Shot Down in Motor City: How I Smelled the Tear Gas and Saw the Light
In September of 1995, I was just shy of eighteen, and I believed the entire world ought to be radically transformed. That’s probably because the entirety of my brief life had been a disaster; my small world had been rotten and corrupt, so I believed the world at large was, too. I wanted to flip our nation on its head — indeed, I wanted to turn the whole planet upside down. I figured that was the only way to fix things.
I’d gotten married two weeks after my seventeenth birthday — before graduation, even — and growing up under the looming shadows of my mother’s alcoholism, crack addiction, and mental illness had forced me to mature far more rapidly than my peers. Nonetheless, I didn’t know half as much as I thought I did.
I had attended Oklahoma public schools for most of my childhood. And, although Oklahoma is reputed to be the nation’s most conservative state, I remember being taught endless sundry left-wing propaganda. The “captains of industry” were equally corrupt as the “robber barons”; indeed, the actions of the ultra-wealthy are always suspect. The founding fathers owned slaves and were therefore filthy hypocrites. White people are history’s villains, and owe the rest of humanity an apology. True communism and/or socialism have never been tried, and therefore cannot be deemed failures. The list goes on. In other words, right in the crimson red heartland of America, I had been quietly and very effectively indoctrinated in liberal ideology.
It should come as no surprise, then, that during my first year at DePaul University in Chicago, I was intrigued by the signage posted around an International Socialist Organization (ISO) information table. It declared the organization’s opposition to racism and sexism, and extolled its support for the rights of everyday people. That appealed to me, so I took a copy of their newspaper, Socialist Worker, and my then-husband and I went to their meeting later that week.
It was held at a member’s home, and although the ISO claimed to have collective leadership, that guy was clearly in charge. He was short, perhaps 5’5,” with a bulbous Buddha belly and dark, curly hair that peeked out from under his Rastafarian hat. The rest of the group was quite diverse — there were people in business attire who’d come directly from office jobs, bookish intellectuals, hippies, blue-collar workers, and punky-looking kids like my husband and me. Refreshments were offered, then Junior Rastafari called the meeting to order.
He made a big push for volunteers to go to Detroit to support the striking workers of the Detroit News and the Detroit Free Press. The Chicago ISO was sending people over in a “gesture of solidarity” for Labor Day weekend, according to Junior Rastafari. He emphasized that the strike would be a wild time, and that it was not something to be missed.
My husband and I had little in common, but we shared a thirst for adventure, so we signed up. We had no idea what would actually be involved — I think we both assumed there would be sign-holding and marching — but we were game nonetheless.
We were assigned a carpool with one of the office workers. She was a most unremarkable woman; there was absolutely nothing outstanding about her. I wondered if my husband and I would even recognize her again as the three of us made plans to meet that Saturday afternoon.
When she pulled up in front of our building, all the windows of Plain Jane’s tiny brown Toyota were down, and she was blaring the Pulp Fiction soundtrack. She never changed the CD, letting that one play over and over for the entire four-hour drive. It had lost all its charm for me by the time we arrived at the picket lines outside one of the printing plants.
It was well into the evening, but there were plenty of strikers about. “Don’t worry,” Plain Jane assured us, “all of the real action happens in the middle of the night.” She opened the trunk and removed three black backpacks. “You two didn’t bring supplies, did you?” she asked.
“Supplies?” My husband and I exchanged blank looks.
“I didn’t think so.” Plain Jane’s thin lips curled up in a manner both slight and sly. “Don’t worry, I’ve gotcha covered.” She handed us each a backpack.
I picked mine up — it was quite heavy. “What’s in here?” I asked.
“Oh, you know,” Plain Jane hedged, “water and stuff. Things you might need. Just strap it on.”
I did as I was told.
Everything started out innocently and mundanely enough; we held signs and mingled with the newspaper workers. I tried to ask a few why they were striking — after all, I didn’t really know why I was there — but they all blew me off. I didn’t understand why at the time, but it’s obvious now: they had mouths to feed and bigger fish to fry. They didn’t have the wherewithal to indulge the ignorance of some kid with a mohawk and lofty ideals. For them, this wasn’t an ideological battle — they were fighting for their livelihoods.
As the hours wore on, a sense of anticipation became palpable, and the crowd began to meander, like one massive serpentine creature, toward the gate where the trucks went in and out.
“What’s going on?” I asked a young African-American woman with a shaved head, a handful of something shiny and pointy, and a crowbar peeking out at the waistband of her incredibly baggy jeans.
“We’re gonna blockade those bastards so they can’t get no delivery trucks out. If they can’t get no trucks out, they can’t get no papers out.”
“How are we gonna do that?” I asked, feeling totally lost among all the shouting and seemingly random action.
“With our bodies, girl!” she laughed and shot me a sidelong look. “You ain’t never done this before, am I right?”
I allowed her to draw her own conclusion.
She chuckled again. “Here, you probably ain’t got none of these,” she said, placing three of the spiky metal things in my hand.
“What are they?” I asked, examining the unusual objects. They had a three-pronged base and a sharp-tipped spike that pointed directly upward.
“Put those out by the gate and on the street outside. If the trucks do get out, these’ll jack up the tires.” Baldy flashed me a wicked grin.
At the gate, we formed a human wall in anticipation of the exiting trucks. We successfully stymied delivery of the paper well into the next day.
Meanwhile, every so often, a few ISO people would peel off the main crowd to go on a “raid.” It wasn’t long before Baldy and Plain Jane grabbed me to go on one with them, and I discovered what it was all about.
My husband and I had been advised in advance to wear all black. That was easy enough, because I was going through a phase at the time, and, well, I had a lot of black clothing. At any rate, as we three got away from the crowd and into the shadows surrounding the plant, Plain Jane told me to zip up my jacket and get my hat out of my backpack.
That was the first time I’d looked inside the bag. The little care package Plain Jane had so thoughtfully prepared for me contained several bottles of water, just as she’d said, but it also contained a black knit beanie, pepper spray, a baton-sized metal pipe, several large rocks, a few tire-shredding spikes like Baldy’s, a makeshift gas mask — essentially a pair of work goggles attached to a thick length of fabric that could be tied around the nose and mouth — and a pair of gloves with tacks sewn point-up into the tops of the fingers. “What are these for?” I asked, removing the gloves.
“Oh, put those on, too!” gushed Plain Jane, exhilarated. “If we get in a fight, you’ll tear ‘em up even if you punch like a girl.” She looked at Baldy and they giggled. “Put some of those rocks in your pockets, and slide that pipe up your sleeve. And remember, if you see cops coming at you, ditch all that gear, and if you get arrested, don’t say anything. That’s what we have lawyers for.”
We pulled our black beanies down to our eyebrows and armed ourselves for … what?
Plain Jane and Baldy hustled around the building single-file and in a crouched-down position. At the time, they reminded me of special ops on a secret mission. The mission was still a secret to me, at any rate. Without thinking twice, I followed in like fashion.
Baldy was the first to introduce crowbar to glass. The clamor of the shattering window startled me, even though part of me must have known what was going to happen. “Don’t just stand there, wide eyes, move!” Baldy urged, shoving me onward.
It was all downhill from there. We busted windows all along the dimly lit back of the building, then hit a few cars in the employee parking lot. Baldy planted tire spikes behind the wheels of the more expensive cars, which she presumed belonged to management. Occasionally, patrol cars cruised by, and we saw a few cops on foot, too, but nobody tried to stop us.
By the time we made it back around to the blockade, both my comrades were pink-cheeked and giddy. I, too, felt caught up in the rush of it all.
But eventually, the sun rose, and nobody was willing to enact such mischief without the cover of darkness. We rejoined the picketers, shouted the pro-labor chants, gratefully accepted the hot coffee that occasionally passed by, and just generally ran out of steam as the adrenaline wore off.
Eventually, we three needed sleep, so we rented a cheap motel room. The blockade was still going strong when we left, but when Plain Jane spoke to Junior Rastafari Sunday evening, we discovered that the crowd had eventually been dispersed, and that a few arrests were made. We also learned about a second blockade, planned for Labor Day. Without asking my husband or me, Plain Jane gleefully committed our whole group to participate.
We were shocked by the scantness of the crowd when we arrived Monday night. It was perhaps one tenth the size of Saturday’s crowd — hundreds instead of thousands. I assumed everyone was home barbecuing with friends and family, but I later discovered that the second blockade was completely unofficial and not explicitly union-sanctioned. I don’t know who organized it, but I do know that all of our Saturday-night ISO comrades were present.
Monday made Saturday look like Sesame Street. It was such chaos, I frankly can’t recall the precise sequence of events. That night, the police did not ignore our shenanigans — probably because there were so few of us that we could be easily reined in. We flailingly tried to lock arms and block the gate, while the police donned shields and marched toward us to clear the way, which we foolishly resisted. Someone in the crowd had broken in to a nearby auto factory and stolen some car parts, and people were hurling them at the cops. I could hear Plain Jane shouting over the din, “Grab your rocks! Throw the rocks!” and I thought about getting mine out, but there were so many bodies crashing into mine, and so many objects flying over my head, I thought it better to hunker down.
At one point, the crowd rushed the gate in an unsuccessful attempt to breach it. No one in particular decided to do it, it just happened. A hive mentality had taken over, and decisions were no longer being made by us as individuals, but by the crowd writ large. We’d become a mob — completely out of control. It’s a cliché, but individual resistance from within that crowd was futile — no matter how hard I might’ve fought the flow rushing headlong toward the gate, the force of the current would’ve swept me up along with the rest of the human tidal wave. Once you were in the mob, there was no getting out.
Eventually, the cops got fed up.
When I heard the canisters hit the ground, I had no idea what they were.
But Plain Jane knew. “Gas masks!” She shouted it like a battle cry.
It took me a moment to process what was happening, and by the time I began to fumble with my backpack, the crowd was scattering, and a thick greenish cloud was forming around me. My husband grabbed my forearm. “Run!” he shouted, yanking me into action.
We darted off in the direction of the car, our arms covering our mouths and noses, our eyes tiny slits. It wasn’t until we’d gotten out of the thick of the melee that I began to feel the effects of the gas.
We’d already slowed from a sprint to a jog, but the sudden excruciating tightness in my chest brought me to a dead stop. It felt like a massive boa constrictor had encircled my lungs and was squeezing them with all its might. I dropped to the ground, gasping for air through a throat that felt like it’d been scoured with sandpaper. My eyes clouded with tears that seemed not to cleanse, but rather to corrode. My body contracted into a tiny ball, as if by shrinking I could somehow reduce the severity of the pain.
For about ten minutes, I thought I was going to die. And while I was lying there, contemplating the ignominy of dying in this unfamiliar city which eerily resembled a post-apocalyptic war zone it hit me:
This whole thing is a sham.
What did smashing windows and chucking car parts at cops have to do with getting a fair shake for newspaper workers? And why did my husband and I — people who didn’t work for The Detroit News or any other paper; people who didn’t belong to their union, or any other — blockade their printing plant and allow ourselves to be gassed by cops in a city over four hours away from our own? It just didn’t compute. As I lied upon crumbling pavement, among weeds growing unchecked, panting and weeping, it suddenly occurred to me that none of what I’d done that weekend could possibly have advanced any just cause. And I realized that I hadn’t bothered to find out if this particular cause was, in fact, just. I’d allowed some joker with a dingy red-green-gold hat and no obvious qualifications — a guy I’d have normally made fun of — to make up my mind that this was something worth doing. I hadn’t asked a single question.
I had been a sheep, and I’d almost been led to the slaughter.
When my vision cleared, I glanced around for my husband. I found him sitting on a nearby curb trying to catch his breath. His tear-stained face and labored gasps made it clear he’d been feeling the gas, too.
I looked at him. He looked at me.
“Let’s get out of here,” was all he had to say.
* * *
After our return to Chicago, the phone calls began.
“Hey guys,” purred Junior Rastafari over our answering machine, “didn’t see you at this week’s meeting. Just wanna make sure everything’s okay. Give us a call.”
The next day, another message awaited us. Plain Jane’s chipper voice chirped: “How’s it going, guys? Missed you at the meeting. Haven’t heard from you, either. Starting to worry a little. Just let us know you’re okay.”
The following day, two more messages. And the day after that, several more. They just kept coming.
Finally, two weekends after the strike, Junior Rastafari dropped by our apartment. We regretted opening the door almost immediately.
We could not get rid of the guy. What started as an “I-just-wanted-to-check-on-you” conversation quickly evolved into a thinly veiled interrogation designed to gauge our commitment to international socialism. When it became clear that our commitment was nonexistent, the dialogue transformed yet again into a sermon designed to convert us to the one true philosophy of Karl Marx.
And that was when I had my second epiphany.
When I was 9 years old, I’d gotten mixed up with some Jehovah’s Witnesses, and when I made my break with them at age 13, they had responded in almost exactly the same manner as were these ISO fanatics. First came the string of phone calls and “concerned” messages. Then came the home visits and high-pressure come-to-Jesus lectures. Both groups stressed the dire consequences of leaving the fold, which were remarkably analogous. Whereas the Jehovah’s Witnesses cautioned that I’d be swept up in the destruction at Armageddon and would miss my only opportunity for salvation if I broke with them, the socialists warned of the drastic repercussions that would follow if I found myself on “the wrong side of history.” Both threatened me with apocalyptic decimation and claimed possession of the sole ark that could spare me from the coming flood.
I sat there, half listening to Junior Rastafari’s forebodings about what would happen to those who refused to unite with the workers when the inevitable day of reckoning came, and I realized: This is just another religious cult. They’d substituted The Communist Manifesto for the Bible, and Marx, Lenin, and Trotsky for the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost — but the playbook was identical.
So I interrupted Junior’s spiel, extended my hand, and thanked him for his time. Bewildered, he stopped mid-sentence, accepted my handshake, and allowed me to walk him to the door.
“So, we’ll see you at Friday’s meeting?” he asked as he walked out.
“Nope,” I answered, “no, you won’t. And I don’t want to see your face around my building or hear your voice on my answering machine anymore either, got it?”
He initially appeared surprised, then his expression metamorphosed into a clueful smile, as if he knew something I didn’t. Everyone who’s been successfully indoctrinated believes they possess all the secret answers. “If that’s your choice,” he sing-songed in a don’t-say-I-didn’t-warn-you voice.
“It is,” I replied firmly.
Then I closed the door on his smug smirk and on that brief chapter of my life.
* * *
Surveys show that socialism’s popularity among Millennials is soaring, even as we have just marked the anniversary of the Holodomor, Stalin’s engineered famine that killed millions of Ukrainians; as millions of Venezuelans face starvation and crippling shortages of medicine and other necessities; as Hong Kong’s protests against the communist mainland government are turning violent–in short, it’s happening even as we drown in evidence of socialism’s failures.
How can this be? If my story provides any insight, the answers are pretty plain. When one puts children, most of whom have divorced/single/absent parents, into public schools designed to indoctrinate them with far-left ideology, and deprives them of any kind of counter-balancing influence — like religion — the final products are brainwashed, alienated, angry young adults bursting with radical ideas and poised to pounce upon whomever they deem responsible for the bleakness of their lives. The hope once offered by the Church has been denied them, as they have been raised in a secular world. They’ve also been robbed of the security once provided by the nuclear family, because the sexual revolution and the subsequent feminist and LGBTQ movements have radically redefined the family. All that remains for these volatile young people is the State, so they turn to it to solve all of life’s problems.
And socialism offers them a seemingly magic panel of solutions. Not only does it promise to cure all the world’s ills, it offers a scapegoat upon whom they can blame their troubles — the wealthy. Nevermind the overwhelming evidence proving socialism doesn’t work — their 10th grade history teachers told them true socialism has never been tried, so none of that counts, and besides, the socialist slant on the story sounds so much more appealing.
Socialism also crudely fills the gaps in a world where religion has been shoved off the stage of daily life. It offers a group identity, a code of behavior, a set of sacred texts, even gods of a sort. Everything religion once did in a beautiful and sublime way, socialism now does in a vapid and strictly material manner.
The key difference is, socialism offers no truth, only prettified lies. And that is why it can only thrive in a world bereft of traditional sources of truth, like religion and family. It’s no coincidence that Stalin did his best to destroy both religious and family loyalties, and it’s no coincidence that we’re seeing socialism’s popularity surge in this country only now, after the forces for God and family have lost the culture wars.
But all hope is not lost. Millennials are swallowing socialist swill because they’re starved for meaning, and that’s what’s being presented to them. But very few people will pick McDonald’s over filet mignon — at least, not after they’ve had a taste of a choice filet.
And if we wish to convince young people that socialism is the wrong path — if we want to prevent this country from devolving into another Venezuela when Millennials become the dominant voting block — we must not only expose its vacuity, but offer something solid in its stead. We must invite these famished wanderers to the banquet of truth.
Most young would-be revolutionaries know nothing about the founding fathers. They have never read the Bill of Rights, much less the Constitution. They think Plato is something akin to modeling clay. And they haven’t even picked up a Bible. In an age where all information is at their fingertips, they nonetheless remain uninformed on matters of true importance, because they have not been given the tools to sort the melody from the noise. We must shine a light on the texts and ideas which have stood the test of time and weathered the trials of implementation. We must point the way to truth.
And in the same way we’d introduce broccoli to a toddler, if our initial tidbits of truth are rejected, we should simply move on, and re-introduce them at the next opportunity. We don’t have to force-feed, we have merely to offer — again and again until our subjects agree to at least try a taste. We won’t convince everyone — some people will stubbornly cling to their Twinkies, even as they die of malnutrition. But I sincerely believe most folks aren’t as thick-headed as me — most people don’t have to be tear-gassed to see the light. Just one bite of truth will entice a sufficient percentage to flip our cultural scales back to some semblance of sanity.
Our sustenance is sweet indeed, and we must actively and tirelessly present it in fresh and enticing ways on our collective cultural plate. Eventually, those who are gorging at the slop-trough of socialism will begin to feel pangs of hunger for true nourishment, and they’ll seek other intellectual food. Let’s just pray our citizens don’t have to literally starve, as have so many subjects of socialist regimes, before that happens.