Saturday was the annual Bughouse Square Debates, a celebration of free speech held every July in Chicago’s Washington Park. It’s free and great fun. The even opened with an actor from the Shakespeare Project reading from Julius Caesar followed by an introduction by The Chicago Tribune’s Rick Kogan. Kogan welcomed the crowd, explained the event’s history and shared Illinois governor John Altgeld‘s releasing the remaining Haymaker Square protesters.
Then two Chicago Reader columnists received the 2014 Altgeld Free Speech award.Next Don Washington, the main speaker, took the stage. Washington gave an interactive “Mayoral Tutorial” which clued the audience in to how the current mayor is simply repackaging and using new terms to continue former Mayor Daly’s failed privatization schemes. For example, the “Concept Schools” are under investigation by the FBI because they allegedly use funds inappropriately to get visas for teachers from Turkey and Central Asia. Quite an unexpected way to keep teachers’ wages low. Another form of privatization Rahm’s Red Light ticketing scam, which anyone who watches local news knows are erratic and have been giving drivers who’ve done nothing wrong $100 tickets and the driver’s obligated to prove they’re innocent.
Washington was a powerful speaker and added playful interaction in his talk. He got the crowd to reach out to each other with a bingo game, which made me nervous as the man behind us was clearly a loud drunk. Luckily by the time I’d chatted with the people in front of us, someone had won. The reason for the interaction was that Washington thinks that people don’t know their neighbors and therefore can’t advocate for change since they’re isolated.
When Washington finished, the debates expanded as speakers took to the four soap box areas. I heard speakers on religion, Syria, healthcare and labor. This year wasn’t as good as in the past when speakers were paired with someone who disagreed with them. This year people just gave speeches. Only the Evangelical preacher was dynamic and got and handled hecklers with aplomb. The other speakers needed to practice more. Only the speaker on Syria and religion offered facts I hadn’t heard.
I was surprised that so much of the audience was over 60 — at least 50%. Aren’t the young interested in free speech? There were food trucks with empanadas, organic sausages and gelato.
I brought a former Chinese student with me and I tried to summarize and answer her questions. I do wonder what she thought of the event, which takes on tough issues with intelligence and frivolity.