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"We did something valuable with our takeover"
Taking the streets in Chicago

March 28, 2003 | Page 10

DAVID WHITEHOUSE, who is in charge of production for Socialist Worker, was arrested during an emergency demonstration in Chicago on the night that the war began. Here, he describes the protest--and the night of discussion in jail.

My arrest came at the end of a March 20 antiwar demonstration, where a steadily growing crowd of 20,000 people shut down the city's Lake Shore Drive, an eight-lane highway that runs much of the length of the city along the Lake Michigan shore.

The opening antiwar rally at Federal Plaza was probably attended by no more than 5,000 people, but we picked up marchers along the way as we headed toward the lake. At this point, we completely outnumbered the police, and masses of people simply swept past the first few barriers they tried to set up. This was mass civil disobedience in action. We had the numbers to take the streets and to keep up the momentum--all that was needed was for someone to take the initiative.

After taking over the highway, we marched north for more than a mile. The antiwar parade delighted most motorists--even though we left hundreds and hundreds of cars marooned for probably an hour or more. As we passed between cars headed south on the drive, many motorists honked their horn--and a few got out to greet us with peace signs.

When we left Lake Shore and tried to circle back to the original rallying site, though, the police--first a few hundred, and then hundreds and hundreds more--repeatedly blocked our path and split the crowd into smaller and smaller groups. I was in one group, seemingly the biggest remaining, of about 2,500 people. Lines of cops forced us into a short stretch of Chicago Avenue that was blocked off at one end by a double row of mounted police, backed up by hundreds of helmeted cops with nightsticks.

Within 10 minutes, the police had sent a line of helmeted cops behind us as well. We were now squeezed at both ends, with a line of buildings on either side. The police didn't tell us to disperse, and they refused to let us pass on--even in small numbers. This trapped part of the crowd still numbered at least 2,000, and I remember thinking that we had just been kidnapped--arbitrarily and unaccountably held against our will.

I heard a rumor that a protest leader had negotiated a path out of the pen and approached to see whether this was true. When I got within 50 feet of the police line, the cops suddenly surged forward and arrested four demonstrators. The whole police line, with nightsticks held horizontal in both hands, started to push us backward--compressing the crowd into a smaller space. Then they started swinging nightsticks at the upper bodies of those who went too slowly.

After this initial spurt of violence, it still wasn't clear what the cops were asking us to do. Many in the crowd were angry now, even more seemed frightened, and everybody was bewildered. When the police line started to push again, some minutes later, I joined 10 or so others who escaped sideways into a hotel lobby. But several cops came inside to force us out.

One cop simultaneously told me to leave the hotel--and blocked my path to the revolving door. Fed up, I told him to get out of my way. He said that I shouldn't talk to him that way as I brushed past him to get to the exit. I almost got out, but he dragged me back into the lobby and put me in plastic handcuffs. As I was on my belly, he pulled the cuffs extra tight behind my back, apparently because my tone had offended him.

For the next two-and-a-half, me and my future cellmates were crammed into a police wagon. We remained cuffed throughout this time. As we sat in the police station parking lot, one of those arrested--who had recently undergone vascular surgery--passed out from the pain and lack of circulation. We pounded on the walls of the wagon to get the cops' attention. Several minutes went before an officer came to cut off this one man's handcuffs and give him a proper seat in the front of the wagon. As I write this 20 hours after they cut the cuffs off the rest of us, I still haven't regained full sensation in my right hand. I imagine that this was a common experience with those arrested.

Fortunately, my cellmates were a more interesting and compassionate bunch than our custodians. This was particularly important, since there were 14 of us crammed into a holding cell that measured eight-feet-by-ten-feet. Next door was another cell with 15 men. There must have been at least four other pairs of cells along that single hallway--each filled with the night's political arrestees.

The only person who managed to sleep in our cell was somebody with jail experience--who crawled onto the muddy cement floor under the cell's lone metal bench. It was the only place to stretch out. I spent most of the night standing. Many commented on how awful the circumstances were--although it was a hundred preferable to spending that night in Baghdad.

We learned a lot about each other. My cell had two teachers, one litigator for the Environmental Protection Agency, one college chaplain who had campaigned against the School of the Americas, a graphic artist, two men who had been active in politics since ACT UP in the 1980s, and a college freshman who was studying to become a drummer. Our average age was maybe 30. Other cells were noticeably younger.

There was something else striking about the whole crowd--the number of people who had been arrested in the vicinity of the demonstration, but who had not participated in it. One lived in the neighborhood and had been out for a jog--which explained why he was wearing sweatpants and couldn't produce an ID. Three others in my cell had been on a city bus that had gotten trapped by the police lines on Chicago Avenue.

Altogether in our cell and the one facing it, seven out of the 29 people arrested were random bystanders--nearly 25 percent! They, of course, were even more bewildered and impatient with the arrests than we were, but most didn't mind entering the night's discussions of antiwar politics.

The overwhelming impression among arrestees is that we had done something valuable with our peaceful, temporary takeover of a major Chicago highway.

Most important to us was the positive response that we received from people in the cars. It wasn't just that so many were already against the war. The fact is that our protest affected these people for the better--and maybe encouraged some of them to be the ones speaking out the next time.

And what the hell about our own inconvenience! After leaving us to sit all night, the cops quickly sped us out of custody at about 10 a.m--the vast majority with no charges at all--in order to make room for the next morning's political arrestees.

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