June 23, 1967: Antiwar protesters march toward the Century Plaza Hotel
The Bloody March That Shook L.A.
* A 1967 clash between antiwar protesters and police injured dozens,
irrevocably changing the city and its politics. The panicked
confrontation foreshadowed a coming national upheaval.
June 23, 1997
By KENNETH REICH,
TIMES STAFF WRITER
war at home over Vietnam had yet to explode in mid-1967. Five hundred
American soldiers were dying every month, yet 40% of Americans still
supported sending more men.
So 30 years ago tonight, when a
coalition of 80 antiwar groups staged a march to the Century Plaza
Hotel where President Lyndon B. Johnson was being honored, Los Angeles
Police Department field commander John A. McAllister expected 1,000 or
"When the mass of humanity came up Avenue of
the Stars and over the hill, I was astounded," he recalled. "Where did
all those people come from? I asked myself."
marchers, by most estimates, were assembling across the street from the
Century City hotel. Hundreds of nightstick-wielding police--using a
parade permit and court order that restricted the marchers from
stopping to demonstrate--forceably dispersed them.
panicked clash that ensued left an indelible mark on politics, protests
and police relations. It marked a turning point for Los Angeles, a city
not known for drawing demonstrators to marches in sizable numbers.
significance of the evening lay not simply in the 51 people who were
arrested and the scores injured when 500 of the 1,300 police on the
scene pushed the demonstrators into, and then beyond, a vacant lot that
is now the site of the ABC Entertainment Center.
powerfully, the Century Plaza confrontation foreshadowed the explosive
growth of the national antiwar movement and its inevitable
confrontations with police. It shaped the movement's rising militancy,
particularly among the sizable number of middle-class protesters who
expected to do nothing more than chant against Johnson outside the
$1,000-a-plate Democratic Party fund-raising dinner and were outraged
by the LAPD's hard-line tactics.
Johnson rarely campaigned in
public again, except for appearances at safe places like military
bases. Within nine months, opposition to the war grew so strong that he
shelved his reelection campaign. White liberals in Los Angeles,
meanwhile, began to complain about excessive force by the LAPD, a
subject traditionally raised only by black and Latino residents.
the next summer, when Chicago police beat demonstrators in the street
outside the 1968 Democratic National Convention, the country was at war
with itself. In retrospect, the Century Plaza demonstration was one of
the earliest battlegrounds.
"The importance of this
demonstration cannot be underestimated, in terms of its relevance to
the LAPD, to the magnitude and effectiveness of the antiwar movement
and to what kind of public appearances President Johnson would risk in
the future," said McAllister, now retired at 73.
than two years after the Watts riots, the Century Plaza incident
provoked another important test of Los Angeles police-community
relations that would reverberate for decades.
One of the most
contested LAPD policies--spying on leftist civilian groups--was at the
root of the department's conduct on the night of the march.
Chief Tom Reddin says the department indirectly worked with four
private security agents who infiltrated the march-planning group. The
agents were hired by a security company that was retained by the
Century Plaza Hotel. One of the march's top organizers says that one of
those spies was an agent provocateur, constantly suggesting such acts
as breaking into the hotel and accosting Johnson.
The demonstration's co-leaders, Irving Sarnoff and Donald Kalish, have come to disagree over why the march broke down.
says Sarnoff and others radicalized the march without his knowledge.
Sarnoff, who chaired the Peace Action Council that sponsored the march,
says Kalish behaved "indiscreetly" in allowing one of the undercover
infiltrators, whom he first met only five days before the march, to
listen to idle boasting and confidential conversations.
says the intelligence reports convinced police that the antiwar march
would lead to civil disobedience, requiring a sterner presence. He
acknowledges that the marchers got "thumped" when police moved against
"I don't deny the use of force," said Reddin, who is now 80. "Force was used. Was there provable brutality? No."
a reporter quoted to Reddin a male demonstrator's recollection that the
Century Plaza confrontation marked the first time he had ever seen
white women beaten by police, Reddin agreed that had happened.
A Plan Gone Awry
original idea was to stage a march from Rancho Park, up Pico Boulevard
and past the hotel on Avenue of the Stars, then turn onto Santa Monica
Boulevard and go home. But as the marchers reached the hotel, a
vanguard of radicals ignored the terms of the police permit and sat
down in the street.
The march halted. Police said they issued a
dispersal order several times on a powerful loudspeaker, but many
demonstrators said that in all the noise and chants they failed to hear
Then hundreds of officers moved in, their nightsticks held
in front of them, pushing the demonstrators away. Some of the people
fought back. Some photographs show police swinging their nightsticks at
marchers who were not resisting. A particularly bitter clash took place
under the Olympic Boulevard bridge.
The unprecedented nature of
the event created bitter disputes about whom to blame. The Times
published a largely pro-police account the next morning that set off
sharp protests by several reporters. The paper's then-metropolitan
editor, Bill Thomas, ordered a veteran reporter, the late Jerry Cohen,
to reexamine the issue. But nine days later, Cohen's account reached no
definite conclusions; the headline could only ask: ". . . What DID
Shirley Magidson of Beverly Hills, who demonstrated
with her husband and children that night, recalls that some of the
marchers--many of them middle-class liberals--were angry not only at
the police, but at the organizers, who they believed had deliberately
led them into a violent confrontation without warning.
remember specifically one doctor in Beverly Hills, who was really a
proper guy, this dignified gentleman running across the field, very
startled at what happened," she said.
Sarnoff, now 67 and involved in Friends of the United Nations, remains thrilled by the march.
need desperately to know that there are many non-electoral forms of
struggle that can succeed," he said. "At a time when there is such
widespread disillusion with elected leadership, we desperately need to
. . . understand that acting collectively outside electoral politics is
not only acceptable, but has been the method through which most of our
political and economic gains have been made."
Kalish, a 77-year-old UCLA philosophy professor, now acknowledges that radicals did alter the original demonstration plan.
believes that provoked the police. Sarnoff, by contrast, continues to
maintain that nothing happened to reasonably provoke the police
decision to disperse the crowd.
Police to this day say the decision
of perhaps 100 demonstrators to sit down on Avenue of the Stars forced
their hand. With hostility in the crowd rising and a bulge in the
marchers' ranks forming opposite the hotel, police say they thought
that the demonstrators were becoming a mob and might storm the hotel.
should be remembered as one of the most significant moments in the
history of the LAPD," said McAllister. "If we failed to control the
crowd and the president was forced to flee the city, we would no more
have lived it down than Dallas did the assassination of Kennedy."
insists that "had the police not interfered, the march soon would have
resumed. Others would have sat, but nothing else would have happened.
all of a sudden, the police ordered us to disperse, and there was
nowhere to move. Construction barricades impeded the way into the
field. The police should have known that there was no way to disperse.
There was pandemonium. At that point, some people did throw things at
the police. Everyone went nuts--the people and the police. The police
thought they were in danger, and the crowd was under assault."
who is writing a book on his life in the LAPD that includes a chapter
on the Century Plaza march, pointedly cites the radical credentials of,
among others, Sarnoff, who he notes "had been labeled a Communist by
the House Committee on Un-American Activities."
That charge came
in 1958 when Sarnoff appeared before the committee and refused to
answer questions about whether he was a Communist.
interview this month, Sarnoff said he once was a Communist, but he left
the party in 1951 at the age of 21. He became, he declared, with
perhaps some understatement, someone "a little to the left of center."
Reddin, only about 600 or so marchers were radicals; most of the rest
were middle-class liberals caught up in the melee, he said.
Magidson said the liberal participants were not aware of some of the
radicals who had joined the Peace Action Council. In retrospect,
perhaps it should not have been surprising that violence broke out, she
said. "I think police expect to act when they're called out in riot
Reddin continues to maintain that there was ample reason
to believe that major trouble was planned that night, including a
possible storming of the hotel. Police came to this conclusion through
intelligence provided by a private firm, International Investigations
System, which was hired by the hotel and employed four undercover
agents who worked closely with the LAPD.
"One young woman
succeeded in working her way into a position of secretary of Dorothy
Healey, the chairperson of the Communist Party in Southern California,"
Reddin writes in his book chapter on the march. "Two young men got jobs
as student workers which put them in close contact with members of the
Students for a Democratic Society, one of the most militant groups
involved in the event.
"The last, another young woman, managed
to infiltrate the Peace Action Council by developing a close working
relationship with Donald Kalish . . . vice chairman of the PAC."
agent, Sharon Stewart, 27 at the time of the march, could not be found
this month. But it is obvious she was an important link in police
assessments of the demonstrators' intentions. When the hotel went to
court the day before the demonstration to obtain a court order
restricting the march, it submitted an affidavit in which Stewart
quoted Kalish and others as planning for disruptive "civil
disobedience," despite their public assurances all would be peaceful.
in a declaration made in court 12 days after the march, denied most of
Stewart's assertions. Both he and Sarnoff insisted that Stewart tried
to provoke march organizers into tactics that could have led to
According to all participants, Stewart told Kalish
that she had one brother who had been killed fighting in Vietnam, and
another, then 16, who wanted to go over to avenge the death. Her
mission, she said, was to tell Johnson to end the war before her
younger brother went.
The former owner of International Investigations Systems, David Berger, now says he and Stewart concocted that story.
A Look Back at Decisions
says he worked assiduously to keep the march peaceful, but noted that
he was dealing with scores of anti-war groups ranging from churches to
Communists to those even further to the left.
For example, in
papers he provided The Times, there is a letter from the then-chairman
of the San Diego Coordinating Council for Social Action, Francis
Halperin, suggesting well in advance of the march that one of its
objectives should be to impede access to the Century Plaza so that
Johnson would stay "in the White House with the shades pulled until
January 1969"--in other words, until after the election.
the event, Sarnoff and other march organizers were quick to claim that
one accomplishment was to scare Johnson away from public campaigning.
bothered the hell out of him to see the students chanting, 'Hey, hey
LBJ, how many kids did you kill today?' " Johnson's press secretary,
George Reedy, said this month.
Ed Davis, who would succeed
Reddin as LAPD chief two years after the march, was deputy chief that
night and was shocked by the department's conduct. Even today, the
officer who was in charge of tactical planning for the
demonstration--another chief-to-be named Daryl Gates--remembers the
vehemence of Davis' protest.
"I was in San Diego that night at
an American Legion convention," said Davis, now in retirement in Morro
Bay. "When I saw television on the thing, and I saw police officers
beating people over the head with nightsticks, I went into the chief's
office the following Monday, and I said, 'By what legal right did they
have to do that?'
"Chief Reddin was there, but it was his aide,
Eddie Walker, who said, 'By virtue of the dispersal order' [that police
had formally read to demonstrators when the march halted]. I got out
the dispersal order, and it said you could arrest, not punish the
demonstrators, and I voiced my very strong disapproval.
sure the chief thought he had done a wonderful job, and Eddie Walker
thought I was a Communist. But when [future President Richard] Nixon
came out later and there was a Century Plaza demonstration when I was
chief, we handled it differently, and I'm challenging they had no legal
authority to use their clubs and beat people with them."
Reddin said he could not recall such a conversation with Davis.
Even now, some of the old side controversies seem fresh.
example, in an initial interview for this story, Reddin said he
believed that Judge Philip Newman, who dismissed the first criminal
charge against a Century Plaza demonstrator, might have been a
Newman, now retired at 80, denied it. He
noted that his Cheviot Hills home lies across from Rancho Park, where
Muhammad Ali, H. Rap Brown and Benjamin Spock had addressed the crowd
before the march began. The judge said he had gone walking with his dog
that night and had encountered police he knew from the Westside station
at the park, but had not participated in the march itself. His son and
daughter did, he said.
After he had dismissed the initial
prosecution of a demonstrator, Newman learned from two news reporters
that Reddin was suggesting he had been a marcher. The judge said he
went over to Reddin's office with the then-presiding judge of the Los
Angeles Municipal Court, Charles Woodmansee, and warned the chief that
he would sue if Reddin made the allegation publicly.
Reddin acknowledged in a subsequent interview for this story, was
probably why he left the matter out of his book chapter on Century