Chicago counter convention activities covered up by mainstream press
Sara Zia Ebrahimi
Somewhere buried deep among the millions of people inhabiting the "Windy City" of Chicago and the layers of police, security guards, FBI officials and snipers ensuring the safety of the president and the delegates of the Democratic National Convention was the largest anarchist gathering in Northern America. The only thing that kept the counter-convention, Active Resistance (AR), "buried" was the lack of media coverage by the mainstream media (including NPR). But this did not stop the migration of some almost 700 people from all over the US and Canada from attending this conference August 21-31. AR was hosted by a collective of anarchists that run an infoshop in Chicago called the Autonomous Zone, though planning for the conference took place over the past year at a series of gatherings as a collective effort by people all over the northeast and Midwest.
The first five days of the conference were filled with workshops and meetings of all types. Every morning from 10-12 was the networking or caucusing time. This was a time in which people from Earth First!, for example, could network with other Earthfirsters. Some groups actually did actions within the conference; the women's caucus, for example, did an action in which we all sat in a big circle on the floor of the room in which we ate and had a topless lunch.
From 1 till about 4:30 or 5 was what was called the Core Sessions, which were indeed the Core of the conference. The Cores were divided into three sections: Cooperatives, Collectives and Alternative Economics, Community Organizing, and Building Revolutionary Movements. Each of the Cores brought in keynote speakers such as Michael Albert from Z Magazine, Tom Knoche and George Friday from the National Organizer's Alliance and others. They included facilitated workshops, discussions and other activities. After the Core Sessions, from 5-7, were the Free Skool classes. Free Skool was an opportunity for people to share skills and resources with others. Anyone could sign up to offer a Free Skool class on almost any topic, including women's self-gynecology (and "interactive" class), the politics of punk, accupressure, and much more.
All of these were held in an old spice factory which was rented for an affordable rate. Though I found all these different types of workshops amazing, my one critique of the conference was that it was rather intense and overwhelming. By the time it came to lunch and dinner, which were cooked and served by a group called Seeds of Peace, I was usually so tired and could not make the effort to try to meet any of the 700 people there that I didn't know. There were some "social" events which took place in the evenings, but often people ended up going their own ways to explore the night life of Chicago. The few new people that I did get to meet were certainly worth the whole experience though.
The rest of the conference was filled with other events and actions. There were several other counter events going on in the city such as the Yippie reunion (a large music/pot festival in the park) and coordinated harrassment of MTV's "Rock the Vote" production. Among other AR sponsored events, the best being the Radical Bus Tour of Chicago. Indeed it must have been a sight to see three yellow school buses with all sorts of crazy young anarchists hanging out the windows. Each was narrated by someone from the A-zone and went through all the neighborhoods, past the Police Headquarters (which received a warm welcoming chorus of oinks and other greetings) and ended with a picnic in Waldheim, the German cemetery which is the site of the anarchist Haymarket Memorial as well as Emma Goldman and many other activists and IWW organizers graves.
The arts also had a large part at the conference. There were always dance classes and a few performances during that week and a half. There was also a Propaganda Gallery done in cooperation with the counter coverage of the conference known as Countermedia. It was at the Gallery, which was decorated with posters and flyers from different resistance movements, that the UnConventional Film Festival was held most of the evenings of the conference. A group of artists from the San Francisco area coordinated large scale puppet making out of paper mache and other materials.
The puppets were truly amazing. There were all sorts of different ones that people could wear over their heads from Joe Camel to a CIA. There were two that particularly struck the majority of people there. One was the series of pig masks that were accompanied by handmade cop like uniforms and billy clubs. The people in these costumes always marched near the police and mocked them whenever they were present at the marches. The other was a twenty foot structure made of ply wood that was erected on wheels. It was painted to look like a large corporate building with different corporate logos in each window. The puppet then had two arms that came out of it, one from each side, one holding a marionette of Clinton, the other of Dole. The corporate structure was being dragged (not literally) by ropes by people wearing signs that said "consumers", "workers" or "voters." Many of the "voters" held large ballets that said "same old" next to two un-checkmarked squares. Behind the corporate structure were the forgotten or overshadowed, people dressed up as single mothers and welfare recipients and such. The real beauty of the structure was that it could collapse. The panels all came down with images of community meetings, free schools, organic farms and other parts of the anarchist vision painted on the other side. In the middle of the bare boned frame was a raised fist.
The puppets, as well as most of the participants of AR attended two marches on to where the DNC was being held (which ironically was surrounded by some of the worst projects in Chicago on the back side.) The first march, which was on that Tuesday the 27th, was called "Not on the Guest List" which was an action that a coalition of groups from all over Chicago participated in. The cops were certainly out in full force, and managed to block us off before we made it to the United Center. There was a stand off between us and the police for a few hours, but soon people realized that there was little good in staying and pursuing our entry into the center. The next day there was an article on the front of the Chicago Tribune praising the cops for not inciting riots like in '68 and that police brutality, if it ever even existed, is a thing of the past.
The next march, which was the following Thursday, was more than just a march. It was festivities, dancing, body paint, music and street theater in the streets of Chicago, without a permit of course. This was an event almost exclusively with people from AR (though people from the neighborhoods did join) called the Festival of the Oppressed. This time the police came mounted on their horses and with riot gear. Thirteen arrests were made that day, most of whom were people involved with Countermedia and were video taping. For most of the cases the cops had waited till someone had strayed into a side street or actually cornered them aside in that manner.
The worst case was one guy, who was far from being loud and obnoxious like others of us, got his foot trampled on by a police horse. His friend stayed behind with him and soon they were picked up by someone in a van who was following the march to drive him to the hospital. The cops, however, blocked them off on a side street and apparently opened the back door and dragged them all out paying no attention to his pleas that he could not stand on his foot. They were all arrested, and this particular guy was taken in room and interrogated by the police. It wasn't until very late in the night that he was given medical attention for his foot, which had been aggravated by the cops dragging him and trying to force him to walk. After the ordeal, he also had bandages on his wrists from the handcuffs being too tight. Others complained of verbal abuse by the cops.
That same night the Ballroom was raided by the police who came through the back entrance where Seeds of Peace had their trailer. Two members from Seeds were pepper-sprayed trying to stop them from entering. The cops went through everyone's stuff that was there and searched the space (of course finding nothing but puppet and food material). Immediately everyone from the Spice factory was evacuated and moved to a new spot. Some people also reported being stopped and frisked by cops that evening when they were walking on their own in the area.
The media acknowledged us one time, on August 30th, when the Chicago Tribune printed a small article in the front section which mentioned our "claims" about the previous day's raid and harassment. The rest of the article was dedicated to the claims of the city police, which were that people from AR dressed up as media representatives with phony press passes issued false press statements on police stationery (I promise I am not exaggerating) and that none of the things we had "claimed" had ever happened.
And then it was over. Everyone finally got released the next day, the conference was over and we all left to return to our communities to share what we had learned. It certainly wasn't '68, but in many ways it was actually better because we were creating our own conference, networking, building, and in the end that will upset those in power more than the convention demonstrations of '68 ever could.
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