From Saigon to Washington: Chaos in the Streets

Fifty years ago April 4th, 1968

Don North at US. Marine base Khe Sahn January 1968

                                   By Don North

ABC News correspondent Don North left the violence of Vietnam on April 3rd, 1968 to arrive in Washington, gripped by the violent reaction to the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

Since the Tet offensive of January 1968 the mean streets of Saigon reeked of smoke, tear gas and incoming rocket and mortar fire. I had been a correspondent for ABC TV News for two years and it was with great relief that I was re-assigned to Washington D.C. in early April.  As I looked back at the skyline of Saigon, relaxing with a Scotch & Soda as my plane took off, I could see black smoke rising from one part of the city and white smoke from other fires burning after Viet Cong attacks. A day later on Thursday the 4th as my flight descended into Washington, I could see black smoke rising from one part of the city and white smoke from various other fires burning. As news of the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King in Memphis spread, despondent crowds gathered in the heart of Washington’s business section along 14th street. Orderly at first, the crowds became surly and started breaking windows, looting stores, and setting fires.

I reported immediately to the ABC News bureau on Connecticut Ave. The news editor said, “Good timing Don, we can use a reporter with combat experience. There’s a crew leaving for the riots in a few minutes. There’s room in the car for you.”

            The Same Smell of Tear Gas

Cruising down 14th Street, the air was the same as Saigon, filled with smoke and the smell of tear gas. A light rain was falling. Slick streets were littered with broken glass and bricks. It was as if the violence of Saigon I left behind hours ago had followed me to Washington. Stretches of 14th Street, 7th and H looked like combat zones. Hundreds of blazes set by arsonists would leave wreckage and desolation. We were seeing the beginning of the anarchy that would plague Washington for the next 72 hours and leave sections of the city in ruins for over 30 years. As Edward Kosner of Newsweek wrote, “It was a Pandora’s Box flung open, an apocalyptic act that loosened by the furies brooding in the shadows of America’s sullen ghettos.”

Local businesses were being vandalized, windows smashed and merchandise carried off. We pulled up to a liquor store where looters were walking out through smashed windows carrying armloads of booze.  We discreetly filmed with an Auricon sound camera through a side window. The looters didn’t seem to notice our presence.

Suddenly an angry man rushed at our car with a large brick in his hands and started   pounding on a side window. It didn’t break as we sped out of his reach. The riots had begun nearby with a brick thrown through the window of the Peoples Drug Store at 14th and U Street.  Dr. King had died at 8 P.M.  Though he had ardently preached non-violence, by 10 P.M. large crowds gathered to vent anger, sadness and frustration.

Teenagers walked with transistor radios tuned to the news. Many local stations played hymns between newscasts.  Bens Chili Bowl near the Peoples Drug Store was not targeted by looters and managed to stay open through the night. Stokely Carmichael, a member of the Black Panthers made the Chili Bowl his headquarters and led a group of youths into nearby stores demanding they close in respect for the memory of Dr. King.

Carmichael had been a follower of Dr. King but had recently become independent. I tried to interview him but he moved too fast. It is difficult to assess what his role actually was during the violence. He was a popular and respected black activist in Washington. He was observed trying to calm the angry crowds but left when they turned to violence. The Washington Post suggested he had instigated the violence with incendiary speeches. “Execution of this retaliation will be in the streets, go home and get you a gun.” He was never charged with instigating a riot. In the weeks following the riots I would often interview Carmichael as he became a nationally known voice against the war in Vietnam. Although cooperative and articulate he largely remained an enigma to me.

The looters soon turned to arson and threw Molotov cocktails into buildings and bricks at firefighters who tried to put out the blazes.  Many African-American store owners sprayed “SOUL” on their windows and were spared. The D.C. fire department reported 1,180 fires between March 30th and April 14th.  Property loss caused by the riots was extensive. 1,190 buildings, including 283 homes were badly damaged or destroyed. Loss was estimated at $25 million. Residents, fearful of the violence, accelerated their departure for suburban areas, depressing property values. Crime in the b

urned-out areas rose sharply, further discouraging investment. On Friday, April 5th, rioting spread to other sections of the District, especially 7th Street NW, H and parts of Anacostia. Joining the 3,000 strong D.C. police force, Federal troops and the National Guard were called in and would reach 11,000 before calm was restored. U.S. Marines mounted machine guns on the steps of the Capitol and Army troops from the 3rd Infantry guarded the White House.

In three days of upheaval, 13 people were killed, two by police officers. Police restraint was credited with keeping casualties low. At the same time, riots in Newark had 27 deaths and 43 in Detroit. In the end 7,600 people were arrested.

A 5:30 PM curfew was enforced. Commissioner Walter Washington, later to become Washington’s first Mayor, made nightly appearances during the riots, and was credited with helping dampen the violence. He had rebuffed FBI suggestions that police shoot rioters and looters on the spot.

The military occupation of Washington was the largest of any American city since the Civil War and raised questions about whether it was legal, as the use of federal troops for law enforcement had been banned by the “Posse Comitatus Act of 1878.”

            Killed on the First Anniversary of his Vietnam Speech

Had the Johnson administration heeded King’s words about the state of America and its war in Southeast Asia, perhaps the violence I had left behind in Saigon and arrived to in downtown Washington may never have happened.

In his Riverside Church speech given on April 4th 1967, exactly one year before his assassination, King said: “There is at the outset a very obvious and almost facile connection between the war in Vietnam and the struggle I and others have been waging in America.  A few years ago there was a shining moment in that struggle. It seemed as if there was a real promise of hope for the poor, both black and white, through the poverty program. There were experiments, hopes, new beginnings. Then came the buildup in Vietnam, and I knew that America would never invest the necessary funds or energies in rehabilitation of its poor so long as adventures like Vietnam continued to draw men and money like some demonic, destructive suction tube.

 So I was increasingly compelled to see the war as an enemy of the poor and to attack it as such. Perhaps a more tragic recognition of reality took place when it became clear to me that the war was doing far more than devastating the hopes of the poor at home. It was sending their sons and their brothers and their husbands to fight and die in extraordinarily high proportions relative to the rest of the population. We were taking the young black men who had been crippled by our society and sending them eight thousand miles away to guarantee liberties in Southeast Asia which they had not found in southwest Georgia and East Harlem. So we have been faced with the cruel irony of watching Negro and white boys on TV screens as they kill and die together for a nation that has been unable to seat them together in the same schools. So we watch them in brutal solidarity burning the huts of a poor village, but we realize that they would hardly live on the same block in Chicago. I could not be silent in the face of such cruel manipulation of the poor.”

Don North

This article was originally published on ConsortiumNews.Com April 4, 2018.