Sunday, May 1, 2011

Haymarket Affairs

Happy May Day, dear readers! Not the most popular of holidays here in pragmatic Chicago, it's true, but for much of the rest of the world the 1st of May has long been a catchall occasion for gettin' out some ya-yas--be it a bustle in yer hedgerow, a gay swing around the maypole, or, in many locales, a big flip-off to Capitalism and all its attendant evils. The latter tradition, of course, was born here in Chicago, 125 years ago, when a motley gang of workers, reds and malcontents tangled with the police, some bombs were tossed and quartet of anarchist martyrs were given the rope: the Haymarket Riots (or 'Haymarket Affair,' if you're feeling prim), which remain emblematic of the elusive Struggle to this very day. 'Course, 'Haymarket' has lost some of its fangs over the years--Google will point you toward the Haymarket Brewpub, a stones-throw from the historic site; the only signifier at the site itself is a tacky sculpture on which well-meaning young rebels have been known to leave memorial bags of dumpstered bagels.

Not to say that May Day is dead in Chicago; there were, in fact, some large-scale events held over the weekend that I wasn't able to attend--a march for workers' and immigrants' rights that snaked through Pilsen this afternoon, and yesterdays Haymarket 're-enactment', promulgated by the artistes over at Lumpen, Inc. And then there was a curious event last night, which I did make it to--dubbed a Filibustacular (your guess is as good as mine), with the ominous tagline 'Post-Haymarket, Pre-Apocalypse,' the under-a-bridge-party-cum-ragtag-parade was perhaps not a rousing success, but it did have some compelling things to say about the state of youth politics and counterculture in Chicago c. 2011.

Which is to say that it was fun, unpredictable and totally incoherent. The plan in a nutshell: the freaks would gather at this tucked-away Union Pacific underpass at Noble and Hubbard to celebrate the holiday with a temporary autonomous zone, or whatever, w/ booze, noisemakers and other tokens of youth + freedom on hand for some anti-State revelry; and in the likely event of police interference it would go mobile, parading over to an uncertain fate over at (naturally) Haymarket Square. No leaders, no dogma, just some public ruckus for a warm spring night.

The mood under the bridge was festive and genial as some fifty or so people gathered around sundown--a couple of dudes from the IWW showed up, mercifully short on rhetoric but long on bucket drums; a generator arrived, and some lights, and a bunch of Art Institute refugees drinking hooch out of gallon jugs, and pretty soon the party was swinging, albeit in a self-conscious, drum-circley fashion--the event had been billed as a bastion for free speech, but the banging of bucket-drums drowned out even beer-fueled small-talk.

All of which might have progressed or devolved in any number of ways had the local cops not, predictably, routed us from our lair--commence phase two, marching in the streets. Dawdling eastward on Hubbard, drumming and yelling enthusiastically but never quite coagulating as a group, the 'march' perhaps exuded some disaffected charm but was painfully low on message, meaning or actual politics of any kind. Giving in to the general joke, I began chanting the first thing that came to mind. ANTI-EVERYTHING!, I bellowed, trying to poke some fun at the Hey-Hey-Ho-Ho insipidness of usual protest mantras; to my dismay, it was quickly picked up by the group and suddenly, surreally, we were parading through the West Loop, staring down motorists and shouting ANTI-EVERYTHING! ANTI-EVERYTHING! I couldn't tell if I'd tapped into some deep well of nihilism among my fellow marchers or if it was just fun to say; soon, however, it was eclipsed by an even more dubious chant, as some art-school kids started yelling, QUIT YOUR JOBS! QUIT YOUR JOBS!--hard to argue with, on a pure gut-level, but pretty f-ing puerile considering the historical context we were trying, however lamely, to conjure up.

But the high-absurdist sloganeering had yet to reach its apex; upon reaching the statue at Haymarket Square, the crowd, noticeably thinned-out, stood around rather cluelessly, drinking and banging on buckets, until the cops again arrived and ordered us to, y'know, tone it down. Flush with revolutionary zeal, a young woman named Stephanie refused to give up her perch atop the statue and was forcibly removed + thrown in a squad car. In other places, at other times, the arbitrary arrest of a comrade might induce a certain militancy, but our half-assed mob didn't know how to react. There was some grousing, some pleading, and finally an incredibly silly-sounding chant of LET STEPHANIE GO! LET STEPHANIE GO! that took hold for about a minute and a half; a perfectly reasonable sentiment, of course--we didn't want our buddy taken to lockup--but in the annals of political rallying-cries, LET STEPHANIE GO! has to rank among the most poignantly ridiculous. I didn't, admittedly, stick around long enough to find out whether the cops let Stephanie go; there was some talk of 'marching' down to 18th and State to do 'jail solidarity', but people were also saying that the cops would release her if we'd just quit hanging around on the corner making a nuisance of ourselves.

All told, it was an enjoyable, if not particularly threatening way of observing the holiday--for all it's silliness, I found the Filibustacular to at least be in the spirit of May Day. I couldn't, it's true, help but wish I was back in Berlin, where May Day has become cart-blanche for widespread rioting--despite claims that it's been watered down the last few years by slumming-it teenagers and so-called riot tourists, the arson, looting and gleeful window-smashing there is quite real. I missed it by a matter of weeks last year; this year's model was apparently gnarlier than ever. Here in Chicago, we take what we can get; at least we're trying, right?

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