Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Covering a riot - An American nightmare

Washington DC in 1971

An American nightmare

The morning sky was dark with heavy clouds and a chill nipped at my neck as I watched the police ready for a battle that I knew would come. Over 10,000 students had descended on Washington DC in 1971 with the stated objective of shutting the city down. Anti-war protest had grown in intensity as the Vietnam War had groaned on.

I had suffered a broken collarbone covering the Democratic Convention in Chicago in 1968 and had watched white American students become more radicalized in the intervening years. There had been a time when the Black Panthers and the Black Muslims had been America’s most radical voices. Now it was young white groups that led the list of America radicalism that was sweeping the country.

I had arrived in Washington three days earlier. I had been covering protest stories back to back from New York to California. Along the way I had met three different women whom I thought would change my life and didn’t. I was in need of companionship, a head on a soft pillow and someone to talk to. Now I was faced with covering a demonstration that I knew would be filled with violence. With both sides on edge I would again put myself in the middle as I tried to broker a good story.

The day started with a ritual I always followed when covering a demonstration. I put a small bottle of vinegar and cotton in my shirt pocket-- my tear gas protection— and a mouth guard between my teeth. I had sports finders on my cameras so that it would be easy to see through them if the tear gas was bad. I put a blanket under my shirt to protect my body from the blows I knew were coming, and in my back pocket, a small flask of bourbon to steel my courage.

It was just after 9am when the long line of protesters I had joined started their face off with the police. I had spent the previous night with the chief of police and he had told me that he had pledged to the attorney general that he would keep the city open at all cost.

It was the perfect storm of a protest. White and black radicals had come together to fight the government over the war. They were well organized and backing down from the cops was out of the question. I was in the front row and to my left and right were two young women, both holding small flowers in their hands. As I watched, they held them forward as a peace offering to the line of police officers that was moving toward us in a slow and deadly march, their helmeted faces covered with gas masks. Over a loudspeaker I could hear the words “Disperse now or you will be arrested.”

A cry went up from the protesters, “Kill the pigs,” as we moved forward. It was during moments like this that I always wondered to myself why I was doing this. I started to shoot pictures, my cameras my only defense as the police drew closer.

The police were launching tear gas into the crowd now and everyone around me was struggling to move forward. Reaching into my top pocket I pulled the cotton from the bottle and shoved it into my nose. My eyes burned but I could see well enough to shoot.

The police line was now only ten feet from where I stood. A young cop who couldn’t have been more than 20 swung his nightstick at me, catching the camera I was holding to my eye, smashing it to the ground. He pulled at my press tags and hit me hard on my blanketed shoulder, then on my legs and hands, dislocating my thumb. I buckled but didn’t go down. On my left shoulder I had a camera with a 300mm lens, and using it as a club, I swung wildly and the built in lens shade caught the young cop on his left cheek, causing him to stumbled backward. I pushed forward past him, somehow evading his grasp. Up ahead I could see the police command post. It was ten feet off the ground—the perfect spot to shoot.

On the police stand I saw a number of other photographers and they thankfully waved me up. It was like a life raft for a drowning man; the relief I felt made my heart skip about 50 beats. From there I had a great view of the action and was away from the grasp of the now-crazed police that had turned on the protesters with a vengeance.

The protest lasted for another three days. In all, 2,500 protesters were arrested, 800 injured and four were killed.

The image that leads this post was taken at 8:20 in the morning at the urging of Jerry Wilson, police chief of the Washington, DC police department. As I looked at him addressing his top commander with his men behind him, I thought that it would be a short day for the demonstrators. I was so wrong. They came to Washington with passion and a cause they believed in: End the war at all cost. That anthem carried them for three long days and nights, but in the end, they had no choice but to choose the course of cessation.

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