G-8 protest organizer agent of ‘change' or ‘pain in the butt'?

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Andy Thayer, is a key figure in the upcoming G8 protests and a veteran protestor for many causes, including gay rights and anti-war. | Tom Cruze~Sun-Times

Andy Thayer’s co-workers are running an office pool.

How long until he gets arrested?

Most of us would take offense, but Thayer is one of the guys authorities most expect to cause trouble at the G-8 and NATO summits in May. To him, it’s a badge of honor.

“I’m staying out of it,” the veteran activist says with a laugh of his colleagues’ teasing.

Battle-hardened after more than 30 years as the megaphone-carrying face of non-violent Chicago street protests against everything from police brutality to Wall Street greed to the war in Iraq, the media-savvy 51-year-old rarely stays out of anything for long.

In the last two weeks alone he’s had the better of public spats with Cardinal Francis George, who apologized for comparing the gay rights movement to the Ku Klux Klan, and with Mayor Rahm Emanuel, who admitted he’d understated the scope of proposed laws targeting protesters.

In the next two weeks Thayer is due to be a witness in a federal civil rights lawsuit that challenges the Chicago Police Department’s handling of a 2003 anti-war protest, and to be a noisy antagonist in the City Council’s vote on Emanuel’s proposed protest restrictions.

Police critics mock him as a publicity hound who’d call a rally to protest a parking ticket.

But ever since President Barack Obama announced that the G-8 and NATO will meet in Chicago, Thayer has been meeting almost daily with dozens of other activists to plot a demonstration they hope will draw a coalition of tens of thousands of protesters from across the globe during the May 19-21 summit. As the author of a protest permit application that seeks to march the crowd to within a few yards of the world’s leaders at McCormick Place, he’s likely to be thrust into his brightest spotlight yet this summer.

Emanuel has repeatedly said that protestors’ First Amendment rights won’t be compromised by the security needs of the summit and that he has no interest in a 2016 presidential run.

But Thayer – who has a history degree – says he and other protesters plan to use a lesson they’ve drawn from the clashes outside the 1968 Democratic National Convention that damaged Mayor Richard J. Daley’s national reputation.

“The 1968 DNC destroyed Hubert Humphrey’s chance of becoming president,” he says in the cluttered West Town office that he’s decorated with an Arab Spring-inspired Egyptian flag.

“The G-8 is Obama’s homecoming and Rahm’s national coming out party. Rahm hopes it will be his springboard to the 2016 nomination. We want them both to pay the highest political price for bringing the biggest collection of fraudsters, banksters and warmongers ever to meet in Chicago.”

Lifelong dissent

If the specter of 1968 looms over the upcoming summit, Thayer’s a little too conventional for the role that hairy counter-culture icon Abbie Hoffman played in that drama.

Thayer prefers the fitted T-shirts, sensible glasses and neat haircut that befit a middle-aged gay man whose day job is office manager for the law firm Loevy & Loevy. He’s quick to agree that he’s only one of many organizers, and that G-8 NATO protestors will march for a plethora of causes, including an “Occupy” coalition that emphasizes collective action over individual leadership.

For all that, his whole life might have been building to this moment.

Raised in a small town in upstate New York by his father, who designed missile parts, and his mother, an activist who secretly helped Vietnam draft dodgers escape to Canada, he was a misfit from the start.

His mother’s commitment to “take risks for what she believed in” left a mark, he says. By the age of 17, he’d written articles exposing corruption, articles that upset his teachers so much that they closed the high school newspaper.

It was in Chicago that his activism flourished. Enrolled as a journalism student at Northwestern University in 1978, he was sent to cover a protest at the gates of ComEd’s Zion nuclear power plant. Instead he joined in and was arrested and charged with trespassing and eventually was acquitted by a Lake County jury, which found that the protesters’ actions were necessary to prevent a greater harm to the public.

The experience was “exhilarating and scary,” he says.

Thayer took a hiatus from Northwestern when he came out of the closet – he now lives in Uptown with his partner – but became a campus leader upon his return, protesting against the school’s investments in apartheid South Africa.

By the 1990s he was a leading voice against police brutality and for the Gay Liberation Network, which he co-founded.

He’s since been arrested for everything from demanding gay rights in Moscow to attempting to stop President George W. Bush’s motorcade in the Loop. Convicted of misdemeanor resisting arrest in 1989 and again in 2005, he had three other minor cases thrown out, and was cleared of more serious charges of aggravated battery of a police officer in 2009 after video evidence undermined the case against him.

He’s taken on beloved conservative institutions – the Chicago Boy Scouts Council lost most of its funding from United Way in 2001 after Thayer led protests against the scouts’ policies on homosexuality – but also infuriated elements of the left, including other gays angered by his support of the deported Muslim cleric Rabbih Haddad.

But it was his leading role in the raucous anti-Iraq war march of March 20, 2003, that may offer the best clues into how he’ll react in the heat of the moment this May.

2003 clash

The freewheeling protest, in which 10,000 demonstrators without permits followed Thayer and other leaders onto Lake Shore Drive, blocking traffic hours after the U.S.-led bombing of Iraq began, has faded from popular memory.

But Thayer isn’t alone in his estimation of its significance.

“That was the first time since 1968 that an anti-war demonstration got out of control on the city’s streets,” says retired Deputy Supt. Jim Maurer, who was Chicago Police’s Chief of Patrol at the time. “They literally overran the police lines.”

Police claimed they’d negotiated an ad hoc deal with leaders of the march to avoid the Drive, but Thayer and other protesters denied it. At least 540 were arrested, though only 351 were charged and most had their cases dropped. Nine years later, it’s still an open wound between police and protesters, who brought a federal civil rights case that’s set to go to trial later this month.

One former top Chicago law enforcement official whose run-ins with Thayer include the 2003 protest, angrily describes him as “self-serving – not as interested in the cause as he is in attention for himself.”

But both Maurer and Pat Camden, who was then the Chicago Police spokesman and now represents the Fraternal Order of Police, view Thayer with a mixture of amused contempt and grudging respect. “He always wanted to be arrested, and we often accommodated him,” says Maurer, who describes Thayer as a “gigantic pain in the butt for law enforcement.”

“Like the mosquitoes that are all over the place when you go on a fishing trip,” is how Camden describes Thayer’s role in our democracy. “They’re always there and they never go away – he’s certainly persistent.”

Both concede that Thayer is not violent and has a right to make his point. “You have to take him seriously because he’s tried to provoke the police department on many occasions,” Maurer said. “He provokes like-minded people who want to cause trouble.”

In their view, police exercised considerable restraint in 2003 and will do so again during the G-8.

Thayer, who says the Chicago Police Department has “an international reputation for brutality,” drew a different conclusion. Police’s failure to control the 2003 crowd spooked the White House enough that it decided not to hold the 2004 G-8 in Chicago, he believes, crediting the protest as “a great success.”

Though he blames police for the violence at the 1968 convention and the “Battle of Seattle” at the 1999 World Trade Organization summit, he also acknowledges that civil disobedience played a role in both, as it did in 2003.

He expects non-violent civil disobedience in May’s protests, which he says Chicagoans should feel safe enough to bring their children to. The 2003 protest offers a model of how the mayor might lose the street at a peaceful event, he suggests.

It was the protesters’ energy, not their numbers, that made the difference in that case, he says. “I’ve been in marches of 300,000 that were flat, but the air was electric that night,” he said. “We knew we wouldn’t stop the war, but we told President Bush, ‘You ignored our voices, now you’ll have to ignore our bodies.’”

99 versus 1

Thayer hasn’t voted for an electable national candidate in decades. He scoffs at the idea that the G-8 nations of the United States, Japan, Germany, the United Kingdom, France, Italy, Canada and Russia are truly democratic and believes that “meaningful change only comes up from the street and the grassroots.”

He points to a range of issues, from the North American Free Trade Agreement’s effects on Mexican farming through the trillions of dollars spent on NATO’s war in Afghanistan to the closures of schools and libraries in Chicago, as reasons people should show up to May’s protests. For him, they’re all connected.

Simply put, he says: “This is the 99 percent versus the one percent who start all wars and rule in their own interests, the wealthiest one percent who live in palaces while holding the rest of us down.”

Predicting just how many heed that call is difficult. The Seattle protests attracted a minimum of 35,000; just a few thousand demonstrated at this year’s G-8 in Deauville, France; while at least 400,000 marched through downtown Chicago for immigrant rights in 2006.

Thayer’s application for a parade from Daley Plaza to the western boundary of the summits’ location, McCormick Place, predicted only 5,000. But organizers seeking to calm authorities’ fears and preempt claims of failure have an incentive to set a low bar. Privately, they say they’ll be disappointed if tens of thousands do not take to the streets.

By contrast, Police Supt. Garry McCarthy’s comments that 13,000 officers are training for mass arrests, and Emanuel’s attempts to increase restrictions and possible fines on protesters are designed to scare away the everyday Chicagoans who would make the bulk of any large crowd, according to Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor, an activist with Communities United Against Foreclosure and Eviction.

A diverse group of similar left-wing groups, including Iraq Veterans Against The War, the Committee To Stop FBI Repression, Students For A Democratic Society and the Chicago Network to Send a US Boat to Gaza, are among those regularly meeting to organize the protest. Protesters from across the nation, from Canada, the U.K. and Germany are also coordinating. But the size of the crowd may depend in large part on how actively the unions get involved in an election year action against a Democratic president they helped elect.

It also remains to be seen whether immigrant rights activists can convince their community that the G-8 is a worthwhile target. Past actions against the G-8 have been overwhelmingly white.

Harder still to predict are the intentions of hard-line anarchists, who have little respect for Thayer and the leftist coalition. Anonymous chat about a minority forming a lawless “black bloc” within the main body of the march – as happened in 1999, when anarchists dressed in black smashed stores in downtown Seattle – is rife on anarchist websites. In a sign that police are taking the risk seriously, officers were recently requested to report the locations of anarchist graffiti across the city.

Thayer admits the responsibility he and other activists feel to mobilize a successful protest “keeps me awake at night.”

But if Chicago wants to know if there will be trouble when the G-8 and NATO hit town, he’s remaining coy.

“It depends how you define ‘trouble,’ ” Thayer grins. “Rahm Emanuel’s idea of trouble might just turn out to be a lot of people’s idea of fun.”

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