[This text was originally published in AREA Chicago #4 in February 2007]
On 3 November 2006, Malachi Ritscher, long-time Chicago resident and fixture in the free jazz community, revised the history of protest with one final act: he, as Alice Herz, Norman Morrison, and eight others had before him, committed self-immolation (suicide by fire), in protest of American conflict abroad; Ritscher in response to the current Gulf War.
According to his self-authored obituary, Ritscher (born Mark David) “was a collector of several things,” an ordained minister, a father, a brother. Critical of the war, he ended his life on his own terms. He was 52. Malachi is well known for his tireless work on the email listserv, Savage Sound/Chicago Rash Audio Potential, an invaluable resource for Chicago’s experimental music happenings. A catalog of over 2000 live recordings, bequest to Okka Disk record label founder Bruno Johnson for distribution, provides a framework for understanding the depth of his commitment to his community. This passion also translated into his activism. Arrested twice during anti-war protests in Chicago, Ritscher also participated in actions in Washington, D.C. and in New York City during the 2004 Republican National Convention. He was part of a successful class-action suit against the City of Chicago for grievances not limited to violations of free speech rights during anti-war demonstrations. Extending politics to art, Malachi circulated anti-Bush visuals in the form of stickers, t-shirts, paste-up flyers, and websites. He maintained several sites “opposing war, racism, and torture,” most of which ask of its audience “what about you—what are YOU going to do?”
Vague news of Ritscher’s suicide was initially reported by CBS’ Chicago affiliate the morning of 3 November, with video footage of the scene available on its website. The Chicago Sun-Times published a small article the following day. Speculation arose connecting the incident alongside the Kennedy Expressway (where the self-immolation occurred), to the disappearance of Ritscher, who had not reported to work, as a technical engineer at the University of Chicago, in the days preceding. Chicago Reader columnist Peter Margasak’s Post No Bills blog entry on 7 November publicly identified Ritscher online; Margasak pointed to Ritscher’s “mission statement” (suicide letter) and obituary, the last pages uploaded to Savage Sound on the morning of his death, and to Bruno Johnson’s receipt of Ritscher’s will, house keys, and other effects in the mail. The same day, Richard Roeper of the Sun-Times wrote an editorial on suicide, referring to the incident, stating “Last Friday morning along the Kennedy Expy. near the Ohio Street exit, a man reportedly videotaped himself as he poured gasoline onto his body and lit himself on fire, ending his life in memorably horrific fashion. The incident took place at the base of a 25-foot-tall sculpture known as ‘Flame of the Millennium,’ and the man reportedly left a note saying, ‘Thou Shalt Not Kill.’
You may have heard about this tragedy because it was just too splashy, too public, for the media to ignore. You didn’t hear about the incident in the Loop because the media usually don’t report on ‘normal,’ everyday suicides. The unwritten policy—which has been backed by research studies—says that if we make a big deal out of suicide stories, there’s an increased likelihood of copycat episodes.”
Roeper was wrong; the online reporting of Ritscher’s death on blogs, message boards, and in the small press pre-empted the Associated Press’s full attention to the story by three weeks. In a follow-up editorial, he responded to readers who sent him letters rebuking his dismissal of Malachi’s death as “‘normal’ everyday suicide.” While he was the first member of the mainstream press to acknowledge Malachi’s death, Richard Roeper’s essay initiated the public discourse of mental instability as the actual root of Ritscher’s “protest.” For days, members of Ritscher’s family posted to the Post No Bills message board, sharing their personal pain and bewilderment by the act, with some also suggesting that their loved one’s death was less the act of an impassioned activist, and more so the endgame of a troubled life.
Ritscher implored those who encountered his “mission statement” online to “judge [him] by [his] actions.” As the nature of his death may recall the ubiquitous image of Thich Quang Duc, the mixed reaction publicly to the news of Ritscher’s act, especially the sluggish response of the mainstream news media, suggests a shared disillusionment with the issues Ritscher names as motivation for ending his life, but and with a marked remove from the radicalism embedded in our country’s social history. Ritscher videotaped his immolation; the police have not released this footage publicly. His words alone have affected strangers and his peers alike; online tributes, memorial vigils, and protests have all occurred in the wake of this incident. The dissemination of Malachi’s death online is part and parcel of a sea change in communication—we are afforded choices, and alternatives in media are abound. The same applies to protest and action as methods of communication. The sacrifice made by Malachi Ritscher has succeeded in inciting dialogue that has been long overdue. Ritscher despised the contradictory position that war times make blatantly obvious,, ending his life to underline these grievances. Those of us choosing to accept Malachi’s aim at face value, and who have been inspired, saddened, enraged, or perplexed by it all, are posed again with the question “what are [we] going to do”? The first step is to never forget Malachi; the second is yours to choose.