The Night Erwin Knoll Spent in Jail: A Report from the Democrat’s 1968 Convention in Chicago


Editor’s note: Fifty years ago this week, the Democratic Party held its national convention in Chicago, Illinois. The atmosphere inside the convention hall was chaotic, but outside, in the streets of Chicago, protesters were met with what was later deemed a “police riot,” supported by armored vehicles and National Guard troops. Erwin Knoll, then Washington correspondent for The Progressive, was there to cover the events. He filed this report, which originally appeared in the magazine in October 1968.

Miss Place, who taught tenth grade composition at Erasmus Hall High School in Brooklyn two dozen years ago, couldn’t have imagined that she was launching me on a career in crime. She was a gentle woman, active in church work as I recall, and inordinately fond of the bland “classics” that were the staple of the sophomore English course. She suggested, at a time when I was frantically wondering what I would “become,” that I might try earning a livelihood by writing for newspapers or magazines.

We had all been arrested—some seventy-nine of us, including ‘kids,’ convention delegates and alternates, clergymen and a few reporters—for stepping off a sidewalk at Michigan Avenue and 18th Street at about 9:30 p.m. on the Convention’s final night.

I thought about Miss Place for the first time in many years (and tried, unsuccessfully, to remember her first name) as I sat, the night of August 29, in one of Mayor Richard J. Daley’s Chicago jails. The long train of thought that led back to Erasmus Hall began with my young cellmates—hippies, yippies, New Left activists, “Clean for Gene” McCarthy volunteers—who had come to Chicago for the Democratic National Convention. Many of them were barely out of high school and had come much sooner than I to their careers in crime.

We had all been arrested—some seventy-nine of us, including “kids,” convention delegates and alternates, clergymen and a few reporters—for stepping off a sidewalk at Michigan Avenue and 18th Street at about 9:30 p.m. on the Convention’s final night. The formal charge—I quote from Deputy Police Chief M. Nygren’s complaint— was that I “failed to obey a lawful order of dispersal by a person known by him [by me, that is] to be a peace officer under circumstances where three or more persons are committing acts of disorderly conduct in the immediate vicinity, which acts are likely to cause substantial harm or serious inconvenience, annoyance or alarm.” This is a violation of Chapter 193, Section 1-d, of the Municipal Code of the City of Chicago.

We came to violate Chapter 193, Section 1-d, by accepting an invitation from Dick Gregory, the black comedian, to walk to his home on the South side of Chicago. For four nights the anti-war demonstrators had been clubbed and tear-gassed on the Convention city’s streets in an orgy of brutality that has been adequately described elsewhere. They had been denied permits to parade to the Convention hall, and now Gregory was testing, as he put it, “the constitutional issue . . . do we have a right for me to take you to my house?”

“We’re going to see who in this town tonight can long endure, as Lincoln said,” Gregory proclaimed over a bullhorn as several thousand demonstrators started on what was to be only a nine-block walk. “My address, in case you get arrested, will be in the same jail you’re in, baby,” he said.

Some two dozen delegates and alternates, wearing their gold badges and red, white, and blue ribbons, were at the head of the march with Gregory. Columnist Murray Kempton, a delegate from New York, was there, describing the march as a “caucus” and affirming his belief in law and order. “Law and order to me is the right of**8**free assembly,” Kempton said. Another New York delegate, the Reverend Richard Neuhaus, pastor of a Lutheran church, called it “a basic question of civil rights.” J. P. Noterman, a delegate from Pennsylvania, gestured toward the youngsters in the line of march and said, “We feel a lot of these people were workers for Gene McCarthy in the primaries and ought to be honored.”

Most of the delegates were McCarthy people. But in the front row, propelling himself in a wheelchair, was Tommy Frasier of Tulsa, Oklahoma, a paraplegic veteran who was and remains a staunch supporter of Vice President Humphrey. He didn’t like the way the demonstrators had been dealt with by Mayor Daley’s police force. “They’re good people—better than a lot of people you meet in country clubs,” he said.

Michigan and 18th was a dead end for the marchers. The National Guard was there in force, blocking the intersection. One street was barricaded by four “Daley-dozers”—jeeps on which barbed-wire grills had been mounted. Another was barred by an armored personnel carrier parked crosswise. The third was sealed by a cordon of troops.

Gregory conferred for a few minutes with National Guard and police authorities, and then returned to announce: “Right now, we’re being told that you cannot go to my home with me, because if you try to cross the street with me you’re facing an arrest situation. Those of you who intend to make this confrontation for justice and Crawford for NEA “. . . and I say, without fear of contradiction—” human dignity, I say, we step off the corner and face this arrest situation.” The arrests started moments later.

I wasn’t there to make a confrontation for justice and human dignity. I was neither a demonstrator nor a delegate but a reporter, having followed Miss Place’s advice. Around my neck I wore the Convention press credentials issued to The Progressive. As I stepped off the curb and through the line of soldiers to watch Tommy Frasier’s wheelchair being lifted into a police van, a National Guard officer told his troops: “This gentleman is with the press. Please treat him gently.” And then I was in. a police van too.

I wasn’t there to make a confrontation for justice and human dignity. I was neither a demonstrator nor a delegate but a reporter, having followed Miss Place’s advice.

We spent about seven hours behind bars, being searched and booked and photographed and fingerprinted, waiting, mostly, and talking to each other. Those of us who wore suits and neckties talked to those who wore beards and dirty jeans. We got to know each other a little better in those seven hours, I think, and to like each other a little better. A young man with a generous blond beard—a veteran of Vietnam who is weary and disillusioned at the age of twenty—told me, “I’m glad you people are here. I appreciate it a lot. Otherwise they [the police] could do anything they wanted. I’ve been treated worse than this for speeding.”

Being arrested was no new thing for him, nor was it for Jerry Broderick, a thirty-year-old Chicagoan who told me he had been in jail in Selma and Montgomery, Greenwood and Natchez, Atlanta and New Orleans.” I hold the distinction of hitting Bull Connor on the head with a rock,” he said. He was the only one in my cell who tried to sleep, and succeeded.

Ted Davenport, a black, twenty-seven-year-old Chicago shipping clerk, had never spent a night in jail before, and had not thought much about being arrested this night.” I just felt I’d rather cross the street than turn around,” he said. Rabbi David L. Kline of Temple Menorah in Queens, New York, a delegate, used almost the same words, and added, “You get to a point where you can do no less.”

Shortly after four a.m., when we were about to be freed on bond to return for trial at a later date, the Rabbi produced from a pocket one of those daisy-shaped, blue-and-white McCarthy stickers that were plastered all over the Chicago Loop during the Convention. He peeled the backing off and affixed it to a wall of the lock-up.” I think,” he said, “it gives the place a little class.”

I thought Rabbi Kline and his fellow delegates gave the place a little class. And the veterans of the movement, and the first-timers, and the unkempt hippies who hate the war and despise the system and hold the big and little hypocrisies of our time in a kind of contempt they can hardly articulate. It was good to be with them.

I hope Miss Place, wherever she is, has no regrets about the advice she gave me. I have none. I thought I gave the place a little class myself.


USA News


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