The obvious enthusiasm of some American police officers for violence amid peaceful protests may be among the most indelible images to come out of the nationwide demonstrations that have followed the murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis.
For me, this kind of gratuitous assault by police is familiar, not that anything like this was ever directed toward me, other than my being on the receiving end once or twice of some curiously inappropriate expressions of anger during a nothing traffic stop. Rather, it was years ago while I was working on a public television documentary about the 1968 Democratic National Convention, the one where clashes with police outside the arena and mayhem inside were thought to have been at least partly responsible for Hubert Humphrey’s loss to Richard Nixon in the general election that year.
One of my assignments for the film was to line up participants in the 1968 events who might be willing to appear on camera. It was no problem finding people to sit for interviews among the Yippies, some of the so-called Chicago Seven, and others in the antiwar movement, who had been in the streets, as well as party leaders. It was another thing altogether with the Chicago police.
It was not that the cops were unwilling to talk about their roles long ago in the mayhem. Rather, they had little interest in being part of a film about it, made, no less, by a team from New York City producing it for WGBH-Boston. It was frustrating as hell. For example, I had lined up a willing former mid-level officer who had been on the streets in 1968, but after talking to someone in the police hierarchy, he backed out at the last minute.
What stood out for me from my talking with cops, including a few who had been there in 1968 and were still on the force, was that when the conversation got around to the beatings officers had laid on protesters, they appeared to savor the memory.
One member of the police brass, who had been a rookie in 1968, laid a chrome handgun on his desk as we sat down to talk, and, as we spoke about what had gone down in the streets, I could see from the corner of his mouth that he was stifling a smile. Another cop, by then retired, straight up told me, “Did we enjoy it? Well, there were some of us who did.” But I also remember one officer, who agreed to be filmed, describe the physical and emotional toll the rioting took on him. Both attitudes seemed to be true. Some cops enjoyed lumping up the protesters, as one put it. Some were just doing a job and felt mixed about it almost 30 years on.
Today, the morning after police went on the offensive to clear a path for the president to walk out for a brief but foolish photo op, I am struck by how much has not changed since 1968, and, it seems to me, has actually gotten worse. Maybe another generation will sort this out. It is clear we haven’t.