The 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 2,000 protesters.
“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.”
Ten thousand 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.
The bloody, 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.
The 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.
Far more 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.
By 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.
Coming less 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.
Then-LAPD 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.
Kalish 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.
Reddin 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 them.
“I don’t deny the use of force,” said Reddin, who is now 80. “Force was used. Was there provable brutality? No.”
When 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
The 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 it.
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 Happen?”
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.
“I 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.
“People 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.
Kalish 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.
“This 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.”
Sarnoff insists that “had the police not interfered, the march soon would have resumed. Others would have sat, but nothing else would have happened.
“But 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.”
Reddin, 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.
In an 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.”
To Reddin, only about 600 or so marchers were radicals; most of the rest were middle-class liberals caught up in the melee, he said.
Demonstrator 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 gear.”
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.”
That 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.
Kalish, 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 violence.
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
Sarnoff 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.
After the event, Sarnoff and other march organizers were quick to claim that one accomplishment was to scare Johnson away from public campaigning.
“It 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.
“I’m 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.
For 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 demonstrator himself.
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.
That, Reddin acknowledged in a subsequent interview for this story, was probably why he left the matter out of his book chapter on Century City.