Grant Park revisited: From tear gas to tears of joy


It’s what must be a Tuesday or a Wednesday morning — they all blur together for want of sleep — in Mayor Richard J. Daley’s Chicago, Illinois, the last week of August 1968. Democratic Convention week.

Maybe 10 a.m., maybe 11. I’ve lost track and lost time dodging from sidewalk to sidewalk to avoid coming face to face with any of Daley’s large and menacing police who are all over the place, especially at every street corner. They couldn’t care less about the sanctity of the press. Quite the opposite.

My object of the moment is to cross Michigan Avenue, but the khaki-clad, helmeted boy right in front of me would not want me to do that. His automatic rifle and the grenade at his belt back him up. He and hundreds like him — members of the Illinois National Guard — are lined up, shoulder to shoulder, three deep, all along the edges of Michigan Avenue — directly across from my goal, the Chicago Hilton, where much of the press and many of the delegates hang out. And where, I know from previous exposure, the miasma of stink bombs — Yippie planted? Weatherman planted? F.B.I. planted? Daley planted? — lingers in the air like vomit.

Oh, I suppose if we got chatting in a bar at the Hilton, or a bar anywhere — this young guardsman and I — he might tell me how scared he was of the possibility of having to go to Vietnam. But now, on this stark post-violence morning, I know that if I push past him and his fellows and run to cross over to that hotel, he’d have no hesitation at all in shooting me down like a dog.

If there is the odor of vomit in many a swank Chicago hotel this disastrous week, the outdoor air is defiled otherwise — with an acrid, strangling veil of tear gas that for two or three nights now has been deployed by Daley’s cops along with beatings and clubbings and other brutality in what a U.S. court will a year later term a “police riot.”

As I stand there at the edge of Michigan Avenue, contemplating the better side of valor — i.e., retreat — the Art Institute of Chicago is to my left, Lake Michigan is behind my back, and more immediately behind my back is a lovely expanse of greenery called Grant Park. It is there that Abbie Hoffman, Allen Ginsberg, Tom Hayden, Bobby Seale and hundreds upon hundreds of others — liberals, radicals, centrists, rationalists, prophets, Yippies and Pigasus the Pig, Yippie candidate for president of the United States — had fled for refuge, along with many just plain citizens after two nights of bloodshed and tear gas at Lincoln Park to the north. And then at Grant Park got tear-gassed all over again for their pains.

Grant Park!

So peaceful, so beautiful. Indeed, like nothing so much as the lush peaceful Grande Jatte in Seurat’s great painting in that same Chicago Art Institute.

Grant Park!

Named for Ulysses S. Grant, commander of the armies of the North, victor of Appomattox, 18th president of the United States of America.

And now we have the 44th president of the United States, and nobody seems to know if there were 100,000 people, or 250,000, or maybe even 1 million deliriously happy people levitating (as Abbie Hoffman would have said) that same good green Grant Park in welcome to Barack Hussein Obama the night of November 4, 2008. Forty years after the Democratic National Convention of 1968 — 40 years and seven months after the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

It was not only Jesse Jackson whom the cameras spotted weeping in the midst of that fantastic crowd. It was some white as well as black CNN people back in the studio, too, A lot of people were weeping around the world, as far as that goes.

What a difference. Okay, okay, it’s not over, it’ll never be over, but look how far we’ve come. Not too many of the people who packed Grant Park that miraculous night are old enough to remember how scared in the 1960s much of white America was of angry black militants like Stokely Carmichael, Rap Brown, Eldridge Cleaver, Huey Newton — and Bobby Seale, who so terrified the Honorable Justice Julius J. Hoffman that the Honorable Julius had Seale gagged and bound to his chair during the 1969 trial of the Chicago 7 (who became the Chicago 6 when Seale was remanded to a separate trial).

The blacks, whose anger was so deep that it even rebounded against, and alienated, the young (and some old) white idealists who had joined the struggle for civil rights, only to become disillusioned. As was the prominent young white leftist in that same Chicago that season who dryly remarked to me, of some of his black associates: “They wouldn’t know how to make their way out of a paper bag.” I was so shocked, I never forgot it.

Now the miracle is, no matter how backward and bigoted much of this country still may be, there is nevertheless the irrevocable hard fact of those millions of kids who gathered in Grant Park that night, plus the millions upon millions of others who not only voted but worked tirelessly, and poured forth money, to make Barack Obama indeed the president of a country that for all its faults is a lot less faulty — this year, this week, this bright day — than many another and far more hellish province on the globe.

“Thank God, there is a God. Thank God there is a God,” my father said, pounding one fist into the opposite palm as, over my tinny little radio, the bell rang signifying the knockout by Joe Louis, black, American, of Max Schmeling, white and German, in 1938. In those years, one went out on the streets of New York, a skinny Jewish kid smiling at everybody, the morning after every Joe Louis triumph.

I feel just that way today.