The View From Behind the Billy Club | Book Review | Chicago Reader

The View From Behind the Billy Club 

Police veterans of the 1968 Democratic Convention get their say.

Sign up for our newsletters Subscribe

Battleground Chicago Frank Kusch (University of Chicago Press)

Reading this book is like being at the dinner table when your usually bottled-up father finally lets loose about an old, uncomfortable subject you thought was settled. He drives you nuts; the things he says embarrass you. But you sit there and listen because he's your father and he won't be around forever. And strangely enough, he's kind of making sense.

First published in 2004 but reissued in paperback last May, in time for this summer's round-number anniversary, Frank Kusch's Battleground Chicago tells the story of the infamous "police riot" at the 1968 Democratic National Convention. But here's a first: it's told from the cops' point of view. Kusch, whose previous book is All American Boys: Draft Dodgers in Canada from the Vietnam War, constructs his narrative from interviews he conducted with 80 former Chicago policemen who were on the street during the convention.

These are regular guys who fought in World War II and Korea, lived in the bungalow belt, and found themselves on the fault line during one of the tectonic cultural shifts of the period. And every time one of them is quoted, the story comes alive. It's hard to read their accounts of those days—even with their blatant prejudices flying in your face—and not feel some sympathy.

Former officer Joe Pecoraro: "When I came on, the attitude toward the police was very respectful. But that changed; the people changed; the Vietnam War changed everything." Indeed, the war soured the prosperity-driven optimism of Lyndon Johnson's Great Society (not to mention his presidency), helped wreck New Deal coalitions, and left the country marooned in resentment—generation versus generation, black versus white, liberal versus conservative, hawk versus dove.

It's easy to see which side of the line Kusch's cops stood on. "They were subverting the entire decade, and the future of the country was at stake, and our city. The country was really going to hell; it was becoming a place that we no longer recognized," says another former cop, Victor Olafson. "They," of course, were the antiwar demonstrators.

"I knew this peace movement," adds Steven Latz. "They were a rotten generation, and they made each day we went to work harder and our communities less safe. They joined with the black militants and that was nothing but trouble, let me tell you."

Pecoraro, Olafson, and Latz might be surprised at who shared at least some of their views. Columbia University professor Todd Gitlin, who headed the Students for a Democratic Society in the mid-1960s, wrote recently that an astounding 40 percent of whites who favored an American withdrawal from Vietnam also thought the Chicago police had not used enough force in dealing with the protests. Clearly, the kids in the street were not the people's choice, and any vision those kids may have had of inciting revolution was romantic fantasy—Gitlin has called it "catastrophic idiocy." Their tactics alienated them from even their most likely allies.

The police certainly overreacted. Mistakes were made, and some own up to that here. But they don't capitulate to the conventional wisdom that the violence was police brutality, where every cop was a criminal and all the sinners saints. "My ass it was," says CPD veteran Eddie Kelso. "We were not the ones breaking windows and throwing bottles and tying up traffic and making it so that an honest man could not make a living...."

Kusch quotes a number of officers who felt they were put in a no-win situation by Mayor Richard J. Daley, who, among other things, closed the parks at 11 PM, forcing police to clear them and putting thousands of people on the streets with nowhere to go. One cop even casts Daley as a witting provocateur, saying the mayor "wanted to see a situation where we were going to beat the hell out of the demonstrators."

This gave the hard-core protestors, the yippies and SDS, the fight they were looking for. Later, yippie leader Jerry Rubin said, "We wanted exactly what happened. We wanted the tear gas to get so heavy that the reality was tear gas.... We were guilty as hell."

SDS leader and future California state senator Tom Hayden, testifying afterward at a House Un-American Activities Committee hearing, said of the police, "It is not really their fault. They were obeying the orders of Mayor Daley... because when we went to jail, they didn't beat us in jail, they didn't act like irrational monsters in jail." To the cops' credit, amazingly, nobody was killed or even seriously injured. No guns went off.

And what about the media? Kusch's subjects have little use for reporters, who, they note, sometimes looked like "hippies" themselves. Says Mel Latanzio, "Yeah, they got their bonnets beaten a little, but if you want to play the game, ya gotta play the game. We had been getting bad press long before the convention, especially for what was going on in the black neighborhoods, so what the hell." And Ernie Watson: "They were trying to make us look as bad as possible."

The cops did look bad. The '68 convention was a PR disaster for the city. The whole world, after all, was watching.But, as yippie leader Abbie Hoffman put it years later, "All of the violence of the Sixties put together doesn't add up to a weekend in Beirut."

In his preface to the new edition, Kusch claims he's taken heat for giving these men the opportunity to go on the record. The view of the police as monsters has become establishment history, he says, and anything that smacks of revisionism is met with "vitriol." But, as he writes, the book is less an attempt to "exonerate the actions of the police... than to explain them within a historical context and remove much of the hyperbole and mischaracterizations...." In other words, he wanted to at least give them the chance to let loose.v

Care to comment? Find this review at chicagoreader.com.

review

Tags:

Comments

Subscribe to this thread:

Add a comment

Agenda Teaser

Performing Arts
August 26
Performing Arts
Tempel Lipizzans Tempel Farms
June 19

Tabbed Event Search

Popular Stories