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Police Remember '68 Convention

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Police Remember '68 Convention

Mike Schumacher (WBEZ/Robert Wildeboer)

Denver and Minneapolis are gearing up to host the national political conventions in the next few weeks. Host cities get a week to strut their stuff on a national stage. Forty years ago Chicago hosted the Democratic convention but it was a fiasco. Violent clashes between war protesters and police became an embarrassment for mayor Richard J Daley. This week, we're looking back at those tumultuous days through the eyes of people who were there: police, protesters, delegates, and journalists. Today, we hear the story of a retired cop who was assigned to protect the Conrad Hilton Hotel, the epicenter of much of the conflict.
Watch a clip from the city of Chicago’s film on the 1968 Convention.

Officer Mike Schumacher lives in an eighteenth floor apartment overlooking Grant Park. From his balcony, you can see the Conrad Hilton Hotel where convention delegates and presidential candidates stayed during the '68 convention.

SCHUMACHER: It's the larger building. You can see almost like it looks like an 'H' in the center for Hilton.

There are reminders of '68 inside his apartment as well.

SCHUMACHER: Brass pigs, copper pig, gold pigs, there's pig cookie cutters, there's pigs hanging here.

There are pigs everywhere. A pig hat rack. A pig lamp. There's a curio cabinet with porcelain pigs. One particularly rotund fellow is playing a tuba.

SCHUMACHER: Yeah, he's a German pig, I mean they come all different ways.

Pig is of course the name that hippies and others shouted at cops in the late sixties. Schumacher heard that and worse when he was trying to keep protestors away from the many dignitaries staying at the Conrad Hilton. Last Friday we walked the area around the hotel on South Michigan Ave. We went across the street to Grant Park and Schumacher smiled as he climbed up a berm that must be at least 30 feet high.

SCHUMACHER: Now you're walking in a place of great history here.

At the top of the berm is a two-story tall statue of a man on a horse.

SCHUMACHER: This was covered with guys up above and hanging from up there. One of the places that they liked to take their picture, Abbie Hoffman and all the rest of them was right here. These trees were shorter back forty years ago and Hilton used to have a sign right on the side of it "Conrad Hilton" and so this was their elevated view and you can see to this day it's a great podium.

Schumacher says thousands of protestors filled the park around the raised statue. And he remembers being a block north at the corner of Balbo and Michigan hauling people off to the lock-up.

SCHUMACHER: They were blocking traffic, laying down in the street, you know walking across the street, jaywalking.

But they weren't all so peaceful.

SCHUMACHER: I actually saw one police officer whose riot helmet was crushed by a large rock. I took him into the police station myself. If he didn't have a riot helmet on at the time it would have crushed his skull and killed him. Armed with batons, police fought back hitting not only protestors, but bystanders and journalists as well. 

Images of the clashes were broadcast around the world and Mayor Daley was condemned and the incidents were referred to as police riots. To defend itself, the city of Chicago produced an hour-long broadcast that aired a few weeks after the convention. In it, a police commander who was actually Schumacher's boss at the time, shows the television audience weapons taken from protestors.

SOT: There are things on this table for instance, the broken slats from the benches in the park where weapons were picked up on the moment and used. Broken bottles, broken glass bent knives, pieces of brick, many projectiles.

Other favorite projectiles were bags of feces and cans filled with urine. Schumacher says though there were some instances of unnecessary police force, he says the cops did a good job under chaotic circumstances.

SCHUMACHER: There's a lot of adrenaline that gets moving. There's a lot of anger that takes place and quite often, if you've just been slapped in the face with a bag of sh*t it's really hard to say to that policeman whose now got the guy that did it, handcuff him officer and very calmly don't say anything or do anything.

Schumacher says that doesn't excuse bad police behavior and he doesn't condone it, but he says it does put police excesses into context. In the end, Schumacher says protestors wanted a confrontation with police and would have escalated the violence until they got it. He points out that despite the abuses hurled at officers, they never drew their guns and no protestors were killed that week. And he thinks the strong police response also sent the message to protestors around the country that if they come to Chicago looking for trouble, they'll find it.

I'm Robert Wildeboer, Chicago Public Radio.

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