report, officially titled Rights in Conflict, but I do know that I ordered my first copy in 2012, just a few days over six years ago. The Walker Report is one of those life-changing books we all sometimes find, not because I did not know that there was such a thing as police brutality—I knew that really well—but because, I suppose, it was the right book at the right time, the right portrait of a time, and a place, a world I know very, very well. It could have been me, I always think, and, though I am infinitely more cautious than my mother,2 it could have been me. It’s formed the backbone of characters and of voices; it’s given me plot and art and trick, because, believe me, there is a wealth inside that little book.
The Walker Report is a masterpiece: a tight, taut story of brutality and of defiance, of young people trying desperately—and sometimes pig-headedly3—to make a more just country in the face of a violent and panicked reaction from their elders. I cried, and jeered, and wrote nasty comments in the margins, which is pretty much always what I do. (There’s a reason I buy a lot of my nonfiction, and it isn’t actually just because my public library makes me feel like death warmed over.) I wish it were still in print, and, some day not over the rainbow, I plan to own a few more copies, including one housed somewhere other than my home, in case of fire. (It’s an incredibly important little book, to me.)
Rights in Conflict is also, very much, from the perspective of the demonstrators, and, I mean, I think that’s pretty great. They deserved to have their story told, and their perspective seen. They may, in some cases, have been theatrical nutcases with mostly good intentions—I think Mike Royoko probably says it best, in this tribute to Abbie Hoffman, gone far too soon—but they were, for the most part, really not that dangerous. And the power behind my city turned on them, though they were our own. Because, let’s not kid ourselves: as both the Walker Report and Battleground Chicago acknowledge, a lot of those protestors were our own, our fellow Chicagoans—just, evidently, not from a Chicago that the police understood.
But there was another side to our story of brutality, and it was the pigs themselves. Frank Kusch’s Battleground Chicago: The Police and the 1968 Democratic National Convention is an oral history of the convention, this one told by the police who worked it. It was a hard book for me to read, perhaps especially difficult in our current political situation; I wanted to pitch it straight out the window a few times, but contented myself with writing nasty comments in the margins. (It is covered in my handwriting, from tiptop edge down to the very bottom bleed, letters scrawling over each other in their hurry.)
There were moments that were, for me, pure hilarity (like when one of the cops quoted4 a Simon & Garfunkel song while complaining about hippies—despite the fact that Simon & Garfunkel were kinda hippies themselves), and moments that made me furious, and moments that raised up the ugly specter of my own nationalism, which always seems to rear its ugly head when someone says that I, and mine, are not real Americans, and should just leave. My ancestors made this fucking country, asshole, I always want to respond, which is not entirely true—the Southerners kinda tried to avoid doing much of anything—but, what the hell, they’ve sure been here a long, long time, and gotten a lot of blood on their hands—our hands—in the process, and what is a real American, anyway?
Battleground Chicago is a strange, horrifying tale to read in 2018 America, with its strident nostalgia harkening back to a day when, presumably, (white) men were men and everybody else knew their place, be it at home or somewhere behind the scenes, toiling away unseen (and under- or un- compensated) for others’ gain. But reading it also forced me to reckon with one of my household’s great political friends: the first Mayor Daley, Richard J., and his role as Boss during the 1968 police riot. Boss Daley is kind of a hero here, you see: he was good to us, as was the Machine, and it is remembered with fondness, and nostalgia, and even some love. Boss Daley believed that his Chicago locals should work, by God, and so they worked—and that included the musicians, which bought him support among a tough, and liberal, crowd.
But Boss Daley was also the villain of Battleground Chicago, at least to me. More than the cops themselves, who were bizarrely frightened of the hippies and yippies coming to town (“Never before had so many feared so much from so few,” to quote Mike Royko); more than my party’s bosses (Daley, of course, was among their number): my Boss Daley, who’d made it so that my mother worked in Chicago, because Chicago worked, by God, my Boss Daley—who was also the cops’ Boss Daley—expected his cops to go out there and beat the shit out of his own citizens, because nobody was gonna make him look weak.
Now, Battleground Chicago has its share of issues—in his review, David Farber points out that interviews years after the fact, such as those in Battleground, are rarely all that accurate. (He also describes the cops as “conservative white working class,” which, since they were Daley’s men, seems a little shaky to me, but I mean, he’s probably also right.) Whatever its flaws, Battleground Chicago is pretty great, for a writer like me. It’s cram-packed with horror, and also with the real (and often terrifying) ideas of real people who were, you know, really beating the shit out of people like me, back in the day. Daley as strongman? my notes say, and, I mean, that was definitely the gist of what I read, as much as it disturbed me.
But the Walker Report—which I think I’ve read, cover to cover, a minimum of six times, and probably much more—and Battleground Chicago are a long shot from the only books I’ve read about the 1960s in Chicago. (Incidentally, I have They Marched Into Sunlight, about the Dow police riots in Madison—my mother was there—as well as soldiers on the ground in Vietnam at the same time.) I have Farber’s Chicago ’68 on order; I picked up A Decisive Decade and, since I can’t find it, reordered Studs Terkel’s great (and depressing) Division Street: America; I’ve picked up two biographies of Boss Daley (Boss, of course, because it’s essential, and American Pharaoh, with its entertaining discussion of Why Irish Are Political Naturals5).
I own Bradford Lyttle’s6 The Chicago Anti-Vietnam War Movement, an unnervingly informative little micro-press publication about the Chicagoans active in anti-war—and, often, civil rights—circles around the time of the ’68 Convention. In fact, that little book is a great reminder that the bulk of the people getting beat up that August 50 years ago were real Chicagoans—as well as a reminder of a now often-forgotten peace march shortly after the assassination of Martin Luther King which devolved into another police riot. (In case you were feeling kindly about Boss Daley’s crew, I’d suggest reading that part of the book, if no other—and you can, by the bye, find it in at least some local libraries.)
Terkel’s Division Street: America is another of the books that, for me, defines the ’60s and Chicago and, also, the America that is, and was, and, most likely, will be. I read it first years ago, as an undergraduate at Chicago’s Roosevelt University.7 It was, to put it mildly, a book that stuck with me. I remember the incredible, and the horrible; I remember the Puerto Rican guy who was badly beaten by the police (and possibly jailed) for the crime of walking to work while Puerto Rican, his lamentation (but why?) echoing in my ears down the years since I read the interview. I remember the couple who tried to help desegregate their Evanston neighborhood, and the cop who was reading sociology in his spare time, and the Mexican who complained about Puerto Ricans. (If I recall, Irish were okay, which as an Irish American with Puerto Rican friends irritated me then, and irritates me now.)
Between Division Street: America, Battleground Chicago, and Rights in Conflict, one gets, if one will only listen, a pretty good portrait not only of Chicago and its different worlds but of the country itself. We might be special Chicago snowflakes, after all, but there are times when we really kinda do represent the country. They’re a reminder of what’s changed (a lot) and what hasn’t (far too much). The thing about the past is that, of course, Faulkner’s right, it’s not dead, and it’s not going anywhere, although we are, apparently, borne ceaselessly back. Battleground Chicago is a reminder that the attitudes that led to brutality vested on the backs of fellow Chicagoans remain alive and well, although Current Events would also prove that they’re still here.
In Chicago we always walk alongside the reminders of what we’ve been, and where we’ll go. We are, after all, Sandberg’s Stormy, husky, brawling city. The ’68 DNC hangs around, because of course it does: it pops up in memories and urban legends, and some of us grew up looking askance at the boys in blue, because we knew that it could have been us. One of our critics has written about Abbie Hoffman and improv; the BBC has run articles about our ’68 shame. Every time we’ve hosted anything of importance, I’ve crossed my fingers and toes and attempted to, à la Allen Ginsberg in ’68, somehow magically influence our police force—and our politicians—into behaving. (It doesn’t work, obviously, but sometimes our hostings have gone well, and for that I am glad. I want my city to show itself well to the world.)
Fifty years ago, as my country reeled from tragedy at home and abroad, my city went through hell, its own beating its own, racism and hate and resentment bleeding out into violence, encouraged by our own Boss Daley. Far too many supported what happened on the streets; even now, there are those who would defend what happened there, negating not only the Walker Report but, perhaps more crucially, what their own forces have said in Battleground Chicago. (Whoops.) And now it’s been fifty years, and in so many ways, it feels as if the convention happened yesterday, the plants still fresh as day in activists’ memories, the ugliness and the fear unfaded by time.
1 I believe the sum total of his activism was signing petitions for the release of Leonard Peltier.
2 She’s probably a Gryffindor, to use Harry Potter houses. I am very Slytherin.
3 Kind of literally: after all, don’t forget good old Pigasus, nominated for President by the Yippies.
4 Ken O’Connor quoted on page 158 of the paperback, in case you’re looking. Or, as my notes scrawled in the margins eloquently remind me: Simon & Garfunkel! lolololol
5 It’s on pages 37-39 of the hardcover edition, in case you’re interested in the authors’ explanations. Have a ball.
6 Incidentally, I also kind of know him. Used to go to Meeting with him. Was embarrassed by him. It’s a good book, though.
7 My feelings about my undergraduate alma mater are, to say the least, complex. Nonetheless, I am pretty proud that RU students have traditionally been front and center in civil rights and antiwar activism in Chicago.
Are you curious about additional resources? Here are some I’d suggest, delving into the convention, the era, and the policies that made it tick:
- White Rage: The Unspoken Truth of Our Racial Divide by Carol Anderson
- Witness to the Revolution: Radicals, Resisters, Vets, Hippies, and the Year America Lost Its Mind and Found Its Soul by Clara Bingham
- American Pharaoh: Mayor Richard J. Daley: His Battle for Chicago and the Nation by Adam Cohen and Elizabeth Taylor
- Manhood and American Political Culture in the Cold War by K.A. Cuordileone
- Chicago ’68 by David Farber
- Brown in the Windy City: Mexicans and Puerto Ricans in Postwar Chicago by Lilia Fernández
- Stamped from the Beginning: The Definitive History of Racist Ideas in America by Ibram X. Kendi
- Battleground Chicago: The Police and the 1968 Democratic National Convention by Frank Kusch
- The Chicago Anti-Vietnam War Movement by Bradford Lyttle
- They Marched Into Sunlight: War and Peace, Vietnam and America, October 1967 by David Maraniss
- Mothers of Massive Resistance: White Women and the Politics of White Supremacy by Elizabeth Gillespie McRae
- The South Side: A Portrait of Chicago and American Segregation by Natalie Y. Moore
- Chicago: A Biography by Dominic A. Pacyga
- The History of White People by Nell Irvin Painter (we’re an invention, you know)
- The Color of Law: A Forgotten History of How Our Government Segregated America by Richard Rothstein
- Boss by Mike Royko
- Grounded Identidad: Making New Lives in Chicago’s Puerto Rican Neighborhoods by Mérida M. Rúa
- Division Street: America by Studs Terkel
- Rights in Conflict: The Walker Report to the National Commission on the Causes and Prevention of Violence by Daniel Walker et al
If you’re real curious about what I’m reading, and remembering to tag, you can check out the books I’ve remembered to tag as “Chicago” on Goodreads, and the ones I’ve remembered to tag as “research.” (I’m not always great about remembering.)