The Aragon Ballroom in December 1990 (image added 2018) Credit: Chicago Sun-Times

Shortly after 11 PM on Saturday, December 29, about 5,000 fans started leaving the Public Enemy and Sonic Youth concert held at the Aragon Ballroom. As they hit the street, they found themselves walking into a horrible scene–police were shouting at and beating up on the crowd in the street. As far as most observers could tell, the police were arresting people for being upset that the police were arresting people. None of it made sense–there was just arrests, shouts, violence.

Kachen Kimmell and Jim Zaphiriou are 30ish Loop lawyers. They happen to like Public Enemy and Sonic Youth, and happen to be friends of mine. After the show, coming down the great staircase at one end of the Aragon’s long lobby, they saw three uniformed cops going the other way, bucking the advancing tide of people exiting the show. They thought it was weird.

Just inside the Aragon’s front doors, the couple paused and Kimmell put on her coat. As they went outside, they noticed a commotion. “I thought, ‘Oh, someone’s throwing up,'” says Kimmell. “We stepped through the glass doors, and the crowd immediately pushed us back against them. And then in front of me the crowd opened up, the way crowds do. And right in front of me a woman was being wrestled to the ground on the sidewalk by a cop. And then there were a couple of cops wrestling the guy who was with her down onto the ground as well.

“It was totally unclear why this was happening. There was a policeman straddling her back on the ground. She was on her stomach looking at me. She kept trying to reach for her glasses–I realized that they were probably her friend’s glasses, because she was wearing a pair already. I reached over and gave them to her and she said thank you.

“And then I looked into the middle of the street, and there was a guy there wearing a sort of green, three-quarter-sleeve jersey thing. I thought he was a Michigan State student–it was that shade of green. He was on his back–he had his face all scrunched up and his hands up in the air. And a cop was standing over him just hitting him on the head with a police stick thing.

“And I said, ‘Jamie, what’s going on?'”

That night saw five people injured (four of them cops), 18 arrested, and widespread charges of excessive force by the police, but the concert at the Aragon had attracted national attention even before the battle.

It was going to be “the show of the year.” The local office of the David Geffen Company–Sonic Youth’s record label–got calls from all over the country; a number of industry types, radio programmers, and alternative-press people came in from all over the midwest and both coasts. It was a unique and daring pairing–Public Enemy, the radical black rappers from Long Island, and Manhattan’s Sonic Youth, underground rock’s reigning noise band. The billing recalled the heady days of the San Francisco Fillmore (a ballroom much like the Aragon), when promoter Bill Graham would bill Miles Davis with the Jefferson Airplane. Both bands have extremely high critical reputations–their 1988 records shared top billing in the Village Voice critics’ poll, for example, and their respective releases of 1990, Fear of a Black Planet and “Goo,” are expected to pull off something similar this year.

To add some spice, the bands share a similar militancy, both politically and socially, and display a similar fondness for noise as a cathartic and manipulatable commodity–while Public Enemy now sells millions of albums and Sonic Youth inches toward AOR respectability, each still traffics in some of the loudest and harshest music made anywhere.

The concert had everything–the implicit racial unity, the cutting-edge credibility, the end-of-the-year excitement of a show just two nights before New Year’s Eve.

Ironically enough, the show had had its genesis at the Aragon–backstage on November 30, the night of a concert by Jane’s Addiction. Jam Productions co-owner Arny Granat and bookers Andy Cirzan and Peggy Trucksis were talking with Bob Lawton, booking agent for Sonic Youth and a host of other alternative bands.

A few months earlier Public Enemy had sold nearly 10,000 seats at the University of Illinois Pavilion headlining a four-act rap road show, and they wanted to do another date in Chicago. It wasn’t clear how many tickets the band could sell on the north side; single-artist rap shows hadn’t done that well recently in mid-sized halls. The Jam people and Lawton were tossing out opening-band possibilities to “sweeten” the night. “It came up that Chuck D had done a guest shot in that Sonic Youth video,” says Cirzan. “I said, ‘Wait a minute, let’s try it.'”

Sonic Youth had never played in Chicago in a house bigger than the 1,200-seat Vic theater. Band members say they weren’t thrilled about playing in such a big hall–the Aragon holds more than 5,000–and that as a matter of course they didn’t generally play Christmas or New Year’s shows. But the chance to play with Public Enemy was tempting. The bands had both played at a benefit in a New York club some years previously, and had met once or twice when recording in the same studio. Most recently, P.E. leader Chuck D had done a cameo on the Sonic Youth song and video “Kool Thing.”

Surprisingly, the show was not an instant sellout. It sold steadily in the weeks before the 29th and did an OK walk-up business the day of the show. The hall reached capacity about the time Sonic Youth hit the stage.

What could have been the show of the year wasn’t quite. Neither band’s sound people could cope with the Aragon’s legendarily weird acoustics. The domed roof and the balcony running around the sides and back of the hall take bass notes and turn them into a reverberating rumble. The simple expedient of turning the bass down, people familiar with the hall’s acoustics say, clears things up considerably–but this tends to fly in the face of the prejudices of sound people, particularly for bands like Public Enemy and Sonic Youth.

Sonic Youth are art rockers, intellectuals armed with guitars–they fully appreciated what it meant for them to be opening for Public Enemy. It was the most outlandish show of the band’s three recent concerts in the Chicago area–by the end of the set, guitarists Lee Ranaldo and Thurston Moore were leaping off amplifiers and destroying guitars. It was an obvious homage to the Who’s famous opening gig for Jimi Hendrix at the 1967 Monterey Pop Festival. Still, the mass of sound, which weakened the band’s famous guitar dronings, left a large part of the audience unmoved.

Backstage wasn’t quite the celebratory meeting of the bands one might have expected. The dressing rooms were behind the stage, overlooking Lawrence Avenue; Sonic Youth’s was on the west end of the hall, P.E.’s on the east. The two bands never saw each other, before or after the show.

After Sonic Youth’s set, at least an hour went by before Public Enemy appeared; while the crowd never became restless, it was a long, drawn-out wait. Rapper Flavor Flav–the cartoonish clown who generally wears a big clock around his neck–had had to change flights. He ended up flying into Midway, only to discover that the bag carrying his stage clothes and, it was said, his clock was at O’Hare. A Jam runner was dispatched to take him out to the airport to get it. He came back to the Aragon, changed, and immediately went onstage.

The band’s set was longer than usual–almost an hour and a half; it was occasionally exciting, but it too was thoroughly undermined by the reverberations in the hall. The band couldn’t make itself heard–Chuck D, not understanding why the crowd wasn’t responding, asked repeatedly for his microphone to be turned up.

Unapologetically confrontational on racial issues (and notorious for the anti-Semitic remarks made by member Professor Griff, who was subsequently cashiered), the group’s rhetoric ranges from the explicitly political–extended denunciations of George Bush and the U.S. presence in the gulf–to the sweetly wholesome. Flavor Flav, for example, exhorted the group on the subject of “loving your parents,” and even asked for a show of hands on the subject. Then he advised those assembled to stay in school: “A diploma is a very important thing.”

In contrast to the Pavilion show last summer–which was about 95 percent black–the crowd at the Aragon was overwhelmingly white. Moreover, the crowd was distinctly middle-class and up. About half were sophisticated high-schoolers, and there was a conspicuous art crowd as well–baroquely dressed kids with distinctive hairdos. A third large contingent was made up of collegiate and professional types–lawyers, for example, like Kimmell and Zaphiriou.

It was not, in other words, a crowd to preach to about high school diplomas. The younger audience was probably more concerned about which college to go to; the older perhaps whether or not to get that master’s.

The show was beyond orderly–“It was one of the quietest shows we’ve ever had at the Aragon,” says Jam’s Cirzan.

Dan DiSilvestro, head of Detente Security, which provides security for Jam concerts, agreed. “It was soporific, really.”

The people Kimmel and Zaphiriou saw on the ground outside the Aragon were Kurt Gottschalk and his sister Kristin. Kurt is a 24-year-old political activist; Kristin is a schoolteacher. The pair had bought tickets to the concert the day they went on sale.

Gottschalk and his sister were in the first wave of people leaving the show. They went out to the sidewalk to meet up with some friends. As Gottschalk hit the street, he could hear someone talking on a PA system across Lawrence; next to whoever it was talking he could see a banner–with a slogan having something to do with “the U.S. war machine”–held up by two other people.

“The guy was talking about the Persian Gulf, saying how we shouldn’t be there,” Gottschalk says. “When I turned back again, I saw these three big assholes with mustaches running over and breaking it up. So I went over there with my sister. By the time we got there there was a guy down on the sidewalk with his head covering his arms. The three guys were standing around him, and one guy had his foot on his back.

“There was all of a sudden quite a crowd of about 30 people. I thought at first that it must be some sort of street theater, but my sister said no, it’s real. And I got really mad. I’ve seen much bigger, much more illegal stuff going on, and cops could handle it. It was such a small harmless little demo. It was nothing.

“People were saying, ‘What the fuck are you doing?’ ‘What laws are being broken’–that was my line: ‘What laws are being broken?’ All of a sudden this one guy grabbed my scarf. He said, ‘You can shut up, faggot, or you’re going down, too.’ I was furious: here’s this guy who hadn’t even identified himself as a cop doing something illegal. Then they picked him up and carried him into the Aragon. They kind of had him surrounded so you couldn’t see him. I tried to call attention to it: ‘They beat this guy up for stating his opinion about the Persian Gulf. All he was doing was saying what was going on.'”

Gottschalk ended up in front of the Aragon, in the midst of the crowd of outgoing fans: “The same cop who grabbed my scarf turned on me again. ‘You shut up now or you’re going to get arrested.’ I said, ‘What laws are being broken?’ He said, ‘One more word and you’re getting it.’

“We went back and forth like that for a while; I was talking to him and a woman cop, and I saw another cop, in a uniform, going for my sister. And I thought, ‘Oh, no, I can’t be doing this.’ So I said to him, ‘OK, I’m leaving.’ I even said, ‘I’m just going to walk past you to get to my sister.’ I was finished.

“And I turned my back to them and the next thing I knew I was on the ground. I lost my glasses. I was on my chest with my arms pinned under me. The woman had all her weight on the small of my back and a cop had a foot on my face. I lost my glasses, but then after a while someone kicked them over to me.”

The arrest Gottschalk saw was that of William Small, who goes by the “street name” of AK. Small is 23; his hair is cut short on the sides, long but pulled back on top; he wears glasses with plastic frames that are dark on top, clear on the bottom–even with a few days’ growth of beard he has a studentish look. He won’t say where he’s from, what he does for a living, or whether he’s ever been arrested before. (“I don’t think that’s relevant.”) For the past year Small’s been a devoted member of the Revolutionary Communist Youth Brigade, the youth auxiliary of the Revolutionary Communist Party, a group of loyal Maoists who publish the Revolutionary Worker newspaper. He speaks in a revolutionary jargon that calls kids “youth” and cops “pigs.”

The RCYB was at the show in the first place, funnily enough, because of an earlier run-in with the police. One of their cohorts, with the street name of Darby Crash, had been arrested at an RCYB-organized march down Belmont on September 15, and the group hoped to raise some money for his defense. Three brigade members–AK, Crash, and a pal called Pavka–handed out fliers and asked for donations before the show. The fliers’ headlines, they say, read “Fuck the U.S. and all its might / Revolutionary war is the one we’ll fight,” and “Yo! Pigs, hands off the rebels.” The latter slogan was a reference to Crash’s arrest and what the RCYB says has been police harassment of them. It’s possible that local police saw the handbills; if so, they could hardly have been pleased with their messages.

It’s not unusual for groups to leaflet Aragon crowds. “The Aragon is a collector of groups that want to address the public,” DiSilvestro told me on the phone from Detente’s offices in Addison. “It’s a general-admission hall; people line up outside. It’s a captive audience.

“It definitely had a confrontational feel to it, but we don’t stop anybody; we’ve had the Klan out there in the past.” Over the phone there’s an almost audible shrug: “It’s Uptown.”

Small and his friends saw the show and exited with the first people to leave. The demonstration wasn’t a big, planned event; some other friends there didn’t even know it was going to occur. Darby Crash hadn’t gone to the show, but met the group outside the Aragon and handed the microphone over to Small. Small said he thought he’d take the opportunity to preach to the crowd.

“I went across the street,” he said, “and started talking about what Chuck D was laying out about the gulf and about how if they want youth to fight a war, it’ll be a revolutionary war that we’ll fight.”

Next to him stood two members of a political group called Stop the U.S. War Machine Action Network, a small aggregation of Columbia College students. The network is sympathetic to Small’s RCYB but not communist. Their banner read in green, red, and blue paint, “Stop the U.S. War Machine No Matter What It Takes.”

Small stood directly across from the Aragon; slightly to his right and a bit in front of him stood Action Network’s Matt Landan, an 18-year-old photography student at Columbia, and another network member who goes by the name of Jed. Arrayed loosely behind them, casually having a smoke after the show, were three or four friends, mostly network people.

Small was on the mike because he owned it; it wasn’t anything special, says Landan: “It runs on about eight D batteries. I remember thinking that the batteries must have been new, because I’ve heard it when the batteries are running down, and it didn’t sound so bad.”

Small talked for a minute or two–hardly longer, they say–and then got into a “Hell no, we won’t go” riff. Landan and Jed and their friends joined in.

“Then these guys came over to me,” says Small. “There was one big guy with a brown coat and a mustache; he said to turn off the speaker and move. He didn’t identify himself or anything. And I started saying, through the microphone, ‘They’re saying you can’t speak out about the gulf,’ and then he just grabbed me and started throwing me around. They banged me into a car, a wall, and a pole, and then they pulled me down and sat on top of me. All these youth started coming over and yelling. I was down on the ground and I remember looking over at all these shoes.”

Landan: “This guy comes over and says something like, ‘What do you think you’re doing? Get the fuck off the mike and leave or you’re going to be arrested.’ AK just says, ‘No,’ and then into the mike says, ‘Now there’s this cop threatening to arrest me if we don’t leave.'”

Two other plainclothes cops appeared. “All of a sudden three cops are in his face,” says Landan. “They’re trying to push the microphone down from his face. AK is twisting away and still trying to speak. Darby drops his half of the banner at this point; it goes down, and doesn’t go up again. The demo is effectively stopped at this point. We’re starting to get involved: ‘What the fuck are you doing?'”

Small struggled, and at one point nearly slipped away, but the three officers eventually grounded him near a doorway. Small’s PA was smashed. “It was fucked up,” said Landan. “I saw pieces of it flying.”

The cops then started moving Small across Lawrence back toward the Aragon. But by this time his melodramatic shouts through the microphone had attracted a crowd. Small’s friends–from the brigade and from the Action Network–were outraged. “These pigs are arresting this man for speaking out,” Landan told onlookers. That’s when the chanting started: “Let him go! Let him go!” Soon the police were stopped in the middle of the street, entirely encircled by a suddenly unfriendly crowd.

“The cops were surrounded,” Landan said. “I’m standing right on the edge of the circle. They really looked afraid. They were scared shitless. They’re all talking into little microphones in their jackets.”

One young man Landan saw was standing near him shaking his head. He was white but wore his hair in dreadlocks. “He was a little weird–he looked drugged-out to me. He was shaking his head and looking at the cops and saying, ‘You guys are bad, man. You’re going to be in trouble for this. You’re bad.’ One of the cops kept pushing him back. But he didn’t go away, he stood his ground. The cops finally decided they had enough of this guy. They whomped him with this flashlight. He went down really hard. The crowd got really angry. They saw him get pushed three times and then get hit.”

The focus, Landan says, shifted from Small to the dreadlocked youth, who ended up being worked over severely by the police; later, in the holding cell, the activists got the kid’s name and a Philadelphia phone number, but neither checked out.

The undercover officers, once they’d made their move, discovered that, while the microphone was silenced and they had Small and then the kid down on the ground, they’d won only a Pyrrhic victory. They were locked in by a crowd of people sophisticated enough to question their authority to shut down a demonstration.

John Schauers is a University of Chicago grad who works in the university fund-raising office; he was at the show with friends from the campus radio station in his capacity as WHPK’s rap format chief. He came out of the Aragon early enough to hear Small and see the banner. After the commotion started, he walked over just in time to see the focus shift to the dreadlocked youth who was the second person to be taken down.

“We saw some sort of scuffle,” Schauers says. “This guy with dreadlocks was sort of on his knees on the ground with these two security people over him. One guy was basically on top of him, and the other was helping to restrain him and looking around. The crowd kept moving in closer–you could reach out and touch them. The crowd started kicking the one on top of the guy from behind–pushing them with their feet, mainly.

“I don’t think the crowd thought that they were police. [The men] kind of had windbreakers on; they didn’t look like fans, but I don’t think the crowd thought that they were police officers; once [the police with uniforms] really came in they didn’t have the same reaction.

“The crowd wasn’t really kicking them to get the guy on the ground free. It was more like, ‘You’re harassing this guy so we’re going to harass you.’ If they really wanted to assault them they could have–they had more than enough people.”

First the kid and then Small were dragged across Lawrence Avenue to the Aragon. Going against the crowd, which was still flowing out of the Aragon, they were brought through the doors and deposited unceremoniously in the theater’s ticket office–used as a holding cell in such situations–just to the left of the entrance.

“While I was being taken in some people tried to pull them off me,” said Small. “I thought it was very principled of them.”

One of those people was Karl Kuhn, a 22-year-old Columbia College photography student. Kuhn came to the concert because his brother, a student in Michigan, and about eight of his friends had blown into town to see the show. It wasn’t that big a deal for him–“I’d seen both groups before and for about half the money. I mean, I saw Public Enemy in Detroit with N.W.A. The place was full of bangers. I saw guys in $1,800 Armani suits throwing handfuls of 20s into the crowd.”

Kuhn, his brother, and his friends waited a bit before leaving the hall. “When I got out I saw a banner waving but kind of half down. It didn’t look quite like a demonstration; people were too close together. And then the crowd opened and these three or four guys came flying out, dragging this tall kid through the street.

“I saw that it was William Small. I don’t really know him, but I’ve seen him around. He knows friends of mine; I knew he was in the brigade but we’ve never really met. These guys were really nailing him and he was screaming ‘Help me.’ So I grabbed him around the waist. I held on for a matter of seconds, and then these two guys whirled around and fired me on the jaw, right at the same time. Then someone hit me in the chest. I tried to step back to get some distance, to make sense of the scene, decide whether to swing or run. Then a car pulls up, and I can see the white corner panel, like from a police car. Then I felt a nightstick across my head four or five times.

“I see all these girls looking at me, screaming and crying, ‘You can’t do that,’ and I’m totally humiliated. I’m totally bummed. I turn around, and these two guys are rushing at me. One guy wraps his hands around my throat, the other guy drives into my stomach. They vault me over this Camaro windshield and hood and then onto the ground. They had their boots on my face and they were torquing my arms back. Then they drag me into the Aragon.”

Kuhn was tossed into the ticket room with Small. “After I was there for a while,” says Small, “this guy comes in all bloody. It was one of the guys who tried to interfere. I said, ‘What happened to you?’ He said, ‘I just got my ass totally kicked by three cops.'”

The Police Department version of the ruckus–from an official who does not wish to be named–tallies, very roughly, with the Action Network and RCYB versions. The Police Department says it’s illegal to yell through electronic equipment on the street, a contention that the Action Network’s Landan concedes. The official says that the loudspeaker was impeding the crowd coming out of the Aragon. “It was stopping the normal flow of people,” she says. “The people were stopping and listening; they were holding up both pedestrian and vehicular traffic.”

While it was obvious to the demonstrators that the three men who accosted them were police, many onlookers specifically say that it wasn’t clear to them at all. Several people thought they were thugs from a bar; Gottschalk thought they were doing street theater; others, sensing a certain official mien, concluded that they were Aragon security. A half dozen people I spoke with who went over with the first crowd to see the action say that the men never identified themselves as police officers.

It’s difficult to discuss this matter with the police, because the Police Department official, who was not there and based her replies on consultation with others, insists that the initial officers were uniformed. This is plainly wrong; everyone I spoke with–from concertgoers to Detente’s DiSilvestro to members of Sonic Youth who watched from the Aragon’s balcony–said that the men were not uniformed.

The department contends that concertgoers threw cans and bottles at uniformed police officers, and particularly points out that four female police officers were listed as hurt: one got a fractured nose and three others suffered bruises and lacerations. “If the police were being so violent, why weren’t more civilians injured?” the official asked. (The police say the only other injury was to a concertgoer who got a split lip.) “The female officers aren’t usually the aggressive ones. How did they get injured?”

The department, saying that the matter is under investigation by the Office of Professional Standards, would not grant interviews with any of the arresting officers.

Police generally respond rather negatively to interference from bystanders; the undercover police arresting Small and the dreadlocked youth could hardly have been thrilled to find themselves in the middle of a circle of people who were kicking them.

Soon reinforcements began to arrive. DiSilvestro has worked the Aragon for 20 years. He grew up in Chicago in the late 60s–he’s seen the Chicago police move crowds around before. He also has a master’s degree in social welfare and watches both the police and the kids with a professional’s eye. He was in the Aragon office when a call came in from the street. “He said they needed some people because there was a big fight outside,” DiSilvestro says. “I said I’d send a couple guys out. He said, You need more than a couple, so I sent ten guys out.”

By the time DiSilvestro hit the street, both Small and the dreadlocked kid were on their way into the Aragon. But the officers transporting one of them–apparently the dreadlocked youth–had run into some trouble.

“When I went out the door,” DiSilvestro says, “there was four or five people on top of two undercover cops who were trying to arrest somebody. We pulled them off the cops, and I sent someone inside to dial 911 and say there was a cop in trouble.”

This is one incident I could not get an independent witness to; no other security personnel would be interviewed.

It was DiSilvestro’s impression that a small contingent–perhaps four squad cars–were the first police reinforcements to arrive. Then, whether from the Jam call or from a request by some of the police already there, a 10-1 call went out to all police in the area. That call means that an officer needs help; it’s a good way to get a police party going, and one with an edge.

The action in the street quickly descended into chaos. Though no exact numbers are available, eventually dozens of squad cars were on the scene. DiSilvestro and his men lined up in front of the Aragon trying to move the outgoing thousands along.

DiSilvestro says that while he saw both the police and fans going overboard–“No one gets the pacifist award from me”–he at least had a sense of what the police’s agenda was. “I went back outside, and the thing you have to understand is that [the concertgoers] had no idea what was going on–no idea. The police wanted to take back control of the street, but they weren’t in a position to. I had my own bullhorn out and was telling people to move on down toward Broadway. I kept telling people to keep moving. People kept asking why. But there was no time for debate; I just kept saying that the matter was being taken care of, please don’t make matters worse.”

More confusion was caused by the spectacle of members of Sonic Youth and Public Enemy and their entourages leaning out of the windows of the Aragon.

“Flavor Flav is up here waving to the crowd like they were graciously petitioning for an encore,” says DiSilvestro.

“Scuffles would break out on three different places on the street,” says guitarist Thurston Moore. “There’d be three cops dragging some kid, other ones nightsticking people in the legs. It just infuriated the kids more and more. We yelled out the window, ‘Hey, what the fuck is going on?'”

Several people I talked to saw video cameras poking out of the Aragon windows, and rumors that one or both of the bands had footage spread in the days after the show. Both Moore and guitarist Lee Ranaldo said that a filmmaker with them took some footage, but that Jam security people forced the camera owner to erase it. This sounds farfetched, and Jam’s Cirzan says “That’s ridiculous.” The photographer would not agree to be interviewed, and the story couldn’t be confirmed.

“The police started doubling every minute,” says Landan. “I was thinking about those amoeba movies they show in school, a speeded-up film of a cell dividing.”

Now there were three or four or five separate mini-battles going on as the police attempted to clear certain areas of the street. The crowd, increasingly nasty and, as DiSilvestro says, increasingly ignorant of what exactly started the violence in the first place, saw only police being extremely aggressive. Some people got caught up in something they’d had nothing to do with.

Another concertgoer was 28-year-old Bryan Wendorf, who writes for the Psychotronic Film Society’s It’s Only a Movie newsletter. After the show, a friend went to the bathroom; Wendorf walked out to wait for him and saw a crowd. “I saw the police and the people and these paddy wagons and there was all this yelling,” Wendorf says. “Someone in the crowd in front of me fell or was pushed or something. I tried to help this guy up; I felt like a hand grab me and I was pulled out into the street.

The hand belonged to a cop. “I tried to ask what was going on, but it was like, Shut up!–so I shut up. They slammed me up against a car when they were cuffing me and put me into a paddy wagon. It wasn’t until I was in the paddy wagon that I found out that there had been a demonstration.

“The funny thing is, until the hostages were released I was supportive of having a military presence over in the gulf. I thought that while they were holding Americans we had a reason to be over there. In the cell I got into a conversation with [one of the original demonstrators]. I said I was a capitalist. He said, “How can you be a capitalist?’

“The police charged me with ‘mob action.’ I don’t know what it means. I guess we were all working together.”

After ten minutes or so in the ticket office, Small and Kuhn and the kid with dreadlocks were taken out and tossed into a paddy wagon. A few minutes later, Gottschalk–the guy on the ground in front of the Aragon–was thrown in as well. The police, witnesses say, were heaving arrestees into the vans with a pronounced viciousness. “The vans have a pretty big step,” says Gottschalk. “I don’t know if you’ve ever been thrown into a paddy wagon, but they walk you up to it really fast. If you’re not aware of the step they just throw you. Terry wasn’t prepared for it; they threw him in hard. His face smeared blood all over the seat next to me. He was bleeding pretty bad, from his lip and his forehead and the back of his neck. He was using his scarf to mop the blood off his face.”

“Terry” was Terry Gatechair, a 22-year-old who works in a health-food store. He vaguely knew some of the demonstrators from hanging out in the Belmont-Sheffield street scene. When he came out of the Aragon he had noticed some people protesting across the street, but had other things on his mind. “On first glance, I saw, Oh yeah, they’re protesting, that’s cool, but I was hungry and wanted to go. But then I took a second glance and I saw one of the guys down on the ground with some guy on top of him. I thought they were rednecks.

“We went back to the middle of the street; there were a lot more cops; they were in uniform and they had clubs and everything. We saw a friend of ours–a friend of my girlfriend’s, he works with her–get dragged into the middle of the street. There were three or four of them kicking him and hitting him. My girlfriend got hysterical and was about to go into the street, but I pulled her away–I just wanted to get out of there. Then one of the cops pushed me away. He gave me a shove. I said, Don’t push me.

“I said it in a way of making it known that I didn’t want to be pushed. Then he started pushing me along the side of this car. I couldn’t get away. I got pushed onto the hood of the car and then three or four cops started whaling on me.

“They dragged me into the middle of the street and beat the shit out of me. It was right next to the paddy wagon. One cop had his foot on my head. I said, ‘You’re squishing my head!’ People were noticing this and were yelling ‘Bullshit! Bullshit!’

“They handcuffed me and took a running start and threw me into the paddy wagon.”

DiSilvestro says he saw the kids act out of line as well: “These two female police officers walked out of the Aragon with the crowd. Two young women accosted them and started screaming about police brutality; she put her hands up in the air; I turned around and suddenly she was falling face first onto the ground with two girls on top of her. The other cop and I grabbed the women, one each, and pulled them off of her. Now, those cops didn’t even know what was going on–I saw them walk out of the building.”

Meanwhile, the scruffy revolutionaries whose tiny demonstration had started the whole mess were running back and forth, scared, exhilarated, and confused.

Dave Wagner is a 19-year-old Columbia College student and Action Network member who’d gone to the show with some friends from his hometown of Peoria. As the group was walking out of the lobby, Wagner told his friends that they were going to meet his political buddies across the street for a “demo.” “They weren’t really into that scene and I was teasing them–‘Yeah, maybe we’ll all go to jail.’ And then we went outside and they completely flipped.

“I looked over to where it was happening. I knew it was us.”

He saw AK being dragged into the hall. “He didn’t stop screaming the whole time: ‘Goddamned motherfucking pigs . . . ‘”

Wagner watched interestedly as the police dealt with the now very hostile crowd. “A lot of people,” he says, “were just moving along, but a lot of people were saying, ‘Fuck you, you can’t do this.’ You could see what the police were doing, how they’d move one way to break up the crowd and then back again.”

He nods, half impressed: “They did mop up a riot of a large group of people in a half hour or so.”

Various Action Network people–Wagner, Jed, Landan, several others–swirled around in the crowd, very nearly being caught by police several times.

“Right up in front of the hall,” says one network member, “I saw one of our group get grabbed by these two cops, a woman and a man. Jed was there; I don’t know if he even knew what he was going to do, but he stepped back like he was going to make a jump on them. All of a sudden the woman cop looked up. They were eye to eye for a second, and she said, really loud, ‘What are you doing?’

“He turned and dove into the crowd and landed on the sidewalk. She and an undercover cop lunged for him. I kicked both of them. I toed the guy in the sternum and then my knee went up and hit the woman in the face. They let go of him. We were both liberated.”

That was Jed’s first brush with arrest: the second came a bit later, when a cop chasing him tried a tackle, ending up with a grip on his leg. Another friend jumped into the fray, and Jed ran free. The friend, the members say, got a kick in the crotch for her trouble.

Another time a female cop grabbed Jed’s arm. “He just turned like this,” says Wagner, “and slipped right out of his coat. He ran off and she was just standing there with this incredibly dumb expression on her face.”

Despite the danger, some network members couldn’t tear themselves away. “I was so scared,” says Juliette Consigny, “but I was horrified by what I was seeing. It was a total riot.”

But the exhilaration was real as well. “I’d never seen anything like this before in my whole life. Everything was so shockingly clear,” says Wagner. “The air had a charge in it; you could feel it come over you. I was crying and screaming. My voice was entirely hoarse the next day.

“Over under the el I heard dogs barking. There was a crowd behind a paddy wagon. They were yelling, ‘Fuck the police’ [the chorus of a song by the rap group N.W.A.]. I could see people smashing up against the paddy wagon and could hear bottles being broken. I thought, ‘Oh, fuck, what is this turning into?’ I wasn’t into a clash with the police. I was into protecting my friends, but I believe that it takes two to tango and I don’t like to tango. That’s why I’m in the antiwar movement.”

Cops by now were filling up the street from the Aragon east to Broadway. About this time, Chris Mailander, who works at the Field Museum, and Peg Tysver, a schoolteacher, came out of the building and were confronted with the chaos.

“We were standing at the corner of the Aragon and the alley,” Mailander says. “We were asked to step up on the curb, which we did. We just stood there watching police hauling people off and beating them up. A cop told us to keep going, but we felt like we were witnesses; I didn’t see any reason to be moving, especially seeing what they were doing.”

A cop told the pair to move. “I said I had a right to stand there,” Tysver says. “The minute I said that this woman cop started flailing at me with her flashlight: ‘The hell you do!'”

“She was totally crazed,” says Mailander.

“I looked at Chris,” says Tysver. “His mouth was agape and like, ‘Now, wait a minute, wait a minute,’ and this cop put a billy club under his chin and started marching him. The woman cop grabbed me and they put us into a van.”

Mailander: “We just looked at each other and said, ‘Oh my God, this is so bizarre.'”

Kristie Reinders is a film student at the University of Wisconsin at Milwaukee; she was at the show with Rich Manning, manager of Atomic Records in Milwaukee.

The pair came out of the show and gasped at the violence. “It was really nuts,” said Reinders. Manning quickly pulled out his video camera and started filming. They made their way down to the parking structure just past the el tracks on Lawrence.

“Rick was standing behind me with the camera; we were there for maybe 30 seconds. I glanced away and all of a sudden Rick is being pulled away by six or seven cops. I’m a film person and I’m really protective of equipment. I said, “Give me the camera.’

“I grabbed the camera and all of a sudden people were paying attention to me. I didn’t really think that they were after the tape; I just thought that I would be the next victim. I just started running. People were yelling, ‘Go! Go!’ I ran into the garage and hid behind a column. I heard running and I thought, Wow, they’re really chasing someone, they’re really getting serious. And this cop runs into the car to stop himself. He grabs the camera in one hand and my hair in the other.”

In all, 18 concertgoers were arrested, 15 men and 3 women. The Police Department, in another bit of confusion or deliberate disinformation, claims that a complete list of the arrestees is simply not available. One protester, however, claiming to be a reporter, did manage to finagle a list out of the department.

The three women were Tysver, Reinders, and a younger, very upset woman, apparently from Iowa. A fourth woman came close–Corinne Whitney, the girlfriend of Terry Gatechair, the most badly beaten of all the arrestees. At the same time he was arrested, she was grabbed and tossed in another van, and then just left there. Eventually she started to rock the van so someone would notice her. The police who eventually came couldn’t think of a reason to arrest her, so they drove her home.

Despite the fact that several of them were bleeding, the occupants of the van carrying Small, Gottschalk, and Gatechair managed to make merry–on the way to the 20th District station, on Foster, they sang the Clash’s “Know Your Rights”:

Know your rights–all three of them

You have the right

Not to be killed

Murder is a crime!

Unless it was done by a policeman . . .

At the station, the 15 men were taken into a holding cell; none were read their rights or informed what the charges against them were. (All the arrestees were eventually charged with mob action; their court date is January 29.) Those with IDs were eventually let out on $50 bail; those without were held until their fingerprints cleared; the last left at 11 PM Sunday night.

Gatechair was examined by a doctor after about three hours. He had a split lip and a “near concussion.” He got five stitches; the doctor said he needed to be woken every three hours; Kuhn and the dreadlocked kid, the arrestees say, were ignored.

The women were separated and kept in the juvenile room. Both Tysver and Reinders said they were repeatedly referred to as “cunts” by various arresting officers. The guy who arrested me said, ‘Say one word, you fucking cunt, and I’ll leave you bleeding on the sidewalk,'” Reinders says. “Every other word was ‘cunt.'”

Tysver says that at one point she and Reinders were left alone with one extremely intimidating officer. “This one guy came in and said to Kristie, ‘You’re mine now, you little piece of shit,’ and I said, ‘You can’t talk that way to her,’ and he started calling me a half-breed slut bitch.”

The women’s IDs were taken at the 20th District, returned, and then taken again. “They were going to move us to another station and we were worried about [the IDs] because they said we couldn’t be released without them,” Reinders says. “This one nice cop said, ‘Don’t worry, we won’t let you leave without your IDs.’ Then they said, ‘OK, we’re leaving.’ We said, ‘You said you wouldn’t let us leave without our IDs!’ He’s like, ‘I changed my mind,’ or ‘Things are different.'”

The trio were moved to the 19th District station, at Belmont and Western, and that station would not release their IDs without some other form of identification. Reinders had to have a friend break into her apartment in Milwaukee, find her passport, and drive down to Chicago.

Reinders’s friend’s video camera had been smashed around in the arrest; at the 20th District station it was placed upon a table. Tysver and Reinders said that a cop told them to watch it–“It’s your responsibility.”

“Then a guy comes in,” Reinders says, “and took the camera, mumbling something about inventory. They took it and brought it back three times.”

The next day, Reinders’s friend brought her ID, and they went to the first station to get the camera back. They couldn’t get the tape window to open; by the time they did, back in Milwaukee, they found that the tape had been removed from the cassette.

A number of complaints were filed with the Police Department’s Office of Professional Standards; typically one investigator will interview all the complainants and officers involved in a case. Such a process could take some time. The office generally does not announce its findings. One of the male detainees kept through Sunday heard cops at the 20th District station complaining that their nightsticks were being impounded.

Some of the concertgoers involved in the fracas have since charged some sort of conspiracy on the part of the police–this based on a supposed annoyance on the part of the police at white kids going to a rap concert; one arrestee, for example, says that a cop had said something like “Why would you want to give your money to these guys?” Others, however, have the impression that the police thought it was a heavy-metal concert.

DiSilvestro, for one, doesn’t buy the conspiracy theory: “I don’t think they wanted to arrest [Small] in the first place. If they had, they would have called for support, slipped up behind him, and no one would have noticed. No one wants to start a melee and close down a street; that doesn’t look good on the report. If there’d been a conspiracy they wouldn’t have sacrificed two guys in the beginning and then sent out only four squads.”

The fight at the Aragon–the arrests, the beatings, the injuries–was the unfortunate result of cops being jerks and protesters being stupid.

It may be illegal to use a bullhorn on the street–but this wasn’t midnight in Winnetka. The protesting kids weren’t disturbing the peace: 5,000 noisy concertgoers were walking by, el trains were rumbling overhead. Without getting too weepy about it, Small was contributing to a public debate on an issue that may soon involve people–kids, in fact, roughly the same age as the concertgoers–getting killed. As the Action Network kids say, “This is fucking America.” Cops should be presumptively tolerant of such situations.

The traffic considerations have been exaggerated. In any case 5,000 kids coming out of the Aragon are going to block the street no matter what. (The big problem at the Aragon is the way all the concertgoers are forced out through the main doors, causing a huge jam all the way back through the lobby and up the stairs to the ballroom; it’s a dangerous way to evacuate the building in the first place.)

It’s one of those situations where the police may have been in the right but were still in the wrong.

Given that, once accosted, Small should probably have shut up. Resisting arrest is a stupid thing to do, particularly if you’ve been passing out literature that calls cops “pigs.” And once he’d been grabbed, Small only aggravated the problem by yelling through a microphone.

Given that, the police should probably have had the smarts to back off. It might have hurt their egos–indeed, Small might have taunted them through the microphone for it–but they wouldn’t have started a fight, and onlookers would only have admired their restraint.

Given that, the crowd should probably not have interfered with the arrests, even if they thought it was “only” security involved. It turned out that they were wrong.

Their mistake prompted an “officer needs help” call, which brought out a zillion police with chips on their shoulders who then started brutalizing people.

“It was not a good experience,” says DiSilvestro. “Not for me, the audience, the Aragon, or the police.”

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Charles Eshelman.