It’s 9:45 p.m., Thursday, March 20, 2003. I’m standing next to my girlfriend, Laura, holding her hand. She seems upset, but is keeping calm. Ten feet away from us a young woman is openly weeping. “Please, I just want to go home.” My friend Bob is trying to call his sister on his cellphone.
I’m with a group of about a thousand protesters, surrounded on all sides by hundreds of Chicago police officers in riot gear. We’ve been in this same spot for well over an hour. My legs are tired, I’ve discarded my hand-painted “DISARM BUSH” sign, and I have to pee something fierce. How on earth did I end up here?
Like most people, my only views of clashes with massed throngs of police are from snippets of “Medium Cool” and newsreel footage from the 1960s. The antiwar protests I’ve seen in real life generally consisted of a few people marching in a circle, with maybe one stalwart banging on a drum.
When I arrived with Laura at the Federal Plaza at 6 p.m., I figured we’d hear a few socialist rants, wave our signs at other protesters, then all go out for a few beers. The crowd was large, though, hard to say how many, and didn’t remain in the plaza, but spilled out onto the street, and formed a parade through the Loop.
From college through my 20s, one of the things that kept me out of protest marches was sheer embarrassment at the thought of shouting inane slogans like “Peace, now!” over and over again. I pictured myself as embodying cool, intellectual detachment, and screaming like a deranged cheerleader didn’t fit that image.
But there I was, shouting my lungs out, and loving it. Had I changed? Had my disgust with Bush’s policies simply pushed me over the edge? I decided that I was enjoying a benefit I hadn’t considered before, the thrill of being part of a mass movement. It feels good to know you’re not alone, when all the TV, radio and newspapers tell you that virtually everybody supports the war, and you’re crazy and/or treasonous to disagree.
Our march — many blocks long — headed eastward. Where were we headed? Lake Shore Drive! We turned north, and spread out over all four lanes of the road, shut it down. I couldn’t believe it. What were the police thinking? I didn’t care, it was too much fun — walking along a highway at rush hour, drivers honking, cheering us on. The air was electric with excitement. I felt powerful, important.
Laura and I displayed our signs for drivers. Some — more than a third — honked their horns and flashed “peace” signs. Some sat, angry and sullen. Others looked away. A few jumped out of their cars and joined the march. One driver was fast asleep at the wheel. All the others were talking on cellphones, waiting. At about Grand Avenue, near Navy Pier, the police blocked the northbound lanes and directed us to leave the highway. Instead, we took over the southbound lanes; then others retook the northbound lanes, and continued.
All eight lanes of the highway were filled with stalled cars, exasperated drivers and protest marchers. No car had moved for over an hour. Things have gotten a little out of hand, I thought. How much longer can this go on?
Just north of the Gold Coast, the few people with megaphones shouted for us to leave the highway and so we walked west toward Michigan avenue. At the north end of Michigan Avenue, the police stopped us, blocked the entire intersection of Michigan and Oak Street, the north end of the “Magnificent Mile” of fancy shops. Now what?
Slowly, people started to leave the crowd, in small groups. I wondered about the wisdom of that — a sizable group of police officers had gathered behind us as well. What would they do?
The crowd, still in the thousands, erupted in a cheer. Some young man had climbed a lamppost and hung an orange-and-black flag. The bullhorn-bearers kept us chanting, “Whose streets? Our streets!” then urged us to stay together in large groups. That made sense to me. Some curious onlookers peered from the windows of the Drake Hotel.
Finally, after a long wait, the bullhorns lead us east, back towards Lake Shore Drive. It was empty now, no cars anywhere. Police on horseback flanked us to the west. Again, some people tried to separate from the crowd, but bullhorns urged them not to. “They’ll pick us off!” they warned.
We turned en masse onto Chicago Avenue and walked quickly, almost jogging. Then, at Michigan, a wall of police in riot gear stopped our advance. Defiant shouts of “Let us march!” had no effect. I looked around. The police were gathering behind us as well, and on either side were buildings. We were surrounded.
“The whole word is watching!” we shouted. But they weren’t. While earlier news cameras had abounded, now they were absent. It was just a thousand of us and the police.
Later reports would hold that the police considered pepper spray, then decided against it. My friend Bob, a protest veteran, grabbed me and Laura, pulled us to the side of the crowd, and handed us handkerchiefs. “If you need to, soak this in water and breathe through it.” he urged.
An hour later, we were still standing around, trapped. Now we resembled the stalled drivers from earlier in the evening, yakking on cellphones, wishing aloud that we were someplace else.
News helicopters circled overhead. Occasionally a scuffle would break out and the police would drag a few people away. Mostly, they just stood there, shoulder to shoulder, as paddy wagon after paddy wagon arrived.
A couple of full-sized Sheriff Department buses followed. What could they do with a thousand people? Think of all the paperwork! “Twelve hundred were arrested in San Francisco,” Bob tells me, “My sister saw it on the news.”
Rumors spread quickly through the crowd. “They’re going to arrest us all!” “They’ll let us go, five at a time.” “They’re escorting the remaining cars out, then they’ll get rough with us.” Nobody knew anything.
My dad called my cellphone several times. “Can I come down there? Can you just leave? Is there anywhere you can go?” he asked each time. “No, Dad. There’s nothing I can do. Why don’t you call your alderman, the news, somebody. We need witnesses out here, so the cops don’t pummel us.”
Bob, Laura and I talked about what to do if the police advanced. “Stay passive, face against this wall,” Bob advised. “And try not to be in the first wave of arrests.” Laura and I got a marker from somebody and wrote a lawyer’s number on our palms.
“I just want to go home,” a schoolteacher behind me whined. No one disagreed. We were fresh out of piss and vinegar, we would-be revolutionaries, and looked a lot more like a bunch of middle-class folks who’d ventured too far out of their element.
A tall guy next to me considered climbing a wall next to us, which led to a parking garage. We urged him not to, and as he looked over the top, he saw more police down below.
Another rumor started: “I hear that if you just ask the police, they’ll let you leave.” I thought that sounded absurd. Who among us didn’t want that? Laura pleaded with me to approach them. I’d seen police talking and joking with protesters all night. But then I saw a few pairs of people escorted out of the crowd. Hopefully home, and not to the back of a paddy wagon.
Laura and I stowed our handkerchiefs and protest paraphernalia, and along with our friends lined up, like a bunch of kids trying to get past the bouncer into a popular bar, and elbowed our way towards the nearest police line. The cops weren’t talking much. They looked us over, nodded, and just like that we were free.
Half an hour later Laura and I were in my house, drinking a beer in front of the television. It played footage of the last few hundred protesters being carted off in those feared buses.
The announcer said, “The protesters were arrested for disorderly conduct, and refusal to disperse.”
– Joe Winston