20 years ago today...
As the Bombs Began Raining Down on Baghdad, We Joined 15,000 Chicagoans Who Invaded Lake Shore Drive.
It was a night we had spent at least a year trying to prevent. Inspectors had proven that there were no weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, and anyone following the news knew that Saddam Hussein had nothing to do with the 911 terrorist attack. Millions of us from around the world had been protesting the streets for months by this time. But gosh-darn it, Bush and Cheney desperately wanted this war and the US media wanted all the headlines it would produce. In the last few weeks, we had been forced to shift our attention from trying to prevent the war to organizing protests against it.
It was, I believe, the very early hours of March 21st in Baghdad when the cruise missiles started exploding, but it was the late afternoon of March 20th here in Chicago. There had been plans in place for everyone to gather at Federal Plaza when the invasion began, and by the time Marla, Justice and I arrived along with our friends Jane, David and their baby Xander, the crowd had swelled to thousands of people and their loud chants were echoing through the black steel and glass canyons of the Mies van der Rowe designed Federal Buildings surrounding us.
Justice, who at the tender age of nine months old, was already a veteran of dozens of protests, meetings, conferences and tabling events on several different social justice issues, was comfortably seated in his Baby Bjorn strapped to my chest and wearing his tie-dyed onesie, stocking cap and with his omnipresent binky in his mouth. We had attached a cloth diaper to the front of his carrier emblazoned with the hand-painted words, “Mr Bush, Don’t Kill Iraqi Babies.”
There were several impassioned speeches at a hastily arranged stage, but we couldn’t hear them over the crowd noise. After about a half-hour, maybe an hour, the rally morphed into a march and the huge mass of protesters quickly overwhelmed the rush hour traffic in Chicago’s Loop.
I remember the next couple of hours as a series of cinematic snapshots: the sight of thousands of silhouetted marchers trudging through Grant Park at dusk; a crowd of people pouring into the stalled traffic of Lake Shore Drive as we are seemingly being welcomed by a large group of smiling police officers; the lines of peace activists parading between the eight lanes of honking, happy and supportive drivers who flashed peace signs and blared classic rock through their open windows; open sunroofs with cheering passengers sitting on the roofs of their cars; children leaning out the windows offering their hands to be high-fived by the marchers; Jane persuading officers to let her change her baby’s diaper on the hood of their police cruiser.
Along the way, our little parental group had been joined by another family with a baby not much older than six-week-old Xander. The baby’s hair had not begun to come in yet, and his Dad was holding a sign that said “Another Skinhead for Peace”.
After a couple of miles, the crowd turned inland at Oak Street and started marching west toward Michigan Avenue. For those of you unfamiliar with the Chicago landscape, this is at the north end of a famous tony shopping district called the Magnificent Mile.
There, the pleasant, empowered mood radically changed and we found ourselves surrounded on three sides by hundreds of black clad, heavily armored and helmeted riot officers, most of them holding large Plexiglass shields, and many of them carrying large backpacks with hoses connecting to large wands that looked like what you might find at a hand car wash.
For the first time that evening, we suddenly feared for the safety of our infants. We had clearly walked into a trap, and I could see the marchers at the front being herded single file south along Michigan Avenue. I was not sure how we could protect our tiny children from being pepper-sprayed or worse.
As the crowd began loudly shouting this wonderfully ironic chant, “We Just Wanna Shop! We Just Wanna Shop!,” our three families began inching our way through the crowd back toward the lake while trying to find an opening in the expanding wall of riot cops.
At last, there was a large enough space for us and about twenty others to squeeze through and sprint toward a pedestrian tunnel leading to the safety of Oak Street Beach, where we breathlessly watched to see if any police had followed us. None had.
Postscript: by 10:00 that evening, we had made our way to a popular pizzeria several blocks away where we could decompress, get a long delayed dinner and some drinks and see if we could find news of what was happening.
In the lobby area near the bar, there were large television sets showing the 10:00 news. While we were waiting for a table to open up, we watched in horror at the sight of hundreds of our cohorts being loaded into police buses. They kept repeatedly showing this one clip of a protester who had been grabbed from behind by a riot cop and reflexively swung around toward the arresting officer. Each time, the announcers would use that image to rant about the violent, uncivil mass of un-patriotic miscreants who had savagely invaded Lake Shore Drive. Several patrons in the room loudly echoed the ominous tone of the newscast in what seemed like a re-creation of the “two minute hate” scene from Orwell’s book,”1984.”
In the end, more than 800 protesters were arrested and jailed that night. By contrast, it would take more than a year to arrest that many January 6th insurrectionists.
(photo: Jane and I watch Justice give a pre-march pep talk to young Xander)
5/1/2023 06:27:23 pm
Thanks for this write-up of, I believe, our first activist effort together. Sad that it needed to happen, but I yes, we escaped the swelling crowds, and yes, we got to teach our children our values by walking the talk. I'm so glad for these incredible years of friendship and action with your family!
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