The demonstrations in Turkey and Brazil have stirred to life a lot of half-buried memories.
It was the late summer of 1968. I was a new reporter at LIFE Magazine and had been living with a 4,500 member black gang in the Southside of Chicago. My home base was New York. I had very infected tonsils, and was told by my doctors that I had to spend a week in the hospital to have the infection calm down and the tonsils removed. I was at the end of my energies.
But then a telegram came telling me I was to report to Chicago to cover the coming Democratic Convention, advertised as bloody clash between the Democrats and anti-war protestors, I ignored my doctors and went to Chicago.
At that time, I was a shy person, almost neurotically shy. I had been a badly abused kid, and I disliked crowds. For years, it took me a lot of nerve to enter a crowded restaurant, and, here, in this infuriated city, there was nothing but crowds, and they were intimidating and deafening.
The characteristic of a riot should be noted. First, there is a large assembly of people, noisy, arrogant, and full of impunity. They gather more members. The excitement increases notch by notch. They began suddenly to move, rushing to a fresh point, why is never known nor does the movement make sense. They send up more deafening noise, and they began to rush to a new place. The noise and the excitement increases. More meaningless rushes occur as more members gather. Then, when the excitement reaches a towering crescendo, the violence bursts out, like huge lighting unleashed by a thundercloud. Covering the Chicago convention of 1968, I witnessed and was part of riots for six or seven days.
I was the leader of the reporter covering the demonstrations, teamed with Mohammed Ali’s personal photographer, a warm, kind black man. Mayor Daley was accusing the Blackstone Rangers of trying to assassinate presidential hopeful, Vice President Hubert Humphrey, and Howard and I went down to talk to the gang. Most of them had fled. The story was a malicious lie.
Beginning with Sunday night, Howard and I were beaten and gassed repeatedly for five days. I was struck on my head twice, hit in the ribs, hit on the collar bone, my skull and then so badly gassed that one day I simply collapsed in the street. On Tuesday, August 26, I was up at Lincoln Park where fighting had broken out early in the evening. By then I had little sleep and my nerves were frayed. We were walking up a street, when I had seen the surge of activity, heard the clubbing, the anguished screams, the sickening groans, and had tried to write in my notebook, but people were flying past me with scared, sick faces, and I stopped to catch my breath.
I was suddenly searching for Howard but didn’t see him. He had just been there, and then disappeared. The cops were in motion everywhere, and I backpedaled and saw a mild, short man that worked for Reuters, and he called to me, “Watch out!” He was retreating, looking this way and that, while the cops, their faces full of menace, bore down on us.
We eluded them and came back, going down a side street and coming back by another network of alleys, when I came upon an old woman, frail, in a baggy dress, her face as grey as old packing paper. She called to me.
"Are you a reporter?”
“Yes,” I said.
“This is just terrible, this is just terrible.”
“Do you live here?” I asked.
She had lived in Chicago for twenty five years. Her husband, a retired insurance official had died four years ago. She was sixty nine and had been shopping for a sweater and had stopped to see what was going on when she was surrounded by the police.
“Are you all right?” I asked.
“No,” she said, “I’m disgusted.” Her face was pale and tense.
“I mean, were you hit?” I asked.
“No. but they wanted me to hit people. Can you believe that? One of the police said to me, ‘Hey lady; you want us to help bust some heads?’ And he tried to hand me a club. Can you imagine that? ‘Bust some heads?’” She repeated the phrase as if it were soiling her lips. “Why, I don’t even talk like that at all.”
“You should go home. Do you want me to help you?”
“No, I’m fine. But you should go home too. They mean business, these police.”
“I’ll walk you home,” I offered.
‘I’m fine,” she said. “You take of yourself – that’s what important.” She touched my arm.
“Are you sure you can get home okay?” I wanted to make sure.
“Oh, yes. My goodness, I’m not that old. I’m just frightened.” She shortly left, and I was waiting, trying to get my bearings when an abrupt crash stiffened everyone in the street. My mind clouded like breath on a mirror. I was standing very near the massed police with their helmets and visors. Men in the back of the ranks peered around the shoulders of the men in front to see.
I was now among the police up in Lincoln Park, and the rank was facing the townhouses across a broad, deserted boulevard. It was close to ten at night. The police line, restless, scowling and muttering abuse stood close to deserted Lincoln Park. I gazed at the police and their shields, and then I returned to gaze at the townhouses. Suddenly, atop a distant roof, I saw a figure stoop and bend, and felt a sudden, puzzled shock when a bottle suddenly burst in the street nearby, sending fragments sailing very close to me and the standing police.
“Stand fast,” shouted a shrill, tall, lanky officer in a white shirt. d He He
He had spoken for the first time. He shouted again, “Stand fast!” and then nervously looked out into the street. We all were staring at townhouses across the road.
There was a sudden noise. A car engine. It was a police car arriving. Rocking with speed, it rolled along in the grass that fringed the grass under the trees, parallel to the massed ranks of police. Then, with a swift pivot, it turned and stared at us straight on, lights burning. It stopped dead. The car had come out of the park, and the windshield displayed a huge, gaping hole with sharp, jagged edges. With faces white as flour, two men got out on the passenger side, and then the driver got out. He looked even more shaken and pale than the first two.
Several voices, male, called out questions. They were all staring quietly at the ruined windshield.
I immediately went up to the driver. The man, not taking his eye from the jagged hole in windshields said, “I don’t know .It was back there, by the corner of the street. It looks like a brick.”
“Can you believe that?” his partner said to me angrily. Recovering from his fright, he became furious once he was safely out of range.
“Who did it? What happened?”came several voices. A policeman came up to me, his face mean and angry. “Look at that. That’s what your friends did,” he sneered and he grabbed me by my shirt. My LIFE credentials hung from my neck.
“We reporters don’t throw bricks,” I said hotly. My pulse was pounding.
“Simpkins,” called a voice in a cutting tone. It was the officer in command. The cop released me.
But now the police officer in the white shirt came up to me, his face pale, tense and angry. “Get out of here!” he snapped. “You newsmen don’t belong here. You’ve been instructed not to interfere with the police. Stay behind the police line. That’s what you’ve been instructed. Stay back!”
“Where is the police line?” I asked, angry.
“You’ve been instructed,” the man practically screamed.
I went back up to the driver of the wrecked police car. “I’m glad you weren’t hurt.” He had just started to talk when a huge crash made everyone flinch. “Get back!” screamed the officer. “Get back!”
It had been a bottle. It had smashed to pieces against a parked car in the street.
The driver of the police car said to me, “You have to be careful,” and he grabbed my arm and pulled me into the shade of the trees across the house. He was anxious and fearful, looking across the street at the row of houses.
There was a loud: Ponk! A bottle had burst on the street.
Then a brick struck the side of a parked truck. Another bottler burst nearby, and above these sounds was the incredible growing din, and I could hear dull, heavy noises of different pitches as the projectiles began to rain down thick and fast. Everyone was ducking and pulling back into the trees.
Another bottle burst. The rank of cops shrank back under the cover of the hanging leaves. The dark leaves hung still, and men stood in their shelter as if waiting for a let up in the rain.
Another bottle burst, and this time out near the center of the well lit street I saw white geyser of shattered glass, the star-shaped scar on the pavement.
A huge uniformed figure clutching a club burst out from under the thick oaks.
“Fuck this shit,” he yelled. To the stunned shock of the group of police, he bolted out of line, running cumbrously across the street, heading like an overweight arrow for the row of townhouses. A fringe of people over there scattered at his approach, and we lost sight of him as terrified people on the street bordering the townhouses scattered in a sudden, disorderly stampede.
“Where is he?” yelled a voice.
“Do you see him?” several voices were heard saying.
This was my moment. I thought of General Grant, who was at that time, a personal hero of mine. Gen. Grant simply took things as he found them and simply set to work. He was never taken aback, and was never resigned to anything but triumph. He felt that when you were in despair, an effective person was required to do two things -- plan and then act. He seemed to have a faith that he would, if he left nothing undone, enjoy success, and he put heart into the people around that made them feel the same way. Most important, he didn’t scare.
I wouldn’t either.
And suddenly I was gripped by a sense of my own invincibility. The policeman who had charged the crowd -- he had been like General Grant, as brave as Grant was, casting off the shackles of fear -- and as I gazed out at the brick and frame town houses I saw where all sorts of people now stood straight in profile, throwing things at the police. Suddenly a door, a bright oblong, opened up on the roof, and figures could be seen going inside, trampling on each other heels. Then the oblong vanished: the door had shut.
Cleary these people had been throwing the bottles, and I squinted in the poor light of the street lamps, tying to see what was happening.
The missiles were still coming down, thick and fast. I could hear them as they struck things. There was another burst of glass, and the sound of things falling. The police rank sucked further back under the trees, but I remained out front of the walk, my emotions strong and under control. Behind me were the reluctant, frightened police.
“Watch out!” I heard a voice call out and I turned. “You don’t have a helmet,” he said earnestly.
This acknowledgement thrilled me to the core.
“It won’t hit me” I declared. I was full of somber confidence. I was sure it wouldn’t.
But the first man’s attention had attracted the attention of others and some were sympathetic.
“You’re crazy!” a cop shouted. Another shouted, “You make your living with your head, a brick would –“
Crash. They flinched. Knowing now that all eyes were on me, I felt a strength I had never felt before. Now I had a chance to let the police know who I really was.
Another sudden, unexpected crash. A policeman jumped. Other police flinched. A bottle burst not three feet away from me. I glanced at the glistening shards, the sharp edges. I had lost my breath and quickly wondered if I had shown fright. The police had shrunken back farther under the screen of the leaves. My pulse was hammering away in my neck.
“Those goddamn bottles scare the shit of me,” yelled a voice and other voices assented agreement
By now I was pacing up and down, out in plain sight, in an area of clear danger from the falling bottles. I was scared but not frightened; exhibiting what I thought was the unruffled imperturbability of Gen. Grant. Across the street, I could hear the huge din of the crowed, their taunts and insults, in awe of the earsplitting strength of the tumult.
An object whizzed past me, very close.
Intellectually I thought, How Frightening! But I felt detached. But I could remember clearly Lincoln staying calm while being shot at, Grant atop a barricade cool, determined, indifferent to danger. They weren’t afraid, and I realized then that I wasn’t afraid either. I was elated as I walked up and down before the police back in the trees. I thought of the image of the war horse, pawing the ground, rejoicing at battle or Clemenceau who always felt pleasure at exposing himself to peril: “C’est mon grand plaisir.” And that thought lofted me even higher.
Such men had conquered themselves.
A few minutes later, still parading out front, five yards away, on the sidewalk a short, ordinary, clean-shaven man, dressed in a creased suit, was hastening towards me. The man was unimpressive. His carriage conveyed no authority. He was looking this way and that, obviously scared to death, and I felt contempt. I watched his totally unnerved face with pity. He turned his face to the street and clearly saw something terrible because he threw up both of his hands, and, his face contorted with terror, he screamed a shrill, piercing “Eeeek! And he ran straight at me. I don’t know what happened. The man had left the walk empty, but my composure, my bravery had entirely collapsed.
The world suddenly was seething with fear, and I had fled from the street scene until I reached a puny sapling and tried to use it for shelter. The thin tree already had a line of people behind it like a line at a ticket window for a movie. I was the last to arrive.
I was baffled.
Something had stolen my will. My inner questioning began. How I had gotten there? What had happened? I was frantically trying to sort it out. Then I knew. “It was that damn little runt,” I thought spitefully. No, I wasn’t afraid of the bottles or bricks. It was the man’s screech, his undignified squeal – that had done it. It had taken me when I was off guard, when I wasn’t ready.
I don’t tolerate humiliation well at all. I resent it immediately. I realized that being startled was not the same as being overwhelmed by fear. I assembled my forces to a single point of great power, and came back. I don’t know how long I stayed behind the puny tree, but the sleeting of objects had continued as I came back out and regained my position before the townhouses, once again facing the bottles, the pieces of cement and bricks raining down. I was resentful at having left. I flinched when a man near me, a cop, went down with a loud groan, but I stood my ground, facing the sleeting of heavy objects. I was determined to regain my former glory, and while it took more effort, I was able to stand my ground.
And for the rest of the beatings and assaults, I behaved reasonably well, disarming three police as they began beat others. I was singled out for my bravery by my editors and colleagues, yet at the time, I had no idea I was being observed. They apparently had not seen my flight to the sapling.
But I had learned a priceless lesson. I know some who are born constitutionally incapable of being afraid. But for some of us, life consists of fighting back, and that was the priceless lesson of that night. Richard Sale