Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Occupy Chicago Protest and Civil Disobedience on October 22, 2011

I am a faculty member with the Labor Education Program that is part of the School of Labor and Employment Relations at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. Working out of our Chicago office, I teach workers about workers’ rights, organizing, and labor history in noncredit classes at our classroom or at their union halls, and I teach undergraduates in the Global Labor Studies program which enrolls 1,000 UIUC students every semester.

I want to share with our students, and anyone else who is interested, my experience with the Occupy Wall Street (OWS) protest on Saturday night, October 22, 2011 in Chicago.

The Occupy Chicago movement began about a month ago, on the heels of the inspiring New York City Occupy Wall Street that has sparked a national and international movement. There are daily protests at the Board of Trade on LaSalle and Jackson in downtown Chicago – our financial center equivalent to NYC’s Wall Street. Occupy Chicago says on its website:

“We are Chicagoans, and most importantly, Americans, gathered together in solidarity to exercise our Constitution-guaranteed rights of free speech and to peacefully assemble. Occupy Chicago is here to fight corporate abuse of American democracy in solidarity with our brothers and sisters around the world. Occupy Chicago reassures its members and the public that we are a social movement dedicated to nonviolent action.”

Organized labor didn't start this movement, and the vast majority of the people at the rallies are nonunion young people under 30 years old (or even under 25). But labor is now starting to provide some resources and turnout at big OWS rallies and marches.

Here is the Occupy Chicago website:

And the Occupy Together website giving national coverage:

But unlike New York, where the encampment at Zuccotti Park has provided a base for the movement to build community and grow, Occupy Chicago does not have a park. It has been based on sidewalks.

On Saturday, October 15, 3,000 people marched to Congress and Michigan to a small park. The protesters call it the “horse” in reference to a huge horse statue there. The police ordered them out, declared them in violation of a city ordinance that closes city parks at 11 pm, and arrested 175 peaceful protesters.

On Saturday, October 22 Occupy Chicago tried again. 2,500 to 3,000 people again marched from Jackson and LaSalle to the park at Michigan and Congress.

Here are photos:

The crowd was overwhelmingly young people, and overwhelmingly nonunion. These are not, for the most part, people who have been very active in social movements. For many of them, this is the first social movement they’ve ever been active in. For the vast majority of the more than 300 people arrested in the last week, this was their first nonviolent civil disobedience arrest.

The crowd assembled from 6:30 to 7:00 pm, then marched on Jackson east toward the lake. The crowd filled Jackson, and took up two city blocks. It was dense – you had to be careful when walking not to step on the heels of the person in front of you, and most of the way it was more of a shuffle than a walk. We chanted at the top of our lungs.

Some pundits and much of the mainstream media have attacked the OWS movement for not having specific legislative demands. I vehemently disagree. I think that:

1), This is often just an excuse to attack the movement by people who completely oppose the movement, and who are searching for any excuse to denounce it.

2), A strength of the OWS movement is that it offers a vision of a better America, a dream of an economy run in the interests of the people and not corporations. If it succeeds, some legislative reforms will be passed – undoubtedly modest, but a beginning. If it succeeds, it will spark and inspire much more organizing nationwide, that will eventually lead to much bigger legislative gains. But there’s nothing wrong with a movement having a vision for America rather than a focus on one or two pieces of legislation.

3), I think the broad program of the OWS is very clear in its chanted slogans and placards.
“We are the 99%” expresses a drive to mobilize the average person against the very rich who crashed our economy, yet are profiting while tens of millions suffer; the 1% who are living lives of luxury.

“Tax, tax, tax the rich” expresses anger that the taxes of the wealthy and corporations are continually reduced while so many are suffering; that there has been a huge shift in income from the masses of people to the wealthy over the past thirty years; and that income inequality is worse than any other industrialized nation and is back to where it was in 1929.

“Tax the rich, feed the poor” expresses a desire to see the government put the interests of the poor, the unemployed, and working people ahead of the interests of the rich and multinational corporations.

“The banks got bailed out, we got sold out” expresses the same anger – that the government has tens of billions to bail out banks and the wealthy, yet 9 million homes have been foreclosed in the last three years; the corporations are sitting on $2 trillion and profits are at record levels, yet there are 25 million who can’t find jobs; that tens of millions are suffering – and yet the government is doing very little to help.

And the chant that electrifies the crowd captures who the protesters are and their determination to not give up:
“One, we are the people.
“Two, we are united.
“Three, the occupation is not leaving.”
(The chant can’t be understood by just reading the words; you have to hear the drums beating as the words are shouted out.)

At the Congress/Michigan park, the protesters gathered. Some union and community group leaders spoke briefly. Nurses in the National Nurses United union set up a medical tent in the middle of the park. People talked. I chatted for awhile with two protesters, Keith an unemployed teacher and Lee an unemployed sales rep, both over 50 years old, both angry, both new to the movement, both of whom were going to risk arrest in civil disobedience for the first times in their lives.

The police again – under orders of Mayor Emmanuel who wants to crush this movement by stopping it from having a larger public space where an encampment could be organized – began arrests, around 1:30 a.m.

134 of us, with many hundreds on the sidewalks chanting their support, sat down in the middle of the park, and were one-by-one arrested by the police, with plastic handcuffs put on our hands tied behind our backs, and then walked to police wagons.

At the 18th and State police station we were separated by gender. In my large holding cell maybe 40 men were crammed in for about 2 ½ hours. We had a great discussion about the movement’s strategy; whether we should try to win establishment of an encampment at another location instead of the “horse” park; what types of protest actions and targets should come next; and about whether the OWS program was fine as is or needed to get into more specific demands.

I’ve been protesting injustice for over three decades, and this was one of the most enjoyable and productive discussions I’ve ever had.

When you’re arrested and held together, you really start to build deeper bonds with your cellmates.

One-by-one we were taken out of the cell for finger printing and to have our mug shots photographed. We all assumed that when people were taken out for this processing, that then they were released.

That is what happened the week before on October 15 when 175 protesters were arrested – they were released after four to six hours. I’ve been arrested several times before for acts of nonviolent civil disobedience protesting injustice, often as part of a large group, and I’ve usually been released in an hour or two.

But not this time. This time Mayor Emmanuel gave orders to punish the protesters for daring to engage in civil disobedience (refusing to leave a park) for two Saturdays in a row.

This time Mayor Emmanuel (former chief of staff to President Obama, former Democratic congressman) ordered the protesters to be punished. Instead of being held until our paperwork was processed, we were to be incarcerated for a day in an effort to intimidate others from continuing the protests, and in an effort to break the spirits of the protesters.

Anyone who thinks Mayor Emmanuel is a good guy; someone who cares about the people; or someone who sympathizes with the goals of the Occupy Wall Street movement – I’ve got 134 people who would very much like to tell you why you’re dead wrong.

We were put in cells – there are 112 at that police station – that were roughly 8 feet by 12 feet, with white cinderblock walls. The cell’s metal door had a small window, out of which you could only see through the window into the cell across from you. Bright fluorescent lights were always on, so sleep was out of the question. A metal toilet was in the corner – with no toilet paper. There were no beds with mattresses, just hard concrete benches along two walls.

I was alone for two hours, then was lucky enough to get a cell mate, Dan Rosiak. We kept each other sane, talking, sharing life stories, supporting one another… and although the police confiscate all belongings when you’re arrested (including your belt and shoelaces), he had kept a few coins in his pocket, so we enjoyed a game throwing the coins against a wall, the winner getting it closest to the wall. I owe a lot to Dan. He kept me going. He kept my spirits high.

The whole set-up tends after a while to start freaking you out. The isolation. The feeling that the walls are closing in on you. The guard telling you that they can incarcerate you up to 48 hours in that cell with no outside contact. And many people were alone in their cells for many, many hours.

And Dan and I were lucky, as I was probably the only one of the 134 whose watch wasn’t confiscated. So we knew the time, and shouted it to the few comrades near us who could hear us through the metal door. To be in a small concrete cell for long hours without knowing the time adds to the mental confusion that the police intend to inflict on prisoners.

The guards disappeared completely for four hours in the morning. Around 1 pm a guard showed, and very slowly – like a few people every hour – they let people out. But the Chicago Police Department guard was happily sadistic. He’d sing-song about “a lottery, and whose turn is it now to get out?” He mocked us. He bizarrely told us that “if we’d paid our taxes, we wouldn’t be here.”

For nearly all of us, no phone calls were allowed until we’d been incarcerated for 15 hours.

I stupidly thought that they’d let us out by 10 am, as otherwise they’d have to feed us breakfast since we’d been in police custody since 2 am. I stupidly thought the same thing about getting out by 1 pm, or they’d have to feed us lunch.

At 3 pm we got two pieces of white bread with a piece of baloney – our “meal” for the day.

Dan got out at 7:10 pm, and I got out at 8:30 pm – about 19 hours after I was arrested.

SEIU Health Care Indiana/Illinois organized dozens of supporters to loudly greet us as we were released, and with fresh pizza to eat. Micah Uetrich, an organizer from Arise Chicago who wrote the piece I linked below, was a lead person organizing the support. And boy, was the crowd a welcome sight! My wife C.J. (Rev. C.J. Hawking who leads the interfaith workers’ rights group Arise Chicago), and my 14-year-old daughter Wyatt surprised me by greeting me. They’d been waiting 2 ½ hours for me to get out. Wyatt was interviewed by NBC News and, I’m told, professed how proud she was of her dad. (Eyes tear up time.)

Of course, we all knew that we’d get out at some point. We all know that mostly African-American and Hispanic working class people get far worse treatment at the hands of the police. There’s no comparison. This was just a small taste of what too many people must endure.

Another protester wrote up his experience about October 22:

And Micah, who is a Global Labor Studies program grader and an Arise Chicago organizer, wrote about his experiences at the October 15 protest Occupy Chicago protest, where 175 were arrested:

The movement will go on. It will grow. Intimidation tactics only make people more determined to fight. “The occupation *is* *not* *leaving*.”

Steven Ashby