The day began bright and beautiful, although the expected high was 90 degrees. I threw my mountain bike into the cargo area of my Honda CRV and headed into Chicago on May 12, 2012. The big attraction was the Occupy Chicago bandstand speeches being given all morning in Grant Park, followed by an afternoon March Against NATO.
I had some previous acquaintance with Occupy movements. Last year, my wife, Karen, and I had briefly driven by the tent city Occupy Wall Street in New York City. However, my intentions this Sunday were entirely different. I wanted my encounters to be close and up front. I wanted to feel the passion of these protesters. The philosopher Soren Kierkegaard wrote that “reading Hegel is like reading to a starving man from a cook book.” Enough virtual reality – I wanted to be there.
Of course, getting to downtown Chicago was a challenge. No parking, numerous road blocks and hundreds of police, to say nothing of thousands of antinomian street walkers making for difficult travel. But I avoided those headaches by parking my car on the shores of Lake Michigan and riding six miles along the famed Lake Shore bike path.
When I arrived at the east endentrance to Grant Park, I hesitated. The media had reported that on the previous day three protesters had been arrested for terrorism activities, and a number of Occupiers had been arrested for skirmishes with police. Plus, surveying the crowd, I didn’t spot any other 76-year-old, gray- haired men wearing biking gear. I became apprehensive. I asked a few police officers if they thought it would be all right if I tried to interview some Occupiers. They smiled sardonically and replied, “We don’t care, but it ain’t gonna work!”
I decided to identify myself and my intentions before attempting interviews. I introduced myself as a mostly retired philosophy professor from Millikin University in Decatur, Ill. My agenda was to talk with them about their reasons for making the trek to Chicago at considerable expense and discomfort. Only a few churches and local residents offered lodging, so the majority of protesters spent their nights outdoors, attempting to sleep on park benches, grassy knolls and other locations. Food was on their own, and for most of them, bathing was an unavailable luxury.
The first activist I met was a pleasant, non-threatening woman who called herself Occupied Kate from Cincinnati. She was an advertising journalist and had an ex-husband and a son who was studying to become a photographic journalist. She lived a comfortable lifestyle. Her mission was to protest against the proposed Trans-Canadian-Keystone XL Pipeline which she claimed would increase the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere by more than 550,000 to 4,000,000 auto emissions. This excess would increase global warming to an unsustainable limit and usher in an apocalyptic event, she said, stepping away to blast her warning over the Grant Park stage microphone.
I thanked her and moved on. Next at the microphone was a man who was a dead ringer for former Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat. He was vilifying NATO, the United Nations, the U.S. and Zionist Israel for shameful wars against Palestine, Iran, Syria, and Libya, all in the name of imperial capitalism. My take was that very few protesters were listening. I exchanged greetings with him as he hurried away.
My next conversation was with Wes. He was a mild-appearing individual, 40-ish, looking a bit bewildered at the hyperactivity around him. Until a few weeks earlier, he had held a good job as a mechanical engineer for a local company, but he had been fired in a cost-saving move. What irked him was that the company was ostensibly quite profitable, and no one at the top of the pay scale lost their jobs nor were they willing to take a salary reduction so he could keep his. He felt abused and fearful of his financial future. After expressing my concern for him, I decided it was time to take some risks. I infiltrated a group dressed in black clothes and wearing red bandanas, the colors of the anarchists, confessing my hesitancy about approaching their group. But when I told them that they didn’t look particularly vicious nor revolutionary, they laughed.
Od Rachkem, surely an Occupier name, was the group’s spokesperson.“There are many kinds of anarchists,” he instructed me. “The word ‘anarchy’ comes from the Greek meaning, ‘not having a leader or ruler.’ We don’t believe in hierarchies. We don’t follow others. We are apolitical. No one is better than anyone else, and every person has to develop his or her own philosophy of life.” Od was a handsome, exceptionally articulate, college-educated young man. So what was his philosophy of life? He said he was a “primitivist” and an “anti-civ” (as in “civilization”) devotee. His mission at Occupy Chicago was to persuade individuals to return to their roots as gatherers and hunters, at least metaphorically. Primitivists acquire just enough each day to satisfy their needs and the needs of members of their community. No one keeps leftovers for themselves.
“Od,” I offered, “that sounds like you are advocating socialism or communism to me!” “Not at all,” he argued. “Economic systems are artificial constructs and depend on hierarchical agencies to enforce their policies. We are anarchists. Our task is to inform society that each and every person has the right to basic survival needs, including health care, and then to voluntarily share whatever we have with those who don’t ... then utopia would become a possibility.” Just before I exited the anarchist group, we were joined by a young man named Lindsay, who looked like a choir boy from a local church. Lindsay described himself as a “Jesus anarchist.” He suggested that Jesus was one of the original anarchists, interpreting the Palm Sunday parade into Jerusalem as a protest march and Jesus’ cleansing of the temple as the original Occupy the City event. “Jesus did not,” he continued, “intend to start a religion. Instead, he asked each person to seek the economic well-being of everyone else. ‘If you have two coats, give one away.’” Lindsay then proceeded to make it clear that you didn’t need to be religious nor believe in God to do those things.
About this time, a voice from the stage alerted us that the March Against NATO would begin shortly. Almost everyone left Grant Park for the two-hour trek to McCormick Place. They were encircled by hundreds of helmeted police. Dozens of large, colorful banners trumpeted causes as diverse as “Freedom for Puerto Rico” to “Same-Sex Couples have the Right to Marry.” The Yasser Arafat lookalike spotted me and insisted I accompany him to the front of the parade so a picture could be taken of us with a green-and-white Palestinian flag. “Help us make Palestine our own independent country,” he implored. I briefly walked behind the flag carried by him and another man; both marched with pride and enthusiasm.
The March Against NATO had one focus: Stop the war in Afghanistan now! Over and over, I heard the mantra that the sole purpose of the NATO organization was to gain control by war. I walked a short distance with the marchers before making my egress, feeling I had completed my mission for the day. However, while walking my bike back to Grant Park, I was just in time to witness a final, ominous sight. A group of Black Bloc anarchists had gathered to join the march. Dressed totally in black, they had either painted their faces or wore masks to conceal their identities. They walked behind a banner filled with expletives defining their four principles. The first warned, “No one dares to mess with us!” The second was, “We obey no orders.” As I recall, the other two told of their endorsement of violence. Two of them gave me copies of their newspaper recommending the violent overthrow of capitalism in America. I learned later that the police made 35 arrests during the march. I felt pretty sure that most, if not all, involved the Black Bloc members.
A strong wind off the lake was at my back as I cycled the six miles north to my car and reflected on the events of the day. The Grant Park occupiers with whom Ishared ideas were far different from what my prejudices had expected. Almost all were intelligent, bright, articulate, polite, passionate and appropriately opinionated, and yet they tolerated contrary opinions without fuss. But a lingering vexatious feeling persisted. On the one hand, I wondered if they were simply wasting everyone’s time. Were they not merely naïve idealists out of touch with the ways things really are? On the other hand, in many ways I found them remarkably similar to some of my Millikin philosophy students – individuals who were willing to define themselves and their values with integrity, regardless of how unconventional others might perceive them.
Back in 1970, I began my teaching career at Millikin. During the first semester, I taught a seminar on philosopher Alfred North Whitehead. We studied his book, “The Adventure of Ideas,” in which the author maintained that some ideas are “Eternal Ideals” which ultimately shall prevail and shape our world: truth, beauty, freedom, peace and adventure. Our role, Whitehead wrote, is not to create them, but to announce them and to pursue them in our own lives. Eventually, he said, they shall triumph.
This is precisely what the Occupiers I met were saying and why they came to Chicago: sharing on the basis of needing and caring; promoting peace instead of war; eliminating oppressive hierarchies and hegemony by privilege; affirming the inherent sacred worth of each individual; placing the sustainability of the earth above the desire for profit. These Eternal Ideals are ones that most of us would share and hope will inevitably succeed, whether we are Occupiers, anarchists or something altogether different.
Dr. Arvid Adell, professor emeritus of philosophy, taught full-time at Millikin from 1970-2001 and continues to teach ethics for Millikin’s MBA program. Adell, who also holds a degree in divinity, has performed the marriage ceremonies of more than 200 Millikin alumni.