The King Riots—the first dayPosted: January 11, 2013 Follow @JimPadar
“Courage is resistance to fear, mastery of fear – not absence of fear.”
Thursday, April 4, 1968 I was working the Tactical Unit out of the 018th District. My “baby furlough,” eleven days of combined regular days off and accumulated compensatory time would begin the next day. My wife and I grabbed a quick bite to eat at a local restaurant and took in “No Way to Treat a Lady” starring Rod Steiger. On the way home we stopped by my folks… my mom was standing outside as we pulled up.
“Martin Luther King has been killed,” she said with shock and disbelief in her voice.
I stared dumbly at her, across the passenger seat and out the open car window.
“Wow!” was the brainiest comment that I could mutter. Both the immediate and the historical implications were beyond my comprehension. I had been a cop less than two years and the first several months of that was spent at the Police Academy. To say I was green would be an understatement. It would be a major news story for sure, but any personal implications were totally beyond me at that moment.
Twenty minutes later my wife and I entered our west side apartment on a quiet street directly across from Merrick Park. The phone was ringing as we entered. My wife answered.
“It’s for you,” she said. “Your sergeant.”
“Padar!” he said without any preliminaries. “Report for roll call at 10AM tomorrow in the tact office…leather jacket and helmet… figure on a 12 hour shift.”
“But I start baby furlough tomorrow,” I protested.
“Not anymore!” he snapped. “All days off are cancelled.”
“Leather jacket?” I questioned. The spring days were getting warmer and leather jackets were optional.
“Yes,” he said impatiently. “They tend to do better with bottles and rocks—see you at ten hundred tomorrow.” He hung up.
For the first time my pulse quickened just a bit. Bottles and rocks?
“What was that all about?” asked my wife.
“Ah… they’re cancelling days off tomorrow because of this King thing. I have to be at work at 10.” I didn’t mention anything about the bottles and rocks.
I called my partner John to make sure he realized we would be carpooling tomorrow. He and I had been working together for several months having started together in a beat car and then being invited to join the tactical unit as partners. We hit it off from the first time we worked together and of course we jumped at the chance to work tactical together. We had complimentary styles for working the street and that made us a better team than most.
I was newly married and John was engaged to be married the following month. The girls knew one another and more importantly they liked each other. That made it more than nice for the four of us. We would remain “police family” forever.
The next morning, the mood in the tactical office was somber. The phones were ringing madly as the brass wrestled with how to allocate manpower. With more than double the number of personnel on hand there were not enough cars available to provide us transportation. That problem was momentarily solved when we learned that the public schools were being released at 11 AM. A group of us were loaded into police wagons and transported to Waller High School (now the Lincoln Park High School) at Orchard and Armitage.
As the students left the school they were greeted by helmeted police standing in the street. We eyed each other warily, each side not knowing what to expect from the other. We attached ourselves to a cluster than began to walk south on Orchard Street. As we proceeded, individuals dropped off, apparently heading for home. By the time we reached North Avenue they had dispersed.
John grabbed me and in a moment of spontaneous genius we flagged down a passing squad and got a lift back to the station. It was genius because when we got back to the tactical office, we were given a squad and told to report to the vicinity of the Cooley High School, at Division and Sedgwick, on the edge of the Cabrini Housing projects. We had a car and a radio—we were ready for action.
As we neared Cooley High School we monitored a call of police officer’s calling for help at 1159 North Cleveland, a Cabrini high-rise. We pulled into the lot west of the building and immediately found ourselves in the company of several other officers, all pinned down by sniper fire from the building. John and I scrambled out of the squad and took cover on the far side of the car. We crouched and peered up at the myriad of windows, but outside of frightened people looking back at us, there was nothing to see. The gunfire from the building had ceased momentarily.
I squatted at the driver’s door of the squad and peered intently at the windows. I felt an arm resting on my left shoulder as another officer steadied himself and out of the corner of my eye I caught the familiar blue of a police shirt. Where’s his leather jacket I wondered to myself?
A moment later the world exploded into the left side of my head. I thought that somehow I had been shot and I reeled to my right, went down to the pavement and put my hand to my left ear, fully expecting it to have been shot off. There was no blood and side of my head felt intact, but the inside of my ear hurt badly and it was ringing loudly. The officer leaning on me had a shotgun and as he braced himself on my shoulder, he discharged the weapon just inches from my ear. He quickly moved to the hood of the car and readied himself for another shot. I felt as though I had lost my hearing in that ear, except for the ringing. Years later I would be diagnosed with classic noise induced hearing loss in my left ear, but for the moment I just wanted to get away from that building and that officer. There seemed to be a momentary pause in gunfire from the building. John and I scrambled into the car and sped north through the lot and out onto Division Street just in time to hear us being paged on the radio.
I was encouraged that I had been able to hear the radio and tried to put the ringing out of my mind. We were being asked to report to the field lieutenant at our district desk.
At the desk, our lieutenant introduced us to two young men dressed in dark suits. They were the owners of the currency exchange just a few doors west of the Cooley High School. Our assignment was to escort them to their place of business and standby with them until they emptied cash from the safe on the premises. None of us were particularly enthused with the task, and the businessmen appeared to be petrified.
“Do you really want to do this?” we asked.
“Do you think you can help us?” they replied.
That was the wrong question to ask two young cops. Of course we could help them!
On our way to the currency exchange our squad took some rocks and bottles and I swerved to avoid them as best I could. We passed an occasional burning building with no fire department in sight. It was then we noticed that our businessmen had disappeared. We turned to find them lying atop one another on the rear floor of the car. At their place of business, I nosed the squad up on the sidewalk close to the door of their building. Strangely it was still intact. John and I peered into the back seat.
“Do you still want to do this?” we asked
They peeked up from the floor and saw the door just a few feet from the car.
“Yeah… ya think…?” they asked hesitantly.
“Get your keys ready and move when I tell you,” said John as he exited the side of the vehicle closest of the building. John went to the rear of the car with his revolver drawn and fired two shots in the air.
“Go! Go! Go!” he shouted
I scrambled out with them and they fumbled only momentarily with the keys in the relative shelter to the recessed doorway. It was going well, but my pulse was racing and my left ear was still ringing loudly. Once inside they unlocked more gates and when they reached the safe they opened it and emptied bundles of cash into a duffel bag in record time. We ran crouched back to the squad. They jumped into the back seat and promptly took refuge atop one another on the floor. John and I jumped into the front and exchanged an anxious glance. Almost done… and then, we were on our way. Back at the station we had to invite them several times to crawl out of the car.
In the station lot John and I looked worriedly to the west where black clouds of smoke rose high into the sky. Inside the station we scanned teletype messages and noted reports of widespread rioting and fires in the districts. I called my wife and learned that she was at our apartment, having been released early from work. John called his fiancé. She was in their west side apartment at the edge of the city, but just off of Madison Street.
John and I weighed the options for the girls. My apartment on the quiet little side street across from a small park seemed preferable to John’s place so close to Madison Street. The girls agreed. John’s fiancé would go to our apartment and they would stay together until John and I were released from duty.
The shortage of cars was solved by assigning four men to a car. We picked up a third man, Bennie. His partner was out-of-town. We would spend the balance of our tour as a three-man unit. Bennie had checked out a carbine rifle so we had additional firepower on board.
From the station we took Chicago Avenue west toward the projects, turning north on Larrabee Street. John was driving, I was front passenger and Bennie was in the back with the carbine. The street was littered with rocks and bottles and as we approached the 1015-1017 Larrabee building I saw a man with a shotgun in the building breezeway. He stepped forward, raised the gun and aimed towards our car. I slid to the left pushing hard into John just as he fired at us. John swerved the squad away as if he could somehow avoid the gunfire. The man fired directly at us, but he was probably over fifty yards away and the buckshot load rattled harmlessly against the side of our car as we sped north on Larrabee. We exclaimed simultaneously. Bennie wanted to go back, but the man had retreated back into the building.
We paused at the fire station at Division Street to catch our breath and allow our hearts to retreat back into our chest cavities. Inside the fire station we took a short break and called the girls to confirm that they were now together at my apartment nestled away from main streets. Back on the road, we headed north to North Avenue. We needed to be away from Cabrini for a while, at least until our pulses recovered to a somewhat normal level. We spent the next couple of hours in the Old Town area responding to sporadic incidents of looting. It turned out to be a fruitless task. Looters would flee upon our arrival, but once we left they would return. We just didn’t have the manpower to remain in any one place for long.
Dispatch put out a call for all available units to report to Oak and Larrabee, with instructions to approach from the north per orders of a Deputy Superintendent on the scene. When we arrived and looked to the south where hours before we had been fired on. It was obvious the climate had changed considerably. One lone gunman had been replaced by several hundred people milling about and looting the supermarket on the west side of Larrabee.
The Deputy called us to assemble around him and he explained that we were going to form a skirmish line and take back the street. I could not believe that he was going to commit us to such a foolhardy scheme. We were outnumbered at least ten to one. It would be absolute suicide for us. Most of us had completed riot formation training in preparation for the Democratic National Convention several months from now, but I don’t think anyone ever believed that we would ever use it, much less that it would work.
Never-the-less, we formed a single skirmish line of widely spaced men that stretched from sidewalk to sidewalk. Behind us were three wagons and about a half-dozen more men. The crowd eyed us warily. In theory, we would march at half-step with batons at the ready. The crowd would disperse, and those that didn’t would be allowed to penetrate the line only to be arrested and put into the wagons at the rear. Yes, we had practiced this at the local armory. Yes we understood the theory behind the formation. But no one expected it to work—at least not me. Well… except for the Deputy, and he positioned himself with us at the center of the line and gave the order to advance. Now I was a young man, in peak physical condition, but I didn’t think my system could take another round of hyperventilating and tachycardia. I felt I was running low on adrenaline and my left ear was still ringing loudly.
The Deputy gave the command and en masse we began to advance toward the crowd that vastly outnumbered us. The crowd just stared at us in total disbelief and then the most amazing thing happened. They scattered in all directions. Not a single one broke our line. Maybe a half-dozen bottles and bricks were thrown, but from a distance that rendered them harmless. It was classic. Just like we had practiced it in training. We took back the street and stationed a car at the supermarket. We owned the street. They always told us that the police were a quasi-military organization. Well for those few minutes on Larrabee Street we were far more military than we were quasi.
The hours wore on and we rushed from clash to clash. The ominous black clouds of smoke in the western sky were accentuated by the setting sun. We had no further phone contact with the girls and all we could do was assume that they were still together and safe.
Some thirteen hours after we had started our tour of duty we found ourselves parked at the closed gas station at Clybourn and Ogden. A gradual relief was being effectuated and we waited for our turn to go into the station and end our tour. Things were quiet at the moment and we allowed ourselves a moment of reflection.
“John, on Larrabee, when we did that skirmish line thing… how many people were on the street?”
“Realistically? I’d say at least three or four hundred.”
“And how many live in Cabrini?”
“They say 15,000,” John answered.
I did some quick math in my head.
“So that’s about three percent, right?”
A car pulled slowly into the gas station. An older black gentleman was driving, his wife in the passenger seat, three children in the back.
“Office’, can we go home now?” he nodded toward Cabrini.
We listened to the occasional gunfire. Spirals of smoke from small fires curled upwards.
“I don’t think so… especially not for them,” I said nodding toward the children.
He and his wife had some conversation and somehow settled on an alternate destination for the night.
“Thank you office’. You be safe out here, ya hear?”
We nodded as he pulled slowly out of the lot and headed north out of Cabrini.
“There’s the other 97%,” I said.
Moments later we were told to report to the station for our relief—it was about 11:30 PM. We had worked a 13½ tour on the first day of my baby furlough..
At the desk we called communications to inquire about the safety of the Eisenhower Expressway for our trek home. They told us it would be safe as long as we did not exit until we got to Central. Perfect. That was our exit. We called the girls and told them we were on our way home.
The drive west on the expressway was beyond anything we had ever seen. South of the highway in particular we saw blocks and blocks of buildings burning with no evidence of the fire department. They too had been overwhelmed and were forced to tailor their responses where they could do the most good. It was literally a war zone and it was a somber drive home. Neither John nor I had ever witnessed such devastation. We hardly spoke. We were emotionally and physically spent from the day.
The girls welcomed us with hugs and kisses and tears. The ambience of the apartment was surprisingly comforting. The relief of being home safe was almost overwhelming. Our mood shifted. The soft warm incandescent lighting, the table set, sandwiches at the ready and of course our sweethearts. All was well. We had survived the day. We were safe and we were loved.
“You guys need to wash up,” announced the girls as they grimaced and handed us fresh towels and wash clothes.
In the small washroom John and I looked at ourselves and were surprised at the dirt and soot on our faces. We elbowed one another for access to the wash basin as we relived portions of the day.
“Those two guys in the back seat—man I thought we’d have to shovel them off the floor!”
“Not to mention cleaning the crap off the seats after they left.”
“And when you climbed into my lap—I thought you went queer on me.”
“Yeah, sure, you didn’t see the guy with the shotgun.”
“You know, you’re the only person I ever saw get knocked over by a sound.”
“Well believe it or not, my ear is still ringing. You should try it sometime.”
“No thanks, you can just tell me about it…”
More laughter. Playful shoving.
We finished cleaning up and returned to the table, but the warmth had turned to ice.
My wife was not happy.
“What’s the matter honey?” I asked, genuinely mystified.
“We spent the whole day here, worried sick about you two, not knowing what was going on” she was nearly in tears. “And now you come home and we find out you were… you were… having fun!”
Well… not really…
Later that night the midnight shift pulled the security car off the supermarket on Larrabee, the one we had retaken with our classic skirmish line. I don’t know what played into that decision, but when we returned to work the following day the store had been burned to the ground along with other small businesses in the vicinity.
John and I would work 12 hour shifts the next several days and survive without further injury. I never reported the injury to my ear, although it continued to ring for several days afterwards. We were involved in very real urban warfare and I couldn’t picture myself in an ER complaining to the doc that my ear was ringing. Specialists would later confirm that my classic “notch” hearing loss in my left ear was most definitely caused by a fellow officer with a shotgun that April day in 1968.
Some years later my wife would observe that “baby” furloughs were aptly named. In late December of 1968 our first son was born. Apparently she hadn’t stayed upset with me for long…