S T O R I E S
P O E M S
B I O
I blew into my hot cup of coffee-extra-light-two-sugars, and resigned myself to another long wait to get into the Federal Courthouse. I found myself staring again at the precise angles formed by the huge windows of the lobby where they met the metal frame, and where the frame met the granite wall, and where the wall met the sidewalk. The young guy on line in front of me had reddish hair and a new-looking blue work shirt tucked into his pants. So far, so good, but two things stood out. He was wearing socks inside his sandals. As far as I knew, socks were for inside the house, inside your shoes, not for a city sidewalk, so I asked him, “How come you’re wearing socks with your sandals?”
He said, “Why not?” and turned his back on me. That’s when I noticed the second thing. He was wearing a kind of little flat cap on the back of his head. I figured that meant he was Jewish. I was curious. I hadn’t met or even seen many Jews in my life, as far as I knew. I had been told that my classmates Audrey and her brother Jerry were Jewish, and it had something to do with religion, but I didn’t know what that meant, and promptly forgot it, not being religious.
The most religion I had come in contact with was on Sundays, walking back to the house from the store. There would be a long line of black families on the sidewarlk. They wore party clothes, very fancy dresses and hats with lace and gloves, and perfect black suits and shiny shoes. Even the little kids wore little black suits and frilly white dresses and tiny gloves. They were all waiting to get into the big Black Muslim Temple across the street from my house. Muhammed Ali went to that temple, but they still seemed weird. Almost every single one of them would step off the curb as I walked past in my little shorts and t-shirt. I didn’t understand why they did it, but it hurt my feelings, and didn’t dispose me to think well of religious people. They were weird. I took to walking around the block to get home.
In grew up in a bigoted battleground between working-class white honkys and poor black negroes, with a handful of Mexican wetbacks thrown in just to spice up the pot, already at a rolling boil. The cops and politicians were big, white, round-shouldered bulls with working-class roots. The slum kids who beat me up were black and skinny. In fact, the city was so divided that five years later there was still only one club where I could drink with my black best friend, called The Happy Medium.
So I was curious about the red-haired Jewish guy. I asked him why he was at the trial. He was visiting from New York (sounding cocky about it), and said that this seemed like an important thing to do while he was in town. He was maybe 13 and staying with family. We talked about how the trial was making history, but was in any case a foregone conclusion, because the establishment always stacked the deck against defendants. We compared notes. Yes, I saw the way they chained Bobby Seale to his chair and gagged him. The artist’s rendering on the news that night made him look like he was struggling wildly to speak, but when I saw him, he looked sullen and uncomfortable. It made me uncomfortable to look at him, but where else was I going to look? Jerry Rubin scribbling notes and eating jelly beans, Abby Hoffman with his mess of curls, making faces? The other defendants acted like they were just hanging out, watching a performance.
I told the red-haired guy how, the day before, the prosecutor’s assistant kept turning up the volume when playing tapes of the defendants’ speeches. The defense attorney William Kunstler kept arguing with the prosecutor and Judge Hoffman about it, saying that the increased volume was ‘inflammatory.’ Then they all argued about whether the volume knob had been set at 10, the highest volume, or 8, a little more realistic. First it was silly, then it was just tedious.
Anyway, I had heard parts of these speeches and read more in the newspaper, and they were inflammatory, ranging from vitriol through sarcasm to mocking absurdity. I agreed with the main themes (that we had become a cynical and immoral nation, using war as a way to intimidate other countries and boost our economy, and that social conformity was just a way to keep us slaves in the factory) but I wished that the movement leaders would take it more seriously, and show less obvious glee in baiting the establishment. The language seemed immature, especially when screaming, “Fuck the pigs!” in a quiet courtroom at volume 10. I squirmed in my seat. The courtroom recordings were now a year old, but those speeches had preceded the riots at the Democratic National Convention.
I wondered if what made some of the defendants so strident was a healthy dose of fear. Abby and Jerry and certainly Tom Hayden had a pretty good idea of the kinds of things that can happen when you encourage people to act up. After all, just months before their speeches at the convention, both Reverend King and Bobby Kennedy had been shot by secret government forces. And Bobby was a gun-waving Panther. He certainly knew what could happen. He was counting on it.
The previous fall, during the Democratic National convention, I had gone to some of the protests and rallies downtown. For months, there had been a big build-up of information and rumor, fliers and posters. We would take over the convention. There would be a Youth Festival with poetry and music and mass meditation. The National Death Party would hold a mocking event. There would be riots and nudity. The hippies would bring flowers. The Black Panthers would bring guns. The Yippies were going to nominate a pig for president. Pigasus! That tickled me. The American people would see how wrong they were to support the status quo. There would be twenty thousand, a hundred thousand people.
Wednesday, August 28 was the night of the convention vote and the big rally. Audrey and Wendy and I were supposed to meet up, with a vague plan to join the protest-slash-party in Grant Park and eventually make our way to the amphitheater hosting the convention. We wanted to see what the Yippies were up to. We were curious to hear Vice President Hubert Humphrey speak. He was supposed to be anti-war, but reasonable, persuasive, maybe get us back on track if he was nominated. On the other hand, ‘The Hump’ came from Johnson’s administration, and was being called a sell-out by the anti-war movement, so maybe he’d be full of shit and we’d just have a laugh.
Wendy and I took the El train to the downtown Loop. The streets were full of people milling around, carrying banners, wearing headbands, wearing buttons. Some buttons were anti-war. Some were just silly. The mood was turbulent, confused. I saw people frolicking, wearing outrageous costumes, face paint and flowers. I was wearing purple bellbottoms, a matching headband and purple granny glasses and ready to join in. But other people looked determined, even angry. Wendy and I pressed forward, but the crowd was thick. We could hear loudspeakers, but they sounded very far away, and we couldn’t make out the words. There were distant roars of cheers and jeers, and the people around us seemed confused about which direction to move toward. I noticed that some people kept an eye on the police. There were groups of them against the buildings and corners of the big avenues. They had helmets and shields and were armed. All my interactions with cops had been unpleasant so far, and didn’t look to improve any time soon.
For example, a month before the convention, I had been walking in my neighborhood, down a commercial street. I passed a store and then walked along a windowless façade. As I was about to cross the alley, a police car pulled into the alley, blocking my way. The cop in front opened his window and said, “Where you goin'?” I said I was going home. He said, “Get in. We’ll give you a ride.” He reached behind him and popped open the back door. His partner stared at me over the back of the seat. I looked around. Nobody could see me if anything happened. I clenched my hands and stammered, “No thanks! I’m going the other way.” The partner opened up his door, and I just turned around and walked casually to the corner. I heard the police car back out of the alley behind me, and I broke into a jog, turning up a one-way street so they couldn’t easily follow. I didn’t stop until I got home.
At the convention, as we moved through the downtown crowd we asked people what was happening. We heard that Abby Hoffman had been arrested, but he was out again. We heard that people who were sleeping in the park had been arrested. We heard that Mayor Daley had refused permits to march, which made the protest illegal, of course, which was more satisfying, anyway. What’s the point of a legal protest? However, as a result, armed police would block the march to the Convention, and Mayor Daley had ordered the police to ‘shoot to kill’. One guy told us, “Something’s going down. They’ve got cops in riot gear blocking off the side streets. It’s gonna be a bad scene.”
We were nervous and excited, but we thought we should stay. Having been in a couple of marches and seen the reports in the papers later, I knew that every body counted. After all, tens of thousands of Americans were dead in Viet Nam. On the other hand, I didn’t want to have my skull cracked open with a billy-club, and I said as much to Wendy. Then we heard there might be Army troops or National Guard all around the downtown Loop. By an hour later, the wind had shifted, the crowd was uneasy, and some people were walking away. So we went home.
The riots that night were called the ‘Battle of Michigan Avenue.’ As the weeks passed, and national coverage concentrated on the tear gas, the reporters trampled by police, cameras smashed, and the bleeding faces, the whole week of the Democratic National Convention came to look like one big riot. It was horrifying. And Mayor Richard Daley had decided that these eight men were going to pay.
I remembered all of this as I waited outside the Federal Courthouse and sipped my cooling coffee. I told the red-haired guy that the real problem with watching the trial was simply trying to stay awake. If you fell asleep, they’d throw you out of the courtroom. But watching the prosecutors drone on about points of procedure and documents in evidence was very tedious and hard to understand. You picked up interesting information from time to time, and the defendants would occasionally get pissed off and provide some comic relief, but it was hard to maintain righteous indignation hour after hour.
My best strategies were: 1) coffee, 2) digging my nails into my palms, and 3) pretending that I was on trial with the defendants. What would I say? How would I feel if I were facing prison? I was 12.
© Li Gardiner, 2009