Like Burned out Bulbs on a Ferris Wheel: Patriot? Terrorist? a Column

Something started happening to me when I took my big east coast road trip this past January. I had been thinking a lot about the whole terrorist/patriot dichotomy – how everyone was telling me that if you agreed with the government you were a patriot, and if you didn’t, you were a terrorist (or at least a terrorist sympathizer). And I heard this great Mark Twain quote around that same time: “Loyalty to the country always. Loyalty to the government when it deserves it.” People were scared and defensive and they were confusing patriotism with nationalism. Nationalism is the scary thing that means you follow your government blindly. Patriotism simply means loving your country – which means that maybe it’s not so much of a contradiction to be an anarchist and a patriot. It was something I started realizing when I went on the road trip, ignoring the boundaries of state lines, re-discovering the east coast, and meeting so many amazing people (including a cop who actually helped me out!). My idea of what it means to be a patriot was cemented for me at the protest.

It was a November Thursday and the TABD was coming to town. The TABD (Trans-Atlantic Business Dialogue) are friends of the WTO and other such lovely organizations. They were meeting in Chicago because one of the co-chairs of the TABD is Boeing, who is based in Chicago. Boeing is one of the largest defense contractors and arms producers in the world. In light of everything that’s been going on regarding Iraq, the protest became not just an anti-evil capitalist march, but also an anti-war march. I had never been to a protest before – it’s not that I don’t think they’re important, it’s just never been my thing. I’ve always preferred to write about things I believe in, in zines or songs or stories, to wheat-paste posters around town. This protest was important to go to, though, and it seemed like a good place to start.

The evening was cold, but not too cold. The wind is always chilly in Chicago in November, but it wasn’t the kind of day when the air bites your ears and makes you feel like they’re going to fall off. A chilly breeze, but a sweatshirt and a leather jacket were warm enough; the clouds were fading indigo when I arrived at the el stop closest to the Boeing building. Ten cops stood on the platform, ominously, with their arms crossed – riot helmets, batons and bats, and padded uniforms. Wusses. All I had was my steel-toe shoes.

“Where’s the war?” I wanted to shout, but then: “Oh, right.”

I walked west to Washington and Canal, to Boeing’s headquarters. Everything was frenzied already – hundreds and hundreds of cops in the same riot gear lining the streets, people milling about waiting for the protest to start, spectators on the sidewalks, business people with mouths open and people with cameras and video cameras, documenting. Click, click, snap, snap, lights, camera, action! Let’s put on a show. I wormed my way into the crowd of protestors and shouted out to the first person I saw who I even vaguely knew. I stood next to him and he handed me an upside-down American flag to wave. “Can I take a photo of you with your flag?” a boy with a camera asked. “It’s a neat image.” So I mugged it for him, holding the flag up proud and giving him my best Sid Vicious sneer.

Nearby was “The Pink Bloque,” a group of sexy grrls in pink and black, bumpin’ and grindin’ to some dance music, with patches on their shirts that said “2 Cute 2 B Arrested.” And it was true. There were puppets and people with music. Someone had started speaking up at the front of the crowd, but I couldn’t hear a word they were saying, so I listened to the music instead. A bunch of kids were bangin’ on pots and pans and plastic pickle tubs – one of them a cute boy with a blue mohawk who I gave my zine to once. There were two kids with monster masks and signs saying “vile music for a vile world.” They played discordant drums and violin. I thought it was beautiful, though, not vile. I danced to drums and waited and waited, taking plastic fangs from a boy handing out “instant CEO costumes.”

My plan was to go to the protest for a while and then go to class, but at the time I would have had to leave, I was in the middle of such a crowd that it would have been impossible to get out, and I was so caught up in the spirit of all of it that I didn’t even want to leave. I love my fiction writing classes, but damn, I think this protest was maybe more important for me to be at that night than sitting in a classroom.

So the march finally started and we walked. I waved my flag and I sang along with chants and cheers. The sky got darker and the air colder, but we kept marching. And the cops stood along the sidewalks with their arms crossed, just daring us to get anywhere near them. They were so un-smiling. They were like a wall between us and the “good, patriotic citizens” just standing on the sidewalk. I motioned for people on the sidewalks and in the office buildings to join us. “Off of the sidewalks, into the street!” we yelled. I don’t know how you could have seen us and not wanted to join us. Some people complained afterward that it was more like a parade than a march, with all the music and the laughter. So fucking what? I think having a joyful protest is a hell of a lot more interesting than looking glum, like it’s some fucking funeral march. Emma Goldman said it best: “If I can’t dance, I don’t want to be part of your revolution.”

I saw a whole bunch of people I knew and laughed at the guys teasing the cops with big cardboard donuts on strings. We marched east on Washington and started heading north on Michigan Avenue. The cops and all their clubs and paddy wagons and their fucking helicopters made me nervous, but I looked one cop square in the eye and smiled at him. I saw him flinch. That’s when I knew I didn’t have to be scared of them, and that I refused to be scared of them. They try to look like machines but they’re fucking people. Maybe a lot of ’em are shitty people, but they’re people nonetheless.

And the stars were coming out, a few of them twinkling above the smog and the helicopters.

There was a woman with a sign that said: “I’m not an anarchist and I have a right to march.” Well no shit, lady, anyone has a right to march. It was partly amusing and partly sickening that she felt the need to make it so very clear she wasn’t an anarchist. There were people standing behind me at one point, talking about how the reason there were so many cops was that at other protests, the anarchists always do stuff like burn down buildings and beat people up. “Yes, you’re right,” I wanted to say to them – “and I’m going to beat you up now.” But instead I just waved my upside-down flag in their faces and glared.

I marched with some folks from the IWW for a while, singing along with them: “Solidarity forever, solidarity forever, solidarity forever – cos the union makes us strong!” Someone told me the other day that they didn’t understand why an anarchist would march with union people. First of all, plenty of people in the IWW consider themselves anarchists. Second, anyone trying to improve conditions for workers is alright by me. Third, I’ll work with anyone to reach a common goal. And, well, they just fucking rock, you know? I was proud as hell to be marching with the Wobblies.

We reached our destination, the Chicago Tribune building, as close to the Sheraton Hotel (where the meetings were taking place) as they were gonna let us get. The lights from skyscrapers sparkled on the Chicago River. I noticed this as I noticed the police boats. Perhaps they heard the rumor there would be a Pirate Bloc – a bunch of kids rowing toward the Sheraton: “Row row row your boat, row for anarchy! Merrily merrily merrily merrily – smash the state with me!”

More people were drumming and dancing and the protest turned into some sort of big revolutionary street party. It was cold and dark but we all stood around and laughed and listened. Eventually, I headed home with a few of my friends. We had to push our way through a line of cops and for a second I was scared again – afraid that they might, I don’t know, arrest us just for being there. Of course they couldn’t have legally done that, but you know how much cops love breaking the law. They didn’t arrest us, though, and the four of us ran through the dark and cold, mostly-abandoned city streets. We decided we had to take a piss and so we ran into the nearest department store – which happened to be Nordstrom’s. The cops and security guards standing outside gave us dirty looks, suspicious of us because of our black clothes and bandanas – obviously we were black blocers, at least in their eyes. The shoppers were suspicious of us, as well. We were dirty and they probably thought we were going to steal something. “No, rich ladies,” I wanted to reassure them, “we don’t want any of these fur coats. We’re just using the bathroom.”

The mainstream news media treated it like a joke – both before and after the protest. Beforehand, both Red Streak and Red Eye (the Chicago Sun-Times and the Chicago Tribune‘s attempts at making “hip, youth-oriented, cutting-edge” newspapers, respectively), ran pieces on it. The worst was the article (if you can even call it that) in Red Streak. A couple days before the protest, on the front page of the paper, there was a picture of a guy I knew, standing inside the Autonomous Zone (a meeting space for some of Chicago’s anarchists), with the headline: “Hello, Chicago: I’ll be your anarchist for the week.” “Anarchy in Chicago can be found in a rundown storefront on Milwaukee Avenue, between the Princess Unisex Hairstyling salon and an abandoned store where they used to sell storm windows,” they said, and: “In his old postal jacket and black boots, Ebright doesn’t look like he’d need a goon squad to keep him down.”

And afterwards, when the television networks covered it, they panned to shots of the protestors, and shots of those “nice, normal, patriotic” citizens looking scared on the inside of brightly-lit store windows. They said: “The protest remained peaceful because of the police,” implying that there would have been riots if there were no cops there, implying that the only thing dissenters are interested in is destruction, not actual change. They reported that there were only one thousand people there, lowering the numbers to make it seem like there wasn’t much interest in it – but at the height of the protest I’m quite sure there were about two thousand people. (And there were three thousand police officers to keep us all in line.)

Funny thing is, I felt like more of a patriot than ever with my upside-down American flag. I’ve been thinking a lot lately – just because I’m an anarchist doesn’t mean I can’t love this country. And I do love this country. I love how big it is, how you can find every kind of food and landscape and music and culture possible if you look hard enough; how you can drive for days and days and days and still not make it across the whole damn thing. Although there are plenty of Americans who are morons, there are a lot of really amazing people who live in this country, too – and I love them. So I’m a patriot. Being a patriot doesn’t mean calling for revenge after a tragedy, or blindly following what the government does. Being a patriot means, for me, calling for real change in the way things are done. It means questioning the government when they’re doing something fucked up. I think I hate the government that much more because of how much I love this country.