The Chicago Five

Protesters nabbed during the 1996 Democratic National Convention tell it to the judge.

By Jeffrey Felshman

After the balloons and tinsel rained on the last night of the 1996 Democratic National Convention, throngs of conventioneers strutted past a group of jovial policemen chatting on the corner of Madison and Paulina. “Thanks for comin’,” said one to nobody in particular. “Get you a cab?” another offered the crowd. When two female delegates answered yes, please, they were escorted to a line of taxis across the street. It appeared the 1968 debacle had finally been laid to rest. Few would notice similarities, and those who did were in jail.

The police didn’t kick ass this time around, but they did take names. Even before Clinton hit the podium, five people–Bonnie Tocwish, Robert MacDonald, Ron Schupp, Ben Masel, and Michael Durschmid–were arrested on charges of felony mob action and aggravated battery against two police officers. The incidents allegedly took place a couple of days earlier, at a demonstration on Tuesday, August 27. At 9:45 last Friday morning, all five came together with six attorneys in a courtroom at 26th and California. They were trying to convince a judge to quash those arrests.

There were plenty of empty seats in room 606, which came as no surprise; protests during the convention attracted little concern. The skimpy, mostly peaceful demonstrations were covered by the press as curiosities. They were largely ignored by the delegates and had absolutely no effect on the event. Still, though hardly anyone was watching, police say something big took place August 27, something serious enough to bypass a preliminary hearing and get the five protesters indicted by a grand jury less than one month later.

The demonstrations had been staged by a loose coalition of groups representing a variety of causes, from disarmament to drug decriminalization. The August 27 rally was organized by an ad hoc group called Not on the Guest List, and it attracted somewhere between 500 and 1,000 protesters. They marched out of Wicker Park and headed south on Ashland Avenue. They spilled off the sidewalk and into the street, taking a lane or two away from southbound traffic. Police claim they’d been told to stay on the sidewalk. Hundreds of officers followed the march on foot and on horseback until it reached an area around Washington and Wolcott. They were now close to the United Center, but police refused to allow the march to go any farther. That’s where, they say, things got out of hand.

Protesters flung horse dung at the police. Many in the crowd chanted “Fuck the police. Take the streets.” These chants, police say, were led by a man in a clerical collar, who set the tempo with a megaphone. Four others exhorted people to chant along, and the mob obeyed. Police testified that a woman with blond hair and a nose ring tried to get onlookers from the Henry Horner Homes to join in the protest. They swore a tall man with long hair and a scraggly beard burned a horse’s butt with a cigarette and encouraged others to follow suit. Five people reportedly urged the crowd to break through the police lines. One unidentified protester threw a bottle that struck an officer in the chest; someone else–no one knows who–punched an officer in the back.

Too busy to arrest anyone at the time, and too polite to mention it to the press, police nonetheless were determined not to let the incident pass. They met late into the night to determine who was responsible. According to someone at that meeting–deputy chief Ronald Jablon, the first witness to testify last Friday–police came up with descriptions that they say matched the five defendants. Wednesday passed, but no one was brought in. That evening Nightline aired a segment about the convention protests that was filmed on August 24. The report featured Jablon and, incredibly, all five of the August 27 suspects.

There were so many groups represented at the protests that it looked like the police would have their hands full trying to locate the suspects. None of them had actually organized Tuesday’s demonstration, but the police knew they’d turn up. Masel, who wore a graying ponytail and a smart-ass grin, was already in custody for trespassing in front of the Hilton. He was passing out leaflets calling for the reform of marijuana laws. The rest were found on Thursday. In Durschmid’s case, the police didn’t have to track him down–he came to them. He was spotted at a demonstration against the arrests of the four other protesters at Area Four headquarters on Harrison. The five were picked out of lineups by police officers who’d been at the Tuesday demonstration. They were charged and then released on bond.

Bonnie Tocwish was the first of the five to testify last Friday. She was arrested on the morning of August 29 while holding hands in a circle of people on Michigan Avenue. When she was asked by the state’s attorney if she’d seen anyone throwing horse feces at the police on August 27, a couple of spectators in the courtroom snickered. Judge Themis Karnezis jumped up and yelled, “Who’s laughin’? Anyone who wants to laugh go somewhere else!” Before leaving, one man muttered, “This is a waste of taxpayers’ money.”

The next to take the stand, Robert MacDonald, was one of the organizers of the Festival of Life, a series of demonstrations in Grant Park that were planned in part to commemorate the events of 1968. The protests were supposed to take place every day during the convention. “We were going to call for a reconciliation with the past,” MacDonald says, but more recent events caught up with him. He was unloading a van at Michigan and Balbo when police arrested him on August 29. When he was handcuffed, he asked to see a warrant. MacDonald says he was told there wasn’t one. He expressed surprise at being taken into custody on Thursday for something that was supposed to have taken place on Tuesday. “I’d spent most of Wednesday talking to police officers,” he testified. “I wasn’t wearing a disguise.”

The next defendant was easier to pick out of a crowd. Ron Schupp (whose name rhymes with “yup”) is a Baptist minister who wears a clerical collar. According to Schupp, he’d just finished a press conference at 230 S. Dearborn when a police officer shouted to him, “C’mere, Schoop. C’mere, we just want to talk to you.” Schupp said he was then hustled into the back of a squad car.

Outside the courtroom, he added that the police already knew him. When he attempted to picket a book signing by Newt Gingrich earlier that summer, he says, one policeman told him, “Wait until the convention, Schoop. You got one comin’.” On August 29, Schupp says, he asked the officer in the front seat of the car, “Why am I being arrested?” The officer turned around and snarled, “‘Cause you’re a jag off!”

Schupp brought a sheaf of letters to court, tributes to his civil rights activism. He had letters of commendation from the Gandhi Institute Museum and Library in New Delhi and the United Nations Library in Geneva. Nelson Mandela, Desmond Tutu, and the Dalai Lama never called him a jag off–neither did Richard M. Daley. They all wrote letters of praise.

Ben Masel brought more leaflets calling for an end to the war on drugs. Masel, a 42-year-old hippie from Madison, has run for sheriff of Dane County, Wisconsin. On August 27 the Tribune ran a photo of him facing a line of police. He was arrested on Wednesday, August 28, when he refused to stop handing out leaflets in front of the Hilton. A security guard had told him to leave. When he didn’t, the cops were called.

Admonished by the judge for joking around on the stand, Masel later compared the charges against him and the others to the Haymarket trial. “Somebody threw something and the speakers were held at fault,” he pointed out. But 11 people died at that rally and four of the speakers were hanged. None of the Chicago Five were speakers at the demonstration, and, Masel continued, “If the bottle and the feces can’t be proved–which they can’t–then what we’re left with is a conspiracy to commit jaywalking.” Masel has a record of 117 misdemeanor arrests, but this is his first felony. He and the others could get up to 20 years apiece.

Michael Durschmid, an animal rights activist, handyman, and general contractor, freely admitted that he had jaywalked during the march. But he swore he didn’t know the demonstrators were supposed to stay on the sidewalk. Police claim Durschmid was the tall, bearded guy who burned the horse with a cigarette. He denies it. After giving his testimony, he called the charges “preposterous.” During the week of the convention he’d gone to the Rock ‘n’ Roll McDonald’s dressed as a cow to protest eating meat. He’s pro-horse too, he argued, exclaiming, “I’d almost rather burn a person than a horse!”

Police witnesses were still being called to the stand when court adjourned at 7:30 PM. Several defense witnesses had been waiting out in the hall all day. They now had to go home. They’ll return next week on February 19, when the proceedings are scheduled to continue. Durschmid’s attorney, Reed Lee, was at the August 27 demonstration. He could be called as a witness if the case goes to trial, but he doubts it. “If they want to call me, they can be my guest,” he said. “I’ve thought about it long and hard. If it gets to a point where I’d have to be a witness, I’d have to withdraw.”

Comparisons to the unruly trial of the Chicago Seven are still a stretch. Robert MacDonald’s attorney is Leonard Weinglass, who was junior counsel for the defense at that trial. But of the current defendants, only Masel crossed state lines. And while those earlier activists were famous before they became symbols, Tocwish, MacDonald, Schupp, Durschmid, and Masel are mostly unknown. With any luck, they’ll stay that way.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): “Four of the Five: Bonnie Tocwish, Robert MacDonald, Ron Schupp, Michael Durschmid” photo by J.B. Spector.