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2/15/2006: Chicago Journal: Curse ye motorheads
Curse ye motorheads
Scrappy protest delivers on the car-alarm symphony but not, alas, the auto show shutdown
By MAX BROOKS, Contributing Writer
The 2007 Toyota Tundra, which will boast five tons of towing power and nudge aside the Dodge Ram, the Ford F-150, and General Motors’ new GMT-900 as the biggest truck in its class, will also have a fairly standard feature that might have come in handy for those huddling outside the Chicago Auto Show this past Saturday: heat.
As large flakes of snow began to descend from the sky just after noon and thousands of car-lookers made their way into the McCormick Place auto showroom, a few dozen bike-borne protestors huddled outside in the plaza in front of the convention center’s Cermak Street entrance. Loosely aligned as a Critical Mass offshoot, they’d gathered at downtown’s Daley Plaza an hour before and ridden over en masse with one simple mission: to shut down the auto show.
With the help of a couple self-described super heroes—a man who would identify himself only as Captain Ozone, wearing a white jumpsuit and red cape and yelling warnings about car pollution through a bullhorn, and another, Captain America, who rode up and down the busy street in flowing star-spangled robes and an Uncle Sam top hat, with dangerous disregard for traffic—it was a goal that didn’t seem entirely out of reach.
But by 12:20 p.m., a third of an hour after they’d gotten started, the group had only encountered a handful of car show attendees. Most had either come in another entrance by choice, or, as one protestor surmised, been intentionally diverted elsewhere by traffic police, perhaps hoping to get back at Critical Mass for the monthly delays they bring to the Friday commute home.
Before long, the organizers decided to change venues. Banners were rolled up, and trailers, holding speakers blaring intentionally irritating car alarm calls, hitched. A man named Shawn Greene loaded the lone pedestrian along for the ride on the snap deck at the rear of his extended bike frame, and the protestors began to make their way north to a bypass that would take them across Lake Shore Drive to the shoreside bike path and the Soldier Field entrance to the auto show, where they hoped to encounter more attendees.
Behind them, the Chicago Police Department’s biking unit followed in hot pursuit, eight strong.
"I challenge you to find as important a group that would warrant as many bike cops," Greene muttered to his passenger. "The Klan, maybe."
Two advance scouts headed off the protestors as they prepared to enter the underpass, and a good deal of shouting ensued. Having secured a promise that the cyclists wouldn’t actually bike on Lake Shore Drive, the police relented, and by the time the protestors had arrived in front of the McCormick Center on the other side of the drive, the rift appeared mended.
A bespectacled protestor asked a large, muscled bike cop about his strange seat—which consisted of two large bubbles split by a cleft in the middle—and the officer enthusiastically informed him it was the most comfortable seat he’d ever rode on. Before long, an involved bike gear conversation ensued.
Though car-show attendee traffic remained light at the second protest site, some contact was made. Steve Lane, a biking advocate wearing a black suit adorned with a line of checkered yellow road paint and stuffed representations of a road-killed cat and a road-killed dog, yelled out a warning about global warming to a man leaving in a black Ford F-150.
"Do you want to trade that bike for my truck?" the man responded.
"Not a chance," Lane called back.
Inside, the dissent didn’t seem to have made much of a dent in the enthusiasm of the car show. Throngs of people, cars on turntables, eager auto showmen, and live radio broadcasts combined to create an undeniably exciting buzz on the floor.
Though some carmakers’ displays did include nods to the environmentally concerned, the biggest crowds collected elsewhere. Only four people, for instance, stood under a 100-foot-long inflatable ear of corn to hear a presentation on Chevrolet’s E85 Avalanche, a puggish automobile halfway between an SUV and a pickup that will use corn-derived ethanol as its primary fuel. Even within the relatively narrow category of corn-oil-related attractions, E85 was not the most popular: nearby, six people stood in line at one of the car show’s least popular food stalls, waiting to order deep-fried churros.
In fact, the largest crowd was in the Dodge section of the floor, where a raised turntable displayed an electric orange Challenger, a concept car still only in speculative production that will replace the Dodge Charger as the American manufacturer’s most intimidating retro-styled muscle car. With a fierce looking grille, a neon red tracer light surrounding the model name, and lines reminiscent of the Gen. E. Lee from "Dukes of Hazzard," the whole thing resembled the automotive equivalent of a clenched fist. At a break in the velvet rope surrounding the platform, members of the crowd lined up to have their picture taken with the Challenger by a Dodge employee.
"Do you know what the top-speed’s projected to be?" one observer asked the Challenger’s presenter, a long-legged, middle-aged blonde in a black pantsuit adorned with rhinestones.
She smiled and answered immediately: "174 miles an hour."
"How about the gas mileage?" he followed up, but received only a blank stare in return.
"No," the woman said. "I have no idea."
On the way out of the building, however, two young men just on their way out of the show could be spotted, quickly putting on jackets over T-shirts that bore a strong message of dissent: the word Toyota, crossed out and ringed by a red circle.
Were the young, clean-cut pair, who turned out to be the Malmassari brothers of Chicago and DeKalb, upset about Toyota’s decision to produce an outlandishly outsized truck, just days after even former Texas oil tycoon President George W. Bush had admitted America was "addicted to oil?" Were they expressing solidarity with the protestors outside?
"Mainly we’re here in support of domestics— I think they probably had some issues in the ’80s, but now it’s just an image problem," Jason Malmassari said, explaining the shirts. "[American carmakers] make really good cars. The muscle cars that are coming out now are really impressive."
He also expressed admiration for the Buick Enclave, a gas-guzzling luxury SUV, and the Saturn Sky, a two-seater convertible meant for joyriding. It seemed even the Toyota-hating Malmassaris had missed the protesters’ message.
Outside, both the cyclists and bike cops had dispersed, leaving the bumper-to-bumper traffic along the curved junction of Cermak and Martin Luther King Drive to rumble along unperturbed. From the second floor of the McCormick Center, dozens of people could be spotted streaming across the plaza into the auto show, oblivious to the single lonely bicycle that remained locked to a park bench in their midst.