Report From Chicago

IN interviewed a long-time Chicago activist.

Have there been any NY-style marches into and through traffic with improvised routes and unexpected turns in Chicago?

Yes—at least five that I’m aware of. When the failure to indict Darren Wilson was announced about 200 Chicagoans marched from police headquarters at 35th and Michigan to Lakeshore Drive, and we confounded the cops by moving from southbound lanes to northbound. They did not know what to do. I left at that point, but observed marchers continuing against traffic all the way downtown. I saw on TV that they continued to block traffic in the Loop later that night.

The next day, I believe it was very young people, college age, again disrupted traffic in the Loop.

A group of about 200, Latina-led, sat down for an extended period in the busiest white/Latino working class area on the Northside.

The Alliance marches on a Saturday blocked the Eisenhower Expressway and Lakeshore Drive again. This latter picked up a significant number of young Black marchers as it wound through Hyde Park.

How involved have you been and what have you noticed?

During Occupy, the open forums allowed me, with the assistance of some young activist friends, to participate in the formation of a left caucus that met about six times and engaged in distinct actions. Without my young friends, I have not been able to accomplish such.

Unlike during Occupy, and when you came to Chicago during Occupy, I have consciously avoided going to demonstrations here in Chicago. I have only been to three and, in those, retreated before the long marches.

So, I’m not in a position to report on the dozens of demonstrations here.

Just a few observations:

  1. On Saturday, December 13, during the “Millions March,” Chicago had a comparatively small number of people in the streets, about 300. In New York there were apparently one hundred times that number. But, when the 300, as did the 300 Spartans at Thermopylae, blocked the entrance to Nordstrom, the Chicago police snatched and struggled with dozens of demonstrators. And, as seems to be the case around the country, they have a knack for grabbing the Black activists.
  2. We have a phenomenon here that is very different from Seattle and “The Bay.” There seems to be unity amongst ethnic groups. Unfortunately that takes the form of the Chicago Alliance Against Racist & Political Repression (The Alliance), largely consisting of Black and professional white organizers demonstrating in mutual harmony for reform: in this case, a civilian review board. A friend just told me on the phone that such a demand can have a revolutionary dimension depending upon the quality of the protest. (I recall that same friend first making that argument in a 1974 meeting—about Russian workers striking over tepid water in the samovar). I am afraid the professional organizers here will be quite happy with a civilian review board and not move from hot water to the Soviets.
  3. We seem to have a good number of young Latinas and some Arabs involved in Chicago demonstrations.

What political challenges concern you?

I have never, perhaps since 1969, put much stock in civil disobedience, but even less in mixing modes and roles. Street fighting and civil disobedience are two different things. Further and most immediate and relevant: I believe that if one is going to play the role of street fighter, as in Paris and Tokyo in 1968, then one should go all out: helmets, shields, bats, and a certain degree of clandestinity. This “Oh, we were just protesting. I don’t see how they could arrest us” stuff drives me crazy. And I stay away from engagement with that ilk in Chicago.

An addendum: I realize in the cold unclear light of dawn that I was using “civil disobedience” in part as a term of opprobrium. This comes in part, however, not from my arrogance or “military-bent,,” but the distinction drawn amongst activists over the past 35 between civil disobedience and “direct action.” The latter denotes a certain military aspect: planning, preparation, a specific goal, and perhaps clandestinity. My shtick has to do with the mindset of young militants who may not be fully appreciative of the ramifications of fighting with police. Again, people have to be very clear when they engage in actions whether they are going to peacefully submit to arrest or fight the police. Mixing those results in the worst of both worlds, militarily and politically.

I understand that the massive improvised wandering marches in New York, at times shutting down three bridges, is a new category. But! The question is not one of definition. We can simply call the manifestations: “A,” “B,” and “C,” or whatever. I know you will agree that our role is to assess each and, perhaps even at our age, contribute to enhancing the political content.

Any other thoughts?


  • The Bay Area seems to be almost a different animal: destruction and battling police night after night for about 10 nights.
  • I am familiar with the expressway that demonstrators blocked in Miami. I found their doing so one of the more logistically significant actions around the world.

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