The Labor Days of Dennis Dixon
by Peter Zelchenko September 4, 2009
"If I can't dance, I don't want to be part of your revolution." --Famously misattributed to Emma Goldman, patroness of American intellectual radicalism
About 200 supporters of Dennis Dixon met at the Hideout Thursday night to hold the fourth fundraiser for the lifetime activist. Three unique bands gave their time: Renegade Brass Brigade (aka the "Reading Band," founded by Mark Messing of Mucca Pazza); the Golden Horse Ranch Band (another great product of Lawrence Peters, aka "Dirty Larry"); and the very danceworthy Black Bear Combo.
Dennis was found unconscious by police June 27 on a Red Line train near North and Clybourn. His head had been smashed. It's taken him two months to recover. Other fundraisers were held at Weeds (with folk vocalists Ami Saraiya, Anna Soltys and others), then a potluck at UE Hall, then at the Red Line Tap with Harlan Flo Undertow. Organizers Rob Poe, David Meyers, Tom Wilson, and dozens of others have poured their energy into getting Dennis back on his feet.
(Dance music seems to go hand in hand with social idealism. The epigraph above from the famous anarchist has been splashed onto T-shirts and posters the world over, even though Mlle. Goldman probably never really said it. Read what she did say here.)
Dennis grew up in a working-class family on the Southeast Side of Chicago -- part of the slagheap of the Midwest, next to Gary and East Chicago. His first career experience was in 1973 at the nearby U.S. Steel South Works facility, where most people from that neighborhood used to go to die. His brother worked at Republic Steel, farther south along the Calumet River. These weren't pretty places. Dennis' first job was to "run up to giant pots of molten steel with a 28-pound sledge hammer and hit them as hard as he could and run away again," his friend Rob Poe recently told In These Times magazine.
That sounds like just the career we all covet, n'est-ce pas? Certainly better than the tedium of things like design, programming, writing, architecture. Dennis didn't have the privileges that most of us have enjoyed, so he had to roll his own. He stuck with that grind for several years, but in the process he was radicalized to fight against the system that could create such an outrage. He became a labor organizer.
Dennis first got hooked up with Lyndon LaRouche, whose organization, according to the conservative Heritage Foundation, "may well be one of the strangest political groups in American history." It's been described as a cult, or a highly efficient intelligence organization, or both. LaRouche's divisive Trotskyist attitudes did not sit well with many socialists. "But what did I know? I was just a dumb kid," Dennis told me.
LaRouche, for his part, considered Dennis "a little bit stand-offish. Which I sort of was; I didn't have any reason for wanting to get to know him. I could care less. I didn't fit into the cult very well because I was never enthusiastic about it." Dennis got involved in more traditional socialist circles.
Dennis worked with many groups, for years working with Chicagoland Jobs With Justice and related labor organizations. He helped found the influential San Lucas Workers Center in Humboldt Park, which for years has fought for the worst-off workers in the city, in particular our thousands of day laborers. He also worked on several anti-war efforts, including CISPES during the El Salvador actions in the late 1980s and early '90s.
Dennis has lived on a shoestring for years. Most of his income has come from busking in the Blue Line, where we hope to see him again soon after he gets his voice and calluses back. As emcee of the Hideout event, I was supposed to get him on stage to sing with Golden Horse, but his breathing was very labored and he simply wasn't ready. Dennis has a very broad repertoire of Dylan and other protest songs, and a large body of his own work, which he tells me he would like to take the time finally to produce. At 56, it's time for him to relax a bit. At times homeless, this is no mean feat.
Dennis's longtime friend Carl Davidson, a labor theorist and early leader of Students for a Democratic Society, called Dennis a "self-taught worker-intellectual. ...What he's always wanted in life was a big union job." Edged out by people with sharper elbows, Dennis still stuck with his passion. "He's got a good heart and a good soul and people should help him out," Carl told me from his home in Pennsylvania.
Dennis is also a self-taught labor theorist. He "made it his vision to study Hegel and others," Carl Davidson said. Dennis has used it to explain the voice behind the disappointments of the American labor market, Carl said, and he's been organizing a study group on the subject.
Some people have said they think Dennis should just get a job. Others say he has one, and that we should all be grateful. He took a bad situation and thought not about himself, but about the millions of others stuck in such a situation. As we approach Labor Day, we should consider Dennis and the many people like him who keep a vigil for the rights of the least among us, rights which trickle up to us in our stations of relative privilege.
Read the Tribune article on Dennis.
(c) 2003-2009, Peter Zelchenko and Gapers Block