May 3, 2001

My May Day afternoon in Chicago

May 1, 2001, 11:30 AM CDT, the Chicago Board of Trade. The Dow was up 77 points.

I was there at that time to keep a promise I made in February 2001 to partake in 2001 May Day festivities, which began downtown at the intersection of LaSalle and Jackson. From the North, LaSalle butts up to Jackson for ming a T-shaped intersection. On either side of LaSalle street on the "underarms" of the T-shape, a raucous and noisy but peaceful crowd--in the dozens at first, but the hundreds later on--had assembled to announce its presence. Some brought portable speakers to announce their presence and give an earful to The Man. Among the visual regalia: posters, banners, flags, signs, an effigy of Ronald McDonald, and a large amorphous paper-mache black blob on a shopping cart written with the words "Corporate Monster".

Police lined the perimeter of the south entrance to the Board of Trade and set up makeshift two-foot-high metal fences between the sidewalks and the streets. Extra police stood at the ready nearby on three-wheelers and on horseback. Along the sidewalk in front of Board's south entrance, a fair number of curiosity-seeking Traders came out to see what the hubbub was all about in between puffs. (I swear, does EVERYONE at the Board of Trade smoke?) I opted to watch the growing crowd of Shiny Happy People on the opposite sidewalk, near the Board of Trade.

Some comments from the Traders:

"I came to see if things got violent."

"What are they? Communists?"

"Get a job!"

I began my afternoon of activism with a response to this last comment: "Get a conscience!" The guy turned his head, stunned and surprised. (Not bad, but my sister the elementary-school teacher later won the world championship in retorts to this cliche: "Get a blow job!")

This broke the ice for me, so I began to talk with some of the confused faces I saw. "You look confused" was my typical opening line. I explained that, yes, it was May Day, and that, yes, there was a method to this "madness" as I extemporized a Cliff's Notes' version of every essay Walden Bello has ever written--that the McLib el Campaign, the Greens (Naderites and non), the Radical Cheerleaders, the IWW, Jobs With Justice, United Stud ents Against Sweatshops, some culturejammers, two gay-rights groups I had never heard of before, and many, many others were all fundamentally for soverignty and justice, and against the Transnational Corporation and its entourage (the WTO, IMF, and World Bank).

You could tell when I scoring some big points in these talks. People would turn their heads away, then turn back when I kept talking. One gentleman in his 60's tried to belittle my explanations by comparing the protesters with holocaust deniers. But what shocked me most about these people was the depth of ignorance of what was happening before their eyes and about the topic material I was discussing.

I imagine that these people weren't slobs: they graduated from college (probably grad school too), and were smart enough and dedicated enough to get and keep good jobs. And yet I got questions I would expect from kinder gartners. Typical was a conversation I had with an anonymous suited stranger (reconstructed from memory so the words might not be exact):

Anonymous Suited Stranger: So what are they after?

Me: I believe that they're all after the Transnational Corporation.

ASS: So what about the National Corporation? That's okay, right?

Me: The problem is that they're both after maximizing profit.

ASS: So is profit the problem?

Me: I don't think it's just profit that's the problem; it's that profit is being put ahead of everything else.

Around noon, the crowd began to move north on the east sidewalk up LaSalle, chanting as the police moved along side. I followed instead on the west sidewalk, wielding the dangerous weapons of reason and understanding as I chatted it up with random suits.

The crowd--now encompassing at least a block-and-a-half of downtown Chicago sidewalk--turned east on Randolph, and converged at the corner of Randolph and Clark, right in front of the Thomson Center plaza. And they weren't alone.

The weirdest combined dreams of Andre Bretton, Salvador Dali, and Rod Serling could not begin to fathom what came next. The crowd of protesters found themselves competing for noise-levels and attention against--a 12-piece band of Czech musicians in traditional dress, right next to the political rally. A group of maybe 100 people were sitting in folding chairs enjoying the music (I would be surprised if anyone in that crowd was younger than 40.) And some of the activists enjoyed the music, cutting a rug with the four old women who were dancing, waving their signs to the beat.

Anticapitalist protests are fine, but this was too mind-blowing for me. Since my appetite wasn't being curbed by my adrenaline high, and since I didn't want to see something really weird happen like the Cubs winning the World Series, I chose at this point to go home. This, I believe, was about 1:00 pm.

And as to my role in all this: I like to think I made a serious impact that day. I didn't bring a large amorphous paper-mache black blob or even a simple protest sign. I wasn't wearing anything more provocative than bluejeans and a gray shirt (collared even!). And yet, I hope I helped give a bit more understanding to these "elites" of what the deal exactly was with the crowd and what the deal exactly is with the world around them. It just goes to show you that you don't have to be "weird" or anonymous or carrying a sign or distributing leaflets or carrying an effigy to be an activist. There's even room in the activist community for people like me who have a job (!) and attend graduate school (!!) studying computer science (!!!) at the University of Chicago (!!!!).

There might even be room for Anonymous Suited Strangers (!!!!!).