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Outside the Convention: Cops and Confusion

An inside report on the Republican National Convention – riots, tear gas and buck-a-drink bourbon included

demonstration, war, protester, Republican National Convention, crowd-control, gas, police

One night after his arm was broken in another demonstration, a young war protester kneels in tears near the Republican National Convention site after trying to fight the effects of a crowd-control gas fired by police on August 24th, 1972.

Duane Howell/The Denver Post via Getty

“Mr. Peanut Welcomes You to the Republican National Convention.” Well, why not. Colonel Sanders did no less for the Democrats and those blue plastic bags provided a nifty repository for all those things delegates had to carry around with them between hotels and the convention center. Someday, those bags might be collector’s items. People can tell their grandchildren – “Yep, got my Mr. Peanut bag back at the big convention of ’72, the last one ever held in old Miami Beach.”

The last one, at least, if the folk of Miami Beach have any say about it. Not only did the rowdy non-delegates screw up their streets with crowds and then tear gas, but the delegates themselves holed up in their air-conditioned hotel rooms or someplace and hardly spent enough to make the bars profitable.

“A pain in the ass, that’s all it is,” the poolside bartender at the Playboy Plaza said in his New York City accent. “One big pain in the ass.” Actor Glenn Ford had dropped by a few minutes earlier to provide the bar with its only good moment of the day. “He’s a hell of a nice guy, you know that?” the bartender confided. Congressman Pete McCloskey, the only drop of dissent on the whole convention floor, was sitting at a patio table nearby, fidgeting a little as he talked to the young woman sitting with him. Nobody even recognized the Congressman, not even when he finally got up and walked over to the bar and said, “Say, can I get an iced tea?”

“Not here, buddy, ya gotta go inside for that.”

McCloskey walked away mumbling a little about it. “See what I mean?” the bartender said. “Iced tea. Christ.” It looked like the whole first day of Republicans might be a total wreck until the bunny in the yellow bikini reported that even at that moment John Wayne was guzzling bourbon inside. “No kidding? Man, I’d like to see him.”

Even in slippery hot Flamingo Park way down at the other end of town, it looked like it might be a long three days. “David! David!” somebody was shouting, “We’re meeting at four o’clock.”

“That’s the time for the lesbian march.”

“No, man, it’s been cancelled, nobody showed up!”

Maybe only at Nautilus High School, midway between the beach hotels and the convention center, were things really beginning to hum that day. The Young Voters for the President, 3200 strong, were bunching up at the long folding tables to get their assignments for the night’s festivities. “I mean, nobody HAS to do it,” a chattery little blonde in the floppy red, white and blue hat that was part of the uniform said. “We’re here because we want to be, we want to show our support for the President.” It’s always the President, by the way; Nixon is conversational, the President is political. The Young Voters – YVP, they call themselves – were all set to be the convention pep club, cheering at opportune times in the schedule, and walking around a lot showing how young they are. Word was that all three plane loads of the California YVPs arrived stoned the night before, but some people said it was only one of the planes. The free Pepsi flowed continually from a portable soda fountain on the lawn. The advertising folks must have been just itching to display this wholesome, happy crowd that really fit the “Pepsi Generation” image. “Pepsi Makes the Going Great,” the big sign said. Nearby, under an open-sided candy-striped canopy cooled by giant fans, a portable stereo pumped out another cut of the Fifth Dimension, and young people picked up plain white boxes of fried chicken to munch on before the next appearance of a political heavy. Tricia Nixon, Gerald Ford, Ronald Reagan, Spiro Agnew, hell, just about anybody who was anybody made appearances under that canopy to the delight of the YVPs. The GOP was doing its careful best to shoot down its stodgy image and prove that McGovern didn’t have all the kids with him either. Just to keep things moving in between times, there were also little guest vignettes by stars such as Stanley Livingstone of My Three Sons. “Who?” one excited girl in the autograph line said with deep sincerity. You could get your autographs right in the year-book-sized volume of “Eye on Nixon.” Everybody needs a memento; if not the souvenir book, then at least the plastic-laminated, wallet-sized card with your color picture on it that every YVP wore around his neck on a chain as his convention identification.

“If there was ever any doubt about the President’s enthusiasm for youth or youth’s enthusiasm for the President, it was dispelled here this week,” said one of the releases being churned out of the busy press room in Nautilus High School. The Young Voters “cheered the President at every opportunity…” And usually right on cue. Only the very brave would suggest to the YVPs that they were being orchestrated, however, and those who did usually got back a snappy retort about the press in general.

“Yeah?” one 18-year-old from Michigan snarled, “Well, what didya think about the fact that Walter Cronkite, when the national anthem was played, just sat there and didn’t stand up!” Right on national TV, too.

Even if things did seem to be going a little slowly, it was only Day One of the big coronation, and nearly everybody took Monday kind of loose. The Vietnam Veterans Against the War, from their compound in one hedged-in area of Flamingo Park, had already begun some marching up to Miami Beach Senior High School near the convention center where a portion of the National Guardsmen placed on stand-by duty were bivouacked. “Join the people,” one vet urged a group of guardsmen standing on the roof. “Join us.” Some of the guardsmen gave him the finger. Even if they weren’t winning raw new recruits everywhere, nearly everybody from Flamingo Park to the Fontainebleau agreed that the vets had it more together than anybody else among the 5000 or so non-delegates in Miami Beach. Flamingo Park itself was divided up like a county fair – Zippies here, Yippies there, SDS everywhere. One entire end was given over to Expose ’72, a tent-contained multi-media display on Vietnam, Bangla Desh, Latin America and America itself. In the early going, a chalk-lined path called Ho Chi Minh Trail wound through the “land,” as the people called the park. The Coconut Co-op provided food for donations, nearly everybody provided some kind of other stimulants for practically nothing, and just outside the land itself, three enterprising Good Humor wagons did a brisk business. Since the Democratic convention, people on the land had picked up a few details on how things could be made more comfortable. Like it was pointed out that the swimming pool, open and free 20 hours a day, had to be drained once during the Democrats’ show because the filter clogged. This time, people were asked to take showers before swimming and it was politely requested “that people not go to the bathroom while in the pool (that really fucks up the filter system).”

A sound stage near the Expose held periodic “land shows” of performers and speakers, and people toted around newsprint copies of the “Revised Manual for the Republican Convention” provided by the Miami Convention Coalition. Everybody ought to have some memento. The manual, aside from providing useful information such as that the lawns in Miami contain a skin-irritating fungus, and welcoming the non-delegates with a letter from Nguyen Mai, secretary of the Vietnam Committee for Solidarity with the American People, also provided a three-day scenario of events almost as carefully scheduled and explained as the Republican’s own script. Like the GOP’s plans, everything headed up to the big THIRD DAY proclaimed in giant black letters when Richard Nixon was due to give his acceptance speech.

Perhaps the only two elements that could not be predicted with certainty for the three days were the citizens of Miami Beach themselves and the police forces marshalled for the occasion. Rocky Pomerance, Miami Beach’s big boulder of a police chief, had already established himself as something of a liberal during the Democratic convention and the smattering of preliminary demonstrations over the weekend. So far, very few arrests had been made, practically no heads had been busted and no tear gas was flying. Washington Avenue, in front of the convention center, was patiently closed off as a free speech area complete with sound trucks and a marvelous and obvious array of sophisticated photography, bugging and electronic spy equipment overlooking the whole scene from the roof of an apartment house on the avenue. Pomerance, though, was affable and available to demonstration spokesmen, and even had some of his men attend sensitivity sessions with radicals. Said the revised manual: “[Pomerance] says he and his men understand and recognize the difference between civil disobedience and a riot; it can be expected that both he and the Republicans hope to pacify us and keep us at a low profile during the convention period.”

Whatever good intentions the police chief might have had, though, he was also subject to the advice of Secret Service men brought in to aid convention security. Even as early as Monday night, the Feds had leaked word that they thought the thing was going to get out of hand. Pomerance and his men, unnamed spokesmen complained, were letting demonstrations “carry on too long.” On the other hand, maybe all of that just made things even more predictable.

Then there were the citizens. “Zippies, Yippies, Hippies, Crazies,” a little woman with light blue hair said as she watched the march down Lincoln Road, “I call ’em all Creepies.” It wasn’t the standard opinion, though, among the senior citizen communities that surround both Flamingo Park and the convention center. Through all the tumult, they had perhaps the ideal situation. People on all sides worried and wooed them in a manner they had not seen since Alf Landon, who himself wandered around the convention hall as a “senior statesman” unrecognized by nearly everybody. Before the conventions, Flamingo Park was a pleasant place for an old man to stroll around the magnolias and the quiet hedges and maybe even sit down for a spell on one of the brightly painted benches to just contemplate things a bit. And even at the height of the show, it was still that way. Every now and then, dotted among the T-shirt demands to “Smash the State,” there was somebody shuffling slowly along, looking with interest and maybe surprise at the wild-looking young people who kept asking how he was today and calling him “sir.” Rule one of the plan for civil disobedience was, “There will be no disruption of the senior citizen’s community. We are here to confront and politically defeat Nixon, not to disrupt the community.” A senior citizens’ center had even been set up and Miami Convention Coalition people claimed support from senior citizens to investigate Nixon’s crimes against the American and Indochinese people.

That night was as forecast- muggy and windy. Inside the convention center, the GOPs began gearing up their people with the usual speeches – optimistic and anti-McGovern. The delegates looked bored already, but the YVPs bounced in their gallery seats every time they got a chance to shout another chorus of “Four More Years.” Outside, on Washington Avenue, Black Panther Bobby Seale explained that he was entering electoral politics along with other Panthers in serious efforts to seize community control. “One, two, three, four. We don’t want your fucking war,” people outside chanted again. It was late, even for Miami Beach where the bars stay open until four AM.

Maybe for that reason, things always seem to get off to a slow start in the daytime. The sun comes up and blazes down on the Atlantic with a vengeance. In a way, it’s a strange condition for a convention. There were only 1348 delegates – a matched middle-aged set was the standard description – and they were outnumbered by nearly everybody. There were 3200 YVPs, 5000 non-delegate protestors, at least two zillion media, an army of police, security and intelligence types, six cab drivers, and everybody else worked in the hotels. They were pissed off.

“Worst season I’ve ever seen,” moaned the woman in the coffee shop. “Damn cheapskates.” With the exception of such sold out Republican spas as the Fontainebleau or the Doral, there was still plenty of room left over along the white stucco canyon of Collins Avenue. About 10,000 air-conditioned vacancies were going wanting.

Over at Nautilus High School, even the touch football games were broken off in preparation for the big day, the re-nomination of the President (President, remember, not Nixon). The YVPs, broken up into more effective and conveniently manageable teams of 100 or less, were given their assignments for the evening’s festivities. “Boy, you’re gonna see how young people really feel tonight,” an intense kid who looked about 16 said with a glance at the press badge, and then hurried off.

“I saw Pat Nixon last night,” a bubbly red, white and blonde Nixonette said luxuriantly. “She’s really wonderful, really.” A woman from SDS managed to see the First Lady too. She slipped by police to invade a Republican women’s brunch at the Fontainebleau and called Pat Nixon a “pig.” The cops arrested her.

At Flamingo Park, people were also busy with their assignments. “People who want to have bloody hands go over to the tent on my right,” the woman on the sound stage was saying. “People who want death masks go over just behind that. We still need people for the bombing and dike building.” Faces painted ghastly white, arms red up to the elbows, began appearing in the crowd. Paper conical hats shaped like those worn in the fields of Vietnam were being passed out everywhere, along with small American flags to be displayed wherever the bearer thought appropriate. Washington Avenue that night would be a solemn street without joy, a tribute to genocide and terror. At the center of the street would grow a sandbag “dike” symbolizing the most awesome threat posed by American bombs to the people of North Vietnam.

It had begun to rain as the march moved out of the park according to schedule at 7:30, about the same time that the Young Voters for the President who didn’t have to work at the conventional hall were beginning to swing with a night of lively celebrant music at the Marine Stadium in Miami. The rain fell in slow, refreshing drops first, then opened up in a tropical torrent as the march moved out of the park, the contingents of black-robed, death-faced marchers followed by silent people with protest signs and veterans and others just walking, all to the slow pace of a baby elephant named Tago that had been rented by the Yippies. Even the media people and the Miami Beach citizens who stood on the sidewalks watching the long procession seemed to sense a feeling of gloomy reverence. There was hardly a sound but that of shuffling feet. Vietnam veterans, returning to the park from an earlier demonstration of their own on Collins Avenue, stopped and silently raised their fists in salute. As it neared the convention center, the faces of death near the front of the line began moaning with low sounds of agony that grew into a harmony which soon sounded like a chant. “Uuunnnhhhhhh, Oohhhhnnnnnn…..”

“FOUR MORE YEARS, FOUR MORE YEARS,” the YVPs shouted happily, rocking their hands and placards in the air with the rhythm. It’s a funny thing about Sammy Davis Jr., too. Hate to get personal about it, but the only other time I ever saw the fellow was back in San Francisco when Vincent Hallinan, as Old Left as they come, was running for Superior Court Judge last spring. Davis showed up at the fund-raising gig for Hallinan, and attorney John Thorne, who had defended Soledad Brother George Jackson, sat next to me and commented that Davis’ appearance that night was truly significant of the awakening of America. Hallinan lost, Thorne spoke along with Bobby Seale in Miami Beach and Sammy Davis Jr. ran up and gave President Nixon a big hug at the “Now More Than Ever” rally.

* * *

On the morning of the Third Day, the bulbous waitress in the coffee shop bore a mysteriously smug smile on her face. “You going over to the convention center again?” she said. “Well, you’re going to see something tonight, mister, you’re gonna see it tonight, all right.” Rocky Pomerance was having his problems this morning. A Florida delegate had suffered dents in his Cadillac while trying to get to the convention. He was already in court trying to force an order requiring police to “enforce the laws in full” in Miami Beach, especially on the final day when Nixon was to make his acceptance speech and the “Revised Manual” of the non-delegates openly promised non-violent sit-ins to promote arrests and delay the convention as long as possible by preventing delegates from entering the hall.

The “Eye on Nixon” books were going faster than ever over at Nautilus High School, especially after last night’s high point of the show. Never mind that reporters had complained you could hardly get through the lobby because of rehearsing YVPs just before the nomination and all those balloons showered down from the ceiling and up from the plastic bagfuls the young Nixon voters lugged in with them. A television commentator compared them to “Daley’s sewer workers,” and at least one YVP was openly complaining about “being herded around like cattle.” Never mind that, all was sunny good fellowship on the rich green grass of Nautilus High School.

“Like the President said last night, our party affiliation is not so important as judging the individual and what he stands for,” said a 20-year-old YVP from Florida. “Our age group judges both candidates and then picks the best man. Nixon is idealistic, but he’s practical, he doesn’t try to change things overnight.”

“I’ll tell ya,” a 29-year-old Cornell student named Harry said. “It always surprises me that freaks and people align themselves with the Democrats instead of the Republicans, because it seems to me the Republican philosophy is one of individual freedom rather than being treated as a block or a quota. It’s more important to me to be an individual than be some part of a mass group in front of the Fontainebleau. That’s bullshit.

“I had some experience at Woodstock, you know. Seeing these kids at the Americana Sunday singing these songs and holding hands and singing about music and love and stuff to me demonstrated a solidarity equivalent to Woodstock and to see that from Nixon youth is incredible and almost unbelievable from your standpoint – and almost from my standpoint.”

Nautilus High School had its liberals as well as its fat-butted 16-year-old conservatives. As a group, they were easy marks for critical press, but individually their opinions were as elaborate as anybody else’s at the convention coronation. “It was really funny out in front of the Fontainebleau yesterday,” a guy from Stanford said, “there was a big demonstration and people were saying we support fascism and so on and that we should be into love and stuff. Well, I’ll guarantee you, there’s a lot more love going on here than over at Flamingo Park.”

“There’s this peer group pressure,” the student from Cornell said, “I mean, if you’re just in favor of Nixon, you’re afraid to say it. This convention is too orchestrated, I wouldn’t say otherwise. Especially during Goldwater’s speech – man, I was sitting on my hands then – but the thing you gotta realize is that it’s not here; this is a separate entity.”

“Yeah,” the student from Stanford said, “our young people can talk with the delegates and at least they’re being heard. I don’t think the people in Flamingo Park can do that. The general consensus of the people here is that they like what Nixon has done on the war. They think he’s gonna end it. Anyway, I don’t think you should associate social philosophy with political philosophy. Like, socially, I’m off the deep end and I don’t support the President’s position on abortion or legalization of marijuana, but I trust him politically. I see the heavies in Flamingo Park as being just as bad as the Young Republicans – just political hacks, you know.”

* * *

Three friends fresh out of high school in Alabama sat on the grass outside the convention hall in the late afternoon. It was their first big demonstration, and it was slow getting started. The kid named Tom passed around a thickly rolled joint and spoke with a chestful of smoke, “Those YVPs, man, they’re into growing their hair a little bit long, that’s about all.”

One of his friends complained that the non-delegate protest was falling apart. “If the groups would get together it would help,” he said, “but a lot of people just came down here for bullshit.”

“But those YVPs, man, they’re so tied into it. Like a lot of people here said they tried working in the system before, but, fuck it, every time we did the shit-heads didn’t come through.”

Rocky Pomerance’s policy of restraint did not fit very well with the contingency plan the Secret Service had for protecting the White House and now the Republican Convention. The tactic was imported by the Feds and easily integrated into Miami. An armada of derelict buses appeared at key intersections around the convention hall. At the main entrance, the old grey buses formed a staunch blockade against spillage of demonstrators from the now isolated free speech area. The original movement scenario for peaceful, stalling sit-ins at the convention gates was hopeless. In Flamingo Park, the scripts got tossed away as useless, and as evening deepened, crowds of non-delegates mingled uncertainly on Washington Avenue, picking up stray reports of roving groups who had managed to stop delegate buses here and there on Collins Avenue and other streets away from the convention site.

Suddenly and incredibly, a big black Lincoln veered wildly around the corner from 18th Street, going as fast as it could on a flat front tire. Sticks and rocks and fists pounded into it as it headed for the crowd, then scraped around in a U-turn away from the blockade of buses. Somebody on 18th Street was screaming for an ambulance for the woman who had been struck by the car. She lay on the sidewalk with a broken ankle. One ambulance came by, but did not stop. It was another 20 minutes before another arrived.

By then a spontaneous march had begun down 17th Street toward a single line of blue-shirted Miami cops in the intersection. With thick tension, it looked like it was ready to begin, then somebody with a bullhorn shouted, “People, people, there’s delegates getting in down here. Down here.” The crowd skirted around the police and sprinted down 17th Street. Ahead, they could see a bus apparently full of delegates. Then all at once from behind them a taxicab came racing down the street, parting the crowd in stumbling waves. It struck two men, both of whom were hospitalized though not seriously hurt. The first white potato-sized rocks began clacking on the pavement near the line of cops on 17th Street shortly after that, and the tear gas came behind that.

“By God. Finally,” a burly cop at the south end of the convention center said as he pulled on his gas mask. Four men in dark suits appeared from somewhere inside the convention center grounds and passed out heavy axe handles to the men on the gates. Just inside the convention center, uniformed cops waited with boric acid to wash out the eyes of any delegates who took gas. There were not many, though many had another souvenir story to tell when they got back home. One group of 30 Mississippi delegates actually managed to march right through the free speech area, arms wrapped around each other; spit, some red paint and a few light pebbles flying from the crowd of non-delegates who surrounded them. But the convention hardly missed a beat as the chaos deepened outside. The night before, it had been surprising when a small group of demonstrators outside the fence was taunting helmeted, club-carrying cops inside it. Right in the midst of those cops were two officers with vermilion lips and dark eyes.

“Go-od Damn! They’re women!” the guy next to me exclaimed. The women riot cops were in the fray on Wednesday too, occasionally tossing gas grenades with the best of them. It was as if the tension were finally relieved for the collection of cops that ranged from Miami Beach police to state patrolmen to quickly recruited reserves from the Game and Fish Department. They tossed baseball-sized tear gas grenades around with a certain delight in the popping sound they made, and often, as the night grew later, without any apparent provocation.

“Fight back, Fight back,” came the occasional chant which had become so popular among the Attica Brigade the night before, but it was already a rout by nine PM.

Rennie Davis was disappointed. Maybe it could be expected that in the end street fighting would break out in defiance even of the green paper tags saying “Practice Nonviolence” that proliferated in Flamingo Park. But the police tactic had also prevented any symbolic non-violent sit-in around the convention center. As an alternative, about 500 people marched up Collins Avenue to the Doral Hotel, the Republican big-wigs’ most secure bastion that featured an incredibly elaborate pass system for just walking up the curving drive and reportedly three security agents for every elevator. There, the sit-in began in front of a little two-foot dike built before the gaily sparkling fountain outside the hotel. The shadows of palm leaves high in the trees reflected on the street as the helicopter with its giant searchlight hovered overhead and the policeman in command announced that the five minutes was up and “you’re all under arrest.”

A crowd, partly composed of curious Miami Beach residents and partly of demonstrators who decided at the last minute they did not want to be arrested, bunched up just outside the square of policemen and watched as limp demonstrators were dragged away one by one to mesh-screened paddy wagons. A young man with dark flowing hair stood next to a bewildered-looking older couple who had walked up as the arrests began.

“I hope all you middle-aged people see what’s happening here,” he shouted. “See how we live? See what they do to us? Just like a regular gestapo.” But the old people seemed tired and gentle. Back around the convention center, many older residents had come out of their homes and turned on garden hoses to wash out tear gassed eyes of protestors. Others had stood mute on their front porches looking at it all without expression. “Why don’t they allow them to leave,” the older man said quietly to the shouting observer at the Doral. “Can’t they leave if they want to?” It wasn’t phrased as a challenge, but a cautious question. The young man shook his head and walked away.

One by one the demonstrators were arrested, some with the aid of a riot baton choking their throats, cops huffing and grunting with the effort. The street was becoming littered with the waste shit from the polaroid camera being used to take a mug shot of each person arrested. Soon, the four orange police vans were filled, and, right on schedule, three moving-van-sized white trucks pulled up Collins Avenue, “Deatrick Rents Trucks,” emblazoned on their sides. These trucks had no mesh openings, and when the big rear doors were shut, it was dark and stifling hot inside.

As the police worked, a bellhop in his neat blue waistcoat appeared with a cart behind the police lines and poured iced tea and lemonade from a silver pitcher for the thirsty cops. At midnight, the last truckload of arrested demonstrators pulled away, rocking with pounding chants from inside -“Ho, Ho, Ho Chi Minh. The NLF Is Gonna Win.” As it pulled away, someone began the new hit chant, “Attica means – Fight Back.”

There was just one more big event left for the YVPs, the much-awaited rock and booze party in the Americana’s ballroom. The banner on the wall said, “Now More Than Ever,” but it was hard to see through the crowded dance floor of all that red, white and blue. By four AM, the cheerful little Nixonette named Carol from Atlanta was gushy with the good time. “It’s just really been fun, you know,” she shouted above the music. “We weren’t rehearsed. I mean, you didn’t have to do anything, it’s just that somebody has to organize things.” She took another sip of her buck-a-drink bourbon. “Don’t you think it’s great?” Carol admitted that back in Atlanta before all this excitement began in early August that she had been “working for McGovern.”

“But then I found out they needed Nixonettes and it really sounded like fun, you know? You’re supposed to be 18 to be a Nixonette, but I’m only 16, don’t tell anybody.”

Maybe the world’s youngest Nixonette said, even though she just came for fun, that she had discovered she really, no really, liked Nixon.

“I just really trust him, you know?” she said with that twangy accent.

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