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Taken by Surprise

As TV newscasters reported that police were dispersing protesters from last month's massive antiwar march, more than 700 people (including some bewildered bystanders) were corralled and arrested. Were the cops trying to send a message, or were they just w

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At around 6:30 PM on Thursday, March 20, Andy Thayer and an estimated 10,000 other demonstrators marched onto Lake Shore Drive to protest the war in Iraq. Three and a half hours later he was sitting handcuffed in the back of a police wagon. He was taken to jail and held until Friday afternoon.

Exactly why the police arrested Thayer and more than 700 others--including people who weren't part of the march--is being fiercely debated by demonstrators and city officials. But they all agree on one point: the mass arrests were the police department's way of reminding antiwar protesters who controls the streets of Chicago.

"It was a power play--that's pretty obvious, isn't it?" says Thayer, a founder of the Chicago Coalition Against War and Racism. "The police were letting us know that they decide where we march. And if we don't like it--tough."

But according to the police, they were accommodating, up to a point. They say the march was almost guaranteed to result in mass arrests because it was spontaneous--there was no permit, no designated leader, no organized plan.

The impromptu nature of the march shouldn't have surprised anyone, because the local antiwar movement is a coalition of numerous groups with different views on the best way to oppose the war. They believe that the dozens of marches and rallies they've organized over the past few months have been effective. "Everyone, I think, agrees that it's very important to reach out to as many thousands of people as you can," says Thayer. "Frankly, the mainstream media has for the most part either trivialized or ignored our message. Our movement thrives on direct contact with people, where we can bypass that media filter."

The groups have also tried to avoid the sort of rancorous name-calling that plagued the movement against the Vietnam war. And most of them think that people at the rallies and marches should be able to use a wide range of tactics. "There are essentially three levels of protest--red zone, yellow zone, and green zone," says Linda Beckstrom, a freelance writer who's a member of the Iraq Peace Pledge. "People who participate in red zone activities are trained in civil disobedience. They are not afraid of getting arrested--indeed, the purpose of their protest may be to get arrested. Yellow zone demonstrators are a little more moderate. And green zone protests involve the regular run of people who want to march and have no intention of getting arrested."

Many of these activists, even red zoners, say they want to work closely with the police. "We don't want to turn this into a war against the cops," says Beckstrom. "If we create animosities with the police it's harder for our people to do civil disobedience."

Yet some of the activists say they've had reason to complain almost since the demonstrations began last fall--they say police have been derisive or have harassed them. "It's important not to be paranoid about this stuff, and it's important not to be stupid," says Thayer. "I know they're watching us. They signed up on our mailing lists. They read our Web site."

Thayer says that First District commander John Risley knows him and other activists by their first names. "Commander Risley makes a point of talking to us--you know, messing with us in sort of a teasing way," says Thayer. "On March 5 there was a student-led protest, and Risley was there--he's at almost all of the downtown rallies. He called me by my name. He grabbed me by the arm and said, 'You're under arrest, Andy. Ha, ha, ha, ha.' It's a big joke to him, only I wasn't laughing."

As the country moved closer to war the protest groups decided they wanted to organize a march the day the bombs started falling. "But since we didn't know when the war would begin it was not something we could really plan," says Beckstrom. "It was sort of improvisation."

The initial bombing of Baghdad was announced by President Bush at 9:15 PM Chicago time on Wednesday, March 19. "But it was late at night," says Thayer, "and raining like crazy." So many of the activist leaders decided to meet the next day at five at Federal Plaza, on Dearborn between Jackson and Adams. They had no permit--there wasn't time to go through the process of getting one. But, says Thayer, "it's not unusual to have rallies or protests at Federal Plaza without a permit. You don't even need city approval to protest there. Since it's federal property, you go through the General Services Administration. There's tons of protests that happen there without permits. People are outraged about something that happens in federal court? They show up at the plaza to protest."

At about 4 PM on Thursday Thayer and other activists began arriving at the plaza. By 5 PM various speakers were standing on benches addressing a crowd he estimates at about 4,000. Around 6 PM some of the organizers started directing people east, toward Lake Shore Drive.

Thayer says they had no specific route in mind, no particular destination. "Risley was there," he says. "I remember he asked me, 'Andy, where are you going?' I said, 'I don't know.' That was the truth. We didn't know where we were going. I knew we wanted to go to the drive--I just didn't know how we were going to get there."

One stream of people marched on Jackson, another on Adams, yet another on Monroe--and the number of marchers grew as they walked. Eventually everybody merged at Monroe and Lake Shore Drive, then spilled onto the drive. Thayer was surprised but pleased that the police hadn't tried to stop them. "I think they were caught flat-footed," he says. "There weren't enough police to keep us off the drive even if they wanted to. They never anticipated we would have so many marchers."

"We had thousands of people who decided they wanted to march on Lake Shore Drive--we could either force them away from the drive or allow them to go on the drive," says Police Department spokesman Pat Camden. "The issue is that we have 10,000 people who are technically breaking the law--and they were breaking the law as soon as they stepped off Federal Plaza, since they had no permit to march. We have to keep them in order. You could start a mass arrest, but we wanted to avoid that at all costs."

According to Camden, Risley and other police officials on the scene made a deal with the marchers: "We told the leaders, 'You can go on the drive to North Avenue, but then you have to get off and disperse.' They agreed to this."

Who were the leaders who agreed to disperse at North Avenue?

"I don't know their names," says Camden. "It was the people at the front with the bullhorns."

But according to Thayer, Beckstrom, and other march leaders, no such deal was offered, much less agreed to. "I don't know where they came up with that story, because it's just not true," says Thayer. "I was at the front of the march, and I know we never agreed to get off at North. We didn't make any agreement with the police."

Other march leaders say it would have made no sense to agree to march all the way to North Avenue. "Some of us had our cars back in the Loop, near Federal Plaza," says Michael McConnell, a regional director of the American Friends Service Committee, a Quaker organization that's been helping lead the antiwar protests. "Sooner or later we would have to turn back south to return to the plaza. You have to turn back somewhere. It made sense to turn back at Oak."

Most of the marchers say they understood that they risked alienating motorists stranded in traffic. But they thought it was a risk worth taking. "This was a very peaceful march--it was a loud and powerful protest of our opposition and anger over the slaughter going on," says Thayer. "Yes, we disturbed traffic. But people weren't angry. People were honking their horns in solidarity. It was a remarkable moment."

As they walked north, Thayer and some other leaders tried to plan a route. "Once we were on the drive we quickly had to decide where to get off," he says. "We couldn't stay on the drive forever. We had to return to Federal Plaza and complete the march." He says they decided to get off at Oak: "We made that decision right there on the spot, as we marched."

But at Oak and Michigan the marchers found a line of police in riot gear waiting for them. "I struck up a conversation with Officer Risley, who was there," says Thayer. "There was confusion. I said, 'Hey, we just want to get this thing back to the plaza--can we go down Michigan Avenue?' And there was hemming and hawing, and Risley talked to his people. He sort of walked away, and then he came back and he said, 'Yeah, sure, you can go down to Michigan. Just let me get my men together.'"

A half hour passed. "We knew something was funny, because it shouldn't take this long," says Beckstrom. "Everybody was calm. Some people were chanting, 'Let us march! Let us march!' But the crowd wasn't going anywhere. And we noticed the line of police along Michigan was getting thicker and thicker. I remember this couple quietly walked through the crowd saying, 'The police are putting on their gas masks.'"

It was then that Beckstrom realized that thousands of green zone marchers were getting caught up in a red zone situation. "I wasn't there to get arrested--I was there to march," she says. "I was there with my ten-year-old son, and I could see the tenor was changing." She walked east along Oak to Lake Shore Drive, where she saw another long line of police had formed. "I said, 'Look, I have my son--we just want to go home,'" she says. "They let us through. But it was completely arbitrary. They were letting some people through and forcing other people to stay."

According to Thayer, Risley eventually told him that the police wouldn't allow marchers onto Michigan Avenue. "Risley told me he had been overruled--and he didn't look too happy about it," says Thayer. "He said, 'You guys can go back along Lake Shore Drive.'"

As Thayer understood it, the police wanted the marchers to retrace their steps--to head east on Oak to the inner drive, then south, and finally west on Monroe to Federal Plaza. And that, essentially, was the route many of the marchers who were left seem to have followed.

The problem was that some protesters--"younger" ones, Thayer says--still wanted to march down Michigan, and they were getting off at Chicago and heading west. "I tried to tell people that we have to stay on the drive, that the police aren't going to let us go down Michigan Avenue," says Thayer. "But I didn't have a bullhorn, so it was hard to communicate. A lot of the younger kids had already taken off. My assignment was to be at the front of the march, but the front of the march was running ahead of me."

Thayer picked his way through the crowd on Oak and hurried down to Chicago, then over to Michigan, where he found another line of police. "There was a massive police presence at the intersection there," he says. "They had their billy clubs and their riot gear, and they were looking nervous. I saw Risley, and I said, 'Look, people are frustrated--you promised them Michigan.' He said, 'No way.' He had gotten his orders."

About 1,000 marchers had followed the people turning onto Chicago. "A lot of these people were regular marchers who had no intention of getting arrested, who aren't trained in civil disobedience--they were just following the crowd," says Thayer. "I told Risley, 'Let us get back to the drive.' And he said, 'No way.'" By then a second line of police had formed at Chicago and the inner drive, boxing in the marchers. "That was it," says Thayer. "We were trapped. We had no way out. That's when they started making their arrests."

From Camden's perspective, the police had no choice, because the protesters hadn't bargained in good faith. "They shouldn't have gone onto Lake Shore Drive, but we let them," he says. "They were supposed to go to North Avenue, but they didn't. They were supposed to go along the drive to Federal Plaza, but they turned up on Chicago. Enough's enough. They had their own agenda. OK. We have an obligation to the First Amendment. But there's the rest of the Constitution as well. And when their right to First Amendment protest infringes on other people's right to go about their business, well, then we have to step in."

Moreover, Camden says, some of the marchers had been abusive. "Most of the marchers were peaceful and orderly, and they went on their way," he says. "Remember, at least 9,000 protesters peacefully dispersed. Not everyone was arrested. But there were some who said, 'Fuck the police.' They said, 'Fuck the police--we're gonna take Michigan Avenue.'"

Thayer thinks that's an exaggeration. "No police were injured, no police were attacked, no police were even threatened," he says. "They wanted to spring a trap on us. If they had wanted to disperse the crowd they could have announced over the bullhorns, 'Please disperse or you'll be arrested.' The crowd wasn't violent. The crowd was orderly. A lot of the people had been marching for hours. They were hungry. They were tired. They had to go to the bathroom or whatever. They just wanted to go home. But the cops didn't do that. They wanted to trap us and then round us up so they could send a message. To me it was a message of intimidation--people are not going to march in Chicago."

The police moved in from the east and west. "They brought in the big buses and wagons and just hauled people away to jail," says Thayer. "I was on the eastern edge of Chicago, near the lake. I started getting on my cell phone, trying to tell people they're going to arrest us. But I couldn't get anyone, 'cause all the other folks in the leadership had been picked off."

Around 9:30 PM, Thayer says, he was arrested by two police officers. "They grabbed my arms and said, 'Come on, you're going,'" he says. "When I got to the paddy wagon they put plastic handcuffs on me. I was the first in the wagon."

Within 20 minutes about 30 other people were wedged into the wagon. "It was really crowded," says Thayer. "They took us to a station on 18th Street. But apparently there was no room at the inn, so they took us to the station on 111th. It was an unbelievable scene. They had a whole line of paddy wagons, bumper to bumper, and they were unloading people in clumps. What's interesting is that some of the people in my van weren't even demonstrators. We had this Northwestern University hospital employee--he looked very yuppieish. He said he was just getting out of work, and they hauled him in. We tried to plead on his behalf--'Hey, this guy's not with us'--but it didn't work."

Thayer says he was put in a cell with about 16 other people. "We couldn't sleep. We just sat on the floor and talked," he says. "I've been arrested for demonstrating before, but most of the people in the cell had never been arrested. They were all pissed. I'd say the city did a great recruiting job for the antiwar movement."

The treatment of the arrestees seems to have varied. "There were police who were really decent, who actually apologized for what had happened, and there were police who treated us like dirt," says one detainee who asked that her name not be used. "One police officer was really sarcastic. He kept calling me 'princess' or 'crybaby.' He kept asking me questions about why I was protesting. When I answered he laughed or rolled his eyes or shook his head. I said, 'Maybe we shouldn't have this conversation.' He said, 'Why's that?' I said, 'I think you're not taking anything I say seriously.' He just clammed up after that."

According to Thayer, he and his cell mates weren't processed until early the next morning. "We started a chant of 'Phone call! Phone call!'" he says, but no one was allowed to make one. "I started singing '100 Bottles of Beer on the Wall.' Only I substituted 'screws' for 'bottles'--'100 bottles of screws on the wall, 100 bottles of screws, take one down, pass it around, 99 bottles of screws on the wall.' We got down to 20 bottles before they said, 'OK, if you shut up we'll process you.'"

Thayer says he was released at about three o'clock Friday afternoon. "They didn't charge me with anything," he says. "That's 'cause the cop who arrested me didn't put his badge number on my arm. That's how they identified the arresting officers--by writing their numbers on our arms. But if they don't have the arresting officer's name they can't charge you with anything. So they let me go."

In the lobby of the station Thayer found several peace activists waiting with sandwiches and coffee. "It was magnificent organization," he says. "They knew we were being held there. And they were waiting for us. They even had transportation to get us back home. I went back to Columbus, where my car was parked. Guess what? It wasn't there. It had been towed. That cost $170. The good news is that I made it back to Federal Plaza for our Friday-night antiwar rally."

Police officials say they have nothing to apologize for. If anything, they think the department did a splendid job of keeping the peace. "The long and the short of it is that the marchers decided to go from protest to civil disobedience," says Camden. "We arrested some 540 people. The majority were charged with reckless conduct. They were given an I-bond, meaning they were released without having to pay bail, and a court date, where they'll have to explain it to the judge."

Another 190 arrestees were released "without being charged, because we weren't absolutely sure who arrested them," says Camden. "I don't know how much all of this cost. I don't know if you can put a cost on it. You have to ask yourself, what's the cost of liberty? What's the cost of protest? We're sending people to Iraq who put their lives on the line so the people of Iraq can exercise liberties. Liberty isn't free. You have the right to protest. You just don't have the right on infringe on the rights of somebody coming home on Lake Shore Drive."

Camden says he doesn't know whether to believe the stories about people who weren't marchers getting arrested. "I've heard some of that talk," he says. "You won't find anyone in Statesville who says they're guilty."

The cases of the 540 arrestees won't start being heard until sometime in May. Camden wouldn't say whether the city intends to press or drop the charges.

Some marchers compare the March 20 arrests to what happened in 1968, when police beat antiwar activists who were protesting at the Democratic National Convention. Other marchers say there's no comparison. "I think that's old thinking," says Marilyn Katz, who owns a public relations firm and is a founder of Chicagoans Against War in Iraq. "I think it would be a mistake for anyone to even think that."

Yet some police officers admit that many cops weren't terribly sympathetic. "Let's be honest, there's a big gap between people who join the police force and people who march in peace marches," says one north-side officer who wasn't on Michigan Avenue on March 20. "A lot of cops think these marchers are anti-American assholes. Then they get arrested for something they supposedly believe in and they complain. Well, what the hell, man--you're in jail. It's not supposed to be the Hilton!"

Back in 1968 Mayor Richard J. Daley monitored the police action and vigorously defended it. City Hall spokesmen say Richard M. Daley had no role in what happened on March 20. "He let the local commanders handle it," says one. The mayor's only comment on the arrests so far came a few days later at a press conference. "I understand that many people are opposed to this war," he said. "And the city will respect and uphold their right to demonstrate peacefully. But I urge demonstrators not to disrupt traffic or engage in any other illegal activity. This hurts innocent people who are trying to get to and from work. It could even lead to loss of life if a demonstration blocks ambulances or other emergency vehicles. So please, demonstrate peacefully and lawfully. If you don't, you will not only hurt your cause, you will also be arrested."

Some ordinary beat cops find it hard to believe that Daley wasn't involved in the decisions that led to the arrests. "Come on," says the north-side cop, "no commander's gonna make a decision to arrest 500 people without running it up the chain of command."

Some of the protesters are skeptical too. "You know our mayor--you know he doesn't like to be crossed," says Thayer. "He wanted us to know that he and his police decide where we march. I think the mayor was ticked off that all of these demonstrators had marched on Lake Shore Drive. That was national news, remember. I think Daley and his people had a hissy fit."

Other protesters disagree. "I don't think this was a major policy decision," says Katz. "Whatever commander was in charge made the decision to close Michigan and arrest." Katz, who's a close Daley ally, says the mayor is quite different from his father. She adds, "I would think the message of the administration is 'Absolutely demonstrate, but we're going to set the parameters of where you can go.'"

Katz and other activists plan to meet with city officials to set guidelines for future marches. "There will be changes," she says. "The police want to be sure where people march--there's got to be communication and agreement that everyone understands." She thinks it's important to avoid confrontations between activists and the police. "The police have been very cooperative by and large," she says. "I don't want to see this grow into an issue--a silly diversionary issue from opposing the war."

Thayer and other activists say they have no intention of stopping the marches. "My biggest problem with the war right now is that the American public is getting a big snow job," says Beckstrom. "They're afraid to speak up or they think they don't have the right to speak up. I feel a need to get the message out. I feel we have no choice but to protest. Put it this way--I couldn't live with myself if I allowed this war to continue without speaking up."

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Joeff Davis, Jim Newberry.

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