The Wrong Kind of Activist; Blago Blows It | Neighborhood News | Chicago Reader

The Wrong Kind of Activist; Blago Blows It 

Why the city didn't want the wiseacres of Break the Gridlock at its pro-bike rally.

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On June 18 Mayor Daley presided over the fourth annual Bike to Work Rally in Daley Plaza. Break the Gridlock, one of Chicago's leading antiautomobile activist groups, had been pointedly stricken from the guest list. Apparently its members had rolled over some sensitive toes at City Hall. "I heard the mayor himself was offended," says Howard Kaplan, a Break the Gridlock member. "Oops."

The brouhaha underscores the precariousness of being an activist in a one-party town and the importance of following some simple rules regarding the man in charge: Always praise him and never, ever tease him. Not even a tiny bit. Most mainstream activists understand this, which is why they behave like cheerleaders when Daley does something they approve of and like Sergeant Schultz ("I know nothing, I see nothing, and I say nothing!") when he does something they don't.

All in all Daley has been pretty good to the cycling cause. In the last ten years the city has created miles of designated bike lanes and paths and installed 9,400 bike racks. But Break the Gridlock would like to see everyone--not just the city--doing more to promote bikes, buses, and trains as substitutes for cars. "I don't know why everyone hates the bus," says Kaplan, who lives in Little Village and works as an occupational therapist at Mount Sinai Hospital. "I like buses a lot--they really connect you to where you're at. I'm a bus activist. I'm the only bus activist in the world."

A key plank in Break the Gridlock's platform is a proposal to permanently close off Lake Shore Drive to cars. For the last few years the group has been conducting antiautomobile protests all over town, even leafleting the Auto Show. At the 2002 Bike to Work Rally three group members infiltrated the reception line and wound up posing with the mayor, who smilingly helped them hold up a T-shirt that read DEPAVE LAKE SHORE DRIVE. The photo found its way onto a movement Web site (www.foreverfreeandclear.org) with a link to a mock news story claiming that Daley fully supported the cause, and that quoted him as saying "I like it."

It was all meant in fun, Kaplan says. "Daley probably did say 'I like it'--though no one's certain he said it in regard to depaving Lake Shore Drive."

A few weeks ago Kaplan decided it would be good to have a booth at the Bike to Work Rally "to hand out flyers and stuff." On June 11 he called the Mayor's Office of Special Events, which oversees the event, and spoke with a coordinator named Theresa Cowen. "I knew I was a little late making the call, but she didn't mention that," says Kaplan. "She went right into 'Are you guys affiliated with Critical Mass?'"

Kaplan says it's understandable that someone might confuse Break the Gridlock with the Chicago chapter of the large but amorphously organized probicycle movement. "There is overlap--some of the people who are in Critical Mass are in Break the Gridlock," he says. "But Critical Mass is really nothing more than that monthly bike ride, whereas Break the Gridlock has more of a bureaucratic structure with a grassroots flavor. I was trying to explain it to her, but she couldn't get away from that Critical Mass thing. She said, 'We have problems with Critical Mass.' I said, 'Hmm, what kind of problems?' She didn't go into it."

On June 14 he called Cowen again. "This time she was more direct," says Kaplan. "I asked her if she would consider offering us a table, and she said the problem is that our tactics are 'subversive.' She mentioned misquoting the mayor--the 'I like it' thing. I didn't really get into it with her. I just focused on being a good guy and getting her to reconsider, but she was taking a hard line. She said, 'If there is anybody at Bike Day with literature that makes reference to Critical Mass, they won't be there long.' I'm not sure exactly what she meant by that. Were they going to arrest us? I didn't say a whole lot once she started talking about subversiveness. I could tell she was stuck on the idea that Break the Gridlock people are Critical Mass people, which is sort of true, I suppose, but largely beside the point."

Although he couldn't get a booth Kaplan decided to attend the rally anyway. It was a lovely morning, sunny and cool. The Chicagoland Bicycle Federation--a moderate body that gets along famously with Daley--had a booth, as did Bally's Total Fitness, the Sun-Times, WXRT, and Channel Five. Starbucks passed out free coffee and Dunkin' Donuts gave away doughnuts and bagels. "I think you could say this is a bit ironic," said Kaplan, as he eyed the scene. "The organization that wants to promote biking as a way of life is not welcome, but Bally's and the Sun-Times are. Not that there's anything wrong with those institutions."

After a few short speeches, which were rendered unintelligible by a lousy PA system, members of various bicycle groups queued for the privilege of a grip-and-grin with the mayor. As he worked his way down the line Daley would occasionally whisper in someone's ear. Those so favored variously roared with laughter or nodded solemnly at what they heard.

One of Kaplan's Break the Gridlock coconspirators, Dan Korn, was there on his two-story bike, which he made by grafting one frame on top of another. He rode about tooting his horn while little flags that read lake shore walk fluttered from the ends of his handlebars.

I managed to track down Cowen, who confirmed that Kaplan's group had been refused a booth and said it was because they had misquoted a city official, whose name she would not reveal. "They said she said 'f-- cars,' and she never said that," said Cowen. When I pressed her for details, she referred me to Veronica Resa, media specialist for the Mayor's Office of Special Events.

"Just to clarify: Critical Mass is always welcome," said Resa. "But they have to be respectful and they have to adhere to etiquette and respect all the organizations that are involved with the city."

Exactly whom had Critical Mass disrespected?

"They maligned one of our bike coordinators by quoting her as saying something she never said, and then they apologized for it, which means they admitted fault," said Resa, then added that if Kaplan and his colleagues behaved well for the rest of the year they might be allowed to participate in next year's rally.

Kaplan says it's all a big misunderstanding. Yes, it's true that members of Critical Mass falsely quoted a city official as having said "Fuck cars," but it was an accident. "See, we made up one press release that was just for friends and one that was for the Web site," he says. "And we got mixed-up and put the one on the Web site that was really for our friends."

Although Kaplan wasn't directly involved, he expresses regret about the incident. "You know, I really like Mayor Daley," he adds. "No, seriously--I'm not being sarcastic. I'm baring my soul. I'm sure that if he just knew about this situation he'd just say a few kind words and everything would be OK."

Blago Blows It

When the noon bell rang on June 16 the students were in their seats and the teacher was at his podium. The students were grammar school kids at Franklin Fine Arts Center, a public school in Old Town. The teacher was Governor Rod Blagojevich, and the day's lesson was in gamesmanship and grandstanding.

The kids had been corralled into the auditorium to hear the governor break big news regarding public education--or so Blagojevich's aides had said when they called Franklin to arrange the visit the day before. In reality, Blagojevich was looking for a good setting from which to score points on Illinois house speaker Michael Madigan.

It's a complicated story, this fight between the state's two top Democrats. Essentially, Blagojevich wants to perpetuate the fiction that he can finance state government without raising taxes--with just a few cuts here, the sale or refinance of a few state properties there. Madigan, who's put up with all kinds of fiscal voodoo over the years, would probably let him get away with it if only the governor weren't always blaming deficits on the legislature. Tired of playing scapegoat, Madigan has called Blagojevich's bluff. He won't pass a budget unless the governor raises taxes or makes cuts to erase a $3 billion deficit. As July 1--the start of the new fiscal year--approaches, they both refuse to budge.

To their credit, Blagojevich's advance team staged a brilliant tableau. An adorable array of kindergartners of many races lined the front of the stage. Behind the podium sat rows of aldermen, state reps, and state senators. At the back of the room were the reporters and TV cameras.

Blagojevich waited until everyone was assembled before he made his grand entrance. Waving to the crowd, he bounced to the stage and launched into a speech denouncing Madigan (though not by name) and the other "special interests" who were depriving these kids and many more just like them of the money their schools needed.

"We were all used," complained an alderman afterward. "We were props in Blago's fight with Madigan." Besides, he noted, the $100 million Blagojevich promised to raise for the cash-starved system would still fall short of what's needed to avoid layoffs and school closings. "He's not helping us solve our problems. It's just BS."

Blagojevich's overall performance was less than Clinton-esque. He confused one alderman for another while thanking them for showing up, and instead of sticking around to chat with the kids the way the master would have, he dashed out of the room as soon as his speech was done. "It was wham, bam, thank you ma'am," said the alderman. "Next time the governor's people call, I think I'll be busy."

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Jon Randolph.

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