Friday, January 20, 2006

I Was Arrested For Swearing at Da Mare or How Columbus Continues To Be a Force of Destruction

In 1492, an Italian explorer in the service of Spain landed in North America. According to his own journals he enslaved members of the Arawak and forced them to work so hard in servitude, that even gracious biographers have to confess he committed genocide. One practice this man and his men used was to tell the Arawaks that every Arawak over 14 had to collect a certain amount of gold on an island almost devoid of gold. Those who collected the gold would be given a bronze token to wear. Those found without a token had their hands chopped off until they bled to death. The man behind this cruelty was Christopher Columbus.

Every year in early October, the political and economic elite of this country feel it necessary to celebrate this mass murder’s legacy. This history takes a particularly interesting turn in Chicago. The Columbus day parade starts at the intersection of Columbus and Balbo.

Italo Balbo was a member of the Fascist party of Italy and the general of Mussolini’s air force. Balbo was the head of a militia which murdered striking workers and assassinated anti-fascist priests. Balbo visited Chicago in 1933, before the US entered the Second World War. He was hailed by politicians and business leaders. President Roosevelt gave Balbo an award, while Chicago named a street after him. Balbo donated a roman Column to Chicago. It stands today just east of Soldier Field, with a plaque that reads, “This column Twenty Centuries old . . . Fascist Italy with the sponsorship of Benito Mussolini presents to Chicago . . . in Honor of the Atlantic squadron led by Balbo which with Roman daring flew across the Ocean in the eleventh year of the Fascist era.”

Taking influence from protests around the world against Columbus day, including a protest in Venezuela which toppled a statue of Columbus, and one a year ago in Colorado which managed to disrupt and stop the parade, several activists gathered to protest the celebration of Columbus the genocidal maniac.

We gathered early in the morning and used markers to make several signs. One read “Celebrate resistance, not genocide”, another said “What’s next: Hitler Day?” while another read “Columbus was a mass murderer.” We had several positive responses from the crowd before we saw the beginning of the parade march past us on Columbus ave. As fate would have it, none other but Major Daley was leading the parade.

We mirrored the parades march north from the sidewalk, shouting our concerns to ‘da mare’. “Stop gentrifying Pilsen and Cabrini Green!” “Why do you celebrate a mass murderer like Columbus?” “No navy academy at SENN High School!” “Free Aarron Patterson!” “Arrest police Chief Burge for torturing prisoners!” “US out of Iraq” “CPD out of our neighborhoods!” “Columbus was a killer!”

Then I shouted, “Hey Daley, why don’t you rename Balbo st. after someone who’s not a fucking fascist!”

Almost immediately a police Lieutenant on a Segway pushed me, started shouting at me and ordered one of his underlings to handcuff me. They walked me to a nearby cop car. The Lieutenant asked me “Why did you use that language? In front of children to!”

I responded, “Why do you teach children that a mass murdered like Columbus is a hero?”

There were two different cops in the police car I was stuffed in. These two cops heard why I was being detained and started joking as they drove me to the police station on State st. “Swearing at da fuckin’ mare? That’s not a fucking crime. What da fuck, that’s the fuckin’ first amendment.” As they led me into the station, they seemed baffled as to what they could actually charge me with.

They eventually wrote me a ticket for violating the peace. Technically I wasn’t arrested, I was simply detained. They didn’t take my mugshot or fingerprints or anything. I was out in under two hours. I hopped on a bus and ran back to support the rest of the protest against Columbus day.

By the time I made it back to Buckingham fountain, the parade was over, but a group of Aztec dancers was performing a dance against the celebration of genocide. They had brought their children, who had the day off, to the protest as well. There was something powerful about the ceremony. The contrast was stark when we went from looking east at the lake, to looking west towards downtown. Downtown with it’s prisons and stock exchanges and banks and it’s millions of ways to sell our bodies and time all so those at the top can get richer.

I swore there that I would fight the ticket. I was concerned that letting them walk all over me would deal a blow to free speech and it would be one more blow against anti-war demonstrators who want to march down Michigan ave, or activists at next years Columbus day protest.

I went home and started talking to legal minded friends of mine, as well as looking up what I was charged with. I

Balbo the Fascist

was given a charge that amounted to less than

a parking ticket. As I talked to some lawyers with the National Lawyers Guild, they told me that the city gives tickets like this out to left wing activists to intimidate us from demonstrating. The infuriating thing about the tickets was that they were handled by an administrative court which according my friends, was a “kangaroo court” with no chance to win there. Your only chance of winning was to spend $250 to file an appeal. This would cost more than any possible fine.

The code I was being charged with violating said that a person would be in violation of it if they were saying something which created a situation in which violence was imminent. That kind of gives the police of lot of leeway, especially since in this case there was no violence or threat of it until the police started pushing me. Besides, I didn’t say anything threatening, I suggested the major rename a street. It’s not like I marched through downtown proclaiming a mass murderer a hero. Personally I think that leading that parade was far more threatening to Latino’s and indigenous people than any act I’ve ever committed.

Some counter that by saying that the holiday isn’t so much about celebrating Columbus as much as it is about Italian Pride. Italians can have pride, but Columbus is not worth being proud of. I mean, do German’s have a Hitler day? Why can’t Italians celebrate someone like Errico Malatesta, the Anarchist Guerrilla who fought fascists in Italy? Or what about Antonio Gramsci, the Communist educator who revolutionized pedagogy?

A friend of mine told me about a Supreme Court case in the 70’s called Cohen V. California. In this case, Cohen was arrested by the state of California for wearing a t-shirt that read “Fuck the Draft” and charged with obscenity. He challenged the law, and the Supreme Court ruled that using words like fuck were constitutionally protected as long as those words were used to make a statement regarding an important social issue. I was prepared to argue that my use of the word fuck was entirely constitutional.

It turns out I didn’t have to. I recruited DePaul Law School Graduate Rob Luderman from the National Lawyers Guild. By the time I made it to court, he had already got the state to drop all charges. I considered it a great victory, not only for myself, but for all those who oppose imperialism and fascism.

Columbus stands for so much more than the actions of his own life. He has become a symbol for America’s history of conquest, slavery, genocide, theft, invasion, and in my case, suppression of free speech and civil liberties. I’ll be out there next Columbus day to take another stand, won’t you join me?

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