“Out of the classrooms, into the streets! We want peace in the Middle East!”

Thursday, January 17. I’m marching with antiwar protesters through the concrete halls of the University of Illinois at Chicago. The crowd seems large and loud; it snakes past lecture rooms, opening doors to disturb classes with echoing shouts. The protesters pound up and down stairs and through halls of connected buildings, screaming “No blood for oil!” Young men and women wearing black leather jackets, black arm bands, and peace-symbol earrings stomp past other, ostensibly neutral students, who shake their heads and grin as if they’re mildly amused.

“One two three four, we don’t want your fucking war!”

This finally inspires a reaction from onlookers.

“Must you swear?” says one kid.

“They gotta ruin it!” says another.

I smirk. Fucking is obscene, but war isn’t? Yet they have a point. You can’t persuade by offending. Unfortunately, there’s no time to evaluate different protest groups. I don’t approve of disturbing classes, but here I am, swept up with the crowd. Swept up with the overwhelming emotion of “I have to do something!”

On the concrete overhang above are a group of counterdemonstrators, mostly male, carrying signs that read “Go Bush Go,” “Liberate Kuwait,” and the inexplicable “Your Mama!” Baritone shouts rain down on the crowd. “You Ess Ay! You Ess Ay!”

Finally several students respond, “Out!” They seem surprised by their quick wit, and exchange joyful smiles. Someone says “Good one!”

“You Ess Ay!”

“Out!” More voices.

“You Ess Ay!”

“OUT!” This time everyone, including me, even though I don’t belong here. Even though I secretly hope the You Ess Ay flattens Iraq and ends the war tomorrow. Yes, I agree, we should have kept the troops home, we should have pushed for negotiations. But I should have been marching last week, last month, August 3. Now it’s too late.

“Hell no! We won’t go! We won’t kill for Amoco!”

No one’s asked them yet, and they’ll never ask me. But if I had understood, 18 years ago, I would have scrapped the Pontiac Firebird, sweated in the summer, and frozen in the winter. Survived without electric can openers, curling irons, and pencil sharpeners.

The antiwar protesters charge up the ice-encrusted stairs of the small outdoor amphitheater. Not an agile person, I climb too slowly, too thoughtfully, searching for spots of bare concrete.

“C’mon guys!” shouts a voice behind me. “You don’t want to be marching with the right-wingers!”

If I broke an ankle it wouldn’t change a thing. Besides, several campus police officers separate our groups; I can’t imagine some promilitary boy slugging a woman old enough to be “Your Mama.” Finally a young girl at the top extends a hand. I grab it. Thank you.

But I can’t walk too quickly on the once melted, now refrozen surface of lumpy footprints. Behind me lags another woman, a generation older than me, shaking her head and shuffling. I extend my hand. She grabs it. Thank you.

We decide it’s pointless to break our necks climbing back down the frozen steps of the stadium. There are no railings to clutch. We stand behind the balustrade, watching the tiny group of less than a hundred protesters marching round and round in a circle, going nowhere. Across from us, at the top of the stadium, is the slightly smaller group of counterdemonstrators. Halted by campus police, they stagnate in one place.

“We can at least do this,” says my new friend; she leans her elbows on the concrete, fingers formed in Vs. I follow her lead, wondering what’s the point, wondering how this can possibly change the mess we’ve gotten into, when I hear someone say my name.

I don’t recognize the young man who stands smiling beside me, so I reach up and pull back his hood–a bold, personal gesture quite unlike me. It’s John, one of my students from last quarter, a big, good-looking kid with perfect teeth.

“Couldn’t you tell?” he says, slightly miffed.

I thank him for sending one of his friends to my class. “Oh yeah,” says John, “he’s a good guy.”

But there’s not much time for conversation. Seconds later, John is gone. Too rushed to have noticed me displaying peace signs. Too rushed to have commented on the action. I wonder which side he’d be on–this student who wrote about local drug enforcement–or what he’d think if he saw me marching. I wonder if someday soon he could be drafted.

I slip and slide over to Circle Center; one door is besieged by counterdemonstrators. They want to follow the peaceniks up to the third floor, where John Stockwell, the highest-ranking CIA agent ever to publicly denounce the organization, will be delivering an antiwar lecture. The police are inside, blocking their entry. Another door, only 15 feet away, is open. I walk inside, zip up the escalator, shout with the crowd for several minutes before we file, quietly, into the auditorium.

I sit next to a woman in her late teens who tells me that her boyfriend’s waiting to get his orders.

“It’s not fair!” she says. “These guys join ’cause they can’t afford tuition. No one’s thinking we’re gonna have a war in the 90s.”

My knee-jerk reaction is, jeez, how naive to choose the military, then gripe when you’re asked to wage war. And how naive for me to have done nothing until today, in the stupid hope that a peaceful settlement would be reached.

I squeeze her hand in sympathy, then turn away. She’ll only get more upset if she sees me crying.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Bert Dalmer–Chicago Flame.