You couldn’t miss him. He made a striking image.
He was covered in the shawls Jews wear for prayers, carried a long staff and shuffled slowly among the hundreds of marchers headed for Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s house in skimpy sandals.
He said he was a modern-day Moses, waiting to lead the way for the preservation of the mental health clinics that the city plans to shutter.
Photographers trolling the crowd last Saturday at one of the many NATO protest marches couldn’t help see him.
But I fear that not many journalists heard him. I fear that not only was his voice lost in the din and sometime disorienting chaos of the last few days of NATO marches, but so too was the voice of so many others with heartfelt and important stories about the lives we live today.
I don’t think it was purposeful. As journalists we relish stories that connect us, that show we care and that are the reasons many of us are drawn to this profession and its uncertain fate nowadays.
Rather, I think we were accidental victims of our distractions, and I suspect a number of reasons explain why some stories caught our attention and others drifted by us.
We were looking for the stories that dealt with the expected violence after the build-up about what could and what has taken place. And there were a number of scenes that raised the potential for such.
We were fascinated by the march passing us by but we were so focused on the bigger picture, the numbers and the mood of the crowd that we didn’t take time out to stop the marchers.
We thought we knew what many of these people would tell us because we heard them tell us their stories before at rallies around the city or at meetings and the carnival unfolding in front our eyes and ears was different and new. It was a twist on a story that we maybe thought needed one.
Take the middle-aged black man dressed as Moses.
Once he finished talking about his deep resentment over the cutbacks facing city mental health clinics, he talked about his own fears of what he would do once the center where he goes shuts down. The center he has been going to for over 20 years.
Or take the young Iraqi vet that we came across at the Nurses rally on Friday downtown. After she recited her anger over the war that she witnessed, she paused and added her own story about friends who have taken their lives, about her troubles getting treated at government facilities because she said she was told she wasn’t considered in the line of combat although she was, and her struggle to regain her balance in life.
What exactly were those conflicts that she has faced since coming here?
Not far from her in the plaza was a thin, grey-haired Vietnam vet who had come from far to lend his voice, saying he hoped what happened to his generation wouldn’t happen to the young people milling around him.
What did he mean?
There were all the problems his generation has faced, he said, and then he explained how he personally hasn’t had a real place to live for sometime and how these demonstrations have woken up something very new and energizing in him. Something that gave him hope.
I wondered about the Iraq veteran, who cried on the stage as he handed in his medals and said he could not put his words together. I wondered about the mother who told how her veteran son had tried to take his life once and then before she knew it, he succeeded another time.
I wondered about the frail 80-year-old woman who said she came to the Nurses rally out of allegiance to nurses and what they are seeing nowadays. What did she mean? I wondered about the Pakistani immigrant who was proud to have become a citizen after coming to the US many years ago but who spoke of the wrongs that NATO has wrought in the world where he came from? Has it all been wrong? What should we do?
For several days we had an immense drama unfurled in front of us, a drama that told about our city and cities, our nation and ourselves and the world. It was a confusing and tiring story, chasing down the events as they rolled out in the blistering sun and heat.
As this story from Poynter and photos below show, we were there. We trudged along. We chased after the story in the day and the night. We were on the front lines around the clock and a few of us suffered especially for our willingness to do our jobs and take extra risks.
Similarly, this story from the Guardian (UK) takes us out into the streets to sense the presence of Chicago’s violence and poverty and then goes on to make a larger point.
But I so wish we were less distracted by the scene and more driven to hear the chorus waiting to talk to us.
Talk to me – cuente mi
PS. Given what I’ve said here, I’d like to add the work of the Columbia College students who recorded in these videos many of the voices I missed elsewhere.