Mary Sue Valenti,
INT: You had one member of the Chicago Red Squad, Bill Frappoly, infiltrate your movement in time for the 1968 convention. Do you have any recollection of Bill Frappoly?
RD: I do, yeah, yeah. Well, he wasn't the only one. You know, he was a young police cadet, and you know, what would be interesting to me was in the trial - and I shared this with you over lunch - you know, in the trial on Chicago, all of the witnesses for the Government were paid Government employees, and those that were the so-called agents who had the real good stuff about how we wanted to create violence - it was always interesting that you would go to the restaurant, let's say, and the undercover agent would come into the restaurant too, and there was no one else around, and then this conversation would take place, and "Rennie Davis wanted to throw stink bombs," or, you know, create this violent kind of thing. And there was never a third party corroboration. Well, if that had occurred with one or two people, it would be perhaps understandable, but to see a pattern of just made-up stori(es), you know, from officials in the Government who had so-called infiltrated, you know, over and over again... I mean, it got so in the trial, we would just all sit there and just break up into laughter and, you know, bring humor to the whole thing, because it was a profound pattern that so many people would literally make up stories, who were paid employees of some police, FBI and other agents really not telling the truth, you know. I don't have any charge with them, you know, now; you know, it's not like I'm in some big story about it, but it made an impression on me at the time, and it still is an interesting observation that in this country, that would go on.
INT: Tell me about Chicago in '68.
RD: Well, a lot of people don't realize that the plan for Chicago was to bring a half million people to the Democratic Convention. Lyndon Johnson was in the White House, the war was raging on, there had been a so-called effort to limit the bombing as a peace move, when in fact the American sorties over North Vietnam were simply brought from all of the country down to a little tiny 200-mile strip called the Panhandle, between the 19th and the 17th parallel, and then the number of sorties increased by about one and a half times, so it was hardly a limitation at all. And so, you know, we just felt armed with... we were the only thing in town as far as opposition goes, and so we saw a very big mobilization. I mean, this was certainly my intent. What occurred was that, you know, the mayor of the city made the decision, somewhat unexpectedly, to not grant permits. When I say "unexpectedly" - it's not that a mayor of a city might not take a strong action against what we represented, but this really breached the First Amendment and the right to assemble and the right to protest. And so I called Ramsay Clark, who was the Attorney General under Johnson and said, "What's the deal here?" And he sent out a man named Roy Wilkins, who was his really right-hand man, to assist me in going to the mayor of the city to get permits. So I actually had the Johnson Administration in my camp, going to a mayor of a city saying, you know, "Give us permits." That didn't mean that the Johnson people supported what we would say, but they supported our right to assemble. And so, the mayor stuck to his guns and no permits were granted. And while that dynamic was playing out, Gene McCarthy was running quite a stellar race in New Hampshire; and then, after his success in New Hampshire primary, then came Bobby Kennedy, and suddenly the electoral system itself opened up to a voice against the war. And the combination of all those events, you know, brought us down to basically young people, you know, coming into the city. We did evaluate calling it off; we understood that there could be serious risk to the people coming, and really made a principled stand not to do that. On my part, what I did was focus on marshals and the ability to have medical teams on the streets with a certain quickness to respond. And then we went in really with the intent to not just subject ourselves to billy clubs, but to withdraw and pull back, not to go into an aggressive confrontation, but well, as an example, Catholic priests and nuns came to our support in Chicago on the second day of the demonstration, and gathered around a big cross, and you know, I went to them and said, "Really, when the police come in here tonight, you should be departing. You know, we are not violent, but non-violence does not mean that you need to subject yourselves to what will happen." And they did stay and they got bloodied. And newsmen got bloodied and...
INT: You were talking about the group of Catholic nuns and priests around the cross. Can you tell me about that again?
RD: Well, it just was an example of... a coalition committed to non-violence had to make some adjustments, not to go into violence, but the sitting down and allowing police to roll over you meant bloodied heads in Chicago. And it was a tactical decision that myself and others made to... essentially, when the police would come, to withdraw, and we encouraged, you know, this particular group to do that, and they chose to, you know, express themselves in a more traditional, non-violent manner. Chicago was very challenging - you know, it was a life-threatening situation to people, it really was. And why we had the slogan "The whole world is watching", I think had to do not just with that it was the demonstrators being clubbed by policemen, but anchormen from major network television were also having their heads bloodied, and people that were neighbors in local Chicago communities next to the park, you know, were pulled off their porch stoops and beaten senseless. And then the story of the Catholic nuns and priests, and many, many others. So it became, you know, that kind of event. And what happened was, on the first night, the park was cleared and it was very bloody; on the second night, the park was cleared again, and so we made the decision to move everyone down in front of the hotels, thinking we would have safety there in front of the delegates. And that night we did, actually; that was a, you know, a peaceful night. But then, on the third day, which was the night of the nomination, was perhaps the worst of all - it was just... you know, at this point a world television audience is starting to approach the magnitude of the first man landing on the moon, watching people being clubbed senseless by a police force that appeared to be out of control. Now there's a story today about, you know, what caused all of this, and again I don't feel so charged with the story. You know, it took both things for the drama to unfold. But it was such an intense issue at the time, that Lyndon Johnson appointed a presidential commission to study what had happened, and we quite honestly felt that would be a whitewash and, you know, we would hardly be exonerated. But the former Governor of Illinois was appointed to head that commission, Governor Walker, and it was a best-seller, on the New York Times best-seller list for that summer, when it came out, and it characterized what happened in Chicago as a police riot. It didn't lay the blame fully at the feet of the Mayor's office, which probably really is where it should have gone, but it found those of us who, you know, sought permits and so forth to really have made a sincere effort, you know, to that end. I just go through that story because really, the coalition that I headed at that time had produced very large non-violent demonstrations before Chicago, and we produced, you know, 350,000 people the next year in Washington, D.C., and another 250,000 at the same time in San Francisco, very non-violent. So the commitment was to non-violence, and Chicago was an aberration, you know, set up by the political decisions that were made.
INT: You were yourself attacked and injured. Can you tell me about that?
RD: Well, at the very last minute, there was a judge in Chicago; he'd been an appointee of the mayor, and his name of course was Judge Lynch - I mean, we all delighted in the serendipity of these characters - and he granted, right at the last minute, a permit for (Clears throat) a rally in the afternoon, so we invited, you know, our adult friends to come out, and there were, you know, women with baby carriages, and everyone felt that this was going to be a safe event and just a political rally against the war. And some young person made the decision to lower the flag to half mast. He later testified in the trial and said it was a symbol of international distress, and so he lowered the American flag to half mast. The police just went hysterical and came in and grabbed him and pulled him out and arrested him. And I threw a martial line around the side of the... you know, that part of the crowd and just secured our perimeter. I don't know - you know, looking back on it, it had a sort of almost a military maneuver to it: it was very quick and it was a little too efficient perhaps for the police. And then I was standing there with a bullhorn and addressed the police that we had our crowd, you know, secured, and if they would just pull back and withdraw, then we could continue with our rally. And the commanding officer made the decision to attack, and he did, and I, being in front of the martial line, was kind of the point person. It was quite an experience really, having... I don't know the numbers - you know, 40-50 policemen yelling "Kill Davis!", with a much bigger group behind them. And the first hit was to the head, and drove me to the ground; and then it was just being beaten on the back, you know, over and over again. It was, I would say, probably the only time in my life where I really thought I might not make this. And there was just... you know, the grace of life... there was this chained fence in the park, and I was able to pull myself with my hands to that fence and then get under it and then stand up for two seconds and get into the crowd before I passed out. And then it was very interesting: I went to the hospital, which was a county hospital of Chicago, and the police put out an all-point alert to have me arrested. To have me beaten and not arrested was not cool, (Laughs) that was not a good idea. And so they did a room-by-room search of the hospital, and to this day I'm totally amazed by this: I had medical doctors, nurses and staff of the administration, with me on a table with a sheet over me, you know, rolling me down and hiding me from a police search room by room. And so I escaped the arrest, and (Clears throat) watched the events on Wednesday night from a television; then the next day, spoke on a trash can in front of the Hilton Hotel, and looked like something out of World War II footage: you know, this big pressure bandage around my head, and like (Laughs)... and... So that was my story.
INT: What was the point of putting you and seven others on trial?
RD: Well, I think what happened - the Republican, not the Democrat, was elected President, Richard Nixon, and yet the country was very divided about Chicago. There was a very strong... it was referred to as the law and order element of the Democratic Party, (Clears throat) that really felt that the mayor had done the right thing in Chicago. And so Nixon had a very interesting political opportunity to cement his own relationship with a lot of the conservative Democrats, by indicting the so-called demonstration leaders. It was a very bizarre law that has been only used once. It actually was directed primarily at Martin Luther King and certain black leaders who were going around the country and speaking, and then sometimes, you know, afterwards there would be disturbances and, you know, protests. And so it made it a crime to cross a state line with the intent to incite a riot, and "intent" of course had to do with what you wrote or what you said; and then a "riot" was defined as an assembly of three or more people, one of whom violated or threatened to violate the law. So, you know, you could have three kids on a street corner, you know, making a defiant gesture to a policeman, and that could constitute legally a riot; and if you had the intent, even though it might have been a year before this riot occurred, to incite that, then you could face prison of five years. Well, we were charged with the abuse of the substantive law, but also a conspiracy to do it, so it added up to a 10-year potential sentence. The conspiracy part was interesting, because certain members of the defense, or certain defendants rather, I had never met. You know, Bobby Seale - I met him for the first time, you know, on the opening day (Laughs) of the trial, you know. So it wasn't really much of a conspiracy, you know, but it was a showcase trial that allowed the Government to, you know, focus its attention on what was really causing this unrest, you know, in America. For us it was a showcase trial to focus on the policies of the Government that we wanted to see changed. And you had almost this mythic, Shakespearean type of characters being played out, from the judge, who, you know, was so unfair and so unjust that he was really our major ally, to, you know, the defendants that sort of ranged the gamut of the political spectrum of the time.