April 7, 2002

S29 March, Downtown Chicago.

I arrive at Michigan and Wacker for the Anti-(War|Racism) rally and march. And what do I see across the street?

Police. Somebody's having a protest!

By the time I crossed the bridge over the river to Tribune Plaza, I counted no fewer than 17 uniformed police officers.

The Tribune Tower is, among other things, home to WGN Radio, 720 on your AM dial. Once upon a time, WGN shared that frequency with WCFL, the onetime radio station of the CFL, the Chicago Federation of Labor. WGN's still around, but you can guess what happened to the WCFL. (For more details, see Telecommunications, Mass Media, and Democracy, by Robert W. McChesney (Oxford: New York, 1993).)

Once more, in a temporal if not in an EM-spectral sense, WGN and pro-people forces meet. Some 150 activists and groups of many different (but not all that different) political stripes have already gathered near Tribune Tower. The usual actions are underway: meeting and greeting, passing flyers, displaying posters or other regalia.

There was one gentleman in particular at the protest who drew a lot of attention and flak: tall (maybe 6' 4"), built like a linebacker, short hair, sunglasses, wearing a Houston Rockets sweatshirt. He was basically accusing the assembled protesters of being unduly pro-Afghani, saying that if we loved Afghanistan so much, we should move there. Flights leave O'Hare daily. Freedom for everybody. One eagle-eyed protester noticed that this loudmouth schnook had on the collar of his lapel a very small microphone.

I would find again the giant clother American flag that appeared at last weekend's Daley Center Vigil. I literally lent a hand (just one this time) to help keep it outstretched and above-ground. The Peace sign was right nearby, a potent weapon with the giant flag in this war of memes.

The crowd grew to maybe 500 by the time the official festivities began, while it continued to grow. Music, rally songs, speeches--none of which I could readily hear, and I couldn't have been more than 15 meters away from the center. Let me make a wee suggestion to the Coalition: GET LOUDER! Amplified amplifiers! Louder loudspeakers! Megaphones on top of megaphones on top of megaphones!

Then the march began. Drums, chants ("Hey hey, ho, ho! Racist war has got to go!" "Feed the poor, not the war!"), adrenaline, and a sizable police escort on foot, on bike, and on horseback.

At this point, I helped fold the flag according to protocol (that really dusted off the eighth-grade part of my brain), and I was off. I didn't join the march per se, but followed alongside usually on the other side of the street, emplying the patent-pending technique of Chatting It Up With Random Gawk-Eyed Passersby. (I was happy to see a handful of other protesters also break away from the large march, handing out flyers as they went.)

Most of the crowd was moving south of Tribune Plaza, crossing the bridge on the east sidewalk. On the bridge: one person said the marchers were all kids, to which I responded in passing "It's more than just kids." I struck up a conversation with another random person, who abruptly cut off our conversation with words of equal parts sarcasm and mockery: "I hope you get your freedom, buddy."

The crowd continued down the east sidewalk of Michigan Avenue. I tried to spark a conversation about the march with one woman who ran off once I opened my mouth.

Further down Michigan Avenue. The crowd still growing by now stretched at least three blocks and was now seriously impinging downtown traffic flow wherever it went. This became particularly acute when the march crossed Michigan Avenue at Randolph, with car horns honking maybe in support, maybe not.

A Polish couple stood at a bus stop right at the corner; I spoke briefly with them in Polish and English. I asked the gentleman what he thought of the march, he said in English: "I don't know. We're in America now."

The crowd telescoped to just a block-and-a-half in length as it moved west along Randolph and turned south on Wabash. Then it turned west on Washington, then south on State, moving down the East sidewalk on State.

By now, I had developed a response template to passersby: the protest before your eyes is just one of dozens and dozens occurring in cities in the U.S. and around the world. Why, today [S29], tens of thousands were marching in DC and in San Francisco. Last weekend, some ten thousand marched in New York City. And it's all poised to grow. Having a nice day.

Here was what some people on State said to me in response (among those who talked anyway):

"We don't want you preaching here," said one dusty-gray-haired gentleman.

"But the media aren't covering it," said one woman regarding the many marches I mentioned. To which I said, yes, the media AREN'T covering it.

"Move them all," said one gentleman, referring to the marchers, as he stood next to a woman I presume was his wife. I said in response that maybe you should change your policies, which are inhumane. The gentleman responded by grabbing the woman's arm and leaving in anger.

The crowd, which seemed smaller now, turned west again, on Jackson, and converged into a lot next to the court building where Plymouth and Jackson meet for another round of speeches I couldn't readily hear. CIMC newstime, 1:45.

Among the marchers who handed out fliers on the other side of the street: One group of five males who may or may not have finished puberty each got handed fliers with the phrase "NO WAR". One smarty-pants in this bunch folded over the "NO" part. Another group of three passersby received fliers, only to immediately throw them into a nearby garbage receptacle. (You know, you could have recycled those.)

By now more police stood nearby, two of whom were carrying truncheons, also known as one protester pointed out, by the technical term "people-bashers."

As the speeches continued, I picked up a discarded "Prepare for Peace" sign and joined with students from Goshun College in a display of posters and placards to oncoming traffic, complete the usual ratio of middle fingers (lots) to honks of support (far fewer).

Double standard alert: On Plymouth, as the speeches took place, seven police sat at the ready on horseback. Behind them, I noticed three cars double parked in the opposite direction on a one-way street. Hello? Can we have some law enforcement please? Here's a great chance to fill your quota: there are three misdemeanors RIGHT BEHIND YOU!

The crowd, now smaller still, moved again, this time west on Jackson towards clark, then north on Clark, circling around the block to the Calder near the middle of the block. CIMC newstime, 2:20.

I was running out of steam, but I was lucky enough to run into a friend who was headed the same way I was. We opted to stay another ten minutes, then took the Brown line to the north side. What happened next struck me as way cool.

We talked on the train to pass the time.

We talked about how gossipy Bob Woodward is, the longtime decline of journalism, the hypocrisy and greed of airline industry executives, how some 70% of the bombs thrown in Gulf War missed their targets. And everyone on in our train car heard us. People justifiably complain that they don't command the broadcast media in our country, but there is one broadcast medium we undeniably do command: word-of-mouth.

Though the day's results were mixed, I still believe face-to-face interaction is one of our most powerful tools. You can do it today, and every day, without a king-sized budget. Get on the trains, in public areas, in groups of two or three or more, get talking, get busy. And the impact can be very real, as Michael Albert wrote in an email I got later that weekend:

"These are trying times. But they are also full of potential. People are upset, aroused, but also wondering about things that previously they had no concerns about or interest in, including foreign policy. Talk to them."

POSTSCRIPT: Returning to WGN, WGN devoted a whole sentence of its midnight "news" brief to the DC marches after S29. And I happened to get on the air on WGN's Nick D and Garry Lee show later that same night. I was able to lend my expertise on the topic of the moment--TV game shows. You can bet though that WCFL would have asked for details about the marches.