bringing a little chaos to Cleveland

Got a long post today, so I'm starting with the photo, then to the words.

At this point in my retelling of past stories, I've hit a couple of walls. Wall one is my own memory. It has taken me a lot longer than I thought it would to get what I feel is an accurate outline of the event. As I started getting closer, I realized that I had run into wall two -- how would the people I was friends with and participated in protests and organizing with feel about me telling our shared stories twenty some-odd years later? I've lost touch with most of them, although I have recently reconnected with some and have friend-of-a-friend peripheral connections to a few others. The vast majority of those I have any current connection to are still activists, but that's not a guarantee that they want me publicly detailing the stupid things we did when we were young.

It seems that the only way over or around those two walls is to accept (and explicitly state) that there is an element of fiction involved. These stories, because of bad memory and respect for those involved can't help but see me combining different people together into one, giving credit to the wrong people -- even misplacing events in time and place to an extent.

So, if you recognize yourself in these stories, yes that's you. My apology if I attributed your actions to someone else and if I get things wrong. Names are changed; not everything is as it was, and at the same time this is exactly what happened.

Please keep in mind that most of these stories are first drafts, very rough sketches of what I hope to someday complete.

This episode is one that was reported by the press, and that coverage can still be found via many sources. As is typical in political protests, the full story never got reported. I guess that's really our own fault, this part of action was planned and conducted with as much secrecy and stealth as possible.

It's 1986 and the issue of Ronald Reagan's anti-missile system -- Star Wars or the Strategic Defense Initiative -- is the focus of a small but healthy protest movement. For me, it was a good way to open a discussion about the militarization of the University, scientific research and society in general. It was never an issue I thought the revolution would spring from, but I did believe it was possible to fuel the movements that could give rise to real rebellion by getting people to dissect this issue.

At SUNY Buffalo, there was a clear local focus to rally around. The University had been given a research grant that explicitly allowed the results of the research to be classified by the military. The contract clearly required that the military review and approve anything published by the researchers. This was not only a blatant violation of the concepts of academic freedom, but was an explicit violation of the SUNY guidelines -- which banned classified military research after the campus uprisings of the early 70s. I'll go into this more in later posts.

One of the core organizers of that anti-SDI protest movement, -- The other Eric, who I think spelled his name with a k -- had been in connection with a group calling itself No Business as Usual. NBAU quickly got sucked into becoming a wholly owned subsidiary of the RCP, but in its early incarnation it seemed to at least have some independence from authoritarian Party-politics. The United Press International wire service's article on the Oct 20 1986 protest referred to NBAU as an organization "based in Berkeley, Calif., made up of religious, campus and political antiwar activists." (source )

The NBAU crowd was organizing a national day of action focused on SDI and one of the primary actions was happening in Cleveland, not around the corner but not an impossible drive from Buffalo.

So the other Erik convinced a bunch of us to go. He rented a 12 person van and as any good organizer would do, he kept asking until people agreed.

I'm not sure it's worth noting that the night before a bunch of us were busy being neo-hippies and had not slept at all when the van pulled up to pick us up. Altered from the lack of sleep and everything else that went along with that night, we jumped in excited for adventure.

The next couple of days were sleep deprived and adrenalin filled; I must have slept for a week when we got back.

We arrived in Cleveland in time for a pre-event organizers meeting after which we headed off to the church basement where we'd spend the night before the protest.

I really can't count the number of church basements I've slept in. So many protests for rather radical issues historically have a strong ally in churches -- especially those located in lower-income urban neighborhoods. This church we were told was a focal point of activism in Great Lakes area during the civil rights and anti-vietnam war movements and had seen such diverse guests as Martin Luther King Jr., Abbie Hoffman and Malcolm X.

At this point, I want to pause to quote some of the press coverage of the next day's events.

Both articles I found that are accessible online without access to a for-pay database are from the LA times.

The day after the protest they gave a one paragraph summary, I think mainly to update the arrest estimate to 300.
300 Protest 'Star Wars'
October 21, 1986
About 300 protesters demonstrating against the "Star Wars" missile defense program blocked streets and sidewalks in Atlanta, Washington, Cleveland and Sunnyvale, Calif. Police said 93 people were arrested. The demonstrators, members of a group called No Business as Usual, said the Strategic Defense Initiative, popularly called "Star Wars," is a first step toward World War III. Police at Lockheed Missiles & Space Co. in Sunnyvale arrested 45 people on charges of disrupting traffic into the Silicon Valley defense plant.

Their coverage the day of the event was a bit more extensive.

Star Wars Foes Carry Protests to Four Cities
Protesters bombed cars with pumpkins to protest President Reagan's "Star Wars" space shield program at a research center in Sunnyvale, Calif., today, while police broke up demonstrations in Washington, D.C., and Cleveland. At least 95 people were arrested in the nationwide action

A peaceful demonstration also was held at the Georgia Institute of Technology in Atlanta. ...

The lead-off protest by the No Business As Usual Action Network disrupted motor and pedestrian rush-hour traffic at a government office building in downtown Washington. ...

Police said 27 were charged with disorderly conduct, but one was also charged with assaulting a police officer, a felony.

At the Lockheed Missiles & Space Co. in Sunnyvale, 90 to 100 people "used all sorts of tactics to obstruct traffic, such as lying in the roadway and tossing pumpkins from an overpass onto cars," a police spokesman said, adding there were at least 45 arrests.

In Cleveland, police said 23 people were arrested and charged with disorderly conduct at NASA's Lewis Research Center. About 75 to 100 protesters attempted to block traffic entering the main gate and on an adjacent roadway.

There it is, one tiny part of one sentence. What got boiled down to "an Adjacent roadway" was the most dynamic, radical and effective part of the day.

There were no reporters on that roadway, and the police were so embarrassed about what we managed to pull off that they certainly were not going to highlight it for the press. The traffic snarl that resulted effectively shut down the research center for the entire morning, so even if the reporter had no idea what had happened it was worth at least a tiny tiny mention.

And that brings us to the story I'm trying to tell. The story of the adjacent roadway.

When we got to the church, some interesting conversations were going on. As we all started participating, we got identified by some folks as the type of people they might be able to trust. They needed more people to pull off their plan and were very quietly sizing up the people that showed up.

The other Erik in particular impressed someone with his positions and stories. They were further convinced we were the right people when they found out that we had all traveled there together and that we had all known each other for a long time and participated in political actions and protests together. In short, the chance of one of us being an infiltrator or agent provocateur was really slim.

Erik came over and let us know that we had been invited to participate in a special part of the protest. He only had sketchy details, they would fill us in more fully once we had committed.

Maybe it was the chemicals and adrenalin still flowing in our brains, maybe it was the lack of sleep that clouded our judgment, maybe it was the desire to do something more interesting that just sit around at the front gate symbolically blocking the gate until a cop asked us to quietly submit to arrest.

Whatever the contributing factors, we all quickly agreed. We were in. Without knowing what the hell we were committing to, we jumped in head first.

The plan was pretty simple. We were going to block the roadway leading up to the center. The way the roads were setup, it was possible that if we could effectively block that roadway, it could block all possible approaches to the center. Instead of symbolically blocking the gate, we were going to try to keep people from getting to the gate.

While Julie and Jason and Neil went out scavenging for construction debris and rubble (something there was no shortage of in that area of Cleveland), filling the van with one of our most important tools for the next morning, the rest of us planned. We drew maps, time schedules and diagrams; we rehearsed how we would handle the different parts of the action. It was part football practice with plays drawn out with X's and lines; part brainstorm session and part rehearsal for a performance.

I forget if we slept at all that night.

At 6am we're off. 3 cars and a van with about 12 activists about to do something incredibly stupid, but effective -- play in traffic.

There's a section of this adjacent roadway where there are 4 lanes of traffic, two moving in each direction and no shoulder to drive around stopped traffic on.

Rush hour is just starting when we arrive. The vehicles all slow to a stop and our crew of lunatics jump out.

A few of the team start dumping the rubble out, spreading it across the road behind our transportation. While they are doing that, the job for me and one other is to ignite road flares -- and waving them around like the folks you see out the window of a plane as it taxies to or from the gate, jump into a line of 55mph moving traffic and bring it to a halt.

The construction vests we had helped with the illusion that we were legit -- they stopped.

Our transport vehicles can now swing quick u-turns and head towards our later rendezvous point; the rubble crew then spreads our debris barricade across the entire roadway.

Now, this could have been enough to keep things at a standstill for a while, but we're not done yet.

While we were getting traffic to stop, two teams of two people were moving their way down the line of traffic. Once they got far enough away, so that drivers would not see the rubble clearly, they walked over to some of the drivers and explained that there was some road work going on up ahead, but that it was possible to get around the snarled backup by going into the opposing lanes of traffic.

When the drivers looked, they saw us with our flares, waving them in a come this way motion and in a way as if we were directing them back into the correct lanes of traffic.

Why none of them thought "why should I listen to you?," or wonder why the "road crew" did not start with the car in front of the backup or in front of them even, I don't know. Why some of the cars that followed the wave of auto-lemmings into the wrong lanes of traffic were cop cars is beyond me completely.

So, there I am. Waving my rapidly shrinking flares in total amazement that this has played out exactly as planned.

Within 10 minutes, we had 4 lanes of traffic facing each other. 4 lanes of traffic with no where to go, rubble or cars facing the wrong direction ahead, cars stuck in the same mess behind them. The cops finally realized what was going on and jumped out of their cars to chase us, keystone cop style (more than one ended up face down in the mud because they had a hard time following one of us over a 2 foot high barrier.

It was a mess that took hours and hours to unclog.

By the time we were fleeing the cops and heading to our pick up locations, traffic on the interstate, which had an exit that led right into the clogged roadway, was backed up as far as you could see, no one was going anywhere. We had done what we set out to do. As the press said some people blocked an adjacent roadway -- or in other words, we shut it down and got away.

The rest of the day was spent marching around downtown Cleveland chanting silly slogans. Usually I'm not one for the march and chant thing, but I was so charged up from the morning that I lost my voice from shouting so much.

We're the vets of world war 3
Martyrs for stupidity
Won't you come and join our crew
'cause your all world war 3 vets too.