Two Perspectives On The 2003 Iraq War Protest That Shut Down Lake Shore Drive

By Samantha Abernethy in News on Mar 20, 2013 9:30PM

It was 10 years ago today that about 10,000 protesters marched down Lake Shore Drive to protest the escalation of war in Iraq. Two of our writers, Aaron Cynic and Rob Christopher, will share their stories from that day — that of a spectator and that of a participant. In putting this together, we found it somewhat difficult to find quality photos and videos from the event. Oh, how the internet has spoiled us.

Rob Christopher writes:

On the evening of March 20, 2003 I was working as a field researcher for a UIC/Robert Wood Johnson Foundation health study. My job was to go door to door to the addresses randomly chosen for the study and conduct a 30-minute interview with residents, for which they were paid $50. I kept a packet of money envelopes in my backpack for this purpose. Nearly everyone I met during the study was surprised when they found out I was walking around with all this money. But I didn’t feel any particular worry about it; after all, no one would have guessed it was there.

That evening I was sitting on someone’s couch, conducting an interview. The man I was interviewing sat across from me in an easy chair, and between us was a TV set. It was on but the sound was down low. We were right in the middle of the interview (“About how many times in the past month have you missed work due to illness?”) when we both noticed, more or less simultaneously, that the TV program had been interrupted by a live news report. An aerial view showed Lake Shore Drive completely shut down, overrun with protesters. The man and I shook our heads in disbelief. I had heard there was going to be an anti-war protest, but the sight of Lake Shore Drive flooded with people was stunning, beyond anything I had pictured. Though we were distracted, we finished the interview and I gave the man his money.

I remember thinking that evening, as I took the bus home, that even the spectacle of thousands of protesters snarling traffic on one of Chicago’s busiest thoroughfares, joining hundreds of other demonstrations all over the country — that even all that would have no effect on stopping the war.

Aaron Cynic writes:

I still have no idea how I managed to avoid arrest. I was attending Columbia College at the time, and had already been involved in a student group organizing protests against the war. We organized a walkout in the afternoon that day, and we recruited as many people as we could to march to the rally point in the plaza downtown. By the time we headed that way, we had at least 500 people with us.

After numerous speeches through the afternoon into the evening, the crowd swelled to 10,000 and began to march through the Loop. As we neared Columbus Avenue, about three or four squad cars were set up to block the pathway to Lake Shore Drive, but the crowd surged forward and after the first few dozen people made it past the barricade, thousands followed. Police played that cat and mouse game several times. Each time however, uniformed and undercover officers would swarm in and grab one or two prominent organizers and later, anyone who had a bullhorn or a voice that could carry through the crowd.

By the time we were at the bend on LSD near the Drake hotel, tensions were high and most of the organizers had been arrested. At one point, I saw a handful of cops put on gas masks and thought to myself, “Well, I guess I’ll get to taste tear gas for the first time tonight.”

By then, the police were attempting to kettle demonstrators. At any available exit point, marchers were not allowed to leave. Hundreds were eventually arrested on Michigan Avenue, whether they were part of the march or just bystanders coming out of their hotels to see the commotion.

Somewhere in the middle of the night after I managed to get home I was watching news coverage. One anchor asked a reporter on the ground, “What are the protesters carrying? Do they have clubs?” The bewildered reporter looked into the camera and just said “Signs, they’re carrying signs.” That’s the moment I finally let the grim fact sink in that no amount of media coverage, no amount of demonstrators or protests would help stop the war before it started.

I spent the next day in my basement, silently watching footage featuring flash after flash of fire reign down on Baghdad. When I finally left, I saw my street lined with American flags and yellow ribbons.