Politics for a Smarter World
by Mark Cassello
Although some like Mayor Emanuel and the Chicago Mercantile Exchange hoped a brutal Chicago winter would chill the fiery passion of demonstrators, a recent visit to the organization’s new headquarters reveals that Occupy Chicago is stronger, smarter, and more nimble than it was last fall. Relentless pressure from the city, including hundreds of arrests and the onset of winter left observers with the mistaken impression that Chicago’s branch of the Occupy Movement had been effectively quashed. This impression could not be more wrong. A confluence of events will make Chicago the national, and perhaps, worldwide hub of the Occupy Movement through the spring. Welcome to the Chicago Spring.
A New Home
Occupy Chicago’s winter headquarters is located on the seventh floor of large, industrial, red brick building that towers above a well-worn intersection. The building sits in a heavily trafficked industrial area along the South Branch of the Chicago River and occupies a liminal space between the heavily Hispanic Pilsen neighborhood to the West and Chinatown immediately to the East. The area bustles with an odd amalgam of commercial, social, and creative activity. U-Haul vans, trucks, and trailers line the streets. Yellow banners advertising available storage space flap noisily from the otherwise nondescript building. People converse on a distant corner, and a couple jovial musicians lug amplifiers down the sidewalk while another pulls a kick drum from a rusty hatchback.
Rachael Perrota from the Occupy Chicago Press Committee ushers visitors into the building. Inside, the interior resembles the environment of a first-person shooter video game: replete with the requisite freight elevator, ornamental decay, and labyrinthine design. The winding journey from the first floor to Occupy Chicago headquarters instills a sense of transgression. The geographic location and architectural design of the space seem appropriate, even deliberate. This physical space replicates the economic, social, and intellectual marginalization felt by those struggling in an economy that best serves the interests of the one percent.
After a slow, creaking ride in the passenger elevator, visitors arrive at a surprisingly well-lit, almost Hollywood-esque loft furnished with 15 foot-high-ceilings, hardwood floors, and a dozen windows. The vista overlooks a vast and rugged concrete expanse. A red iron bridge straddles the South Branch and across the street dust rises in the horizon from the windswept plain of the Ozinga Ready Mix Concrete factory.
An air of collegiality electrifies the room. Thirty people attend to hear a talk by noted scholar Alberto Toscano from Goldsmith’s University in London. Toscano, author of Fanaticism: On the Uses of an Idea, is seated at a delicate blue card table reviewing his notes on a paper thin MacBook. Toscano’s talk centers on Marx’s Critique of the Gotha Programme and Lenin’s State and Revolution. Like Chicago’s skyline, the heads of attendees sit at varying heights as some sit in chairs, others sit higher on stools, and the last to arrive sit awkwardly on pillows and milk crates. The intellectually dense conversation between Toscano and the audience spans over two hours and demonstrates a deep knowledge of the history of both successful and unsuccessful social movements. Toscano’s talk necessarily problematizes the term “equality” that is often found at the heart of any discourse of social change. And more importantly, he helps participants situate the beliefs and tactics of the Occupy Movement within a broader history.
The Chicago Fall
The last time a national audience heard from Occupy Chicago, Chicago police had arrested over 130 individuals after they attempted to remain in Grant Park beyond its 11:00 pm curfew. News of the massive, but peaceful, arrests in Chicago was quickly overshadowed by the near-fatal injury of Iraq War veteran Scott Olsen by a teargas canister at Occupy Oakland. Likewise, the now infamous pepper spraying of seated demonstrators at Berkeley distracted the national conversation from issues of social justice to a discussion of whether or not law enforcement officials have the right to use violence as a means to suppress peaceful public demonstration.
Meanwhile, back in Chicago, the Emanuel administration stepped up its pressure on Occupy Chicago. First, they selectively enforced a series of local ordinances in an effort to dispel the ongoing occupation. Since early October 2011, members of Occupy Chicago have maintained a 24-hour presence at the intersection of Jackson and LaSalle near the Federal Reserve Bank of Chicago and the Chicago Board of Exchange. Officers forced the demonstrators to remain constantly mobile or face arrest. Later, the Chicago Police Department began doggedly to enforce long-standing anti-vagrancy ordinances that forbid the storage of any personal belongings in the public way. Complying, Occupy Chicago relocated all supplies and donations to a sturdy, mobile cart. Undeterred, Chicago police eventually confiscated and destroyed the supply cart along with other property of the Occupy Chicago protesters.
Second, the city funneled those arrested at earlier demonstrations into the near-Dickensian world of the Chicago court system. In a move that appeared designed to prevent large-scale demonstrations and to strain the legal resources of the Occupy Chicago defendants, individuals’ hearings were initially scattered across a series of sites and across an array of dates. Sara Gelsomino, an attorney for the demonstrators criticized the city’s treatment of her clients: “These people were held over 24 hours. And they released them on conditions of bond, sent to the criminal courtrooms all over the city. They’re treated as criminals.” After surmounting a series of obstacles, attorneys managed to consolidate these numerous cases into a single manageable case. At a hearing on February 21, 2012, Gelsomino accused the city of creating an environment inhospitable to public demonstration: “They want to clear the park and send a message . . . to all the protesters in this city that you can’t protest here in Chicago; they round ‘em up, they put ‘em in cuffs.” Both parties return to court for arguments on March 28, 2012.
Third, in January, Emmanuel successfully instituted tighter restrictions on speech and public demonstration ahead of the NATO summit scheduled for May. The occupiers dubbed Rahm’s new revenue enhancing legislation: “Sit Down and Shut Up,” and roughly 200 demonstrators filled City Hall stomping, cheering, chanting, and denouncing the measures as they were overwhelmingly passed by the City Council. Emanuel presided nonchalantly over the vote—at times cleaning his fingernails—while the noise from the raucous crowd echoed into the City Council chambers. Although the final version of the legislation dialed back some of the most controversial provisions of the legislation, opponents still contend that it places an undue burden on citizens who seek to organize street demonstrations. The staunchest opponent of the legislation, Alderman Leslie Hairston, expressed concern that after the NATO summit, these new restrictions will be used to quell demonstrations in Chicago’s low-income communities.
The Chicago Winter
Since last fall, Occupy Chicago has developed a formidable, yet diffuse, infrastructure in response to the city’s ongoing efforts to suppress the movement. Rachael Perrota claims that having a space has allowed the movement to grow much faster: “Winter has been an excellent building time” and has resulted in a number of new occupations blossoming throughout the city–Occupy el Barrio, Occupy the South Side, Occupy Rogers Park, Occupy the Northwest Side. In addition, the outreach to college campuses has spawned occupations at DePaul, Columbia, and the University of Illinois Chicago. Likewise, having the space has allowed better coordination between occupy and the various community and labor groups with which it coordinates. A brief glance at Occupy Chicago’s website (http://www.occupychi.org) confirms Perrota’s claim that the movement is stronger post-winter. Information about dozens of teach-ins and actions is clearly posted and poised for dissemination via social media.
Occupy Chicago’s online presence has matured during the winter. Having a base of operations has clearly improved communication within and without the organization. During the actions last October and November, the technology team created an impressive, yet at times unreliable, ad hoc infrastructure. Consequently, issues arose related to incorrect or outdated information appearing on the website. Similarly, the committees sometimes struggled to get relevant information posted to the site because of reliance on intermediaries. Today, the Technology, Social Media, and Press Committees each have a separate office on the fifth floor. This shared workspace has made it easier for information to travel from the Press Committee to the Social Media and Technology teams and vice versa. A veteran team of talented writers pump out flawless press releases and produce the Occupied Chicago Tribune, the official periodical of Occupy Chicago. Likewise, the Social Media committee consistently promotes breaking developments using Facebook, Twitter, and other platforms. The increasing saturation of Occupy Chicago’s message and the frenetic activity of these and other committees foreshadows the increasing need for the Emanuel administration to engage the demands of the movement rather than dismiss them.
The Chicago Spring
Occupy the Midwest Regional Conference
The Chicago Spring began at the first ever Occupy the Midwest Regional Conference in St. Louis, Missouri. This event ran from March 15-18, 2012 and brought together all of the occupations from throughout Midwest to share skills, network, and plan regional and national days of action. The conference commemorates the six-month anniversary of the Occupy Movement and began at 10:00 am on March 15, 2012 beneath the famed Gateway Arch. The organizers of the conference selected this site for its symbolic importance: the creation of the Gateway Arch displaced low-income residents after the city appropriated real estate for the project. Apart from meetings, a series of actions targeted Bank of America, Monsanto, and others during the conference.
Chicago Spring Kickoff
On Saturday, April 7, 2012 Occupy Chicago will host a series of events throughout the city with the support of various community and labor groups with which it is allied. In the morning, different occupations, unions, and community groups will hold actions in their neighborhoods or around their areas of interest. At 1:15 pm, the groups will converge at Jackson and LaSalle and then march to Grant Park where they will host a giant potluck dinner in the evening. This event will showcase the growing connections between Occupy Chicago and various other community and labor groups throughout the city; it is the debut of the post-winter alliances.
May Day, International Workers’ Day
On May 1, 2012, Occupy Chicago will join labor and immigrant rights groups for a massive action that they hope will reach or exceed the levels of participation witnessed in 2006. By all indications, May 2012 is ripe for large-scale civil unrest by labor and immigrant rights groups. Last year marked the largest assault on the rights of organized labor in the past thirty years. Republican governors such as Scott Walker in Wisconsin and Mitch Daniels in Indiana pushed through legislation that erodes workers’ rights to organize and to collectively bargain. The immigrant community was also under attack in 2011. States implemented harsh policies against undocumented individuals and made little effort to punish corporations who exploit these same individuals for profit. Controversial anti-immigration measures passed in Arizona, Alabama, Louisiana, Tennessee, South Carolina, and Georgia. In addition, the Obama administration deported a record number of individuals while the remaining Republican presidential candidates’ stepped up inflammatory rhetoric against “illegal immigrants.” This antagonism unifies the Latino community and makes a backlash from the fastest growing segment of America’s population inevitable.
NATO / G8 Protests
Chicago will host the NATO summit on May 20-21. Occupy Chicago plans to elevate the struggles of its constituent communities to the national stage with help from its national and international supporters. On Saturday, May 19, 2012, Occupy Chicago in conjunction with the Chicago Coalition Against NATO/G8 War & Poverty Agenda (CANG8) will host a day of actions. An opening rally is scheduled for noon at Daley Plaza (50 W. Washington St.). Later, a large permitted march will make the 2.5-mile journey from Daley Plaza along State Street across to Michigan Avenue and then wind down to McCormick Place.
According to a statement on the CANG8 blog, the demonstrators will march in May during the NATO meeting to deliver an anti-war message: “Jobs, Housing, Healthcare, Education, Pensions, and the Environment: Not War!” Occupy Chicago anticipates that tens of thousands will be in the streets that day for a family friendly rally and march that CANG8 states will bring “cries so loud they will be heard in Camp David and across the globe.” These demonstrators claim they will “fight for our future, and speak out against the wars and their cutbacks are designed to benefit the 1% at the expense of the 99% of the world.”
Occupy Chicago has roundly criticized the priorities of Mayor Emanuel who has dwelled on the largely symbolic importance of hosting the NATO event while ignoring the literal needs of the city: “He’s bringing this monstrosity to our city and none of us want the G8/NATO here. It’s going to hurt business, burden the already cash-strapped city, and disrupt the lives of everyday Chicagoans in a way that may keep them from earning their paycheck, getting transportation to their job, or picking their kids up from school.”
The Past is Prologue
Ironically, the Emanuel administration’s efforts to scatter Occupy Chicago from downtown have created a much more formidable and thorny problem for the city. Emanuel’s actions have helped forge a highly organized and nimble agent of social protest. The corporeal presence of Occupy Chicago may have diminished during the past two months; however, they now command a virtual space from where they can materialize bodies at a moment’s notice in any, or all, parts of the city. One day, perhaps soon, Occupy Chicago will have “Rahmbo” playing protest Whack-a-Mole much to his chagrin.
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