Among the different groups at the antiwar and radical gatherings here during the late 60s and early 70s, one contingent stood out in marked contrast to the rest. Instead of the standard uniform–tie-dye, bell-bottoms, sandals, and buckskin–they wore dark T-shirts, leather jackets, baggy slacks, and pointed boots. Carrying a banner proclaiming “Revolutionary Grease,” they looked more likely to bust up a demonstration for peace than to participate in one.
These were the activists organized by Rising Up Angry, one of the most intriguing political groups of the 60s. It was designed to bring radical politics away from the campuses and into the heart of white Chicago, to the working-class neighborhoods that seemed so hostile, reactionary, and forbidden to much of the campus-based New Left.
Though some in these neighborhoods of the north, northwest, southwest, and southeast sides called them “commies” and “nigger lovers,” organizers did not back off. Through their politics–part Mac, part James Dean, part Huey Newton, and part Jane Addams–they sought to convince white working-class youths to stop fighting other youths and unite with the Black Panthers and others “to fight the real enemy.” At the very least, they hoped to keep them from joining the other side.
Other left-wing groups had tried to reach the white working class with similar messages. But RUA’s style was different. They didn’t stand at factory gates with grim, long-winded political tracts, but hung out at high schools, hot-dog stands, beaches, and drag strips, with vivid comic-book- and tabloid-style attacks on the “pigs”–police, politicians, capitalists, and others–who ran the system.
Some others in the New Left saw them as adventurers whose leather jackets and pointy-toed shoes parodied the working-class kids they sought to organize. But the RUA organizers were an engaging, enthusiastic bunch who could turn out hundreds at picnics, rallies, and “people’s dances.” They won converts and friends using working-class or white street language, symbols, and clothing. “They didn’t dress like turkeys; they dressed like us,” recalls Rich “Pipe” Kroth, who as a kid hung out on the corner of Paulina and Barry in west Lakeview. “They dressed and talked like us. They’d drink beer on the corner with us, and they liked to party like we did. Their ideas were new to us but didn’t seem that far out.” Kroth, now an electrician, married Diane Pager, one of the organizers who descended on his neighborhood.
Fager, like other original RUA members, came out of a faction of Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) who wanted to organize people in Uptown and other predominantly white working-class neighborhoods.
Another former Uptown organizer, Mike James–now an owner of Rogers Park’s Heartland Cafe–was the creative force and first leader of RUA. Another was filmmaker and photographer Peter Kuttner, and there are scores of others who are still active in progressive union, women’s, and independent political movements.
“We didn’t go yuppie or burn out,” says Fager. “We’re still pushing, working for social change. The people who were in Angry are still active, still making a contribution.”
The RUA newspaper, also called Rising Up Angry, was the only underground newspaper of the 60s aimed specifically at blue-collar youth. It mixed international news snippets–about revolution in Africa, a women’s rights campaign, or a Black Panther trial in New York–with news from the mostly white neighborhoods, like this August 1970 report from the corner of Cortland and Whipple on the near-northwest side:
“The old Simon City is back together and most of us are digging the revolution. There are some problems with some fights against other gangs . . . . It’s hard to stop the old style gang-bopping so that all the people can get together to fight the real enemy.”
RUA broadened its message and its base as it grew, trying to appeal to young women and families as well as the prototypical greaser. It started a free legal clinic, a free health service, a women’s discussion group, an occasional free pet-care clinic, and a variety of other community events. Its members were among the leaders in Chicago’s women’s liberation movement.
Like so many other radical organizing efforts, RUA withered away in the mid-70s and finally died out in 1975, its members feeling that the revolution had abandoned them more than they had abandoned the revolution. Mike James says RUA started to fold up its shop when people stopped coming to its dances and parties.
RUA will throw at least one more party–a 20th-anniversary celebration, Saturday, 8 PM, at Artemisia, 700 N. Carpenter. It’s not a reunion, so all are welcome. “This Big Chill stuff is not our style,” says Kuttner. The admission. charge of $10 covers food, drinks, and music. More information is available at 348-3820.