My Book Is Better Than Your Book | Letters | Chicago Reader

News & Politics » Letters

My Book Is Better Than Your Book


Sign up for our newsletters Subscribe


To the editors:

I read with surprise John Schultz's idiotic attack on my book and mangling of the history of Chicago '68 [September 9]. It must be hard on Schultz that his book on the confrontation in Chicago is out of print in this 20 year anniversary season and hard also to see my book, Chicago '68, replace his on the bookshelves and be so widely praised (Abbie Hoffman says it's "heads and shoulders above any recent 60s history" and the New York Times called it "a remarkable account"). That's his problem. But I don't understand why the Reader gave him so much space for so much bullshit and such boring and self-centered bullshit at that.

Schultz accuses me of being a dumb follower of the Walker Report's "police riot" theory and also suggests that I got all my information from newspapers and trial testimonies. In fact, I had access to Chicago police department records, Justice Department records, National Mobilization, SDS, and Yippie materials and drew on over a thousand accounts of what went on in Chicago, August 1968.

Schultz claims that the police violence was a very deliberate policy engineered by Mayor Daley and carefully orchestrated by police higher command. Well, yes and no. But Schultz is of course right that the police violence was not merely the spontaneous acts of a few enraged policemen or the justifiable result of protesters' provocations. I spent approximately one hundred pages in my book proving that point. Other writers, like Todd Gitlin in his outstanding book The Sixties, make a similar argument.

As I make perfectly clear in my book, the police, under indirect orders from the Mayor, were supposed to give protesters in Chicago a very hard time--to gas them and Mace them and club them whenever they had the opportunity. And the Mayor and his people, through the withholding of march and park permits, made sure that the police would have plenty of opportunities. And since no clear orders from Daley or the police command were issued to avoid police brutality--as they had been ordered under the previous (and independent) police commissioner O.W. Wilson in 1965 through 1967, in roughly similar situations--some policemen felt it was their right to do what they had routinely done to other people in Chicago they saw as troublemakers (almost always black people). And though certainly no orders were formally given by police command to attack photographers or to have officers remove their badges (indeed there were special orders not to do these things) some lower ranking policemen, long infuriated by charges of police brutality, informally agreed to these measures (with relish, I showed in my book) as a way to avoid being held responsible for their actions.

Yes, the Mayor deliberately set up a violent situation and he deliberately created the conditions for wholesale police repression. But why did he do that? What was the point? Why did the police respond so strongly to the relatively small provocations of the demonstrators? Why did many police officers respond so emotionally to the chants and dress of the demonstrators? Why did national Democrats like Johnson and Humphrey not restrain some of the Mayor's aggressive behavior? Or did they welcome it? What was the national and historical context for what went on in Chicago? Why did the vast majority of Americans cheer the Chicago police on? Was such a violent confrontation inevitable in August 1968 and why have we seen so little like it in the last fifteen years? These are some of the questions I answer in my book.

Schultz has tunnel vision and almost no understanding of the larger issues and that's why his book went out of print.

John Schultz is usually a fine writer, if not a very good historian, so I hope his colorful chronicle of Chicago '68 comes back into print.

But I have to say this: Schultz either misread my book or deliberately distorted it so as to make his version, often based on pure assertion and no new information of what the Mayor and police department said and did at the time, seem to be the only righteous and brave account. Pretty sad and pretty cheap and a real disservice to the far more important issues that the confrontation in Chicago raises--still--about how American society works and about how Americans make cultural and political change.

David Farber

Lawrence, Kansas

John Schultz replies:

Setting aside David Farber's tone, which is amazing, he appears to be saying that he is in agreement with my main point and that he devoted a hundred pages of his book to proving it, which comes as a surprise to me. Yet he hardly deals with any of the concrete points set forth in my argument in "The Siege of '68." He says that I accuse him of "being a dumb follower of the Walker Report's 'police riot' theory," yet in his citations for the Michigan-Balbo police attack (Chicago '68, p. 289) he states that "in general" his account "is in agreement with that given in NCCPV Rights in Conflict" (the Walker Report) and that "in general" his "primary print source material is the same as that used in the report." He cites the films of the event, but without the Walker Report's caveat that "the many films and video tapes of this time period present a picture which does not correspond completely with the police view." The one thousand accounts that he cites in his letter, and in the introduction to his book, are those held in the NCCPV archives of the Walker Report.

Amazing also is Farber's nearly idolatrous (yet selective) reliance on the official record and his statements that the police did not have orders to remove their nameplates and badges or to attack photographers and that only "some lower ranking policemen" are to blame for these transgressions. Once again, we have the implication that wiser, cooler superiors lost control of unruly subordinates all week long. This cavalier notion, more than any other form of historical disinformation, prevents a strong historical examination of the issues that fountained into and out of Convention Week '68.

"Loss of control" is the veritable leitmotif of Chapter Seven of Farber's book, the only chapter that deals directly with what happened in the streets and parks. As a historian, he had not only the opportunity, but the responsibility, to interview still living eyewitnesses, even to review the notes of such reporters as Hank De Zutter, Chris Chandler, and a host of others, and he did not do it. Farber continues to ignore the Confederation of Patrolmen's statements concerning the orders given the police to remove nameplates and badges, ignores photographer Bill Hood's statement that a policeman told him that he had instructions to break cameras, and other testimony throughout my argument. He treats even the Walker Report's archives selectively, as does the Walker Report itself, for instance, leaving out 18th District Commander Clarence Braasch's testimony to the effect that when the police went away, the problem went away. The list would get long very quickly.

The official record is not merely flawed. Much of it was created to avoid dealing with what actually happened. David Farber ignores J. Edgar Hoover's memo which gave orders to FBI agents to make every effort to find testimony that would cover up the charges of police brutality. Truly, a historian should be very careful picking his or her way through the "official record" of Convention Week '68.

We do agree on the quality of Todd Gitlin's The Sixties, the best book yet in comprehending the complexity and ambiguity of the period. I marvel that Farber does not recall the prominent footnote in The Sixties (p. 326) in which Gitlin compares Rights in Conflict and my book No One Was Killed. Gitlin says that "A better grounded and more significant judgment has been rendered by the Chicago novelist John Schultz" and then says, "there is good reason to believe that they (the police) were ordered to assault the crowds." The New York Times called No One Was Killed "marvellously evocative," and the Chicago Sun-Times said it was "a more valuable factual record of events than the city's white paper, the Walker Report, and Theodore H. White's Making of a President combined." Gitlin also has written in a letter, "Not even Mailer's Armies of the Night is more closely observed, more astute in its judgments, or more lucid in its understanding of the torments and tropisms of the movements of the streets."

Finally, No One Was Killed is indeed going to be reissued (Four Walls Eight Windows, New York), updated, the original story intact, with an introductory essay and new material added. It will have an afterword essay by Todd Gitlin.

Opening up historical exploration of the convention of '68 will give us a mother lode about the relationship of government to political dissent and how political change occurs in this country. The tunnel of such exploration has been blocked by the easily mouthed notion that "some lower ranking policemen" somehow escaped supervisory control for five strange days in August 1968. Certainly a majority of Lincoln Park residents and witnesses downtown did not cheer the police on; on the contrary, and these people (their reaction being interestingly different from citizens who saw only television footage) have had a growing influence on Chicago and national politics. In "The Siege of '68," I sought to begin a reconsideration of those extraordinary events and their enormous impact upon American political and social development.

Support Independent Chicago Journalism: Join the Reader Revolution

We speak Chicago to Chicagoans, but we couldn’t do it without your help. Every dollar you give helps us continue to explore and report on the diverse happenings of our city. Our reporters scour Chicago in search of what’s new, what’s now, and what’s next. Stay connected to our city’s pulse by joining the Reader Revolution.

Are you in?

  Reader Revolutionary $35/month →  
  Rabble Rouser $25/month →  
  Reader Radical $15/month →  
  Reader Rebel  $5/month  → 

Not ready to commit? Send us what you can!

 One-time donation  →