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Skeptic on the March

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By Caroline Keem

Exactly two years ago this weekend, while I was living in Boston, the streets erupted in protest against the impending war in Iraq. With rainbow-colored signs, drumming, marching, and general making of noise, legions of citizens indicated that this war was against the will of the people.

I watched the whole mess from the safety of a second-story hair salon on Newbury Street. Waves of protestors went by while I sat and got my hair cut. I was angry. I wanted all these wanna-be-hippies to turn their Nike-clad feet around, put their made-by-exploited-people-in-Malaysia-clothed butts back into their SUVs, drive back to whatever square of urban sprawl they called home and stop polluting the streets of my home with their hypocrisy.

Months earlier, in October of 2002, I contacted my Senator (Senator Kerry, in fact), and told him not to vote in favor of war in Iraq (at the time, I thought that was enough). Looking at this crowd of people getting loud for peace, I wondered if every one of them had done some footwork back when decisions were really being made, then maybe we’d be looking at a different scenario. Maybe.

Two years later over 1500 service people have been killed in Iraq. Over 11,000 more have been wounded and face a life of trying to weasel adequate veterans’ benefits from the government. I’ve met men who’ve returned from their deployment and talked with them about their experience. Underneath the point-by-point description of various incidents, there is a spooky weirdness about them. Their sentences trail off. They say I don’t think about that too much, rather often. They’re proud of their service, but they still have nightmares.

And now, on the second anniversary of the start of the war, despite my skepticism about the efficacy of street protest and my desperate need for a haircut, I’m on the street to lend body and voice to an anti-war demonstration.

I have a lot of misgivings. First of all, I don’t like cops. When I arrive at the gathering point at Bughouse Square, I see a block of park surrounded on all four sides by police. They’re wearing black, full-body armor and baby-blue, hard helmets. An outfit that I image Darth Vader might wear for an Easter parade. It’s impossible to get in or out of the park without going through a line of police, and I am an hour early.

Secondly, downtown Chicago, especially Federal Plaza where the marches are set to converge in a rally, is already under heavy camera surveillance. Today, this will be amended by police helicopters and a police van sporting a surveillance camera on a retractable arm. I make sure to wear no buttons and carry no signs and entertain this fantasy that I could morph into a tourist if things get sticky.

Lastly, I’m still skeptical. I ask myself a lot of questions about why I’m doing this. Is there any power in the street? Does it do any good? But, when I come right down to it, to spend today comfortably carrying out my Saturday routine would mean that I don’t mind the war. It would announce that I don’t care how many of America’s sons and daughters George Bush feeds into his war machine. I would endorse his behavior with my inaction and pretend it doesn’t affect me. I have questions about why to go into the street, but the answer isn’t in the safety of my studio.

riot

In the days leading up to my being here, I read up on the event. Originally the demonstration organizers had hoped to gather everyone at Oak and Michigan and march down Michigan Avenue to Federal Plaza. However, after they announced the rally, their permit for that meeting location and route was denied by the city. On the web I read the police department notice stating: Assembly at Oak and Michigan is unlawful, a march down Michigan Avenue is unlawful.If you violate the law, you will be arrested and miss the march.The point is to march.Please do so lawfully. So the Chicago police seem to have no issue granting me my First Amendment rights to free speech and assembly, as long as I don’t get in the way of Michigan Avenue shoppers. The city-approved route takes the demonstration from Bughouse Square down Clark Street to Federal Plaza. Is this an anti-war demonstration or a parade route? Who decides the exact geographical location where my First Amendment rights start and stop?

Everyone in the assembling crowd is a bit cranky about their First Amendment rights. Then I remember that the First Amendment was written by men who had just succeeded in overthrowing a rather powerful colonial government. It’s an element of rebellion written into the fabric of our laws and it’s just bound to stir up trouble. Anyone would secretly enjoy curtailing another’s rights when we don’t especially like what they do with them, but the rights are there nonetheless. And George Bush will probably get on TV tonight and talk about how great it is that we live in a country where people can openly disagree and he can happily ignore us.

We’re milling about Bughouse Square and still early for the rally. I’m told by a far more experienced protester that showing up early is a mistake because it gives the authorities time to get a good look at you. So we decide to stroll by the originally planned assembly point at Michigan and Oak to see what’s there. There are so many cops wearing varying amounts of body armor and riot gear on Michigan Avenue that you’d think the Chanel store was under siege. I suddenly have to pee.

The march to Federal Plaza is delayed as rally organizers try to negotiate with the police. There aren’t many people with megaphones to tell us what’s happening, and generally things feel disorganized. I really don’t mind the lack of organization. In fact, I think that factor is part of the real strength of assemblies like this. Looking around, one can see that, while everyone is here to demonstrate an anti-war cause there are several sub-agendas on display. There are labor groups, community groups, pro-Palestinians and socialist organizations. Each group has been doing its own work in its own place and coming here, to this demonstration, is just part of an independent plan of action. People mill through the crowd to pass out leaflets relating to the war, or the cuts to CTA service, or labor issues. In this diversity that bubbles up through a wide mix of opinion is democratic strength, and no one forced it on us or dropped bombs on us for this strength to express itself.

As we start to move I try gathering answers to my most burning question. Is there any power left in the street? State power no longer rests in buildings. Storming the king’s castle hasn’t worked in years. Government is no longer an entity existing solely in space and time. Its power is in bits, data, and a flow of electronic impulses. It’s nimble and deployable in many directions. Big brother has fast technology, fiber optic networking and satellite eyes, and he’s not afraid to use them.

Today, the street sheds its normal role as passageway and shows its dark side as a means of controlling human decisions and expressions. As we’re herded down Clark Street, we’re continuously surrounded by police. So if there were no power in the street, then there would be no need to criminalize a peaceful demonstration.

What is in the street are hearts and minds, and the battle for these is visual, sensual and temporal. Hearts and minds are where public opinion starts to sway and change the tide of a country’s willingness to follow its leader. It’s a voice that can be shrugged off for the moment but not permanently ignored. The street makes loud and visible the whispers of discontent and shadows of doubt in many American minds.

Like it or not, there is no ignoring Iraq. Our lives cannot be freed of it by an afternoon of shopping or an evening of painting the town red. The expenses this war puts into our laps and the oil we’re fighting over are woven into the fabric of our whole lives. It’s either in the food we eat that has been transported to our stores by gas-guzzling trucks or in the food we can’t eat because our public assistance has been cut to fund the war. It’s in the education we go get or cannot afford to get because education dollars have been cut to fund the war. It’s in the health care we get or that we cannot get because a new anti-terrorist mentality has focused medical research funding on bioterrorism and away from cure and prevention of disease. The war is in our pocket books every time we open our wallets to pay more for goods that depend on oil to be manufactured and shipped. The war is in our hearts, crowding out a space for itself right next to people we care about who also happen to be soldiers.

So where the king’s castle has gone, so must the angry mob go, too. Cyber-campaigns. Flash mobs, Fax jamming, I regularly get action emails from MoveOn.org. There are tons of things we can do to be just as nimble as the powers that be. There are tons of actions to take with our political voice that does not stop when we race home from the rally to put a hot meal in our cold stomachs.

I look around the crowd as I leave. We’re wearing leather coats and clothing made from non-biodegrading materials and that have logos sewn all over them. We can stand here and get mad at where our government has led us, but the fact is they have taken us exactly where we wanted to go. We wanted government to listen when we voted in the ballot box, but instead they listened when we voted with our dollars in the shopping mall. This war has its roots in our bloated lifestyle. The power of the ballot box has grown dubious, the power of the street may be temporary, but with a little sacrifice we can vote everyday with our dollars and common sense. And maybe with that we’ll build peace.

Photos By Caroline Keem

April 2005

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