Man Immolates Himself to Protest War Against Iraq
Tuesday, November 14, 2006
In December 2002, the city of Chicago dedicated a statue called "The Flame of the Millennium"-- a seven-ton, stainless-steel, abstract rendering of a flame in high wind, standing over the Kennedy Expressway, just west of the downtown Loop. Last Friday, November 3, the statue appeared to be on fire. When authorities got there, they found a video camera, a canister of gasoline, a sign reading "Thou Shalt Not Kill", and a human body so badly charred that it was impossible to determine its sex. Someone had self-immolated, near a highway off-ramp, amid rush-hour traffic.
Over the next few days, members of Chicago's avant-garde music community would be shocked to learn that the person who'd done this was one of their own-- someone many of them had been running into, several nights a week, for more than a decade. Tougher still would be dealing with the reasons behind it.
According to the statements left on his website, 52-year-old Malachi Ritscher had set himself on fire to protest the war in Iraq and the politics that allowed it to happen. And thus began the same debate, among his friends, among the public, on blogs, and in comment boxes across the internet-- an argument about which of two pigeonholes we'd slot this into: Was it an important act of political protest, or the tragic end of a mentally ill person?
Most fans of underground music are probably aware of Chicago's experimental music scene, or at least its most prominent figures: People like jazz saxophonist Ken Vandermark, who won a MacArthur Fellowship in 1999, or the countless players-- Jeb Bishop, Chad Taylor, Fred Lonberg-Holm-- whose names became recognizable to indie fans during the 1990s, in the heyday of Chicago post-rock.
If you haven't spent time in Chicago, though, it's easy to underestimate how vibrant the scene is, and has been. Over the past decade, every week in the city has offered multiple opportunities to see avant-garde music, improvised instrumental performances, and free jazz performed by musicians from around the city and around the world, all of it supported by a large and complex circle of artists and fans. Just tracking down who's playing with whom can be a discographer's nightmare: This is a scene that cooperates.
And those most involved in that scene knew Malachi Ritscher. For years, he'd been a constant presence in the community, and probably its most committed documentarian: From the late 1980s onward, he spent an incredible number of nights out at shows, recording and photographing the musicians, and spending time with other fans. "According to his website, he recorded approximately 2,000 shows," says Dave Rempis, who plays saxophone in the Vandermark Five. "That would be six years of recording a show every single night. And from being around this scene, I can tell you that's not at all an overestimation. He was constantly at concerts-- I'd see him five nights a week."
"The recording was a big deal," says percussionist Michael Zerang, who's also played in a Vandermark-led group. "A lot of us couldn't afford recordings, and he would do it and virtually give it to us for free." Dozens of those recordings wound up becoming official releases, either through the artist's labels, or through Ritscher's own Savage Sound Syndicate. "Whenever I saw him," says Rempis, "he'd have a stack of 10 or 20 CD-Rs in his bag, so he could say, 'Oh yeah, I have something for you.'"
For most people, Ritscher's support meant just as much as his recording skills-- especially when it came to music that was so lacking in any kind of broad commercial appeal. "Just by being present all the time," says Zerang, laughing fondly, "well, there was always at least one person there." Bruce Finkelman owns the Empty Bottle-- a key venue for rock and experimental music-- and became used to seeing Ritscher show up for just about all of it: "Twenty below zero temperatures, three people in the club, and Malachi was one of them. Five feet of snow on the ground, and no one showing up, and he was there." It's a level of passion and enthusiasm that should be unimaginable to most of us-- going out, every other night, even in Chicago winters, to see free jazz?
All of these people remember Ritscher warmly: He was kind, intelligent, funny, outgoing, polite. And yet there's not much doubt that Ritscher was also, in a lot of ways, alone. He was born Mark David Ritscher, in 1954, in North Dakota; according to the obituary he posted to his own website, he dropped out of high school and married at age 17. He had a son. Ten years later, when his marriage dissolved, Ritscher moved to Chicago and immersed himself in the music scene-- taking his son's name, Malachi, for his own. Music wasn't the only thing he immersed himself in, either: He was an active anti-war activist, an avid photographer, a collector, a reader, and a writer. He painted watercolors, wrote poetry, dabbled with various musical instruments, and grew peppers for his own hot-sauce recipe.
One thing he did not seem to do was forge close friendships. He was estranged from his ex-wife, son, and grandchildren. People in Chicago knew him, saw him often, and found him outgoing and friendly-- but that tended to be the extent of it.
"I always kind of got the impression that Malachi chose to distance himself a little bit from people," says Rempis. "I don't think he had a regular group of friends who called him up and said 'Do you want to go out on Friday night?' He moved as an individual, mostly. He was to some degree a loner, and I think he would probably describe himself that way-- the ironic part of it being that he knew hundreds of people around town. For me, I don't even know if I had his phone number, but I saw him maybe three nights a week. He knew many, many people who without a doubt would have described him as a friend."
Writing his own obituary, Ritscher says much the same: "As a child, he was intensely afraid of many things, especially heights; he spent the rest of his life trying to face his fears, without ever coming to terms with his fear of people....He had many acquaintances, but few friends; and wrote his own obituary, because no one else really knew him."
Self-immolation is not a common act, mostly because it's one of the slowest, most painful, and messiest ways a person can kill himself. For most Americans, consciousness of the act comes down to one man, and one photograph: a 1963 shot of a Vietnamese monk named Thich Quang Duc, seated in the Lotus position in the middle of a Saigon street, consumed by flames, protesting the treatment of Buddhists under a Catholic regime. The few monks who did this didn't consider it suicide, but rather a form of non-violent protest-- a way for pacifists to speak louder than those who kill. (Gandhi, when questioned on the limits of pacifism, had suggested similar thinking.) There's no question that self-immolation is agonizing, and that's precisely why it's been used as a form of protest: It's meant to show an intense commitment to one's cause.
Malachi Ritscher is one of fewer than 10 people in American history to have done this. And as of 2006, it's hard to imagine how an American could successfully use self-immolation as a form of protest. You can't tell anyone about it: Most people would try to dissuade you, or even have you committed for your own protection. It's something you'll inevitably do alone; it's something that major media will not widely report; and it's something most people will conclude was the work of a very ill person.
Back, then, to the question everyone's asking, the question you probably already have strong opinions on: Was Malachi Ritscher a political martyr or a mentally troubled suicide? Let me tip my editorial hand and claim something: The argument is a distraction, and it's the wrong question to ask. It assumes too much. It assumes that the two things are mutually exclusive, or binaries, and that they can't be jumbled intractably in someone's thinking. It assumes that there's a clear, distinct line between rational politics and personal emotions. And it assumes that a troubled person can't legitimately mean what he says, even if his way of expressing it is tragic.
But if there's anything we can learn from Malachi Ritscher, it's that none of these things are that simple. On the one hand-- whether or not he suffered from mental illness, as his son has claimed in the comments box beneath Peter Margasak's Chicago Reader blog post, the first reporting done on Ritscher's death-- it's easy to conclude that he was an isolated person, with a life full of hobbies and passions but not much else. (Forgive me for saying it, but if any of you reading this spend most of your time alone at computers, blogging and posting to message boards but not always doing the tough, tiring work of going out and forging messy human relationships with the people around you, this is something to remember: Try hard.) At 52 years old, going to shows every night, estranged from his son and grandchildren, and without anyone incredibly close to him, how easy would it have been for Ritscher to decide that there wasn't much in the future he'd really miss if he weren't around?
On the other hand, Ritscher was intensely politically committed, and had been for years, and the texts on his website explain this as a political act. His acquaintances in the music world insist on doing him the credit of taking that seriously. "On the surface, that's what he said and that's what he did," says Zerang. "I'll take that at face value. It's a very potent message. People raise the specter of mental illness, and, well, okay-- but I don't see how that takes away the power of his message.
"In all the years I've known him, I've never perceived him as someone who was mentally ill. That doesn't mean he wasn't, but I never saw it. I look at his action, and these are his reasons, so let's talk about it in those terms."
Rempis' understanding is similar. "I think there was a pretty clear debate happening about whether this was an act of depression or whether it was a political act, and either way it's a pretty difficult thing for his friends and family to deal with. It's really tragic. I saw him in the weeks leading up to this, and I talked to two musicians today in New York who he'd sent correspondence to in the past few weeks-- with CDs of shows they'd recently done out here, and friendly, upbeat letters. I think this is something he'd been considering for a very long time, and more of a political act than an act of depression. He was really trying to express something here, and I think it's spelled out pretty clearly on his website."
It's the reception of the "Mission Statement" on that website that offers some of the strangest cues. One of the few major-media voices that's addressed it is Richard Roeper, in his column for the Chicago Sun-Times: Quoting heavily from Ritscher's note, he describes the text as intelligent but "bitter" and "disturbed."
And in at least one spot, it genuinely is: Ritscher talks about having walked past Donald Rumsfeld one day, with "a knife clenched in my hand," and regrets not having assassinated the Secretary of Defense. Leave alone the sad irony of Rumsfeld's resignation a few days after Ritscher's death, or the question of how Rumsfeld's absence would have changed much about the war: This is frightening and morally confused, the same logic that animates people to gun down reproductive health workers.
What's interesting, though, is the rest of it. It's no Unabomber-like rant, or conspiracy tract: For the most part it's thoughtful and relaxed. More importantly, no matter what you think of the views expressed, they're not particularly different from the ones you'll find on any number of leftist, anti-war, third-party, or independent-media websites, blogs, papers, or message boards. Ritscher's feelings about this country and about the war, extreme or not, are ones no small number of people share.
And that's important, because there's no reason to believe that politics and mental health don't have anything to do with each other. A person's depression or hopelessness can be exacerbated by any number of events in his personal life: rejection, loneliness, failure. At the same time, that hopelessness can be exacerbated by his experience of politics: The feeling of being alienated, ignored, or powerless to stop injustice. Whether the source is the people around you or the news on the television, the result is the same: You wind up feeling thwarted, frustrated, and weak. And if enough people feel this way, it makes sense that one of them-- possibly one of them with plenty of other issues in his life-- might take the kind of action Ritscher did. It doesn't make him right, or a martyr. It just makes him a piece of very shocking evidence that some of the people around us feel very hurt and marginalized. Most of them, thankfully, have found-- and will find-- much better ways to deal with it.
"A lot of us feel like he sort of took a karmic shit for us," says Zerang. "Because so many of us were upset with the way these wars are happening and people are dying-- we do what we can in our own ways, but truly there's a lot of frustration about that. And then he did this and it's almost like he took the hit for us. It's been very interesting to see the responses and how the dialogue has emerged around town. In the last week there've been concerts, a lot of good concerts, so the community has been out in force, and just talking. It's just remarkable how many diverging opinions there are about this."
Interpretation of the act might be up in the air, but the one thing just about everyone agrees on is the wish that he hadn't done it. His siblings and parents, proud as they can be of how much he meant to the Chicago music world, or even his final actions, are obviously grieving; his son Malachi, faced with this final estrangement, is obviously hurt. And the musicians around him will certainly feel the loss of someone who'd been a constant presence in their world. The most they can do us try to find something positive in it. "There's nothing I can argue with, apart from the final action he took," says Zerang. "Roeper's last line was something like, 'It's going to be a futile act,' but the jury's out on that, right? Something can come of it, it can resonate with people. And if that happens, it's not a futile act. And the people in the community here in Chicago are talking and looking at things differently-- so right there, it's not a futile act. For better or worse, he changed something."
Just as important, there's everything else he left behind. A few days after his death, a package arrived for Bruno Johnson, owner of the free-jazz label Okka Disk: It contained, as reported by the Reader, "[Ritscher's] will, keys to his home, and instructions about what should be done with his belongings." Among his possessions is one legacy: An archive of the Chicago experimental scene stretching back for two decades. And for the musicians, there's another: The memory and invaluable support of at least one enthusiast who, no matter when they were playing, and no matter how few people showed up, was always there to cheer them on.