Johnson Comes to Town

by Aljean Harmetz | July 8, 1967

Los Angeles

At 8:46 p.m., on June 23, the Los Angeles Police Department turned a one-mile march by 10,000 lawyers, housewives, college students, doctors, teachers and small children into a street brawl. There were 511 arrested, 60 bloodied or bruised by police clubs, no one was shot, no one was killed. It taught several thousand middle-class citizens the high price of dissent and turned them into cop haters.

The march was organized by the Peace Action Council, a coalition of dozens of antiwar groups, but many of the predominantly middle-aged marchers had no affiliation. The PAC had, in legal fashion, taken out a permit allowing a march from a public park past the Century Towers Apartments (where Jack Benny lives in a $3,000-a month penthouse) to the gaudy new Century Plaza Hotel where President Johnson was to speak at a $1,000-a-couple dinner.

The grass in the park had been soaked so that no one could comfortably sit down. Several hundred people at the children's baseball diamond listened to Cassius Clay and Dr. Benjamin Spock. Clay’s speech consisted mainly of “Who's the World Champion?” to which the crowd good-naturedly answered, “You are.” Police had barred the PAC’s sound truck from the park, so Dr. Spock's speech was lost to most of the crowd.

Twilight in the park was friendly. Small children begged cookies from strangers. Many of the thousands who poured into the park as time for the march grew near were husbands just home from work, their wives and their children. At 7:30 the march began. Ten thousand citizens walked past 20th Century Fox Studios and up Avenue of the Stars. As the front of the line of marchers approached the hotel, the President’s helicopter landed in the hotel parking lot. Long after Mr. Johnson had disappeared inside the hotel, the marchers were stopped by one set of policemen and told to march or disperse. When they tried to disperse, other policemen refused to allow them out. (A few mothers with very small children were permitted to leave. One five-year-old boy was handed across the top of the crowd to his mother.) The rest of the marchers were penned by dozens of cops on motorcycles who crowded them into one lane at the edge of the street.

A few dozen sat in the street as much from boredom as anything else. About 50 more militant demonstrators sat down deliberately but were talked back to their feet in less than 10 minutes by parade monitors. Unable to move, a few marchers learned from their transistor radios that their lack of movement constituted an “unlawful assembly.” Even then most of them did not expect violence. They were neither unruly nor defiant, and the only way they provoked the police was with their homemade signs reading “Make Sense – Not War” or “Johnson is a Murderer” and an occasional ill-mannered chant of “LBJ, LBJ, How many kids did you kill today?”

At 8:46 p.m. – without asking or ordering the marchers to disperse – the 1,200 policemen turned the parade into a rout. They pushed, shoved, clubbed the paraders to the east – away from the hotel, justifying their attack with a rumor that the marchers were about to storm the hotel. “We weren't going to storm anything,” says Joan Colvin, a young graduate student in zoology. “We monitors were keeping order, standing hand in hand with our backs to the police when the police attacked us. They hadn’t warned us. They hadn’t said a word to us for 20 minutes. Suddenly they just attacked.”

Within 10 minutes, the crowd dissolved in terror. “I fell down and someone stepped on me and I kept shouting, ‘For God’s sake, don’t crush me. Please don’t crush me’. I was just trying to hang on to my kids. Some man picked the baby up and held her above the crowd even when the police were clubbing him. When the policeman raised his club at me, I grinned foolishly and thought, ‘Gee, this is silly,’ and then the whole side of my face was numb. I stepped over some young boy who was lying there with blood pouring down his head and then I ran like hell.”

If they had grown up on the streets of Los Angeles instead of in its private nursery schools and better colleges they would have fought. Instead they ran. (“It was the crowd's lack of violence that kept more people from being hurt,” says Henry Wolinsky, a UCLA medical student. “That crowd couldn't have been dispersed in less than 45 minutes without its cooperation.”)

They were split into small groups and harried like rabbits by the motorcycle hounds. Nearly a hundred of those who ran were innocent bystanders – residents of the neighborhood who had come to watch the parade. A thousand were shoved to the Beverly Hills city limits nearly four blocks from the hotel. There, the exhausted marchers stood, panting in the darkness, until one policeman roared his motorcycle into their midst, scattering them once more like chaff in the hot wind of his exhaust.

In less than 45 minutes, the area surrounding the hotel was empty – except for policemen. Dressed in a tuxedo, Police Chief Tom Reddin jubilantly told his assembled force, “You stood up just tremendous. You fellows showed a great deal of patience. I think the message is out. Our city is not going to give in to lawbreakers.”

Even now Police Chief Reddin is not aware that his victory may have cost far more than it was worth. Well-meaning, respectable citizens have been permanently terrified by the blank rigidity of 1,200 police faces. And as they drove or hitchhiked home in the darkness to their custom-built, remodeled, multi-bathroomed homes, many of them began to wonder who indeed had caused the Watts riots.

This article originally ran in the July 8, 1967, issue of the magazine.

 

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