Andy Thayer is a name many people know in this city and he’s not a politician or a celebrity. He is an activist who has been on the front line to battle everything from disastrous US wars around the world, a place for the homeless to sleep, police brutality, petitioning to reverse wrongful convictions, fighting for gay rights, minority rights, human rights, etc. He is co-founder of the Gay Liberation Network, one of the largest LGBTQ direct-action groups in Chicago, and co-founder of the Chicago Coalition Against War & Racism. His big battles today include the fight against the city to allow the homeless a place to sleep in Uptown and challenging the Chicago City Council to allow public participation in the meetings that decide the people’s fate. Whether it is filing a lawsuit against the city or pumping up the crowd with a microphone, Thayer is fighting for justice and peace in the Windy City. He spoke with Chicago News about what made him the fighter he is and the battles ahead.
Chicago News: What do you think about the Chicago City Council’s recent decision to allow for 30 minutes of public participation? This was a result of your lawsuit.
Andy Thayer: This proposal is totally inadequate to hear from people in a city of about 2.7 million residents. The public should get at least an hour to comment. Never before has the City Council allowed for public comment at meetings. So we will continue to fight it.
CN: You have been our city’s No. 1 Activist when it comes to protesting all the injustices. Can you tell us a little about your background?
AT: I come from a one stop-light town from Buffalo, NY called Holland. My dad was an electrical engineer in the post-World War II boom and worked for a military contractor. My mother was an anti-war activist. An elder brother was part of the late hippie movement and became a public school teacher in New Mexico. My sister became an engineer educated at Harvard and is climbing the corporate ladder. Another brother became a Christian fundamentalist.
CN: Has that caused problems for you?
AT: I came out in 1979. I have tried to talk to my brother but it’s very stilted. He had a panic attack in school and seeked out religion. His wife who is also a hard-core fundamentalist has a grandfather who is a member of the Ku Klux Klan and is not ashamed of it. But my parents never proselytized. My mother was an atheist who got involved with the Quakers and helped smuggle draft evaders into Canada (during the Vietnam War). She’d pretend to be their mom. She told us later she knew the phones were bugged. I give my father credit that he supported her even though he knew the enormous risk and what could happen to him and the family. We would have lost everything. To his credit he supported her.
CN: When did you come to Chicago?
AT: I came here in 1978 and went to Northwestern University for journalism. I had a writing class and I remember the first day of class I had John McClaren from the Chicago Tribune who said there is such thing as objectivity. I was pretty unsophisticated, but I knew this was bullshit. You should know your biases, gather the facts and let it roll. But there was not that much advocacy journalism at the time. So I was disillusioned and transferred to the history department.
CN: You mentioned that you first wrote for your high school newspaper that got shut down.
AT: Yes. There was a bond issue in which the school district redid the athletic field but after every major rain it would cascade down and wipe out the field. I wrote an article about this, like the little boy who wrote the emperor has no clothes. The newspaper adviser was nervous, but we published it. The next issue was about black snow in April. The school was illegally operating an incinerator that should have been shut down. Well, they shut down the paper. I was really disillusioned. The adults turned out to be real cowards.
CN: What was it like when you came out in 1979?
AT: At that time everyone was in the closet. I was gay baited all the time when I was in high school. There were a lot of slurs and some physical harassment. I was pretty much a loner. When I came out my family was fine with it. I remember working over the summer and I met two black janitors at work who told what it was like getting pulled over all the time by the cops. It was a revelation to me. Then I read Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee and I was shocked at how much I had been lied to. I was in danger of a mental breakdown. I then dropped out for three years to work as a secretary. That was the best thing I did.
CN: What was it like being openly gay at Northwestern University?
AT: I was the president of the N.U. Gay and Lesbian Alliance. The members list was kept a secret but my name was out in the open. There were tons of people showing up to events, but if it meant having their name associated with it, then no one would come. At that time was the AIDS epidemic and I lost a lot of friends. Many of our members died. I got scared myself.
CN: And when was your baptism by fire into the rough world of fighting injustice?
AT: My first formal demonstration was in the fall of 1978 when I was a reporter for the Daily Northwestern. There was a civil disobedience at the Zion Nuclear Power Plant about 40 miles outside Chicago. I said instead of just reporting I want to participate to block nuclear power which is dangerous. Then my first political protest was in 1979 to prevent the US invasion of Iran. That was when the Shah was overthrown and the students took the US Embassy and held Americans as hostages. The media propaganda was shocking at how much they were drumming for war. We built up Iran into the 4th largest military power courtesy of neocolonialism and torture of the Shah. Just like Saudi Arabia today.
CN: I remember you leading the fight against the US invasion of Iraq in 2003. What has happened to the anti-war movement here?
AT: The anti-war movement died with the election of Barack Obama.
CN: Today you are involved in a number of high-profile fights on the home front. Can you tell us first about the battle with Stewart Elementary School that the city decided to turn into high-priced condos and drive out the homeless in Uptown.
AT: Fifty schools were shut down (in 2013) and Stewart was one of them. The city hired a consulting firm for community meetings which was just for show at the Clarendon field house on what to do with the building. There were six meetings and they just manipulated things. People said they want a community center, senior housing for low-income people, etc. CPS (Chicago Public Schools) then sold the building for $5 million to a condo developer. I attended the meetings and no one said they wanted condos. I heard CPS spent $15 million rehabbing the school before they closed the building and sold it for $5 million. Now they want to build fancy condos. (Uptown Alderman James) Cappleman said he wouldn’t take any developer money and now he has received a lot. He was the No. 1 recipient of Rahm Emanuel’s PAC money.
The homeless were camped out on Pedestrian Mall in front of Stewart and the city said they had to move. Morningside Construction took out a permit to just evict people. The permit expired so I filed for a public assembly permit. They rejected my permit twice. The city said the permit was for illegal activity – the homeless tents – and said we needed a public way use permit which you need the city council to approve, and you would need $1 million in insurance. The only reason they did this was to harass the homeless which is an 8th Amendment violation. When we filed our permit we found out that Morningside’s permit was illegal. So the city said they would remove the fencing if we would agree to call off our lawsuit. We agreed and within an hour the fence was back up and so we refilled. They have no shame.
CN: What about where the homeless have tents under the Lake Shore Drive (LSD) viaducts on Wilson and Lawrence? I understand the city again wants to evict them from there as well as they plan to reconstruct those viaducts this summer.
AT: LSD was built in the 1930s and it’s crumbling and needs to be repaired. A lot of that funding is tied up with the state budget mess. It’s a combination of state and federal funding. But they’re doing it in a nasty way – we’re going to evict the homeless permanently by making bike lanes on the street so they pit the biking community against the homeless. It’s not adding capacity. It’s just an elaborate excuse to evict the homeless. Every street has a right of way so long as you don’t block people. The cops were ticketing people under the viaducts and there was no ordinance that justified the tickets. It wasn’t until we videotaped them that they stopped. We asked Cappleman to discipline the cops for writing false tickets but he has refused.
CN: What did you think of the previous Uptown Alderwoman Helen Shiller? They say she protected low-income people from being driven out by development.
AT: I have lived in Uptown for over 30 years. She was the only alderman who supported tripling the AIDS budget when the city didn’t do anything, unlike San Francisco and New York who did help fight this disease. We then had a march in Uptown and Mayor Daley just happened to be there and he was surrounded by angry people on Broadway. He thought he could show up and mollify the crowd. I saw a wave of fear over his face and his bodyguards’. Within a few days the City Council passed the new AIDS budget. When bullies are confronted like that you can see how fragile they really are. That is the way lobbying should be done. It’s naïve to think you can persuade them.
CN: And last, but not least, your most memorable protest?
AT: It wasn’t a large one, but I remember the raw anger and power at the Campaign to End the Death Penalty when there was an execution scheduled in Michigan City, IN. There was a question about whether he was guilty. It was a midnight execution. It was 9pm and raining cats and dogs for hours. A lot of the black community showed up. On the other side were off-duty police officers who were Indiana state troopers who came in support of the execution. This was not long after Rodney King. We chanted – No Justice! No Peace! No Racist Police! It was the first time I heard it. It was super-super charged!
By Jim Vail