By Cara Jepsen
Anthony Rayson attributes his political awakening to his parents, especially his father, Leland, a south suburban Illinois state representative from 1965 to 1977. "He would introduce bills to liberalize the divorce laws or to legalize abortion or decriminalize marijuana--things that were poison in the 1960s," Rayson says. "He was vilified and got death threats all the time. But people kept electing him."
In 1966 his parents brought him to Martin Luther King Jr.'s march on Cicero. He was 12 years old. "It was an eye-opening experience--disgustingly so. People spewing hatred and venom."
Three years later, in the fall of 1969, Rayson took a bus by himself to participate in the Vietnam war moratorium march on Washington. In 1972 he dropped out of Grinnell College in his freshman year, after the U.S. invaded Cambodia for the second time. "Every college and university in the country went on strike," he says. "Ours only lasted one day, but I decided to stay on strike. The way Vietnam was going, it seemed pointless to pretend life was normal." He spent the next two years hitchhiking around the country, landing a couple of stints in the clink for minor drug- and alcohol-related offenses before returning to his parents' home in Tinley Park.
Not long after his return, Rayson published his first zine. The Peoples' Polar Express was a crude, "ultrarhyming stream-of-consciousness antigovernment political zine" that he xeroxed at his father's law office. He gave 80 copies to friends, acquaintances, "anyone who was willing to take it. I was real naive and young and hopeful we could use the crest of this huge antiwar movement and all the other movements that blended into it, and get rid of the damn government."
But his friends were more interested in getting high than in bucking the system. "It was an ignorant working-class town that I came from," he says. "My friends were sinking into drug use and alcoholism, getting married and divorced, and not really knowing what they were doing. I saw no reaction to what I was trying to do. It was like carrying the banner of revolt and no one's there behind you."
Rayson sank into a depression. His family pressured him to go back to school. Instead he moved to Elgin and took a string of blue-collar jobs. Over the next several years, he "got married, got divorced, and got married again," and moved back to the far south suburbs. He got a job as a toll collector and eventually became a union steward. He continued to write political essays and rants, but didn't publish anything.
When the gulf war broke out in 1991, he heard a demonstration was being held at a bank in Park Forest. "No one was there, so I tried to picket anyway," he says. "People screamed at me and said that I was unpatriotic."
Egged on by his wife, a reference librarian, he enrolled at Prairie State College to study history. At the same time he got involved with RURAL (Residents United to Retain Agricultural Land), a group fighting the proposed Peotone airport. Graduating at the top of his class in 1995, he threw some antiairport rhetoric into the middle of his valedictory address. "The audience loved it, but the president was fit to be tied."
Rayson started subscribing to progressive publications, and in 1997 he read an article about Noel Ignatiev, one of the editors of Race Traitor, a journal calling for the end of "white-skin privilege politics" by denying the concept of the white race. It struck a chord. "When I saw that, it was a crescendo of relief," he says. "So I wrote a letter and told him how I saw things from my tollbooth and all the racism I see every day." Ignatiev published it in the next issue.
When Ignatiev gave a lecture during a conference at the University of Chicago, Rayson made sure to attend. "Here's Noel Ignatiev doing what he can to explain what he knows to the world. I thought, damn, I could do that." He bought a pile of Race Traitors. "I mailed them to those I thought would most benefit from them. I started to write essays, and I would slip some of my stuff in with the Race Traitors."
Suddenly invigorated, he started STAND (Shut This Airport Nightmare Down) in 1998; the group eventually swallowed up RURAL. Last year Rayson, who lives in Monee, convinced a local farmer to plow a giant antiairport symbol in a fallow field. He then called the Sun-Times, which put a photographer in a plane to take a picture of it. Rayson produced a number of event-specific zines, including Fight the White, based on the University of Chicago conference with Ignatiev, and started a local chapter of ARA (Anti-Racist Action).
He also started publishing a more personal zine, Thought Bombs, which is crammed with newspaper clippings, rants, and essays, such as an account of a trip to Louis Farrakhan's Salaam Restaurant ("I'm supposed to feel terrified and vilified, no? I feel fine, except I'm a little embarrassed because my pants have coffee stains" ), an antitechnology essay called "Modern Crapology" ("Today, everything is made infinitesimal, microscopic chips encased in cheap plastic"), and "Parenting Pointers" ("When baby finally sleeps and boy wants to play and you want to relax--play"). He's even included some articles from Peoples' Polar Express. "I was afraid to look at it for the longest time," he says. "It was just a big sloppy mess, and it brought back the memory of all of that depression." Rayson's wife, who does not share his more extreme views, oversees his two Web sites, members.xoom.com/thoughtbombs and members.xoom.com/S_T_A_N_D.
Rayson sent his zines to prisons for free. Inmates were a captive audience, and many began to write back. Rayson was particularly impressed with the letters from Michigan prisoner Ali Khalid Abdullah, who claimed he was in jail for defending his neighborhood from drug dealers. Ultimately the reason for Abdullah's incarceration didn't matter to Rayson. "More and more I began to see that prison was the most evil part of the system of this country," he says. "It's intensified oppression across the board--it's a conscious effort on the part of the government to imprison a certain segment of the population." Last winter he published a collection of Abdullah's writings in yet another zine, In the Trenches. Besides correspondence, art, and essays from prisoners, it includes how-to advice for starting study groups and information about the nationwide prison-abolition group Abdullah founded, Political Prisoners of War Coalition (Rayson will speak about the group this Saturday at a meeting of the College of Complexes).
"Prisoners' outgoing mail is not censored, and they send me the most explosive, dynamite stuff," he says. "And once my stuff gets in prison, they spread them around like crazy. They form groups to study this stuff, and ask me how they can do their own zines. Basically prisons are the new revolutionary schools of education.
"It falls upon guys like me to help them get their information out. But it's hard to get mainstream people to read it or realize it even exists."
Last year Rayson started a zine distributorship in his garage to skirt prison rules that ban publications from unofficial publishers. The cost for postage and copying comes out of his own pocket. Occasionally he receives donations from prisoners' friends and families.
About once a month he organizes citizens' forums, where he lectures about STAND and shares the floor with other grassroots groups. Rayson, who is as verbose as he is prolific, says that living simply, not watching TV, and having a no-brainer job make it easy for him to keep it all going. "People think toll collectors are the scum of the world, but that's why I like it: because it's so terrible and meaningless and horrible, I don't have to invest any of my mind at all in doing it. It's so rote-ish and simple I can use the time to write, to correspond, to do all of this work I would do at home anyway. Of course it's more stressful because I have people bugging me every five minutes."
Rayson considers himself a full-fledged anarchist. "We don't need police or courts or bosses or politicians or governments. People are like animals--they are capable of forming viable communities on their own." But he claims he has no qualms about working for a government he'd like to abolish. "No matter what you do, you're going to be working for some system that's ripping you off one way or another. At least I got it so that I'm pretty much autonomous with how I function."
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Dan Machnik.