1967.06.23: LAPD Attacks Antiwar Protesters at LBJ Fundraiser
Note: Leon and Alita Letwin (with two of their children, Michael and David) were among thousands of antiwar marchers protested President Lyndon B. Johnson’s appearance at the Century Plaza Hotel in Los Angeles, June 23, 1967. Foreshadowing the Chicago police riot against antiwar protesters at the 1968 Democratic National Convention, the LAPD brutally assaulting the marchers.
LOS ANGELES POLICE ATTACK PEACEFUL ANTI-WAR MARCHERS
Century City protest
On June 23, 1967, President Lyndon Johnson was attending a $500-a-plate fundraising dinner at the swank Century Plaza Hotel in posh Century City, nestled between Beverly Hills and wealthy Westwood. That afternoon thousands of demonstrators gathered at nearby Cheviot Hills Park for a march through Century City and in front of the hotel to protest the Vietnam War. The pre-march rally was like a summer festival, vendors selling hot dog and young people flying kites. Anti-war celebrities like Mohammad Ali, Benjamin Spock, and H. Rap Brown spoke to the crowd before they began marching in the early evening peacefully up the Avenue of the Stars towards the Century Plaza Hotel.
Spectators on the sidewalk joined the march in progress, swelling the ranks of protestors. Within yards of the elegant fountains bisecting northbound and southbound traffic on the Avenue of the Stars in front of the hotel, the march came to a virtual standstill. Police had created a bottleneck, effectively forcing marchers from four street lanes to one. Other officers had blocked the intersection in front of the initial demonstrators. Further complicating the scene was a group of 25 people who staged a sit-in on the street in front of the hotel, further slowing the forward momentum of marchers.
INFORMER GIVES INACCURATE INFORMATION
Nine stories above, Los Angeles Police Chief Thomas Reddin stood in the hotel, looking down on the growing crowd. He noticed a “bulge” in the crowd, and he believed that an assault on the hotel was in the works. He ordered officers below to disperse the crowd.
A phalanx of 1,300 riot-helmeted officers carrying guns and nightsticks was poised to take action. They had been briefed, based on information from an informer who had attended protest planning meetings, that some demonstrators might try to unleash mice and cockroaches, or detonate stink or smoke bombs in the hotel and the storm the lobby. The informer, however, failed to explain that protest organizers had rejected these suggestions from audience members at public meetings and instead stressed that the march would be non-violent. It was perhaps the clearly non-radical tone of the march that attracted so many middle-class people from all over Southern California, many of whom had never before participated in an anti-war demonstration.
Policed, though, considered the entire group as potentially dangerous to the President, and after Chief Reddin issued his order, officers announced over a distorted loudspeaker system that since the march had stopped it was an illegal assembly and the demonstrators had to disperse.
Many protestors close to the loudspeakers did not hear or understand the instructions. But even for those who did, there was nowhere to go. They were essentially boxed in by the police guarding the hotel to the west, a throng of thousands of marchers to the south, a steep railed embankment and construction zone to the east, and a police blockade to the north. Several blocks south, demonstrators had no idea why the march had stopped. Scattered groups began to sing—first “America, the Beautiful,” then “God Bless America,” and finally “The Star Spangled Banner.” Some marchers sat down in exhaustion
Police made three more dispersal orders that began, “In the name of the people of the State of California, I declare this to be an unlawful assembly. . . .” only to be drowned out by the chant of the marchers replying “Weare the people. We are the people.”
POLICE ATTACK BEGINS
A line of police officers started pushing the crowd from the southwest to the northeast, but there was no where for demonstrators to move. Police then began striking protestors and prodding them like cattle with sticks. People began falling down. The police acted indiscriminately, attacking even children, the elderly, and people with visible disabilities.
Bernice Ham, a 49-year-old housewife from suburban Bellflower later reported “My son is a hemiplegic, that is, he has partial paralysis on his right side and can walk by dragging that foot which is supported by a brace. He also wears a brace on his arm. This paralysis is caused by a malignant brain tumor and surgery. . . . The police charged into us. The crowd went back as far as possible and my son and I began to walk south as the police desired, as fast as we could. . . . My son turned and told the officer who was pulling me not to hit his mother. He responded by hitting my son on the left side of the head—the side where his tumor is—knocking him to the ground, and breaking his glasses. Then he and several officers began swinging their clubs at him and kicking him. I screamed. ‘Please don’t hit his head, please don’t hit his head,’ because any blow could kill him. I threw myself on top of his head to protect it and they kicked him in the side and stepped on his hand.”
Thirty-five year old Elinor Defibaugh, witnessed an officer hitting an elderly woman with his billy club. “The husband asked the officer, ‘What business do you have hitting my wife?’ The policeman replied by hitting the old lady again. . . . Then I saw the same officer hit a teenage (17 or 18) girl. Then I turned to the policeman and asked, ‘What the hell are you doing?’ I was, at the time, holding my poodle in my arms and was unable to move or obviously threaten the officer in any way. The officer replied to my question by hitting me in the chest with his billy club.”
For nearly 90 minutes, Los Angeles police officers beat, kicked, and verbally abused hundreds of protestors. Officers corralled people back at Cheviot Hills Park before releasing them in groups of five or less.
HUNDREDS FILE COMPLAINTS
Over 500 people submitted statements and complaints about police action to the ACLU of Southern California and the demonstration’s organizers.
In response to an ACLU telegram requesting a meeting with the Board of Police Commissioners and the mayor, the Board’s chairperson, Elbert T. Hudson, said that the Board had “reviewed all of the circumstances of the occasion” and concluded that “the police had taken proper action.” Hudson’s response came less than one week after the demonstration. And the Board conducted its review without interviewing a single person who had lodged a complaint against the conduct of police that night.