“No party hats inside,” a police officer’s radio crackles. State troopers in brown uniforms are frisking and questioning four Guardian Angels standing near a wooden snow fence with their hands behind their heads. One of them’s wearing a pink cardboard cone decorated with little clowns holding presents and a birthday cake.
“Na na na na, na na na na, hey hey hey, good-bye!” A guy somewhere behind us bellows at the top of his lungs, and people all around laugh and join in. We stop looking at the mass of people who, like us, are waiting outside Stateville to be frisked, and focus instead on the patch of grass at our feet, shining bright green in the harsh generator-powered light.
We’re waiting in a fenced-in area far from the prison, surrounded by unsmiling troopers and hundreds of revelers. Nobody’s drinking here, but for the mile or so leading up to the entrance the side of the road was littered with Bud and Miller Lite cans and bottles. Cars and trucks were lined up along the shoulder and we drove at least a mile before finding a parking spot. People were streaming along like tailgaters heading for the stadium after the keg runs dry. Judging from the raucous honking and hollering, most of them didn’t appear to have come, as we had, for the candlelight vigil. We wonder if they’ll identify us as death-penalty opponents.
The crowd is mostly young, white, and male–and with the pleasant weather, the tramped-down grass, the fences, the joking, laughing, and pushing, this seems more like the Blues Fest or Taste of Chicago than an execution.
A handmade sign proclaims WE HOPE YOU DIE LIKE YOUR LAST MEAL–CHICKEN! Another says KILL THE CLOWN!
The crowd thickens as we are herded toward a rope where troopers allow a few people at a time to step forward and be frisked. Guys in baseball caps joke crudely about getting patted down. Somebody sets off firecrackers and cheers go up. Someone else passes a placard around:
LET HIM FRY,
WHEN HE’S GONE,
I WON’T CRY.
People push forward and we’re reminded of those soccer games in England where fans get smashed against fences and trampled to death. We feel only slightly less threatened when we notice a quiet family on our right who might also be “antis.”
“What time is it?” someone asks. We have less than 15 minutes to make it through the crush of bodies before Gacy’s 12:01 AM scheduled execution.
“All that’s up there is a fenced-in area,” one woman said. “We’re all going to cheer anyway,” said another. “It doesn’t matter.”
After we’re allowed in, we walk a little way and find we’re not going to get anywhere near the prison. We can’t even see it–just some lights in the distance. No radios are allowed so nobody really knows what’s going on. After midnight there are some random shouts and cheers, but no announcements. We find a group of death-penalty protesters holding a silent vigil, pull the candles out of our pockets, and join them.
It’s a mixed group of 40 or 50 people–young and old, black and white, a few ministers and priests. Some hold candles and wear anti-death-penalty stickers. “You should be ashamed of yourselves!” a woman with bleached blond hair and heavy makeup screams at us. “What if your son or brother had been killed?” As she pushes closer state troopers suddenly appear and form a wall of brown, forcing her back, but the jeers continue. “Save some whales while you’re at it!” “Whaddaya belong to WTTW?” “See you later homoboy.” A teenager blows out a middle-aged woman’s candle, laughs, then lights his friend’s cigarette.
Some people stand near the fence, staring into the darkness toward the prison lights several hundred yards away. Others mill around, shout slogans, or make their way toward the television cameras positioned on the other side of one fence. There are clown puppets and multicolored clown wigs and red noses. One T-shirt reads “No tears for the clown.” A kid wearing a wig wears a shirt saying “My parents went to the Gacy execution and all I got was this lousy T-shirt.”
It’s a few minutes after midnight. A small wave of huzzahs passes through the crowd. Someone shouts, “The fucking faggot’s dead.” “Kill the homo for Christ!” a cigar-puffing man shouts as he heads for the exit. A man yells to one of the priests, “Hey, Father, where do you think he is?” He points up then down. “I don’t know, what do you think?” the priest replies.
Around 12:30 one of the vigil organizers comes around to tell us that things are wrapping up. She asks everyone to form a circle for a prayer and tells us to stand to the side until after “the other group” goes. A minister prays so softly we can’t hear much of it, and after that the state troopers start moving closer, saying it’s time to leave.
We stand by the road for a few minutes watching people drift toward their cars. A little boy across the street shouts “Gacy’s dead, Gacy’s dead.” Jeeps and pickups are roaring down the road; guys hang out of them whooping.
Across the street a cluster of death-penalty supporters hold signs reading “Finally Justice Prevails” and “Hasta la Vista Gayce!” A friend thinks the misspelling’s intentional.
Under a street lamp there’s a big pile of garbage–plastic Coke bottles, Wendy’s Biggie cups, and discarded clown party hats, with the words “Happy Birthday” blacked out.
Along the way back to our car we pass four guys in sombreros piling into a jeep. Another guy passing by shouts “Party at 46th and Western!”
On the way home we hear on the radio that Gacy wasn’t even killed until 15 minutes after the crowd dispersed.