Sunday, October 22, 2017

My Great, Wonderful, Good, Very Fine Day in Woodstock

The triumphant unveiling of the Historical Marker on the old McHenry County Sheriff's House and Jail with To Suhrbur of the Illinois Labor History Society, William Furry of the Illinois State Historical Society, Duane Pfeifer of the McHenry County Federation of Teachers, and the driving force behind the plaque, Kathleen Spaltro.

It was the most glorious late October day imaginable in Woodstock, Illinois yesterday.  The sunshine was dazzling, the blue sky flawless, shirtsleeve temperature rose to the mid-70’s, fall foliage was in mid-display side by side with brilliant asters and mums with perfect pumpkins on display.  The Square was bustling with browsers, shoppers, and vendors enjoying one of America’s greatest Farmer’s Markets as talented musicians entertained from the classic gazeebo.  Old friends were encountered at every turn.
But what made the day not just special but extraordinary was the long awaited unveiling of the Illinois State Historical Society’s (ISHS) plaque commemorating Eugene V. Debs’s pivotal incarceration in the old McHenry County Jail overlooking the Square.  The event was the result of years of effort by Kathleen Spaltro,  Steve Avang, and other members of Woodstock Celebrates.  To accomplish it in notoriously conservative and Republican McHenry County they had to overcome skepticism and some outright hostility to acknowledging in any way probably of Woodstock’s most important and significant historic connection. 
Opposition came not only from those determined to block the recognition of a Red but from the skittish fundraisers  of the Friends of the Old Courthouse, the non-profit charged with raising the hefty sums needed to complete restoration of the Old McHenry County Courthouse.  They claimed the Historic Marker on the Jail would scare off deep pocket corporate donors. 

Gunner Gittlan, standing left, indroduces speakers in the Old Court House before the unveiling.  (Mike Mallory, Northwest Herald)
But in his remarks to a crowd jammed into a room in the Court House before the unveiling, I.S.H.S Executive Director William Furry said the Debs plaque is probably “the most significant historical marker his group will place in this century… There is no marker in the state of Illinois that says ‘socialist,’  But we have about 80 markers for [President Abraham] Lincoln – sleeping here, tipping his hat here. There’s a marker in southern Illinois that says, ‘Lincoln saw a bunch of people at the land office.’”  This marker, he said, represents the Society’s determination to make Historic markers “more substantive and have much more to say about who we really are as a people.”
Although the Northwest Herald botched it in their otherwise fine coverage of the event, the McHenry County Federation of Teachers, Local 1642 of the American Federation of Teachers (AFT) which represents Woodstock District 200 teachers and staff and McHenry County College support staff came forward with a contribution that covered the cost of the plaque.  By falsely claiming that funding came from Woodstock’s  tax increment financing fund the paper fuels faux outrage by reactionaries.  Union President Duane Pfeiffer proudly explained his organization’s gift.
Also delivering preliminary remarks were Tom Suhrbur, Vice President of the Illinois Labor History Society (ILHS) and Noel Beasley of the Eugene V. Debs Foundation.
Notably absent from the program and the unveiling were the Mayor, City Manager, or and Representatives of the City Council.  These kinds of folks are usually Johnny-on-the-spot for feel-good photo ops of important civic occasions.  Their absence was likely due to skittishness over fear of political fallout and pushback.  At least one current Council member, Jim Prinville, a local real estate developer attended as a member of the audience but kept a low profile.

The Sheriff's Office and Jail.
After a brief program, we all went outside to unveil the black shrouded maker on the Jackson Street side of the Old Jail and Sheriff’s House.  The ILSH’s Shurbur, ISHS’s Furry, Pfeiffer of the Teacher’s union, and sparkplug Kathleen Spaltro did the honors to cheers and applause. We all lingered in the street admiring the plaque, snapping photos, and congratulating the principals.
Nowhere to be found were any threatened protestors.

The plaque in all of its glory.
When we finally drifted away there was a two hour wait before a scheduled panel discussion at the Woodstock Public Library.  I headed over to Swiss Maid Bakery on Benton Street for the best lunch deal around the Square—a super plump hot dog, small bag of chips, and a can of pop for three bucks and change.  I took my feast to the Square where I sat in the sunshine in front of the Gazeebo listening to Andy Andrick and friends harmonize beautifully on great songs from my youth. 
I wandered over for my first good look at the new Woodstock mural on the wall of the pedway alongside of the Woodstock Theater which connects a city parking lot with Main Street.  Colorful panels represent the Groundhog Day film, Orson Welles, “Stars of the Opera House State, and local celeb Chester Gould and his creation, Dick Tracy.  Cool and fun

The Groundhog Day panel of the new Woodstock mural.
I stopped at D.C. Cobbs for a celebratory libation before a short stroll amid some of Woodstock’s finest painted lady Victorian homes on my way to the Library.
Due to my leisurely pace I arrived during Steve Avang’s portrayal of Sheriff George Eckert who was Deb’s jailer and became his life-long friend and admirer despite their obvious political differences.  Noel Beasley put Deb’s experience with the Pullman Strike and Boycott into perspective including comparisons to the powerful forces arrayed against workers then and out current situation.  Kathy Spaltro dived into the importance of the two historic Supreme Court cases involving Debs, their relationship to Free Speech, and in particular how the proceeding that led to his Woodstock jail time were a collusion between the powerful railroad barons, government, and the courts.  Woodstock attorney Gunnar Gittlan provided a legal analysis of the case.
After the presentations, discussion was lively and well informed.  I got to show off a little labor history trivia and bloviate more than necessary.  Which made me happier than a pig in shit. 
A good day indeed.

Saturday, October 21, 2017

50 Years Ago Today—Marching to a Different Drummer at the Pentagon

Young demonstrators and troops outside the Pentagon.  Some of the troops lineing the roof of the Defense Department Headquarters were sharpshooters to used if "things got out of hand."

There were other big marches in Washington in opposition to the Vietnam War.  Starting in 1965 they had practically become semi-annual events.  There would be more—and larger—ones later.  But the March to Confront the War Makers on October 21, 1967 was different.  It signaled a new phase in the anti-war movement that incorporated the rising youth counter   culture on a large scale for the first time and willingness for more aggressive confrontation of authority.  It also introduced onto a national stage some figures who would become house hold names within a year.

The march was organized, as were previous ones, by the National Mobilization Committee to End the War in Vietnam—universally referred to simply as the Mobe—a shaky coalition of more than 150 organizations including traditional pacifists, Ban the Bomb groups, liberals, the Old Left, the New Left, Viet Cong sympathizers, a sliver of the Civil Rights Movement, student groups like the Students for a Democratic Society (SDS), and anti-war veterans groups.  It was united only in opposition to the war

A Mobe flyer promoting the march had a distinctly traditional, Old Left look.  With the infusion of the youth culture into the previously mostly middle class anti-war movement, such calls would soon look far different.

The organization was so shaky that after the tumultuous events of this demonstration it fell apart.  It was re-assembled, minus its less militant components as the New Mobe the following year in time to organize protests at the Democratic National Convention.

The Mobe was led by veteran radical pacifist Dave Dellinger, the fifty-something editor of the Madison, Wisconsin based Progressive magazine.  In order to reach out to more young people—earlier marches, in retrospect seem like the sedate affairs of the middle class—Dellinger recruited California activist Jerry Rubin to be project coordinator for the march.  It was Rubin’s idea to add a March on the Pentagon after the main rally on the National Mall broke up.

Three central figures of the Chicago Democratic Convention protests of 1968, Abbie Hoffman, Dave Dellinger, and Jerry Rubin, first came together for the Marches on Washington Washington and the Pentagon.  Dellinger, head of the Mobe, recruited California student radical Jerry Rubin as his march coordinator to reach out to the growing student and counter-cultural movements.  Rubin and Hoffman with the aid of some righteous marijuana cooked up the Youth International Party--the Yippies--out of thin air and announced a plan to "levitate the Pentagon."

The rally and March were just part of a series of actions in and around Washington.  A day earlier a march of hundreds on the Justice Department organized by the American Friends Service Committee (AFSC) and other anti-draft groups presented more than 1,000 returned Draft Cards to a reluctant Assistant Attorney General.  Other small demonstrations and picketing were organized by various component groups in the Mobe around Washington.

A highlight of the Rally on the Mall was to be the arrival of the Peace Torch, lit in Hiroshima on August 6.  It was carried across country from San Francisco in a highly publicized relay reminiscent of the journeys of the Olympic Torch.

Although several Blacks spoke from the podium of the Mall Rally—mostly long time members of Old Left parties—most African Americans boycotted the main demonstration where President Lyndon B. Johnson was sure to come under attack.  Many were grateful for his steadfast support of major Civil Rights legislation.  A separate rally was held at Howard University where opposition to the war was largely separated from opposition to the President.  The most important Black leader to come out strongly against the war, Rev. Martin Luther King, was absent from both events. 
Noam Chomsky, Norman Mailer, poet Robert Lowel, Old Left leader Sydney Lens, Dagmar Wilson, and Dr. Benjamin Spock link arms with other luminaries and speakers as they set off from the main rally on the National Mall to head to the Pentagon.
The huge rally was typical of others of its type—a parade of speakers representing the component organizations interspersed with brief entertainment.  Dellinger hinted at a shift in anti-war strategy by saying that it was time to “to go from protest to resistance.”  Norman Mailer, then the most celebrated novelist in America, famously spoke.  His role in the Rally and later events was celebrated in his book Armies of the Night, winner of the Pulitzer Prize

The main speaker was Dr. Benjamin Spock, whose baby care book was the Bible by which most of the young members of the crowd had been raised.  Spock had supported Johnson in 1964 and felt betrayed by his escalation of the war.  The kindly Spock was one of the last nods at getting the parents of Baby Boomers on board the anti-war movement.  But the days when he and organizations like Another Mother for Peace could be the face of the movement were ending.

When the main Rally broke up, a large portion of the crowd began the two and a half mile march to the Pentagon.  By some estimates as many at 50,000 began the long walk, which took them across the Memorial Bridge over the Potomac and up a long service road to the Defense Department headquarters.  Many did not finish the trip.  The line strung out so that it took well over an hour for everyone to get into the site.

When marchers got there they were confronted with a building encircled by 2,500 Federal troops and 200 U.S. Marshals.  A rope line was set up in advance of the security forces and authorities announced that anyone crossing the line would be arrested.

Marchers also encountered a smaller group already at the Pentagon.  Organized by Rubin and Abbie Hoffman, festooned in an American flag shirt and Uncle Sam hat, the newly formed Youth International Party—the Yippies, an organization that hardly existed except in flyers circulated on college campuses and in big city youth culture enclaves, were there to supposedly levitate the Pentagon.

The most enduring image of the Pentagon march--young people putting flowers in the barrels of Army M-15 rifles. 

Many of those first on the scene peacefully approached the defense line.  Images of young people putting flowers in the barrels of Army M-15s became iconic.  But soon more militant demonstrators were challenging the line.  Arrests began.  Small groups managed to get partially up the steps of the building.  Others found an unguarded access ramp and charged in.  They were met with rifle butts and particularly by the aggressive batons of Federal Marshals who busted several heads. Tear gas was used on the crowd and there was some chaos and panic.

But the majority of the demonstrators continued to stand by.  Many sang America the Beautiful and other patriotic and anti-war songs as the battle raged.  By 7 pm things had settled down.  Authorizes announced that the permit for the demonstration had expired.  Most of the remaining demonstrators drifted away, but about 7,000 chose to stay.  No move was made to dislodge them, but as overnight temperatures dropped, many more left.

At dawn a few hundred left to march to the White House to “wake up LBJ.”  There were more arrests there, including those charged with picking flowers in Lafayette Park.  A few hundred others stayed behind to keep a vigil at the Pentagon.  At midnight the remaining 200 were rousted or arrested.

White helmeted U.S. Marshals with heavy batons were particularly aggressive against demonstrators and inflicted several cracked skulls.

In all 681, including Hoffman and Mailer, were arrested over the two days.  Many demonstrators were bloodied or overcome by tear gas.  Over 100 demonstrators were documented to have been treated for injuries.  Many more were undoubtedly hurt.  In addition some soldiers, marshals, and police sustained minor injuries, mostly from objects thrown at them during the confrontation at the Pentagon or scuffles during arrests.

The events in Washington that weekend set the stage for even more tumultuous and confrontational protests around the country in the next few years.

Friday, October 20, 2017

Cast Announced for the Word Players’ Chatting With the Tea Party

The Word Players, the new reader’s theater company at the Tree of Life Unitarian Universalist Congregation in McHenry has announced the cast for its upcoming presentation of the acclaimed play Chatting With the Tea Party by Rich Orloff on Friday, November 10, at 7 pm at the church, 5603 Bull Valley Road in McHenry.

Sue and "Kaz" Kazlusky
Sue and George “Kaz” Kazlusk are retired educators with many years of performing and theater experience in McHenry County.  They both appeared in several editions of the Paradise People and Dille’s Follies revues and are longtime members of those seasonal favorites the Dickens Carolers.  Sue directed the annual Woodstock Children’s Theater productions at the Opera House for nearly 30 years.  She also participated in a reader’s theater production of 400 Years of Unitarian and Universalist Poetry conceived and directed by Patrick Murfin. Kaz is well remembered as the P.A. announcer of Woodstock High School games. They are also long time members of the Tree of Life Adult choir.
Daniel Pegarsch is a veteran of community theater productions including performances at the Raue Center in Crystal Lake.

Ron Relic.
Ron Relic has been a professional actor with stage credits in summer stock and regional theater as well as community theater productions.  He sings with Kaz in the Frothy Boys a cappella group with which his turn as Elvis Pressley’s lesser known brother stops every show the ensemble does. 
Director Patrick Murfin is returning to theater roots stretching back to his high school and college days when had leading rolls in such productions as Damn Yankees, Pygmalion, Inherit the Wind, Oliver!, A Man for All Seasons, Little Murders, and The Rivals.  He also directed John Millington Synge’s Riders to the Sea, and Dylan Thomas’s Under Milkwood.  More recently he created and directed two reader’s theater plays including Thomas Jefferson Still Survives.  Murfin is also an amateur historian, blogger, and published poet in addition to being a well-known local social justice activist.

Chatting With the Tea Party is about one person’s journey across America exploring the question, “Who are these people?” It’s a documentary style play about a New York liberal playwright who decides to travel around the country interviewing leaders of local Tea Party groups, to get to know people whose political beliefs are diametrically opposed to his.  For a year playwright Rich Orloff attended Tea Party meetings and events in cities large and small in every region of the country. The play shapes the highlights of over 63 hours of interviews plus notes from the events to go beyond sound bites and stereotypes to show the people behind the politics. In a journey that’s at times disturbing, humorous, moving, and always thought-provoking

The program is part of an on-going series highlighting the arts in Resistance.

Tickets will soon be on sale for the program for $10.  Proceeds will support the social justice ministry of the Tree of Life Congregation. 

For more information call Murfin at 815 814-5645 or e-mail