Remembering Active Resistance – cops, Democrats and anarchy run riot in Chicago

by arrrgh-bot eggplant

Being a teenager in the 1980’s it was attractive to rebel by getting into the rich music scenes of metal and punk. I found sanctuary from the stupid American game of “capitalism is here forever, Amen.” I noticed quickly that most of the foot soldiers in these two camps of counterculture groups held special contempt for hippies ­—the other being poseurs.  One would think the lingering character flaws of religious fanatics, meathead jock-thugs as well as newly christened yuppies would deserve our primary ridicule. But I get it. The youth felt it necessary to differentiate themselves from the previous generation. Hippies were perceived as ineffectual, narcissistic and horribly stuck in the past. The punks largely ignored the 20th Anniversary of the Summer of Love and of Woodstock. Instead, celebration was saved for the deaths of Bill Graham and Jerry Garcia. The statues made by the Love Generation were more convenient to topple than police stations or World Trade buildings.

By 1996 a weird off-beat anniversary of our parent’s youth was scheduled. The Democrats were having a convention in Chicago for the first time since the disastrous convention protests in 1968. ‘68 went so badly it could be argued that it gave the seat of government to the reactionary wing for the next 8 years — and then 12 years more in the 80’s. The image of uncouth protesters facing off against the naked violence of the Chicago police and US Military is considered a high water mark for domestic radicalism. Many people who were previously eager about the country and its future walked on from Chicago ‘68 hating the government, the police, the courts and dismissing the whole American system as unreformable.

The hippie protesters of ‘68 planned their presence to be a Festival of Life; a marriage of sorts between the Heads and Fists. This unification of dropouts with those who were engaged in active resistance seemed inevitable and held promise to gather enormous numbers of people to create a splendid pageant. The rising tide determined to change the dialog of the country and inspire utopian dreams to counter what was really happening on the main stage – the Festival of Death. But the forces of control and coercion robbed the show as it tends to do making the gathering in Chicago the year’s top televised crisis. Just another distraction until rock-throwing protesters could be upgraded into the Manson Family and the SLA — and put people back in line hating dropouts and freaks.

The return of presidential shell games to Chicago in ’96 meant some sort of sequel was being played out. The static buzzing from the media made comparisons to the much publicize fracas of the 1960’s. Cops were said to have buttons that read, “I beat up your dad in ‘68” or some mentally ill thing like it. The message was that people not buying into the game should fear reprisals. The punk scene made for more dynamic options than just laughing off the spectacle and staying home, there was a little nudge to take the stage rather than complain about the show.

The Bay Area not only had a healthy punk and protest scene, it had an alien visit in 1989 in the form of an Anarchist Gathering. The space creatures who arrived that summer set up camp next to and within the punk scene (as well as the existing anarchist, activist and various scenes of freaks). The makeup of the community forever changed. A fiery charge was taken to the normal cycle of local protests. Many in the punk scene like myself were drawn to the vortex like the sudden arrival of a circle pit when a good tune starts up. Protests locally against the University, the police, war and racism sparked interest and passion into issues just outside of our reach. The calls to protect old growth redwood trees, Native cattle rights in Arizona or to confront white supremacist circle jerks suddenly had more car pools to choose from. Chicago’s 2nd DNC came well after this burst of energy but with a twist. The space ship Anarchist Convention was making another landing — promising more than just dull protests. The portals opened once again for freaks and people of strange intelligence to gather.

I hadn’t planned on attending but was offered a seat with some friends who were. Little did I know so many people from my scene (or my scene to come) were going and we managed to change the make up of people on the streets of the Windy City. My posse made a stop at Minneapolis long enough for me to get a good idea of the town. We visited the Profane Existence store/operation. That seemed like a good idea and thereby raised that organization out of abstraction for me. Maybe more people should pay visits to the DIY projects clogging the air space and get a feel of where they are coming from. After passing through Wisconsin for the first time we entered into the bosom of tall buildings that is Chicago. By nightfall we were in the desolate warehouse district where the convergence site was for protesters and other malcontents. The feelings of alienation that comes with a strange land scattered when I encountered my martial arts teacher at the door greeting new arrivals.

The convergence site doubled as Active Resistance, not quite a Festival of Life but at least ground zero for workshops and discussions. Building up to the days of the Convention across town were events outside and inside the warehouse. I think we were also permitted to sleep there or nearby. This allowed us to romp around town for a minute. I got to see Neurosis, a Bay Area band, play a small space that was so tightly packed the walls sweated as much as the people did. This was in the Wicker Park neighborhood, before it transformed like so many places into exclusive wealthy playgrounds. The vibrant street activity reminded me of familiar locales like Telegraph Ave or the Mission District, a multi-ethnic universe in defiance of the city’s segregated lines. We passed a Slam Poetry reading, which at the time was still underground and a little dangerous. It is unfortunate our group wasn’t distributing a message to take with us on the streets like; “Fuck the Democrats”, or “Anarchy Now!” That would’ve elevated us from being badly dressed tourists. We were new to town without a plan and without much purpose. Our politics lacked acumen and that certain kind of insanity that can get away with tampering the line to incarceration.

Eventually the convergence space became insanely busy. A day of workshops came before the days of marches and actions. The warehouse became intoxicating as several rooms offered simultaneous activities. I wandered into a train hopping presentation and the room was filled mostly with traveling kids (later to be called “Crusties”). At the center was a normie looking guy renowned for assembling the crew change guide for the United Stated and Canada. I was drawn into his style of talking and experience, as well as the collective intelligence of the people in the room. Still while learning delicious info about free travel I was missing about 4 other really interesting talks and activities in nearby rooms.

Later I went on one of the marches. The police didn’t charge us like expected. They did out number us in obscene proportions. The big news was that the Grey Men in Grey Suits came up with “Free Speech Zones” for us, that quickly was renamed “Protest Pens”. They are what they sound like; a fenced-off cube, but miles away from the eyes of the public or delegates or perhaps even God if such a thing existed. The “Protest Pens” most resembled an out door prison cell. Thankfully our march didn’t enter the cage and drink the Kool Aid. The rest of the time we kept on marching without permits, which in itself brings a certain satisfaction. I don’t really recall any dramatic window breakings or burning dumpsters which we would see in 1999 in Seattle.

The police did raid the warehouse as well as the Seeds of Peace kitchen that committed the crime of feeding the anarchist convergence. This heavy-handed tactic would continue into the next decade with confiscation of puppets and protest signs as alleged threats to order. The dominant culture made sure no organized resistance would step from the shadows of the monuments, be it government or the social movements of the past. Active Resistance did not live up to the Festival of Life. But it can be said that something as compelling came with the social ties people made and lessons learned that would inform later fights. The people who attended the anti-convention in Chicago were on hand for the highly publicized fights of subsequent years. More important they returned to their communities doing small things of consequence.