Walking the Walk: Ian Fritz

Protest in Skokie

In 2000, Ian Fritz, a member of Milwaukee (Wis.) Meeting, experienced a life-changing event. On Decem-ber 16, he had traveled with friends to Skokie, Illinois, near Chicago, for a rally. It had been called for by a coalition of groups, including the Jewish Defense League and Anti-Racist Action, to confront members of the Ku Klux Klan who were meeting at the Skokie courthouse.

While many things about that day remain unclear, there are facts everyone agrees upon: the Klan held a short rally under the protection of four different area police forces; there were about 500 people counter-demonstrating; those protesters did not immediately disperse after the Klan rally had concluded; and the police decided to forcibly move people out of the area. Amidst the chaos, Ian was tackled from behind by police officers and arrested, along with approximately 25 others, for allegedly damaging a police car and participating in mob action. Ian and another were selected from these 25 and charged with two Class D felonies, punishable by up to three years in jail for each charge.

Many people in the wider Quaker community rallied to Ian’s support. Several monthly meetings provided financial assistance for his legal expenses as he fought the charges against him. Unlike intentional actions of civil disobedience, where participants knowingly violate law, Ian had not participated in a planned act of civil disobedience, but rather was charged with a criminal violation of which he was innocent. He was required to appear in Skokie every three to six weeks and was overwhelmed by the unpredictable behavior of the court, which he says at times blatantly ignored his rights.

He writes: "The subsequent legal proceedings, which lasted 19 months, were eye-opening experiences for me and those who supported me, regarding the nature of the ‘justice’ system: I continually demanded a jury trial, only to be called an ‘obstructionist’ by the prosecution. The State had overwhelming weight with the court, and took full advantage of the bureaucratic nature of their organization. My trial took almost two years, during which time I had to pay for legal services and repeated travel to Illinois for court dates. More than once, after traveling to a hearing, the State would be unprepared and call for more time. Being in the courtroom brought me face-to-face with so many issues that I had only peripherally grasped until then: the inherent anti-poor nature of the bail system, the racism of the proceedings, the total lack of accountability by the State, which lost ‘evidence’ and made conflicting and inaccurate statements, including the arresting officer incorrectly identifying me at my preliminary hearing. It was a complicated, frustrating experience which one can only truly understand if he or she has fallen victim to it. This experience was the largest and longest struggle for my freedom that I have yet experienced."

In the end, Ian accepted a plea bargain and pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor criminal damage charge. The terms of his plea involved restitution and community service. Accepting responsibility for a crime he did not commit was a difficult decision. However, being unable to travel and living with the shadow of his bail looming made for a stressful, unhappy two years. After careful discernment, Ian decided that he needed to move on with his life and it would be best if he accepted the State’s offer.

Nonconformity and Community

Ian Fritz’s lifestyle is nontraditional: gaining an education through the world around him instead of attending school; working full-time as a volunteer activist instead of pursuing a career; and organizing his life around travel and adventure instead of settling down in any one city. Through choices like these Ian is modeling his commitment to live by example the Testimonies of Simplicity, Equality, Nonviolence, Community, and Integrity, with which he was raised. Fueled by an overwhelming drive to contribute to the movement for social change within his lifetime, Ian has sought alternatives to apathy and commonly accepted societal norms in his daily activities and life decisions.

Raised in Milwaukee, Ian confidently moves around the country finding "home" wherever he is. In the past three years, he has also lived in Tucson, Arizona, and on the road. Today he is living in Portland, Oregon, building a bicycle- pedal-powered washing machine, preparing for work on an ocean-bound freight vessel to China, and studying the international squatters movement. "Squatters," he explains, are people who live communally in abandoned buildings with the intention of positively using the space for the needs of the community (lending libraries, co-ops, organizational space, or facilitating other creative endeavors). Through the exploration of alternatives such as these Ian feels he is denying others the authority to make choices for him, and instead, taking each day to live intentionally.

Despite achieving straight As, Ian left public school after 10th grade to pursue an education he felt was more in line with what he wanted to learn and what he felt he would benefit from learning. "I had to start living my life right then and there, not doing all this work for an abstract goal in the future." Inspired and guided by Grace Llewellyn’s The Teenage Liberation Handbook, Ian set out to challenge himself and his wider community to redefine what a good education was all about. He independently studied molecular chemistry, apprenticed with a local carpenter, worked at the public radio station, and explored things he decided were important. With the help and guidance of his parents and other adults in his community, Ian sees education not as a life event to be checked off a list, but as a lifelong process that is exciting, beneficial, and engaging.

Ian writes, "Age 15 saw the beginning of my disillusionment with modern American culture. It was then that the fermenting feeling that something is horribly wrong with the world—which I believe we all experience in our teenage years, and some carry into our adult lives—began to take hold in me. The first political struggle I became involved in was the case of U.S. political prisoner Mumia Abu Jamal, and my involvement with political struggles during my 15th and 16th years continued pretty much by the book: I attended demonstrations, organized video screenings, and talked with everyone I knew."

In November 1999, when he was 17, Ian traveled with friends to Seattle to take part in the national protest against the third ministerial meeting of the World Trade Organization. The events that surrounded the meeting served as a turning point for many of those present, says Ian, and affected many who weren’t present, as well. "It was especially youth who seemed to be politically galvanized by the atmosphere of revolution that overpowered the stench of teargas on the streets of downtown Seattle. I was one of those youths."

Today this protest is included in textbooks as a high point of opposition to disparities in the international economic market and the processes by which decisions governing international trade were (and are) being made. The 1999 WTO protests resulted in a commitment by two groups that had previously had competing agendas, the environmental movement and labor, to work together, and in the proud acceptance by the U.S. activist community of involvement and leadership of young people in this new struggle.

Ian left Seattle with an understanding that people possess power, individually and collectively, and that power lies in the determination of each to act, and to continue to act, even if it means jail, intimidation, threats, beatings, or any other means of repression used by those whose power is in question.

After the protest in Seattle, Ian helped to form a youth activist group in Milwaukee that organized transportation to large-scale demonstrations in other parts of the country, organized local actions involving street theater, and gave Milwaukee youth an opportunity to get involved and discuss issues. Having an opportunity to participate in protests and actions helped motivate Ian and his peers to learn both about the concerns surrounding capitalism and economic globalization, and about the communities actively working for social change in many different arenas that shared concerns about economic globalization. Ian found he had a voice and a right to use it, and through speaking up he found there were people who were apathetic to his concerns as well as people who shared them.

During this time, Ian developed a consciousness of the community around him. He writes: "I had found the people I was looking for. We questioned everything we had been taught. We exercised our power to create and our power to destroy, adamant that there were other ways to live than off the exploitation of others. We made our homes in abandoned buildings, and some of us lived in trees and on sacred lands that were scheduled to be destroyed in the name of progress. Some of us called ourselves anarchists, while some of us declined to call ourselves anything, instead letting our ideology flow from our actions and our desires."

When discussing his commitment to Quakerism, Ian avoids this same tendency to label himself, believing that labels oversimplify the diversity of those who are part of that community. Ian has always identified with many of the convictions and leadings commonly held by Friends, but he struggles with simply labeling himself "a Quaker." Instead, he is challenging himself constantly to redefine what Quakerism means to him, as he believes he was raised to do. He recognizes Quakerism not as an answer, but as a process to which he is drawn.

Ian feels the Quaker community he experienced as a teen, including the annual Friends General Conference Gathering, taught him the value of strong community—and that true community can occur when bound not by geographical convenience but rather by shared values. Through this lesson, Ian gained a perspective on the idea of an international activist community. "To be involved with any one of these groups, working for change, is in a way to be involved with any one of the hundreds of others, both with and without names. The people who do this work so passionately usually don’t get paid, but do it because it’s liberating, empowering, and because in doing so we surround ourselves with like-minded individuals— discovering a true sense of community."

The Bicycle Projects

Before returning to Milwaukee (where he was living when he attended the Skokie rally), Ian had been working in Tucson with the Bicycle Inter-Community Art and Salvage (BICAS), a community center/bicycle repair center. BICAS continues to be an inspiration for him. He writes: "Anyone who has an appreciation for people who do passionate, selfless work out of beauty and a love for the relationships that are created out of that shared passion, will be awe-inspired by visiting BICAS. It is full of art and ingenuity, accessible to the public, open to people of all ages, and rife with smiling, passionate people. Seeing it for the first time back in 2000, it was my feeling that every city needs a place like this." Partly because of its work with bicycles, but more because of the values it visibly puts into action, BICAS serves as a model for the kinds of relationships we could be having in our communities.

When Ian became tied down to the Milwaukee/Chicago area due to his court proceedings, he opened a community space there for bicycle repair/construction and community-building in an unoccupied area above his father’s photography studio. It quickly turned into "The Milwaukee Bicycle Collective" (MBC), run by a small contingent of volunteer shop staff. Serving the wider Milwaukee community, and in particular the economically disadvantaged youth who reside in the neighborhood, MBC aims to teach basic bicycle construction and repair while fostering the positive values of community, cooperation, and self-education.

Creating the bike collective was a strike back at the disillusionment Ian faced in the courtroom. It is "a place where discarded bicycles and parts could be refurbished and turned into rideable bicycles. A place where people of different races, classes, and creeds could come together in a shared mechanical fascination or desire for self-reliance; a place to share skills and ideas. MBC is a place that stands not for the accumulation of wealth or profit but for the betterment of all people."

A Milwaukee community newspaper, Riverwest Currents, reported that between 75 and 100 bikes were distributed at no cost to the recipients in the collective’s first year, and that neighborhood kids are often lined up and waiting for the doors to open. In the article, Ian proudly reported that the youngsters were learning how to build and maintain their bikes, and beginning to work together to help each other with building. MBC is applying for nonprofit tax status, writing a funding grant, and looking for new volunteers.

When Ian talks of the future, one senses that he is at the beginning of a long journey. Much like Friends of the 17th century, he is not satisfied to live his life only for himself, but rather is called to take his ways out into the world. As he continues to pursue the cause of justice, he relies in part on the values he learned and continues to be taught from the Quaker community that surrounds him.

Ian wears only used clothes, often eats what others discard, and travels by bicycle or rides from friendly faces. He passionately advocates equality and nonviolence, often challenging himself and those around him to discuss the issues surrounding both. Through his trust in community he is empowered and inspired. He holds most sacred his commitment to both his own integrity and the integrity of all the people of the world.

Through the life of Ian Fritz, I sense how another generation is redefining the relevance of Quakerism and its beliefs as generations before have done. Through the leadings of our generation we contribute each in our own way to changing the world for the better.

Breeze E. Luetke-Stahlman

Breeze E. Luetke-Stahlman, a member of Penn Valley Meeting in Kansas City, Mo., attends 57th Street Meeting in Chicago, Ill., where she is a graduate student in Public Policy at University of Chicago. This is second in a series of articles by her on the lives of adult young Friends.