Chicago police share untold stories at reunion for '68 convention
CHICAGO — There was no tear gas anywhere, and some of those who showed up for a reunion of Chicago Police officers who worked during the 1968 Democratic National Convention hung up their badges - and their billy clubs - a long time ago.
But if this looked like just a gathering of retirees who came to knock back a few drinks and swap stories Friday night - "I was just looking to see who's still alive," joked retired patrolman Jeff Norris - it was much more than that.
Between men who almost spit out words like "scum" to describe demonstrators who descended on the city 41 years ago to the small crowd of protesters across the street, it was clear the days when the streets became a battlefield remain one of the most divisive chapters in Chicago history.
From the former cops came recollections, one after another, about what the cameras didn't capture, what the world didn't see on television along with the images of police wading into crowds of protesters, knocking them down and bloodying them with flailing billy clubs.
They told of bags of urine and feces, and bricks that were thrown at them, the heavy glass ashtrays dropped on them from hotel windows high above, the nail-spiked rubber balls left behind their car tires and sometimes thrown at them.
And they dismissed any talk of a "police riot," as a commission famously called the scene, speaking with pride about how they conducted themselves.
"We were doing what we were supposed to do," said John Murray, a 62-year-old retired detective. "No regrets."
It was absolute chaos, they said, but they did not lose control even when faced with situations they never thought they'd ever see.
Like the woman disguised as a nun who punched Joe Mescall when the young patrolman wouldn't let her into the Conrad Hilton Hotel where he was stationed.
Mescall laughed when he told of responding with a punch that was hard enough that she "landed on her keister right on Michigan Avenue," but he turned serious when he said that neither he nor any of his fellow "coppers" pulled their guns.
"Not one shot was fired," he said, a sentiment echoed several times.
On the other side of the street, protesters say all this talk about doing their job and putting the blame for the rioting on the demonstrators amounts to a whitewash of history.
That is obvious, they say, by the reunion organizers who did not just promote the gathering on a Web site called Chicagoriotcops.com, but promoted it as a way to honor those who protected the city from "Marxist street thugs."
"The language makes it very clear that this is a celebration of violence, of brutality and an attempt to rewrite history," said Jose Martin, a member of Chicago Copwatch, which organized a march that ended with a rally across the street from the Fraternal Order of Police lodge where the reunion was held.
Martin said he wasn't sure if there would still be a march had the reunion been simply advertised as a reunion, but he said that kind of language sealed the deal.
"It was too golden," he said.
G. Flint Taylor, a prominent civil rights attorney whose clients include former death row inmates who have sued alleging police torture, saw his participation as his duty.
"We have to constantly set the record straight, set the historical record straight," he said.
"This new generation, half don't know what happened," he said, surrounded by a few dozen protesters, many of whom were not yet born when the 1968 convention occurred.
That was one thing that even the former cops could agree to.
"I don't think the young kids could tell you who was even running for office (in 1968)," said retired detective, Tom Flanagan, 67.
The other thing everyone agreed on is that the now-gray or balding men who were on duty during the 1968 convention remain a source of fascination for those who lived through it or studied it.
"Did you beat up anybody famous?" a young woman who rode up to the officers on her bicycle asked Murray.
Murray just laughed.