Monday, August 17, 2015

Third Monday with Bob Boldt

This was the end – Chicago 1968

By Bob Boldt

The tear gas canister landed barely four feet from me. Its dark gray hull came hissing past like some small, badly piloted extraterrestrial craft spewing white toxic fumes. I watched as the lake breeze moved the alien cloud away. I remained seated, head bowed, pretending to pray, in deference to my Christian friends.


    When I chanced a cheating, sidelong glance I found myself alone, seated in the middle of a deserted, foggy landscape. Not fifty yards to the north, a silhouetted line of gas-masked police officers were bearing down on me, truncheons drawn. Three or four flare-lit riot tanks glowed metallically behind them. I found myself in this untenable position after I had joined a band of clergy and laypeople gathering around a spontaneously erected old rugged cross in Lincoln Park, Chicago. We all agreed to stay in the park after curfew and commit civil disobedience in protest to the police order to clear the park. These would-be martyrs suddenly lost interest when the first tear gas canister fell. Cursing them for the lily-livered liberals they were, I got up and ran toward the relative safety of the crowds lining Clark Street.
    This was the second abortive evening that disrupted the hopes of the Youth International Party for a peaceful sleepover in Chicago’s Lincoln Park. The date was Sunday, August 25th, 1968. Tomorrow was to be the kickoff of the soon to become infamous ’68 Democratic National Convention, arguably one of the most important events in our political history. The reason I was even in the park that night had to do with a dream – no, not the “I have a dream” kind of dream. As we all know, that dreamer was killed on April 4th of that same eventful year. You might even say we killed two in the space of one year, as June 6th saw another dreamer, Robert Kennedy, taken out. The dream I had was a real-live, snoring, lucid dream, the kind that seems more real by far than eyes-open, waking, everyday reality.


Originally I didn’t have the slightest interest in all the trouble I saw brewing around the Convention. I was making plans to help my dad with an art studio he was building in the woods some sixty miles west of Chicago. Then I had the dream. Sound asleep, I heard an unusual noise in the front of my storefront loft. I sat up and looked over the bedding. At the foot of my bed was standing Sergei Eisenstein. I was not disturbed by this surprising apparition.
    “I understand you make films—yes?” This seemed a pretty obvious question of me, considering the 16mm editing table by his right elbow, the wall of film cans to his left, and the film camera on a tripod in the corner.
    “Yes,” I said.
    “I also understand you plan to be elsewhere when the big event is occurring.”
    “What big event?”
    “Please, my friend, must I explain? The Convention.”
    “Oh that. I wouldn’t touch it with a barge pole.
    “If you don’t touch it with – how you say? – a barge pole, you will be kicking yourself on your butt for the rest of your life. You will be missing the chance to film the greatest event in your life and the greatest event in many lives. I know that such a thing will come to pass.”
    With that he disappeared as surely as Marley’s ghost, leaving me sitting bolt upright in my bed, wide awake.


I have often wondered: Had Maestro Eisenstein shown up just a month or two earlier, would I have had a better shot at getting the seed money to cash in on my dream? Even God gave Noah a little more lead-time than I had, considering all the details of the project. No one would buy my idea, which was to hit the streets with a fully synchronized sound camera and thousands of feet of color film ready to shoot anything that moved. Even back then, you needed big backing for a project that was that ambitious. I had a credible reputation in town in those days. It wasn’t me they didn’t buy, it was the idea. The money people I talked to thought the Convention would be no big deal: The hippies would have their Festival of Life way up in Lincoln Park and be so blissed out on the music and their drugs that they would care very little for what was going on at the Convention. The actual nasty business that was scheduled for the Convention at the Amphitheater was to have Peace Candidate Eugene McCarthy roasted on a spit and served up at a buffet in honor of Hubert Horatio Humphrey’s Presidential nomination. VP Humphrey’s wimpy policy of supporting the war in Vietnam was the same one that caused LBJ to bow out of the nomination on April first. LBJ was no April fool. And forget the Clean for Gene campaign workers. They wouldn’t go near a picket sign. And Bobby: Well that would have been a horse race of a different kind. Robert Kennedy would never have let the party bosses elbow him out of the convention. Had he lived to reach Chicago, RFK would have had the charisma and the political savvy to have actually turned the Democrats against their own war. I don’t have any great conspiracy theory as to how Bobby bought it, but his being among the dead served the War Party well.

I decided to hit the streets with my little 16mm wind-up camera. Even if I couldn’t film the events surrounding the Democratic Convention the way I wanted, I still needed to film it any way I could. I didn’t have my film camera that night in Lincoln Park, because it was really too dark for the film stock I had. This was lucky for me, as I barely made it to Clark Street ahead of the first wave of Chicago’s Finest storm troopers and the wafting tear gas. When I did reach the safety of the crowd lining Clark Street, I wished I had my camera. In the middle of the street, two cops were having a merry time, beating the crap out of a downed medic – white coat, stethoscope, Red Cross armband, and all. It was definitely not a case of mistaken identity. On either side of the street were roaming groups of police, snarling and challenging any of the 2,000 assembled spectators to step off the curb and learn the lesson the medic was getting. The crowd was mostly straight, middle class, young professionals, college and high school students, and a minority of hippies and militants. The peace officers’ street theater being acted out in front of them caused a chorus of hysterical shouts and insults from the formerly docile crowd. Cries of “Pigs!” and “Nazis!” as well as more obscene epithets were hurled at the cops.
    Later, Mayor Richard J. Daley defended the rampant police brutality of the week. In the typical slurred speech that he affected from his old Bridgeport, blue-collar neighborhood, he intoned, “Gentlemen, get the thing straight once and for all; the policeman isn’t there to create disorder. The policeman is there to preserve disorder.” Da Mare, as he was often referred to by both friends and foes alike, often spoke with these little apparent slips of the tongue that always revealed a greater truth.
    The peace officers in the middle of Clark Street at 11:45 that evening were definitely preserving disorder. At about the time they left their victim pounded into the concrete, the cordon from the park arrived, forcing the spectators into the classic space between a rock and a very hard place. The ensuing crunch between the two groups of representatives sworn to serve and protect left dozens bloody. It was not the fault of Chicago’s finest that no one was killed during The Siege of Chicago.
    This was Chapter One in what the Walker Report to the US National Commission on the Causes and Prevention of Violence later dubbed a week-long “police riot.”


For me the week ended abruptly and even more dramatically than it had begun on Wednesday, August 28th. That night found me in the lockup at police headquarters at Eleventh and State Streets, along with dozens of others arrested in front of the Conrad Hilton Hotel on Michigan Avenue. That was the evening punctuated by scenes of demonstrators being beaten in front of the TV cameras. These shots compose a requisite clip – an essential icon of any history of 20th Century America, as instantly recognizable as the Kennedy Motorcade in Dallas and the “one small step for man” on the surface of the moon. That evening, I had just finished crossing Michigan Avenue from Grant Park, where hundreds of protesters were assembled. At the southeast corner of the Hilton, members of the Illinois National Guard were queuing up for what everyone assumed would be a sweep of the park and the street. Unlike the Chicago Police, they had bayonet-tipped field rifles. Foolishly I raced up to the assembled line of Guardsmen and began filming. These poor guys clearly had no dog in the fight of either camp: the protesters or the police. Their only motivation for joining the Guard in the first place was to avoid Viet Nam. I’m sure that, were it not for the grace of the war god, Mars, many of them might well have been on the other side, protesting the convention and the war. They looked every bit as robotic and menacing as the Teutonic knights in Alexander Nevsky. The gas masks they wore did little to humanize them. I was close enough to see a couple of the Guardsmen eyeball to eyeball through the windows of their masks. What I saw were panicked eyes set in faces that seemed to be coming apart behind the Plexiglas. Their orbs seemed to be moving in separate, independent directions. Once I saw this, I backed off.
    Some god must have been watching over me that night, and I’m pretty sure it wasn’t Mars. I was arrested before the real violence took place. I had just finished filming an altercation between a cop and a protester. It was all words. No blows had yet landed. Winding the spring-driven motor of my camera, I suddenly felt myself lifted off my feet by a pair of strong hands at each of my elbows. I was it. “Wait, wait, I’ll go along quietly,” I said, loudly but calmly. My feet immediately were returned to the pavement and the hands moved to my upper arms. A quick glance to my right and left revealed that I was in the custody of two police squad officers. I again reassured them that I would offer no resistance, emphasizing the words “no resistance.” It was early enough that the paddy wagons were not yet positioned to begin receiving their guests, so I was escorted to a waiting squad car for my ride to nearby police headquarters. A half-hour later the police riot was in full swing. Had I not been dragged off when I was, I might have gotten the footage of my life. And I probably would have been beaten half to death in the process.


Andrei Codrescu stated that the 60s were one of those times, all too rare in human history, when the Great Cosmic Egg cracked, gifting all who were high enough and receptive enough with a “cosmic consciousness.” That phenomenal year of 1968 saw both a shift in consciousness and an equally strong, rising tide of a reptilian reaction that would ultimately crush it. The consequences of that great closing of the Cosmic crack have endured and will continue to oppress us as far into the future as I am able to see.
    After my booking I waited for my arraignment in a holding cell with about twenty others. I was thirty, as in, Don’t trust anyone over thirty. No one else in the holding cell was older than 20. They had no idea of how crushed I was. I had hoped my whole conscious life for this great crack in the Cosmic egg to appear. Now that I had fully seen the old, cynical, and politically expedient violently chastising their own dissenting children, a sadness descended over me. Our wild, beautiful revolution had been brutally suppressed and caged. Already the most prescient of the prophets of the long Summer of Love could see its demise. Chicago had killed Yippie (the Youth International Party). Charles Manson would kill Hippie, and Altamont would kill the music.


Someone had a portable radio. When I listened to the broadcast of Hubert Humphrey accepting the nomination of his Party, I had no doubt that I was on the right side of the bars.
    By one o’clock I had been released without fine, on my own recognizance. I was under strict orders from the judge that, were I ever to appear before him again, he “would throw the book” at me. Out on the street, the pavement was wet. The Parks and Sanitation Department had made a sweep of their own, washing away the sin of the city along with the other debris. I spent the night at a friend’s apartment in Old Town. After a dreamless sleep I awoke to an insurmountable feeling of exile. I was an exile from my country, from my own generation and from the vision of freedom that had been so violently torn from us. This inexorable malaise has been one of the dominant governing principles of my life ever since. I reached over the bed and pulled a book off the shelf at random, opened it, and read:

All this was a long time ago, I remember,
And I would do it again, but set down
This set down
This: were we lead all that way for
Birth or Death? There was a Birth, certainly,
We had evidence and no doubt. I have seen birth and death,
But had thought they were different; this Birth was
Hard and bitter agony for us, like Death, our death.
We returned to our places, these Kingdoms,
But no longer at ease here, in the old dispensation,
With an alien people clutching their gods.
I should be glad of another death.
            –T.S. Eliot, Journey of the Magi
My 2008 film of the Convention has been edited to a five-minute clip on YouTube [4:12]:


Copyright © 2015 by Bob Boldt

7 comments:

  1. Bitter times. I can still taste the hate. I was saved the worst of your malaise only by never believing in the Revolution. I was sure from the beginning that the Nixons of the world would win. Even after the Great Satan resigned, I knew he would be replaced with another goon, and that Hippie would die when most of us turned to paying a mortgage and feeding children.

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    1. Somehow I never got into any revolutionary spirit either. I always seemed to be an observer, and not a close one. In 1968 and for years thereafter, I was immersed in employment at IBM, which sucked most of my energy. I'm not saying that that either justifies or excuses my "detachment," it's just the fact.

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  2. Sad, powerful stuff. Well done. -mjh

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  3. Bob I felt the same way after the convention. The dream was dead----nobody gave a shit.

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  4. Better to play the fool, love, commit, and care than never to love. IMHO

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  5. "I thought I’d go (to Lincoln Park) tonight just to enjoy the evening air, you know, and, uh, there was a cross. Obviously, being near
    a cross is very dangerous these days, and there were songs and there were young ministers and kids enjoying themselves. Lincoln Park, by the way, is a beautiful park, near the lake front and quite lovely and then came the voice over the speaker warning to us and then came our city’s finest and there they were, all lined up in battle helmets and there were just young people, unarmed, just looking at them really – a little furious – and the cops came along and then came the teargas. First time – never tasted it before – and so it came twice and, uh, but I guess the thing that moved me most, though, were the kids and young ministers. Kids putting Vaseline on your eyes and giving you blankets – some, really something,
    you know – and young ministers giving advice and suddenly you realize, this is a double strain on our society - the Neanderthal man of the 20th Century and the possibility for enlightenment. And so I think the lines were really, the issue was joined, I think, tonight.
    In my favorite park, Lincoln Park, Chicago, on this beautiful autumn evening."
    That was Studs Terkel's take on the scene in Lincoln park. Not quite the way it happened, but then Studs was never known to let truth get in the way of a good story.

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    1. Bob, thanks for sharing Terkel's account, and forgive me for not saying so at the time of my first reading of it – almost two weeks ago.

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