When I arrived in Decatur, Illinois in the summer of 1994 to participate in union picket lines I had assumed that all the usual rules would be in play. We stayed peaceful but militant. When the police attacked us, we would defend ourselves but give ground as necessary. If they shoved us, we’d shove them back. If they clubbed us, we would send back an equal amount of energy with a fist or a foot. When they got around to gassing us, we’d throw it back at them. Just don’t pick up a spinning cannister with your bear hands, you’ll get burned.
However, I was in for a surprise in the what they now called the War Zone. We were going to block trucks from coming and going into the big corporate facility, but we were going to be completely non-violent and permit them to arrest us.
I had spent my entire life until then AVOIDING getting arrested on picket lines or demonstrations. I didn’t think then nor do I think now that deliberately getting arrested is a good idea. Lots of important people disagree with that, but those people are mainly middle-class and liberal. I’m not. I’m industrial working class, a machinist by trade, and I’m a Marxist. I’m also six foot two and weigh 250 pounds. I’m the perfect target for police chokeholds.
I am also the veteran of dozens of union picket lines, and demonstrations large and small. I’ve seen the police in action in many different cities and towns since the 1960s. I attended the Moratorium March in Washington on November 15, 1969 where over a million people flooded the streets and parks to voice their opposition to the Vietnam War. I watched National Guard jeeps covered in concertina wire drive into crowds. I saw blatantly military units playing peek a boo trying to hide in building until they were driven out by their own tear gas in the heating ducts.
When I returned home to Illinois, my coat and clothing reeked of tear gas. My wife wouldn’t permit me in our apartment. I had to disrobe, and leave my clothes outside in the public walkway.
I had no idea how the Decatur Police were going to handle things that hot summer day. The Staley Workers’ Solidarity Committee put me in with a group of college students to provide experienced leadership. However, the guy I worried about was an elderly man, a Communist Party veteran who had more demonstrations under his belt than I did. If the cops went berserk, he was the one I would have to pull out of there.
Everyone sat down except me. I took a knee. If things went bad, I could be on my feet in a hurry. And then I was pleasantly surprised. The cops courteously asked each person to please get up and leave – they were trespassing. When each person, in turn, refused, the police said they would have to arrest them. Everybody said, go ahead. And the cops gently assisted them to their feet put the tie strips on their wrists and escorted them to a waiting school bus. A couple people went limp and the police had to carry them to the bus. As I recall, everyone in our group was white.
In the modern jail, we were quickly processed. We could hear masses of people outside chanting “Turn them loose.” They handed me my papers, and I was outside again with the cheering crowd.
The following weekend I had to stand back in the ranks, because I didn’t want to get arrested again. I was 200 miles away from Chicago. The arrests had gotten a lot of publicity all the way back to Chicago and St. Louis. So, in their wisdom, the forces of oppression decided to “get tough.”
They pepper sprayed a couple of dozen peaceful protestors who were sitting on the ground. The group included quite a few Vietnam Veterans. Over time this resulted in a number of assholes losing their jobs and getting unelected in the next political cycle. It also brought out far more demonstrators.
I got off on all charges. I’m glad I didn’t get my turn on “excessive force day.”
Check out my soon-to-be-released e-book of Chicago short stories, An Infinity of Days in the Psychotic Atomik Empire. Free for a limited time. If you want the paperback, the book was first published at Plain View Press in 2007. My e-book, There Ain’t No Justice, Just Us is available at Xlibris. Gregory Alan Norton