I’m sitting in the Police car, four levels below the street. There are about one hundred
other officers scattered about waiting. President Lyndon Johnson is across the street, and
up the block inside the Century Plaza Hotel. He is the keynote speaker at a Democratic
Fund raiser. In 1966, during Vietnam, everywhere the President went, he attracted
protesters, mostly loud, and rancorous. Occasionally, depending on the venue, the
occasion, and the Press coverage, the protests turned violent. If the TV crews showed up,
the organized explosive protests followed. It was a premeditated: The “Stop the war,” and
“Get out now,'” mantras of the times.
The cops, of course, were the defenders of both sides. Sandwiched between – keeping
the peace, and protecting the Civil Rights of the demonstrators.
Problems of course exist for the police. To keep the peace, and protect the Rights of
the Demonstrators, what takes priority: Safety, or Rights? The answer is simple, of
course: Safety. So the police have to make the decision of when to act, to use force, if
necessary, and how much. It becomes a basket of snakes.
I’d been at these things before, the front lines of organized anger, sincere, or
otherwise. All the officers in this gopher-hole, four levels beneath the street, have been
briefed, and assigned to specific duties. I’m a member of a skirmish line that will quell
rioters from moving in on the hotel, should it come to that. We uniform guys are
accessorized with helmets, and gas masks; bullet-proof vests, optional. There is lots of
milling around, waiting to be called out. Breathing becomes labored, as the air is thin in
this underground warren, slightly ventilated.
“Hey, Bruno,” my partner Brooks calls from across the aisle, “You want to get into this poker game?”
“Nah, I’ll just hang.”
If you’ve ever been around a group of men waiting, virtually for anything, it’s nerve
racking. Men aren’t waiters, they’re doers. They receive stimuli, and act. In combat, or
adversarial conditions, waiting is debilitating. Men get bored, weary, or worse than that,
nervous and edgy. Husbands in a Maternity Waiting room know the feeling. Before long,
minutes turn into an hour and so forth. Voices of the men lose their vibrancy. Card games break up, and a general malaise creeps in.
Reports and updates indicate that the demonstrators number around two hundred, but
so far, are obeying the various barricades keeping them at bay across from the hotel.
They’re in a huge grassy area as the burgeoning of shopping centers, office buildings, and theaters are still on the drawing board.
The Commander of the response force gets on a bullhorn. “Okay men, listen up.” The
volume is too loud. It screeches and bounces off the walls in the garage. It gets adjusted.
“We just received a report that the people out there are getting really active. Intelligence
reports that they’re planning something big and nasty. So I want,” he looks at some notes
in his hand, “Platoons one and two to deploy and hold your positions. Now everyone hear me, HOLD YOUR POSITIONS. I don’t want you advancing into them for any reason. I
don’t want anyone to retreat and give up a fuckin’ inch of turf. You must keep the line
intact. Somebody goes off half-cocked and weakens the line, we could be overrun.” He
looks around the group of men. “Any questions?” Pause. “Okay, platoons one and two
fall in with your squad leader.”
I’m it. I grab my gear from the car. Put on my helmet, attach the gas mask to my Sam
Browne belt, sheath my baton, and fall in. A bus unloads us across from the hotel and we
form a line behind the barricades, facing the protesters. A platoon consists of about forty
men plus a supervisor. Eighty of us line up about three feet apart. The people shout the
usual things like, ‘Nazi’s, Pigs,’ and other epithets. Many signs are in evidence.
(Virtually screaming in large letters to: Get Us Out– End the War– Johnson is a Killer.)
America the Beautiful, I think. As always, the organizers put women and children
toward the front. It’s a ploy they frequently use. No surprises, so far. Except the number
of demonstrators isn’t a few hundred as reported earlier. It’s swollen to at least a
thousand. Screaming and sobbing pervades the crowd. Little children are terrified of the
noise. They’re in carriages, strollers, in parents’ arms. As the sun gets lower in the sky,
more platoons of officers are deployed.
The President appears on a balcony about ten stories up and waves to the throng.
He’s immediately recognized. The demonstrators get louder. Boos. Jeers. Curses. Isn’t
this a great country? I think. He shortly disappears from the balcony. Minutes later, the
Presidential helicopter rises from the far side of the hotel whisking away President
My eyes are all over the place. I’m in defensive mode, because I know what’s coming. They dart left, right, up, sweeping the area. Sure enough, as the sun sets entirely,
a pop bottle flies over my head and splatters in the street behind me. Shards fly in all
directions. Rocks and ball bearings soon follow. Officers duck and juke to avoid them.
Some are struck, but hold their positions. We can’t see who’s throwing, but we have spies
in the crowd looking for them, and hopefully arresting them. Of course they’re not dumb,
know of the spies presence, and take counter measures to avoid detection.
The Commander stands on a vehicle and with the bullhorn, announces an “Unlawful
Assembly.” He allows ten minutes for all the demonstrators to clear the area, or be
arrested. TV news crews are getting all this dynamic footage. Every network and local
station has people covering this. The more they cover, the more inspired the crowd gets.
Subsequent to announcements of dispersal or arrest, the order is given to make
arrests. Batons unsheathed now, we advance on the non-believers. Arrest teams, using
plastic handcuffs, do their thing. My partner, Brooks is bleeding from a cut on his face.
We didn’t have face guards in those days. He’s really pissed off. I try to calm him, but he
isn’t listening. He picks out the big young man. “You’re under arrest. Turn around, hands
behind your back.” The guy starts to protest. Before he has three words out of his mouth,
Brooks flails the baton across his thigh. The guy goes down in pain. “I said put your
hands behind you back. NOW!”
The man does not comply. – Whap – another strike across his other leg. The guy
screams in pain. I grab Brook’s arm. “What the fuck are you doing, man? Are you crazy
like these assholes? Stop it.”
“Fuck you, Partner. He’s the asshole who got me on the face.”
“You can’t do this, Brooks.”
“I’m doing it.” He raises his baton again.
I grab his arm. “If you do it, I’m turning you in. He’s defenseless. He’s not attacking
He pulls his arm from my grasp, kneels and handcuffs the arrestee. “You fuckin’
coward. Piss-ant. Teach you to hurt people and hide. Get your ass up.”
The man writhing in pain says, “I can’t.”
“You can’t? You’re telling me, you can’t?” He waves his baton by his face. “How about I stick this up your ass? You think that would help you get up?” The guy scrambles,
scrambles, and gets to his feet, all with his hands shackled behind his back. “Move, you
puke.” I tag along till we get to the Arrest bus to sort of chaperone.
Forty or so demonstrators were arrested that night. I had none, which was all right
with me. The riot was squashed, along with some egos, and feelings, amongst other
As I watch the news on TV that night, I am amazed at the reporting. It’s like I was
never at the scene. The slants of the news people were like from another planet. Were
they there? Was I there?
“Boisterous crowds showed their disdain of the President. ” “Police were nearly
overwhelmed by the protesters. ” On and on.
My mind could not comprehend the hate and fury many of these people had.
Subjecting children to it was criminal, in my mind. Go ahead, exercise your freedom to
protest, it’s what we’re all about. But let a few ringleaders lead you like sheep to the
The Police were just as guilty in some cases. Hostility leads to bloodshed. For what? Is
that what we’re all about. .. being an American?
by Peter Bruno
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