They’re each in their own small band of protestors. Marching straight at each other down the middle of State Street in Chicago. Like some kind of show down dual at the social justice corral.
The two groups merge at the corner of Randolph and State. Funneled together by the rolling moveable fences of Chicago cops on bikes. Shouts and fist bumps as the two groups morph into one. Now no one is a stranger. Into the orange streaked sunset they all walk.
Up front of the group, Chicago Superintendent Garry McCarthy marches alongside. A newswoman asks him, “Where is this group going?” McCarthy answers, I don’t think they know where they’re going. But as long as they keep going, we’ll stay with them, making sure they get their right to free speech. And if they do anything criminal, we’ll stop them. It was a mantra he would repeat for the rest of the event. And he’d make good on his word.
As McCarthy spoke, the woman with the silky red blond hair fell in line behind the skinny, intense looking guy from the other group. Sees him first from the back. As if somehow she knew him. Not now, or before. Maybe later? That makes no sense.
Jammed in the back pocket of his jeans, a loud, shiny chartreuse paperback book. Who brings a book to a protest?
She wonders if she’ll stop doing things like what she’s about to do when she turns 23 next September. Then she does it. She slips the book out of his pocket. He turns, smiles. “Hey!” Not believing. That same woman. “I would have given you the book!” he smiles.
She looks at him. Eyes like surprises. But also like home. “John D. McDonald. Who’s he?”
“Guy who lives on a boat. Fights evil. Kinda like what we’re doing here. His tone missing the cool guy sarcasm he hoped for.
“Mmm” She nods. “Hey. Any clue on finding a bathroom?”
“Sure!"He takes her hand as if they’d known each other forever, and they slip into the doors of what looks like a Bavarian Ski Lodge. Argo Tea Shop.
The security guy nods at the man, “ Sup Bill?”
“OK I am almost impressed.” She snickers. “What are you, like Rahm Emanuel’s son or something?”
“No, he’s 12. I just like to act like I’m 12 sometimes.”
“Why did I know that?” she nods.
As he waited for her to come upstairs from the bathroom, he bought two giant red pomegranate ice teas. “Here,” he said, “We’ll need these. By the way, what’s your name?”
“I’m Clarrisa.” She puts her hand on her chest. A voice like warm honey. “I’m from Charlottesville.”
“Bill. From here.”
Then back out into the marching night. As the orange streaked sky gave way to the city street light glow, night, they just kept walking.
Holding hands as if it had always been that way.
The protest went on deep into the night. Way past 8 hours after the last official rally ended. The rhythm of the rolling Chicago Police escorts bending and turning as groups from all over the country would walk, meet up with each other and merge, split off, wander around and meet again As if some golden thread of purpose was being woven together. This was the night to make connections. Going way past any permit times, way into the night, the police allowing some long buried collective cry come out of the constantly changing groups, handing over these streets, for assembly, for free speech.
The setting for this weaving thread was the Chicago Loop, a 1.58 square mile of real estate at the center of the business district, called “Loop” because of the elevated trains that circle above, is also one of the largest college campuses in the country. 65,000 students go to school here. Many students live here. Since 2000, the population has increased by 78%.
East of the Loop, bordering the towering Chicago skyline is the giant Lake Michigan, a natural wonder that sometimes seems to always keep fresh the soul of the city. As the protest finally wound down, Clarissa and Bill wandered over to the shoreline as splinter groups of protestors headed off for Greek Town revelry to the west or an empty space of floor somewhere north.
Clarissa wide eyed at the water, “Pfft! You call this impressive? Ever heard of a little place they call ‘The Atlantic?’ Still holding hands, they wandered north up to a condo on Goethe Street that Bill’s uncle, in New York on a book tour, had let him use.
Sleep came deep. Eventually.
And they were up, showered and fed in time for Sunday’s demonstration.
That demonstration, what they saw happen, took them both into a silence that neither of them, at 23, had ever known.
The event had ended. They were walking west on Cermak Road. The police order to disperse has clear, loud and scared neither of them. Both of them still stunned by what they had just seen. Being told by the cops “Walk west” was almost a comfort.
But that police order was also a signal. Clarissa saw the three girls pulling on the black sweatshirts and masks in the now 90-degree heat. She saw a group of about 20, close enough to see the crazy in their eyes, she saw them start urging the dispersing crowd to walk east toward McCormick Place. Into police lines.
Bill didn’t see it. But he sensed it. Trouble. He took Clarissa’s hand and started walking fast towards a restaurant just a little bit west. Jimmy’s Place. An old friend of his Uncle’s. Jimmy saw Bill and the woman, opened his front door, motioned them in. “Up on the roof. I got WGN TV cameras up there."
Pounding up the stairs to the sun splashed gravel roof, Bill and Clarissa were able to look down on what would be called the one really tense confrontation of the entire summit.
This was a chance almost never seen in any media anywhere. They saw the full context of the confrontation from beginning to end. Not clips cut to prove a point. But full streaming video, standing next to the WGN camera filming the whole event. Watching first the 4 or 5 black clad demonstrators form a point to push into police lines. From the back of the crowd, sticks and water bottles and light bulbs and bottles of urine being tossed into police lines.
They saw Superintendent McCarthy, easy to recognize because he had no protective gear, at the back of his lines, barking out orders, picking up fallen cops, gradually pushing the line of demonstrators west where most all of them had gone anyway. McCarthy making history by erasing the city’s shame at the 1968 police riots and replacing it with pride. Pure pride. The hard core tiny group of demonstrators beating back at police shields and billy clubs.
The 3 times they saw a cop, being spit on, taunted and abused, go over the edge and start to throw a punch or a billy club, the cop who literally had his back, would tap him on the shoulder, and would shout “Remember your training!” Hearing that phrase, the two cops would trade places. So the front line of cops was always changing. But the number of demonstrators kept getting smaller. The small number, who came only to fight, in full view of the TV cameras recording from that roof, peeled off by cops and sent back through the lines to be arrested. The others, the real protestors, the Occupy leaders, long since gone and dispersed.
Ringing the scene were mounted cops, acres of state police in full riot gear.
With the massive show of law enforcement force, most of it just standing at ready, and the rotating front lines, and the brutal hard and violent work of fighting in the 90 degree sun; it took about an hour for the crowd to disperse. And it wasn’t till the crowd had gone, that Bill and Clarrisa, eating pizza with Jimmy at a dark, cool corner table, could talk about what was really the true beating heart meaning of this day.
It wasn’t the absurdity of those who came here to do violence as protest against the NATO violence machine. It wasn’t the tea party or evangelical like certainty bleated out by the faint cries of protest leaders claiming that cops caused the violence. Every time Jimmy heard that he’d say, “Watch the fucking game tape moron! The whole story is on video!”
It wasn’t whatever happened around the NATO meeting table. “Anybody know if they figured out how to fight the wars cheaper?” Ernie the cook yelled from the kitchen.
For Bill and Clarissa, as much as they were tied together at the heart, it wasn’t even about them. Likely they’d both be off to other stories when her plane headed south. At least for now.
The real meaning of this thing? The lesson?
It was those veterans. Those heroes. That earlier demonstration that had taken their breath away.
Those vets, who tasted Iraqi sand in their teeth and searched for IED’s under achingly blue Afghani skies. Those who really fought. Really did the work. No matter what the abstraction of politics or reason or any of the talk, talk talk.
These vets stood there. Right in front of Bill and Clarissa. And then these brave and noble souls tossed away their medals. The hurled them off into the Chicago sky. They threw away their medals!
There were easy answers. Cheap answers.
But what if there was more than judgments of heroes or cheap answers or blaming the bosses?
What if heroes throwing away medals was a sign that there was something terribly wrong in the ways we all do our best to protect our planet?
And what could make it right?
Could it be that golden thread born of that collective wail of a crowd coming together?
What if the cry of that golden thread that fell across Chicago like a cleansing spring rain was some sort of sign? Something that was saying, “People get ready. There is a train a coming. Something new is coming”
What if it was a time for a deep, lasting change in the way we protect the planet?
What if we figure it out together, this time?
“What if?” said Bill
And Clarissa, who always liked to have the last word, reached over to take his hand, smiled and asked,