A Desperate Measure

An extreme act of protest shakes the Chicago underground music scene

| November 16, 2006

On November 3, Malachi Ritscher, an avid chronicler of Chicago's underground music scene, burned himself to death alongside a Chicago expressway. Next to him was a note that read, 'Thou Shalt Not Kill.' As Peter Margasak reported in his Chicago Reader blog, Ritscher left a lengthier suicide note (which he called a 'mission statement') posted on his website. In it, he elaborated on his motives: 'If one death can atone for anything, in any small way, to say to the world: I apologize for what we have done to you, I am ashamed for the mayhem and turmoil caused by my country.'

Self-immolation has a loaded history as a form of protest. Perhaps most famous and most startling is the image of a Vietnamese monk calmly aflame in the lotus position, protesting religious oppression in Vietnam in 1963. Two years later, an American Quaker named Norman Morrison lit himself on fire in front of the Pentagon in protest of the Vietnam War. His daughter Emily, not yet one-year-old, was there with him. As his wife, Anne Morrison Welsh, recounted in the January 2000 Winds of Peace (pdf file) newsletter, when news of his act reached Vietnam, the people there found a hero in him.

Though news of Ritscher's act seems not to have generated such widespread reflection, it has stirred strong emotions in Chicago, especially among those frequenting the venues and protests where he was a regular fixture. One immediate response has been to cast the act as one of either a martyr or a mentally ill person. 'I'm not so sure the two things are mutually exclusive,' responded Chicago Sun-Times columnist Richard Roeper. As for the impact of the act, Roeper tried to respectfully offer this assessment: '[I]f he thought setting himself on fire and ending his life in Chicago would change anyone's mind about the war in Iraq, his last gesture on this planet was his saddest and his most futile.'

In a thoughtful essay for Pitchfork, Nitsuh Abebe parses such sentiments, arguing that they miss the greater point: that Ritscher's suicide is 'a piece of very shocking evidence that some of the people around us feel very hurt and marginalized.' Regardless of what one makes of Ritscher's death, there is no contesting the tragedy of it. 'Interpretation of the act might be up in the air,' Abebe notes, 'but the one thing just about everyone agrees on is the wish that he hadn't done it.'



Go there >> Malachi Ritschers Apparent Suicide

Go there too >> Norman Morrison, Deed of Life, Deed of Death