Sudden Impact

In the 1969 Days of Rage, antiwar radical Brian Flanagan and city lawyer Richard Elrod, collided, changing their lives and creating an indelible image.

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In 1969, Brian Flanagan and the radical antiwar group Weatherman unleashed mayhem on the streets of Chicago. Richard Elrod, an ambitious lawyer, worked for the city to stop the chaos. As the Days of Rage climaxed, the two men had a violent encounter that forever altered their lives-and produced an indelible image that reverberates still.

 

Photograph: © Bettmann/Corbis

>> After trying to stop Flanagan, Elrod lies on his back with a broken neck. Flanagan, on the ground to his right, would later be charged with attempted murder. To this day, the men offer conflicting accounts of what happened that afternoon.

The man, 72 now, lifts the photograph with a grip light as a soft pinch and draws it toward his eyes like a jeweler holding up an exquisite but slightly flawed stone. He is natty in a gray pinstriped suit with a pink pocket square and a pale pink tie. His crutches lie on the floor just behind his immaculately ordered desk. Through the window of his 25th-floor judge’s chamber a gray sky pulls a cheerless curtain across the late afternoon.

He is there, in the photo, sprawled on the ground, an arm flung over his head, mouth open, paralyzed on a downtown Chicago sidewalk. A step or two away, in a manner equally suggestive of violence, his adversary lies torso-twisted into the entrance of a doorway, hovered over by three men, one bearing a club. There is something intimate about the image, as if the two men were victims of the same assailant rather than ideological enemies whose bodies-and fates-had just collided. Only later would they realize how much that was true.

Photograph: Katrina Wittkamp

>> Elrod has not forgiven Flanagan, but he’s not bitter: “I’ve got enough problems in life-and enough happiness,” he says.

Richard J. Elrod, Cook County circuit court judge, former sheriff, brings the image closer. He has se

en other photos of that day, October 11, 1969. Usually they are tight shots of his face, his tie yanked to the side, a welt purpling his right temple. But before him now is a picture he has never seen, one that presents the full tableau of that darkling instant. And so, he is asked what he feels when he sees it-himself laid out, unable to move, the man he blames for his paralysis barely an arm’s length away. Bitterness? Anger? Sadness?

Immured on a gray summer afternoon in his judge’s chambers of finely bound books and polished wood, he doesn’t immediately say. Instead, he stares, silent and inscrutable, eyes fastened on the sidewalk where his younger self lies forever frozen in black and white. And for what seems like a long time he weighs his verdict on the moment in which the life he knew, and the future he envisioned, ended, and another began.

 

Take a stool. Have a drink. The other man in the photograph, the one with the construction boots and narrow pants, is buying. Tall and lean when the photo was taken, Brian Flanagan is a little heavyset now, his hair no longer a shaggy thicket of brown but a mop dipped in gray and silver. The dark eyes rarely flash the anger of that bygone day, but twinkle with sly amusement, as if he’s waiting for the end of a long-winded joke, the punch line of which he has already guessed.

At the moment, he is just opening his tavern, a low-slung, beer-damp dive tucked among bodegas and ethnic restaurants on the Upper West Side of Manhattan, a few blocks south of Harlem. The joint features a scarred, L-shaped wood bar, a pool table, a jukebox, and an old-fashioned cash register that bangs like a box of gravel when it’s closed. Flanagan likes to boast that the Zagat nightlife guide rated it dead last in New York for interior design. For him and his regulars, no distinction could endear it more.

Photograph: Peter Ross

>> Flanagan at his New York tavern. Far from a capitalist businessman, he says, he is “one step up from a pushcart.”

But Flanagan takes pride in certain adornments, ones you might not expect to find in other saloons. Behind the bar, for instance, a statuette of Lenin scowls next to a gap-toothed caricature of George W. Bush that leers with the “What, me worry?” grin of Alfred E. Neuman. A bumper sticker with the phrase “Bush lies, people die” clings to the bathroom door. Overlooking the pool table, rinsed in the neon of Coors Light and Heineken signs, a framed poster from the 1969 Students for a Democratic Society convention in Chicago-complete with clenched fist and “Power to the People!” slogan-competes for space with snapshots from parties at the bar.

Like Elrod, Flanagan has been asked his impressions of the photograph. Unlike his long-ago adversary, however, Flanagan scarcely hesitates before giving them. “It’s all right there,” he says. “There’s Elrod,” he says. “There’s me. . . . He’s crippled for life; I’m about to be hauled off to jail, and you’ve got a bunch of horrible wretched cops who are about to lie about the whole thing.”

He shrugs and offers a wry smile. But then, like a beer poured too quickly, irritation foams up and spills onto the bar. “You know, Elrod insists that I attacked him, but I did nothing but try to avoid him that day,” he says. “But Elrod continues to lie and say I’m responsible.” He starts to say something else when a customer orders a drink. “It’s wrong, probably, to totally hate him or resent him,” he says, fishing up a glass and dunking it in soapy water. “But I get sick of hearing every few years that I did this to this guy when it’s not true.”

The portentous moment erupted during a tumultuous four days of antiwar riots and demonstrations in Chicago that would come to be known as the Days of Rage. Elrod would forever insist that Flanagan-then a member of the militant anti–Vietnam War group called Weatherman (later known as the Weather Underground)-attacked and kicked Elrod viciously, damaging his spinal cord, paralyzing him. Flanagan has always maintained that he was fleeing an undercover police officer, and Elrod, then a lawyer with the City of Chicago, launched a flying tackle at him, missed, and hit the corner of a building, headfirst. The truth, at least as far as a jury was concerned, emerged during Flanagan’s trial for attempted murder, aggravated battery, felonious mob action, and resisting arrest; it was a three-week spectacle that dominated newspaper headlines and television coverage here and across a nation bitterly divided by war.

The collision between Elrod and Flanagan, which in some ways came to symbolize that deeply hostile divide, was captured by any number of other photographers. Shooters from TheNew York Times,TheWashington Post, UPI, and the Chicago Tribune all saw in the sprawled bodies an important, if not iconic, image.

What makes this picture of Elrod and Flanagan so powerful-what makes any photojournalism resonate deeply-is its ability to capture what the renowned photographer Henri Cartier-Bresson called “the decisive moment.” That single photograph does so by freezing all the major players at the highest point of the drama. “It’s a great photo because it tells the entire story right then and there,” says Walter Kale, a Tribune photographer who was at the scene and who took
several photos for the next day’s paper.

“It was such an important moment because of the stature of the person hurt. I happened to be at the right place at the right time, but the scope of my pictures was limited because of the lens I was using. That person’s photo tells the story much better. Whoever took it did a helluva job.”

Extensive efforts by Chicago to track down that photographer led to numerous other shooters who were there that day. But the person who took the image reproduced here remains elusive. The photo carries a UPI credit, but two of the UPI photographers that day, James A. Smestad and John Quinn, insist that the picture isn’t theirs. What is clear, beyond the drama of the image, is that whoever took it produced a telling frame in a story that would come to define a generation-and the lives of two men who still regard each other from opposite sides of a chasm.

Fuck the pigs. That was how they all felt-Brian Flanagan, John Jacobs, Terry Robbins, Bernardine Dohrn, Bill Ayers, Mark Rudd-the most stalwart members of the fledgling militant antiwar group Weatherman. To them, the police were simply tools of the state-brutal, corrupt, oppressive minions who carried out the bidding of a government engaged in an illegal, amoral war. What was worse was that the police had all the power. With their helmets and truncheons and paddy-wagon doors flung open like jaws, they could stand by and intimidate while peaceful marchers cowered. No more. As the winter of 1968 bled into the spring of 1969, a new type of dissident was born, one dedicated to the proposition that violence, not passivity, was the way to change: Weatherman.

Originally a faction of the more peaceful but increasingly splintered SDS-Students for a Democratic Society-Weatherman rose from the ashes of what was being perceived as a failed opposition to the seemingly interminable war in Vietnam. Unlike SDS, Weatherman-which took its name from the lyric in Bob Dylan’s “Subterranean Homesick Blues” (“You don’t need a weatherman / To know which way the wind blows")-not only believed in violence as a way to achieve its agenda, but put those beliefs into practice by way of random, bloody attacks. The targets included anyone who did not support their cause of ending the Vietnam War, including innocent bystanders.

“We said, ‘We cannot let this go on in our name,’” Flanagan recalls. “We wanted to take a stand and let the world know that we were not an imperialistic nation and we’re not racists. And to prove it, we’re going to go to war. We’re going to take up arms and fight.”

By the summer of 1969, they had already begun to do so, though on a small scale. To spark the revolution they sought-which they hoped would result in the overthrow of the U.S. government-they needed to make a splash. They needed a battlefield, a place they felt would both grab attention and serve as a symbol. In June of that year, they settled on what was for them the perfect spot, the city they called “pig town"-Chicago. “It is here that thousands of young people faced the blind terror of the military state” during the police crackdown on demonstrators during the 1968 Democratic National Convention, their leaders wrote. “And it was also here that those same people began to fight back-to struggle against the betrayal, the lies, the oppressiveness, and the brutality of the state.”

Thus did Weatherman point the barrel of its Days of Rage at Chicago with rhetoric both brazen and ominous: “We came to Chicago to . . . tear the m—– f—-r apart,” the leaders boasted in a leaflet. In New Left Notes, they said, “We came to attack-because we know that the only things to defend in honkie Amerika are the privileges-the cars, the apartments, the hotels, the TVs . . . It was [to be] war-we knew it and the pigs knew it.”

The protest, scheduled to take place over four days beginning October 8, 1969, was being billed as a sort of coming-out party for the group and its philosophy of achieving social justice through the use of guerrilla attacks and campus rebellions. Already, Weatherman representatives had fanned out across the country to recruit college dissidents and disaffected working-class youth. The protest’s planners hoped to lure thousands to Chicago. There, the recruits would join with members of Weatherman for a bloody battle against police on a scale previously unseen. Thus ideologically armed, Flanagan, a member of Weatherman’s New York chapter, packed his car in early October and left Manhattan, bound for Chicago.

Twenty-two years old at the time, Brian Flanagan was the prototype Weatherman. Like many of his fellows, he was white, he was reared in a middle- to upper-class family, and he had reached the age of consent during the civil rights movement. With his longish hair and shabby clothes, he cultivated a persona that was part hippie, part working class. Like many others in the group, he saw his Ivy League education at Columbia University not as a sign of his capitulation to the bourgeoisie, but rather an opportunity to add to his counterculture bona fides from the inside.

Born and raised in Manhattan, near the northernmost tip of the island, Flanagan was introduced to politics by parents who supported the Illinois Democratic governor Adlai E. Stevenson, who ran unsuccessfully for president in 1952 and 1956. But Flanagan’s folks were no radicals. His father was an advertising executive and his mother left teaching to become a stockbroker and antiques dealer. Flanagan himself had caddied for “some of the barons of Wall Street,” as he puts it.

From early on, however, Flanagan felt the pull of militancy. For instance, he recalls, “I know that from a fairly early age, 11 or 12, I had really come to admire Fidel Castro. When he stood up to the United States, I thought that was a great thing.” Studying philosophy and economics at Columbia, he was an indifferent student (“I got mostly C’s"). Whatever passions academics failed to arouse, however, the rising opposition to the Vietnam War supplied. “That was the turning point for me,” he says. “Being in New York, being at Columbia during the Vietnam War, you could not be oblivious to what was going on. People were lining up on one side or the other. And so I took my stand.”

He began by dropping in on the occasional SDS meeting. Soon, he was attending demonstrations as a member. Almost from the start, he dismissed the notion of peaceful protest. “We did the mass movement and we did the hundreds of thousands of people in Washington,” he says. “But things just seemed to get worse.”

As a result, he began following people like Mark Rudd, a future Weatherman whose leadership in the takeover of several campus buildings at Columbia in 1968 marked a seminal moment in the nascent radical antiwar movement. Flanagan, who helped seize the mathematics building, had finally found kindred spirits. “These people were saying that there has to be an armed front against the war in this country. There has to be some teeth put into this resistance.”

He was a true believer and a ready-made soldier. Though he didn’t know it at the time, his conversion did more than give him a raison d’être. It put him on a collision course with a man who would become a lifelong enemy, one with whom he would forever be identified: Richard Elrod.

In Chicago, at around 3 a.m. on Saturday, October 11, 1969, Elrod awoke to a jangling phone. It was the final morning of the Days of Rage, and the night before, several protesters had been arrested. Elrod, an assistant corporation counsel for the city, needed to come downtown to determine what they should be charged with-disorderly conduct, resisting arrest, felony mob action. In the preceding days, Weatherman had unleashed a string of attacks and violent protests on the city, and Elrod had been busy filling out the necessary reports and filing the proper motions.

But Elrod, 35 at the time, had aspirations beyond the fate of a few protesters who he believed had strayed over the First Amendment line. “He was ambitious,” recalls Robert Beranek, the assistant state’s attorney who would wind up prosecuting Flanagan.

The son of 24th Ward Democratic boss Arthur X. Elrod, Richard Elrod had earned both his bachelor’s and law degrees from Northwestern University, and had been an assistant corporation counsel for the City of Chicago since 1958. By 1968, he had become the city’s chief prosecutor and had served in the Illinois General Assembly. But Elrod had set his sights even higher-on one of the most powerful positions in Cook County: sheriff.

Some would later wonder if his ambition was what led him-a lawyer-to patrol the streets during high-profile demonstrations and become involved in several confrontations. “He was supposed to be out there as a lawyer, not a cop,” says Warren Wolfson, who would eventually represent Flanagan. “At times, however, he would act the role of a policeman.” Three times in less than a year and a half he had been injured while working the streets.

Today, he says, he thought he was merely doing his duty. “I had been doing it since ‘65. I felt it was important to be out there, because I could be there if someone needed counsel on exercising their First Amendment rights . . . or if the Chicago police overstepped their bounds.”

In any case, as the Days of Rage unfolded, Elrod again found himself in the eye of the storm. On the morning of October 11th, after determining charges that would be placed against some protesters arrested overnight, he and several other city officials attended a meeting called by Mayor Richard J. Daley.

The topic was the culmination of the week’s protests-a march scheduled for around one o’clock that afternoon. Permits secured by Weatherman had determined that the demonstration was to proceed east on Randolph to LaSalle, south on LaSalle to Madison, then end at Madison and State.

Now, however, just hours before the event was to begin, the mayor was having second thoughts, Elrod recalls. “He wasn’t sure it should proceed because of the violence of the previous days,” Elrod says. Daley’s concern was prompted by several incidents involving the Weatherman. Two days earlier, for instance, several hundred members of the group, wearing football and motorcycle helmets and steel-toed shoes and brandishing pipes and rocks, had surged into the Gold Coast, smashing windows, overturning cars, burning benches, and beating up bystanders.

The protesters, who had taken police by surprise, rampaged for nearly half an hour before officers beat them back with Mace and billy clubs. “Scores of pigs” were injured, the leaders would later brag in New Left Notes. In fact, 21 officers had suffered wounds, including an undercover policeman who was severely beaten after his cover had been blown. The melee had come on the heels of an even more spectacular attack, when Weatherman members dynamited the nine-foot statue of a policeman commemorating officers who died in the 1886 Haymarket riot.

Despite the mayor’s concerns, Elrod says he counseled against shutting the Saturday march down. “I told him, ‘Mr. Mayor, if you call it off they’re just going to court and it will be like the Selma [Alabama civil rights] march. The federal courts will order that they be allowed to peacefully demonstrate.’” Today, Elrod acknowledges the irony of the moment. “I think I was the only one arguing for it to go forward,” he says. “Maybe be­cause I convinced [Daley], or maybe because he changed his mind on his own, he said, ‘All right, let ’em march.’”

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