The whole world was watching: Claude Lewis remembers the 1968 Chicago police riot

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A Chicago police officer (front, left) shoots mace at anti-war demonstrators outside the Hilton Hotel on Aug. 29, 1968, during the Democratic National Convention.

DURING THE final week of August 1968 I was a young reporter in Grant Park, in Chicago.

I was there to cover the Democratic National Convention. By the time the opening ceremony had ended, I made a silent promise to myself: If I survive this police riot, I will never return to the Windy City.

But it was a promise I could not keep; too many political and other events took place in Chicago, and I was not going to miss them all.

My fear of Chicago was rooted in the angry police rebellion that took them on an unlawful, wild, club-swinging rampage against dozens of reporters and photographers, along with thousands of young and fiercely dedicated protesters against the war in Vietnam.

Vice President Hubert H. Humphrey had the nomination sewn up. He enjoyed generous support, but remained nervous because of the anti-war demonstrators.

For many, the political machinations inside the Conrad Hilton Hotel and Chicago's International Amphitheater, two of the major convention sites, seemed far less significant than the protests taking place in the parks and streets.

I had covered riots before, but never a riot by armed police officers.

Looking back on that day, I recall being in a house that served as headquarters for the demonstrators on the periphery of Grant Park. It was the same parcel of real estate where President-elect Barack Obama gave his victory speech last week.

As Obama spoke, my mind drifted back to the park and the headquarters where my interviews with a few idealistic and dedicated protesters were interrupted by an angry army of officers.

Suddenly, the front door burst open and in charged several uniformed officers who clubbed nearly everyone in sight, including four or five young women.

"What the hell are you doing here?"one officer screamed at me.

"I'm a news reporter," I said. He raised his club and brought it down fiercely upon my head. In an instant, my white shirt turned crimson and I felt the warm flow of blood on my face and body. Everyone fled the house, hurrying along the edge of the park.

One officer kept me in his sight. He grabbed my credentials from the cord around my neck and beat me to the ground. He snatched my notebook, now wet with blood, and tossed it into the street and shouted us away.

I was unable to move. Fortunately, a few of my colleagues dragged me out of the park and drove me to a hospital where I spent three days in recovery.

On the second day, I awakened to find three FBI agents standing at the foot of my bed. I could provide them no significant information except that my attackers were uniformed Chicago police officers who wore checkered rimmed hats and no name tags.

Outside the convention, anti-war demonstrators repeatedly returned to clash with 11,900 Chicago police officers, 7,500 Army troops, 7,500 Illinois National Guardsmen and 1,000 Secret Service agents over four days.

At the convention's end, police reported 589 arrests, with 119 officers injured and 101 protesters beaten or harmed along with several doctors who had volunteered medical assistance to the victims.

A short time later, an official study placed most of the blame on the Chicago police.

On March 20, 1969, a Chicago grand jury indicted eight police officers and eight civilians stemming from the ugly conflagration.

No other American political convention in recent memory compares with that terrible week in Chicago. Police misbehavior, protester aggression, widespread chaos and frightening violence cast an indelible shadow on the convention in 1968 that will live in political infamy.

President-elect Obama's victory speech at that precise place last week - 40 years after the police riot - was a walk in the park. *

Claude Lewis was a longtime columnist for the Philadelphia Bulletin and the Inquirer , and the author of six books.

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