August 19, 2001

A Protest at the Air and Water Show: My Account

The 43rd Annual Chicago Air and Water Show.
August 18, 2001, noontime CDT.
Official forecast for the Chicagoland area: Mostly cloudy, chance of rain, high around 70.

Protests against the Show were set for the East End of the footbridge straddling Lake Shore Drive, two blocks north of North. I thought I might be able to stop by and advance (even a little) the cause of peace, freedom and justice in between renewing my library card and lunch.

Hundreds of thousands of sightseers braved the forecast to see the KC-10 and later KC-135 flying overhead. (Irrelevant and tangential but neat fact: The KC-135 was nicknamed the "vomit-comet", and can simulate antigravity when flying at just the right height and angle. The KC-135 was even used in some of the scenes in Apollo 13 for the movie Apollo 13.)

Scads of people. No protesters.

So I looked around. And around. Finally, under the footbridge, I chanced upon a rolled-up tarpaulin sign. There were also boxes full of flyers and two protesters.


It turns out two members of the 8th Day Center for Justice stayed under the bridge to avoid the rain. But the rain finally let up enough for another go at unfurling the maybe-20-foot sign (don't ask me what was on the sign; I don't remember).

I offered to help unfurl the sign and assemble the large wooden sticks used to hold up the sign. While doing so, I saw in the corner of my eye someone holding a microphone with the NBC peacock on it.

Concentrating on the task at hand: Unscrew the easy-to-handle bolt, attach sticks through the giant screws, rescrew the bolt.

"Excuse me."


Mostly unprepared.
Unable to get out of bolt-screwing mode.
In the rain.
On an empty stomach.
And now, a microphone and TV camera are in my face.

"Could you explain what you're protesting about?"

I tried to. Really I tried. But I couldn't say anything beyond something vague about environmental degradation. I couldn't even remember the words "global warming."

"Can you explain what your organization is about?"

Organization? I JUST MET these guys. I found out about this protest on the Chicago Independent Media Center; that's why I'm here. Do you need to belong to an organization to fight for truth, justice, and the American Way?

Of course, it was too much to ask of getting my tongue and brain to work in sync. I tried to. Really I tried. (I did at least mention the Chicago Independent Media Center, which they got on tape.)

Having sufficiently mined me for soundbites, the microphone and camera left. By now, the sign was unfurled and displayed to public views and public boos.

There was, however, one woman who was supporting our right to display our opinions.

That's good.

I approached her to find out her view on things. She said she was supporting the show and the military.

That's bad.

I didn't find out her name, but I found our that she once served in the military in fact. In Alabama; naval reserve, I think. Her argument went something like this: The three of us have the freedom to say whatever we want --a freedom secured and protected through the vigilance of a strong military, which you don't have in the country you came from (which for me happens to be America).

I suppose there are lots of ways to counter this argument. One I was trying to get out of my mouth was that freedom of speech is won and secured through long, popular struggle, and not from the barrel of a gun. But actually saying that was beyond all hope in my current state of incoherence. And oh look, there's that TV camera again, watching me lose this argument.

And oh look, the rain is getting harder.

I asked for a 20-second timeout to get my umbrella. When I returned, the camera and microphone were interviewing my debating opponent, relishing her apparent victory.

By the way, amidst the rain they had to take the tarpaulin sign back down.


Meanwhile, the crowd was wowed by the sight of the Stealth Fighter Bomber, which despite its name seems very visible indeed at events to muster public support for the military, like the Super Bowl and the Air and Water Show.

My attempt at articulate reasoned public argument never took off, but instead crashed and burned. So I instead took the no-frills approach and distributed flyers. I can at least handle saying "flyer" hundreds of times, I hope.

After sounding like a flight attendant, I decided to head out for lunch and said goodbye, goodbye, goodbye now, goodbye.

By the time this article posts, I may have already appeared on local television. I hope not; I inadvertently made my best efforts not to, and I wouldn't know first hand if I did. I don't own a television and don't care to.

So, two lessons:

(1) The Boy Scouts had it right. Be prepared. Don't partake in a protest on an empty stomach if you can help it. And don't forget to bring along your brain and tongue.

(2) If you see an NBC camera crew at a protest, beware. YOU might be interviewed next.

And two points to inspire:

(1) When I was at the Air and Water Show, I was one of just three protesters on hand amid a crowd of almost a million people. And with all those people to choose to talk to, a camera crew CAME TO TALK TO US!

(2) To paraphrase what Ron Daniels once said: "Service is more important than success. And I submit to you that service is success."

I certainly hope so.