Theatre of Fear: On on the Aisle
September 5, 1968
CHICAGO — I brought the Fear out with me from New York, a white plastic helmet and a bottle of Vaseline. The same fear that built the fences, and erected the barricades, and brought all those soldiers in from Texas. Touch-fear: the kind that burns when you tap its roots. And this fear was worse than paranoia, because it involved no element of persecution, but only a gnawing awareness of inner dread.
I invoke these anxiety-obsessions now, under the pretext of relevance. If you want to experience the ecstasy of street-turmoil, you must first understand the reality of fear. Because no one could have come to Chicago without first fighting in his head the battle he would later fight in the streets.
I made lists. Weeks before my first whiff of tear gas, I spent a night dissecting my motives and expectations, in two neat columns. On one side, I wrote: adventure, good copy, and historical imperative. On the other: danger, loneliness, and cost. The word commitment didn’t appear on either side. Not since college, the New Frontier, and the White Castle riot in the Bronx, had I been able to associate that word with politics. I simply re-directed my radicalism toward aesthetics. At Columbia, last spring, I realized that I had become a white liberal. I never saw the stirring of revolution on College Walk, and while I agreed with their goals, I felt distinct from the student radicals, and enraged by their style. My cynic’s streak flowed river-deep when I witnessed the martyrdom of Mimi (one of two girls who served short terms in the Women’s House of Detention and inspired the chant, “Free Huey … Free Mimi.”) If these people couldn’t take punishment, did they really deserve to be free?
Not long after that, I had lunch with a Broadway producer who wanted me to help write the script for a protest-musical. Eyes aglow, he related his opening scene. Thirty kids march onstage, carrying signs. A voice screams: Up Against the Wall, and the ensemble breaks into a chorus of “We Protest,” to the tune of the 1812 Overture. There has been an undeclared alliance in my mind between that scenario and the tweedy revolutionaries at Columbia. Before Chicago, I couldn’t perceive the difference between the guerilla theatre on Morningside Heights and the realpolitik of Broadway.
“You afraid?” I asked a kid from California. He zipped his army jacket up to his neck, and filled his palm with a wad of Vaseline. “I dunno,” he answered. “My toes feel cold, but my ears are burning.”
We were standing together in Lincoln Park, not long after curfew on Tuesday night, watching an unbroken line of police. Around us were 1000 insurgents: hippies, Marxists, tourists, reporters, Panthers, Angels, and a phalanx of concerned ministers, gathered around a 12-foot cross. Occasionally a cluster of kids would break away from the rally to watch the formation in the distance. They spoke quietly, rubbing cream on their faces, and knotting dampened undershirts around their mouths. Not all their accoutrements were defensive. I saw saps and smoke bombs, steel-tipped boots and fistfuls of tacks. My friend pulled out a small canister from his pocket. “Liquid pepper,” he explained.
Watching these kids gather sticks and stones, I realized how far we have come from that mythical summer when everyone dropped acid, sat under a tree, and communed. If there were any flower children left in America, they had heeded the underground press, and stayed home. Those who came fully anticipated confrontation. There were few virgins to violence in the crowd tonight. Most had seen — if not shed — blood, and that baptism had given them a determination of sorts. The spirit of Lincoln Park was to make revolution the way you make love — ambivilently, perhaps but for real.
The cops advanced at 12:40 a.m., behind two massive floodlight-trucks. They also had the fear; you could see it in their eyes (wide and wet) and their mouths. All week, you watched them cruise the city — never alone and never unarmed. At night, you heard their sirens in the streets, and all day, their helicopters in the sky. On duty, the average Chicago cop was a walking arsenal — with a shot gun in one hand, a riot baton (long and heavy with steel tips) in the other, and an assortment of pistols, nightsticks, and ominous canisters in his belt. At first, all that equipment seemed flattering. But then you saw under the helmets, and the phallic weaponry, and you felt the fear again. Immigrant to stranger, cop to civilian, old man to kid. The fear that brought the people of Chicago out into the streets during Martin Luther King’s open housing march, now reflected in the fists of these cops. The fear that made the people of Gage Park spit at priests, and throw stones at nuns, now authorized to kill. And you realized that the cops weren’t putting on that display for you; no — a cop’s gun is his security blanket, just as Vaseline was yours.
Then the lights shone brilliant orange and the tear gas guns exploded putt-putt-puttutt, and the ministers dipped their cross into a halo of smothering fog. The gas hit like a great wall of pepper and you ran coughing into the streets, where you knew there would be rocks to throw and windows to smash and something to feel besides fear.
The soldiers stood on all the bridges, sealing off Grant Park from the city streets. The kids couldn’t be gassed anymore, because the wind was blowing fumes across the guarded bridges and into every open pore of the Conrad Hilton, and the hotel was filled with good people who had tears in their eyes. So the soldiers just stood with their empty guns poised against the tide. And they were frowning at the kids who shouted “put down your guns; join us.” A few hid flowers in their uniforms, and some smiled, but mostly, they stood posing for their own death masks.
“Wouldn’t you rather hold a girl than a gun?” asked one kid with his arm around two willing chicks.
“You don’t understand,” the soldier stammered, moving his tongue across his lips. “It’s orders. We have to be here.”
That was Wednesday — nomination day — and the city was braced for escalation. At the afternoon rally, an American flag was hauled down, and the police responded by wading into the center of the crowd, with clubs flying. The kids built barricades of vacated benches, pelted the police with branches, and tossed plastic bags of cow’s blood over their heads.
I stood in the shade applying Vaseline. I had my route mapped out in advance; across the northmost bridge and into the free Loop. With every semblance of press identification I owned pinned to my shirt, I set out across the mall. But most of the crowd had the same idea. Across on Michigan Avenue, I could hear the shouts of demonstrators who were re-grouping at the Hilton. I stopped to wet my undershirt in a fountain and ran down the street. My hands were shaking with anticipation and I could no longer close my eyes without seeing helmets and hearing chants. So my body was committed, but my head remained aloof.
It brought me back to the Columbia uprising, because I learned something then about why I am a journalist, and it has stayed with me since. Near Fayerwether Hall, I came face to face with a bloodied liberator. He looked up at the press card on my jacket, and muttered: “That keeps you safe, huh?”
He was right. I demand that distance; it’s part of my psyche. And I wasn’t yet prepared to smash the tape recorder in my brain, which retains impressions without actually experiencing them. For me, the Chicago fear amounted to going up against the wall without that little card which reads, “Police Please Pass.”
But now, I found myself swept up in the crowd around the Hilton. Rolls of toilet paper fell from the windows above. Floodlights flashed, cameras snapped, and somewhere, a glass pane shattered. That was enough. The cops turned on the crowd, and shoved us against the hotel’s wall. People shrieked with one breath, and apologized for stepping on toes with the other. Then the cops rushed in two directions, and I fell on someone’s back. A window broke behind me, and I saw people falling into the hotel pharmacy. Ahead, the police were clubbing in wide circles. Up close, and frozen into place, I saw their fists move in slow motion. I thought, no invective can capture this moment, because I could hear the stockyard around me then — the sound of slaughter, and I looked up at a kid whose arms were twisted behind in the crush, and I felt the Guernica in his eyes; the same expression on the big horse was on his lips. And I knew where it had come from and why.
I slipped out and walked across the street, shaking. I sat for 10 minutes with a girl who had been unconscious. We watched the medical crews covering their faces. And when the tear gas came, we ran away.
On Michigan Avenue, I sat in the street, and ripped away the remnants of my press cards. I whooped the way they did in “The Battle of Algiers,” and chanted the way they did in “La Chinoise,” and I raised my hands in a television “V” at the flag they had lowered to half mast. When the sirens came closer, I ran by rote up the steps of the Art Institute. Behind a pillar, I started to cry. You blew your cool, I thought, but it was like watching someone else’s headache. I had found the other side of fear, which is not heroism, but rage. My eyes burned with it, and my hands shook with it. Behind me, a cop fired over my head, and I ran forward shouting “Pigs eat shit,” not so he could hear, but so I could. In the street, I saw a straight kid in a crew-neck sweater heave a rock through the window of a police car. “The first one’s hard,” he said, as we ran toward State Street, “but after that, it’s easy.”
Which is where it’s at, with America, and me.
This article from the Village Voice Archive was posted on May 29, 2020