This is my story about riots, cops and how the risk-versus-reward equation plays out every day.
• • •
I had made a terrible miscalculation.
I recognized this as a canister of 2-chlorobenzalmalononitrile — commonly known as tear gas — was rolling around my feet. It was delivered by Chicago’s finest. But I’m getting ahead of myself. Let me begin … at the beginning.
It was yet another hot, muggy Chicago day in July 1970. A few of my high school buddies and I were bored and decided to head to the lakefront — Grant Park — for a scheduled free concert by Sly and the Family Stone. You know, “Dance to the Music,” and many other hits.
The concert was a goodwill offering — of sorts — by the Family Stone for scheduling previous concerts they inexplicably simply didn’t show up for.
Hey, what could possibly go wrong?
We arrived early but I’d guess 40,000 of my closest friends were already there. Who wasn’t there? You guessed it: The Family Stone. At least they never appeared on stage. There was some bitter irony when we realized that a group that was trying to make amends for past no-shows was a no-show.
This didn’t sit well with most of us. I remember displaying my anger with a few choice words directed at no one in particular. Others were not so polite. When the first baseball-sized stone arrived from above, the dance was on. But there was no music.
Rocks and bottles began streaming down from every direction. It didn’t take long for the cops to have seen enough. One thing led to another and — you guessed it again — it became a riot.
Look, I had been in tight spots here and there in my young life, but nothing quite like this. The rocks and bottles continued to rain down. Now the cops were fully engaged and on the move. And that meant the 40,000 concertgoers were on the move as well.
My friends and I were engulfed by chaos. I panicked and quickly lost all sense of direction.
We had to do something. Everyone else was veering right so I took the lead and veered left. I quickly realized why no one else was veering left when I found myself staring down a line of the men in blue. There was 50 feet of open space between us. After quickly assessing the situation I concluded they were not in a negotiating mood.
My conclusion was confirmed seconds later. The tear gas was upon us. I remember Dean Thompson — who would later be the best man at my wedding — and I looked at each other as if to say, “We’ve got to move!”
In high school I ran a little track — hurdles actually — and that particular set of skills came in handy as I jumped over debris and fallen concertgoers. I made my way to Michigan Avenue — otherwise known as the Magnificent Mile — which is Chicago’s premier shopping district. I kept running. A few opportunists — no one I was with — decided to smash windows and go on a shopping spree since they were in the neighborhood.
Many of the looters were banged up pretty good but — unfortunately — the police were not in a discriminating mood. If you were within striking distance, you got hit. When it was over, 162 were injured, including cops and kids. Three kids were shot. Police arrested 160 people. Hundreds of windows were broken, and jewelry and department stores were looted.
Clearly, the police had to gain control of the situation. But some cops will take advantage of chaos to take out their frustrations on innocent kids. Those are bad cops.
The mess we’re in today was sparked by bad cops. Historically they have been able to get away with murder — literally. The boiling point now has been reached.
Of course, most cops are good. I’ve known a bunch. One is my neighbor and friend Garry Lucas. He was the sheriff of Clark County for many years. We had occasional run-ins when I was still the editor and he was still the sheriff. But I never had anything but respect for him.
On workdays, he could be seen stopping bad drivers along Interstate 5 on his way home. But unless they had more than a few priors, they simply got a warning. He let them know they were misbehaving, then sent them on their way. That’s a good cop.
Today I am fortunate to consider him — and count on him — as a friend.
• • •
So what should we be thinking about today when we see reports of looting? As I was running through the Chicago streets in 1970 it never occurred to me to stop and help myself to some “free” merchandise. Yet, there were some others who thought differently. And initially it’s easy to condemn those who looted. No question it’s wrong.
But have you ever tried to look at it from the 10,000-foot level?
Take me. I was not born into a family of privilege. My father worked as a tile setter for most of his life. When he had extra time, he would also drive a school bus. My mom worked in a factory packing SOS scrubbing pads into boxes. Our family didn’t have a lot of cash in the bank or fancy toys. Still, I always had a roof over my head, shoes on my feet and spaghetti and meatballs on the table.
So whenever I was faced with the risk-versus-reward equation, if risk meant a possible night in the pokey, I never went there. The risk was always too great to consider taking something that wasn’t mine.
But far too many people in our country today come to a different conclusion. They have so little, the reward almost always outweighs the risk. And most of us in society blame the individual for that.
Now remember, I asked you to look at this from the 10,000-foot level. What if — what if — society was able to change that risk-versus-reward equation for those with so little … and therefore so little to lose?
What if society were committed to giving them more — much more — so they are not simply barely keeping their head above water with welfare, free school lunches and charitable contributions? What if we presented real opportunity and change for those in need? Business startup money, affordable, quality housing, meaningful jobs and more money? Yes, more money. What if we made those so desperately in need … more comfortable?
Then, if an untoward opportunity was presented to them, they would likely decline?
Where would the money come from? Heck I’d cut our military budget in half. We’d still have the world’s strongest defense by far. And those bucks would go a long way in funding my proposal.
I don’t mean to diminish the responsibility individuals must bear. But we — as a country– must do better.