“The FBI is here looking for you.”
Tell us about a time you were being carefully watched, or a time you were stuck somewhere you didn’t like. How was everyone else acting? What did you do?
“I was wearing a borrowed jacket and hat pulled down over my ears. It was too warm for the outfit, but I was in desperate need of disguise. Sure that every passing stranger was an FBI agent or one of their dupes, I was hiding in plain site on a bench in the cavernous main hall of Chicago Union Station, waiting for my friend (and former parish priest) Bill. He was bringing me the duffels we had left at his house when we suddenly discovered the need to find alternate lodgings.
It was August, 1968 and the mayhem of the Democratic National Convention was building. My friend Otto and I were there as “youth representatives” on the advance planning team for the anti-war demonstrations. We had been haranguing our older and more famous colleagues — Abby Hoffman, Jerry Rubin, Dave Dellinger, et. al. (i.e. what would become the Chicago Seven) — that to capture the youth imagination, we needed to have some more radical, action-oriented demonstrations, not just marching. They gave in, likely out of frustration with us, and charged us to design such an action and bring it in for consideration. If our plan made sense, they would add it to the official program.
Otto and I were founding members of Detroit-based YPFJ, slangily pronounced “Yipfugs”. The letters stood for Youth for Peace Freedom and Justice. YPFJ was closely aligned with another Detroit-based organization, People Against Racism (or PAR). That alliance resulted in YPFJ’s innate anti-Vietnam-War stance taking on a decidedly broader anti-US-Racist-Imperialism edge. Our search for suitable Chicago targets for our action led us to the banking/finance sector, which was heavily invested in South Africa, shoring up the racist apartheid regime. Near the top of the list we found the Continental Illinois Bank, whose headquarters had a very interesting feature — a subway stop in the basement of the building. The lightbulb went off. We would hold a demonstration in the bank by convening right inside via the subway. When we brought our proposal back to the planning team they were impressed with the concept, with one caveat. We needed to go scout the location and make sure that we could hand something out to the demonstrators that showed them how to get out of the building if (when?) things got too hot for comfort.
So Otto and I headed over to the bank to case the joint. We arrived by subway, with Otto planning to check the basement while I went upstairs to determine the best paths to exits. I made a mental picture of everything to my satisfaction, figuring I could draw it on paper later. I turned a corner to head back downstairs to exit via subway, only to find Otto being frog-marched up the stairs by a security guard. “Hey stop right there,” he shouted at me. “Have you been drawing diagrams of the bank too?”
The guard marched us both down to the security office, demanded to see some identification, and asked us what did we think we were doing? It is instructive to note here that my official YPFJ title was Minister of Bullshit (a cynical variation on Minister of Information). My creative verbal invention skills kicked into gear. As Otto would put it, we sold the guard a load of old boleros. “Well, the truth is, we’re model railroad enthusiasts. We’re in Chicago visiting some family friends and we got to talking about Chicago architecture,” I said. “We realized there were such great bank buildings here, we needed to add an iconic Chicago bank to our train layout. And, well, Continental Illinois Bank seemed like the cream of the bank architecture crop.” Somehow, the old geezer decided to accept our story. “I don’t go much for your long hair and all that, but you seem like nice enough boys and I don’t think you’re trying to cause any trouble. Just give me the name, address, and phone of the people you’re staying with and I’ll let you go . . . if you promise not to draw diagrams inside a bank anymore.” We gave him Bill’s contact information and skedaddled out of there before he could change his mind.
Unfortunately, the guard’s supervisor must have seen things differently. When we got back to movement headquarters that afternoon, one of the staff people ran over the moment he saw me. “Larry, do you know someone named Bill Palmer? He’s been calling you in a panic every half-hour all afternoon long. He says it’s urgent that you call him back.”
I called Bill right away. “Larry, what the hell are you up to?!?! The FBI came here this afternoon saying they wanted to talk to you about a bank robbery. What the hell are you doing?” Well, I got him calmed down enough to hear a quick version of what happened. I said it was best if we did not come back to his house and he agreed to bring our stuff to me at Union Station that evening. He thought my clandestine measures were a bit much, but I guess he figured it was easier to do it than to argue about it.
Just as it was getting dark, I saw Bill approach, heading for the big clock as I had instructed him. He dropped our duffels to the floor, leaned against the wall, and stuffed his hands in his pockets. He stayed like that for a few minutes, eyeing every passer-by. He did not take out a cigarette and light it, the signal he was to use if he had any inclination that he was being followed. He was saying, “I think the coast is clear.” He picked up the duffels and walked into the men’s room across from where I sat. A moment later he walked out, without the duffels, and headed towards the departing trains. I got up and casually walked into the mens room, picked up the bags, and headed for the street exit and a deep full breath of fresh Chicago night air, thinking that I had eluded the FBI for good.
Three weeks later, back home in Detroit, our doorbell rang at dinnertime one evening. My mother answered the door, then called out “Larry, are you in some kind of trouble again? The FBI is here looking for you.”