I recall that the first time that I was tear-gassed was at the 1968 Democratic Convention demonstrations in Chicago. The demonstrations were organized by the National Mobilization Committee to End the War in Vietnam (The Mobe), which, in Chicago, was a loose coalition of mainly militant radicals like the Yippies and the Students for a Democratic Society (SDS). Virtually all of the participants were opposed to the War in Vietnam. For some, there were other items on their agendas, such as discrediting the Democratic Party. In Chicago, The Mobe was not committed to nonviolent tactics. I participated as a kind of, “participant observer.” I wanted to protest the war, but wanted also to try to keep the protests nonviolent, and to see what actually would happen.
My first encounter with tear gas was at an August 28 rally held at the south end of Grant Park, whose center was a band shell (that since then has been torn down). About 6,000 people had gathered for the rally. To the north, several hundred blue-helmeted riot police were assembled in a line. Officers handed out a leaflet saying that the rally had been permitted, but not a march to the Amphitheater, and asking the demonstrators to cooperate with them. To the south, there were lines of National Guardsmen, and Guardsmen on the roof of the Field Museum.
Almost from the start, there was conflict between the police and the crowd. A number of people in the crowd called the police “pigs,” and other derogatory names. The most severe violence broke out after a speech by Rennie Davis, in which someone pulled down an American flag that was on a flagpole near the stage. At that point, the police attacked the crowd, surging up to the stage, and pouncing on Rennie, whom they clubbed to the point where his scalp was torn open and he had to go to the hospital to have the wound stitched up. The rally continued. Some demonstrators near the police intensified their verbal insults on the police, the police retaliated by throwing tear gas canisters into the crowd, demonstrators responded by hurling the canisters back, and the police surged again and again into the crowd, clubbing people. One demonstrator tore up a park bench to use its pieces as clubs.
David Dellinger, who was one of the speakers, tried to lead the crowd in a march toward the Amphitheater. The march got about as far as Columbus Avenue and 11th Street, where it was blocked by a line of policemen. The march then turned north, and tried to cross Columbus to the west, where they were regularly blocked by police, who, by then, had been reinforced with rifle-armed National Guardsmen with Jeeps, that had barbed wire “bumpers” attached to their fronts. The police and Guardsmen were sporadic in their efforts to block the crowd, and many people were able to cross Columbus, and proceed in the direction of the Conrad Hilton Hotel. Many of them crossed the Illinois Central Railroad tracks on the Balbo Avenue viaduct. There, they were joined by a march sponsored by the “Poor Peoples Campaign,” that had recently reached Chicago. Once across the tracks, the demonstrators poured into the intersection of Balbo and Michigan Avenue, and tried to move south toward the hotel’s entrance. There, they were blocked by several line of police. My Chevrolet station wagon, that had an anti-draft sign on top of it, and was being driven by a draft resister, was caught in the crowd, confiscated by the police, and later found trashed in a police pound.
The crowd tried to reach the hotel. The police pushed back. Many demonstrators cursed the police, threw things at them, and engaged in fistfights with them. The police finally simply launched a savage charge against the crowd, clubbing and arresting men and women apparently indiscriminately. I was watching the proceedings from about fifty feet north of the “front line.” An irate policeman began to club a man near me. I urged the officer not to be rough. The policeman responded by starting to club me. I retreated northward, being struck repeatedly as I moved. That was the only situation I have been in in which calming words did not have the desired effect on a policeman.
It was about then that I ran into a dense cloud of tear gas. Immediately, my eyes began to water, and shut, and I felt as if I were being choked. I was nearly totally incapacitated. A person near me took my arm and guided me back over the Balbo viaduct to a water fountain in Grant Park. There, I was able to gradually wash the gas out of my eyes. It took me nearly half an hour before I was able to navigate on my own again. Later, I encountered other, less dense, clouds of gas. Always, the gas made my eyes sting and water profusely.
Tear gas is an extremely effective agent for dispersing crowds. It incapacitates people, and makes them want to leave the area and find water where they can wash out their eyes. I do not think that it has much deterrent effect on people. No gassed demonstrators I talked with said that they would never confront the police again. Many saw the need for gas masks if they were going to participate in another “Battle of Michigan Avenue.” - Bradford