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Protesting as performance art

By Bernard Chapin
web posted March 28, 2005

Here in Chicago there are few better opportunities to meet your neighbors than during the yearly protest march which takes place on the anniversary of the 2003 invasion of Iraq. Actually, one's neighbors are rarely seen but Jessie Jackson, trustafarians, communists, anarchists, and depressives of all varieties are plentifully on hand.

This is the third time that I have personally attended the rally, and I have to say that the mood of the demonstrators was more hostile on this occasion than in the past. Previously, amid the threats and overemotional lamentations, there was an element of shrouded hope, but, after George W. Bush won the 2004 election, all the leftover left can now look forward to is Hillary Clinton triangulating to the right in the years before 2008. With nothing else to embrace, anger must be the cause celebre.

I arrived at Federal Plaza early and awaited the maddened crowd. It was readily evident that the police planners had been busy in the off season as numerous fences, gates, and Jersey barriers were erected in anticipation of…whatever. There was a stage at the front where speakers could come and go -- talking of Maya Angelou. Actually no, they serenaded us with rhetoric concerning the Bush administration's war on freedom and our president being a "terrorist to the world." There was even a Spanish translator present to give the gathering a multicultural feel; although it was not necessary as irrational emotion is prevalent within every culture.

A plethora of slogans were on display, such as "Food Not Bombs, Peace Now, Healthcare Not War, No War; No Occupation; No Gulags; Amerika," and "Thank God Bush Girls Sacrifice Freedom." The last of these signs I will allow the reader to interpret for his or her self.

Most humorous of all was a sign I read admonishing us to, "Defend Chinese Deformed Workers State Against Imperialism and Counterrevolution." When I first saw it I knew that I had to write it down in its entirety or else nobody was going to believe that it was actually there. Yet, the funniest, and most revealing, moment of all came when I overheard a mother warn her daughter that she needed to be careful because there was a lot of police around [!].

There were numerous capitalist enclaves of socialism set up on tables ringing the event. They always make for interesting reading as it's a shock to discover that so many of Trotsky's tomes are still in print, let alone anything by Rosa Luxembourg. One comic masterpiece was even entitled, Is Socialism Against Human Nature? We can only answer that question with another by wondering, "Shouldn't you be suspicious of spending money on books whose entire thesis can be summarily rejected with the one syllable response of "Yes?"

Soon after I got there, the Reverend Jessie Jackson arrived and gave a speech which included some rhymes and allegations against the president. He shared with us that the right wing was going to take away our basic rights. When he left the stage I managed to hustle up next to him. I hoped to get a picture of myself alongside this low brow version of Dr. Seuss. I got fairly close to him and tapped him on the back in order to have our picture taken but the person that I loaned my camera to captured an image of our feet instead.

The fellows, and select diehard women, from Protest Warrior occupied the back of the plaza in a small cage adjoining Dearborn Street with the idea of taunting the protesters. One of the misbelievers pointed to the rightists and proclaimed, "Just give them a sign that says fascist." What would have been more appropriate is if we would have given the kid a history book so that he would no longer confuse limited government with a desire for absolute state power. It was with great satisfaction that I overheard two conversations condemning our Mayor, Richard Daley, with the F-word, but then at least it was misused in reference to a member of the more statist party (although its getting close nowadays).

Just before the arrival of the main body of demonstrators, the police shut down the back cage after various leftists began to get in the faces of those segregated behind the metal fence. They then moved my fellow American first, second, third and lasters to the other side of the street but they continued to be the object of ire throughout the day. One of the five individuals arrested that afternoon was a young student who tried to charge across the police phalanx in the direction of my friend Steve. The young man was restrained immediately and Steve yelled across to him, as he was being carried away, that he hoped his "mommy and daddy had money for bail."

That was about as close to real bloodshed as it would come, but I did have one of the protesters say to me, in answer to my general question as to why the opposition was moved across the street, that "conservatives like you are always starting things with us. That's why." I was taken aback as I had no clothing or symbol on that would suggest that I was a conservative, and I had made sure not to bring my Friedrich Hayek life size doll with me to the rally. How did he know that I was not one of them? I quickly realized that it had to have been due to my Red Wings hat. That was an instant giveaway. None of the malcontents would have been caught dead (or in a place of commerce) wearing clothes that were adorned with athletic logos. If you ask me, that's reason enough to avoid them.

With so little accomplished or realized, the most obvious question concerning the protests is "Why bother?" I believe that most of the kids and outraged adults who attended simply showed up as a means to be a part of history or to say that they once vocally stood for something. In this case, they'll say that they marched against the war but it could have been, just as easily, to condemn the continued existence of the state of Israel or to howl in defiance of George Bush or to rail against America in general.

The "I was there; I was part of something" mentality was undoubtedly a major motivation for many. This year I saw more cameras than ever before and constantly had to move out of the way, or suddenly stop, in the hopes of not ruining someone's shot. It reminded me of a movie that was principally about people making a movie. Everything, apart from the palpable irritability of these individuals, seemed staged. Oh, a lack of friendliness and camaraderie is pervasive to leftist gatherings but this one, far more than in years past, appeared to be merely of joiners going through the motions. Their presence that day was simply to negate but who and what they negated is open to dispute.

Bernard Chapin is a writer living in Chicago. He can be reached at bchapafl@hotmail.com.

Other related stories: (open in a new window)

  • Mass for the twisted and remedial: Protestors in Chicago by Bernard Chapin (March 29, 2004)
    In the end all Bernard Chapin could do during recent anti-war marches in Chicago was shake his head at the oddness of the event and make sure his friend didn't get assaulted by anarchists
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