On the road all the way around Lake Michigan over spring break last week. Though I have to say the only hint of a springtime I experienced was on the steps of the capital building in Madison, Wisconsin. Began going North to and through Michigan’s Upper Peninsula hugging Superior’s shores along the way to the Porcupine Mountains near the Wisconsin border. Lake Superior is not your normal lake. I’ve never seen it in winter. In storms it crashes blocks of jagged ice as big as cars onto the shore. It is a massive, dark and foreboding body of water. At a little town called Big Bay, the last stop on the road, one could easily imagine one was at the end of the fucking world. In Marquette I met a man who surfed (!?) the lake’s rare open flows just weeks before. People drink a lot up there, especially in winter. We’ll assume he was drunk.
Below is the Black River which begins in a Wisconsin boreal wetland and empties into Lake Superior falling 200 feet in five cataracts. In winter the ice further restricts the water’s flow and spouts of foaming, freezing spray erupt through the ice. The constant coating of water leads to the most peculiar ice forms along the waterfalls which follow one another in quick succession. All of this framed by giant firs and some of the oldest geology on the planet. It is a serenely perfect natural spot. I can’t recommend County Highway 513 through the Ottawa National Forest following the river to the lake enough. This westernmost part of Michigan is further away from my Michigan home than New York City is, so I don’t feel bad about letting go of the secret of this place. If you make the journey you deserve the beauty.
Down through a beautiful, never before seen, northern Wisconsin through the Lac du Flambeau Ojibwe reservation and eventually to Madison. That day saw a march of firefighters and of ‘Elders for Justice’ among other events. Unfortunately I was unable to get into the capital building (the status was tied up in the courts at the time), but joined the demonstrators at the doors. After being glued to the goings on in Madison the last month it was a real learning experience to be on the ground and getting a feel for the situation, even if only briefly.
Some semi-formed impressions: 1) Solidarity is beautiful; the most beautiful of human relations, 2) The diversity of the demands and protesters centered around a class perspective (even if muddled) was refreshing and frankly new to my eyes in my twenty plus years of political activity, 3) Whatever the local and state Democrats and union leaderships have done to obstruct Walker’s agenda has been done because of the actions of protesters and the outrage of workers, however the movement’s realization that they can lead themselves has yet to be realized 4) Any strategy that relies on parliamentary machinations or the Democratic Party is doomed to failure…doomed. 5) I don’t trust cops, any cops any where, even when they say or even are (temporarily) on our side and it was awful strange to be in a demo praising law enforcement; a little like sitting uncomfortably in the pew of a church of a religion not yours 6) If there is to be a general strike (big if) then why in the world would you call it for after the bill is passed? The real power of labor is labor and that has yet to be flexed in Wisconsin 7) People are in motion, things are being discussed that were undiscussed and undiscussable just months ago; a great, inspiring learning experience and class battle is being waged, it was a thrill to breathe its air.
Down to Chicago for a few days. I’ve spent a lot of time in Chicago, but this trip meandered through dozens of the city’s neighborhoods and I saw many parts of the city I’ve never seen before. At first I thought I might be able to squeeze in a taco from every street stand in Chicago, but after the first night of trying I thought better of the plan. One thing’s for sure, Chicago has food. There’s plenty to say about Chicago; as a Midwesterner it, not DC or New York or LA, is my capital city. Despite it being the fourth wealthiest city in the world, it still feels awfully proletariat. Perhaps it is because all of that wealth is tied up in a relatively few rich folks, that and the mile after mile of rail yards, canals, warehouses and factories (many idled) . Parts of Chicago looked like Detroit; post-industrial and hollowed out. Parts of it, much smaller parts, are as wealthy as the wealthiest neighborhoods in the world. And parts of it are so maddeningly ‘middle class’ in the exact American usage of the term. It is a terribly segregated city, its racial politics on display everywhere. Streets can change abruptly from black to brown to white. It’s all awfully familiar, and it feels like home.
Above is the reason for the great Pullman Strike of 1894. This ‘model’ community built by the railroad robber baron was meant to be a showcase of enlightened industrialism. It turned out to be a nightmare. Many of the homes were shoddily built, even lacking plumbing. Workers had to pay for the use of the library. When Pullman decreased wages in 1893 he refused also to decrease the rents and goods of his paternal charges who worked sixteen hour days. In May of 1894 3000 workers, residents of the buildings above, went on a wildcat strike. Within weeks 250,000 rail workers around the country were on strike. Led by the American Railway Union and Eugene Debs, Chicago became a battlefield. Thousands of troops and National Guard were deployed to protect scab workers and company property, barricades were erected on Pullman town’s streets.Over a dozen workers were killed and many hundreds arrested. Among those arrested was Debs himself. Not then a revolutionary or even a socialist Debs, who was initially very reluctant to support the boycott strikes of the ARU in support of the Pullman workers, was sent to prison as part of a policy to crush the ARU. A successful policy as it turned out. But history was to have its revenge. In Woodstock, Illinois’ federal prison Debs was introduced to the writings of Karl Marx including his Wage Labour and Capital. When Debs walked out of prison he walked out a socialist, going on to become the most effective revolutionary working class leader the country has yet witnessed winning a million votes in 1920. In relative terms, Debs did nearly three times as well as Nader in the 2000 election…and on a socialist platform. Many of the houses of Pullman are still occupied, if far the worse for wear. The three thousand acre site is now a Historic District, but not one of those gentrified ones, not even close. Go to Pullman comrades and walk the streets that Debs and the workers of the ARU walked. All the way south in Chicago below 103rd, it’s worth the trip.
A trip to Chicago would be incomplete without engaging the experimental (all terms for this music are inadequate) music the city is legendary for. In 1965 the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians, forerunner to the Art Ensemble of Chicago, was formed and damn near fifty years later the city still produces its fair share of the avant-garde. Curated by Ken Vandermark, the Resonance Festival opened during the visit at the Hideout, which bore a striking resemblance to the bar in The Deer Hunter. Highlight: Chicago’s own Michael Zerang.