Have you noticed that urban chickens are all the rage nowadays? Having a few hens scratching around the yard conveys a certain social status. Chickens are cool. I know a couple who jumped on the bandwagon by buying some peeping chicks from the IFA store. The wife loved eggs; the husband loved the idea of owning chickens. They built a coop in the backyard, but before the birds were fully feathered, he became antipathetic. Without her, they would have died of neglect before the first egg was laid. All the while he was saying, “We have chickens; they are totally awesome!”
Chicken chic is detectable at wine parties and all-organic cookouts around Salt Lake City. I am reminded of the parties for the Black Panthers hosted by Leonard Bernstein and other New York City socialites in the late 1960s. By rubbing shoulders with Afroed revolutionaries in their Park Avenue apartments, the privileged whites sought not to embrace a leftist political agenda but to elevate their own social standing. Journalist Tom Wolfe famously skewered them for wrapping themselves in a mantle of “radical chic.” Were Wolfe to delve into Utah’s social scene, he would note that when chickens come up in wine-party conversation, the subtext may be, “We have chickens; we are totally awesome.”
I recognized radical chic at what Police Chief Chris Burbank called “the gathering downtown” following Tim DeChristopher’s sentencing. A disappointingly small crowd milled about in the late-afternoon shadow of the federal courthouse awaiting the outcome in Judge Dee Benson’s courtroom. As I watched, a few people played to the news media with amped-up emotion. They raised clenched fists. By the time all was said and done, DeChristopher had been taken out the back door in manacles, and 26 people had been arrested. I was not among them. In fact, even before they were loaded into a bus, I had retired to Gracie’s patio where I passed up the Ancho-chili chicken wings and satisfied myself with some Coronas.
When it comes to inciting social change, you can place everybody into one of five categories: 1. Activist, 2. Camp Follower, 3. Committed But Lazy, 4. Complacent and 5. Antagonistic. I am pretty much a Cat 3. My support of causes is generally limited to e-mailing politicians, writing this column and showing up for street demonstrations. Call me chicken if you like, but I prefer donating money to being dragged off to jail. My brand of activism pales in comparison to that of people like Peaceful Uprising’s Joan Gregory and Salt Lake City’s longtime activist Diana Lee Hirschi. With a history of protesting against nuclear weapons, Hirschi has been arrested more times than she can count.
Hirschi and Gregory are streetwise Cat 1s. Most people are Cat 4s. A few, like some of the passengers on the blocked TRAX train that afternoon, are Cat 5 antagonists. They are the ones who yell, “Get a job!” as they pass public protests. It is in the ranks of Cat 2s where you are mostly likely to observe radical chic. Cat 2 people tend to be hobbyists drawn to a cause by ego, not passion. They are self-aware, particularly when cameras are pointed their way, and they know all the words of “We Shall Overcome.” You don’t see many of them in Che Guevera T-shirts anymore, but Camp Followers love accouterments like Peaceful Uprising’s orange sashes.
Hirschi wasn’t wearing the orange sash when I ran into her at the edge of the crowd. She was standing close to famous Cat 1 musician Peter Yarrow. A few days later, I asked for her assessment of the protest and the mass arrest. Although she faulted the protesters for yelling, she said they were pretty impressive. “It was a very powerful symbolic statement about the need to make changes,” she said.
I didn’t tell her I thought it was a Kabuki event. (That is an observation, not a criticism.) The activists had trained for a nonviolent demonstration. They brought plastic ties with them. They knew that sitting—not standing—was an effective tactic in a game of chicken with a TRAX train. When the police chief arrived at center stage, the intersection of Main Street and 400 South, the protesters received him respectfully. Said Burbank later: “We gave them the opportunity to express their strong beliefs, and then I asked, ‘What is your goal?’ ” Burbank accommodated their wishes in “the smoothest arrest of 26 people I have experienced.” Everyone but the TRAX commuters got their needs met. Hirschi dismissed their minor inconvenience. “The point is not to make people comfortable,” she said.
That too many people are comfortably complacent is a problem for activists. Millions of Cat 4s just don’t give a damn, even as Cat 1s vie for their attention on a range of urgent issues. I admire activists. I don’t care much for pretenders and dabblers. Motivation makes a difference. Activists are idealistic change agents who are willing to sacrifice for what they believe in. Pretenders are primarily interested in social status. Whether it is radical chic, chicken chic, tea party chic, bicycle chic, pistol chic, whale chic, vegan chic, canyons chic—opportunity abounds for those seeking self-enhancement by talking the talk. Activists like DeChristopher walk the talk. Unfortunately, while playing chicken with the feds, the judge said he talked too much. Was hubris DeChristopher’s undoing? I am not sure, but I do know that in order to avoid disaster in a game of chicken, one of the two adversaries has to yield. In DeChristopher’s case, neither did. Nevertheless, losing the first battle disastrously does not necessarily result in losing the war.