Posted on 12 April 2012.
This story was originally published in The Occupied Chicago Tribune
On Saturday, April 7, Occupy Chicago began their Chicago Spring: the name of not just a day of citywide action, but everything planned for the next two months including protests at the NATO summit in May. The day itself was given the hashtag #TakeTheSpring on Twitter, a reference to the movement’s two attempts to #TakeTheHorse (i.e. camp out at Michigan and Congress), which led to 300 arrests and much debate about strategy and tactics. By the end of Saturday, there had been no camping, no arrests and little debate about one thing: With a conservative estimate of over 1,000 people participating, the first day of the Chicago Spring was an unqualified success.
The Occupy Chicago Press Committee’s Rachael Perrota had assured me beforehand: “Saturday is already a success. The diverse communities and groups participating, and the internal organizing structure that grew around A7, will be with us, and strengthened by this day of action, long after NATO has come and gone.” But of course, I had to see for myself.
A Necessary Win
Frankly, it felt to this observer (and to other people there with whom I spoke) as if Occupy Chicago was in need of a clear win.
A training/rehearsal in Logan Square shows how a foreclosure eviction might be blockaded. (Photo: Joe Macaré)
The movement had been thrown too many curveballs recently: The G8 relocation was a victory itself, but one that required plans to change and made some people wonder if the NATO summit protests will still be such a big deal. Plans for May were also complicated by the unsolicited assistance (or, depending on your point of view, attempt to hijack the Occupy Chicago name) by the magazine Adbusters. Even the unseasonably warm weather of the last few months seemed to throw the movement off balance: The indoor space at 500 W. Cermak, full of potential but also expensive and high-maintenance, was secured for a Chicago winter that never came.
There had been too many marches and rallies where the numbers seemed too low for a city Chicago’s size, too many understaffed committees, too many burnt-out and exhausted individuals. And too many internal debates: about Adbusters, about privacy, transparency and live-streaming, about the Occupy Festival, about the merits of the indoor space versus outdoor occupation. Some of them may have been necessary, but none of them were easy and many of them felt interminable.
Good Omens at the Eagle
The first indication that the day would be a success began, for me, in Logan Square, where Occupy the Northwest Side held an “Occupy the Eagle” action in front of the monument of that name. Local residents brought and accepted donations at a Give/Receive Circle, speeches included an impassioned and affecting call for solidarity from a representative of the Chicago Teachers Union, a mock auction sold off “the historic symbols of Logan Square and the Chicago Northwest side” to the highest bidders, and volunteers from a crowd of 50-60 people joined in an eviction blockade rehearsal/training.
Three pairs of CPD legs stand by near a chalk drawing in progress. (Photo: Joe Macaré)
If the morning’s action in Logan Square was dominated by the Eagle watching over Occupy the Northwest Side
, then the afternoon of April 7 downtown included a menagerie of creatures. The main event of the Chicago Spring included a pig, a leech with the face of our mayor, some chickens, the Horse (of course) and whatever disreputable species of rodent Vermin Supreme
is.If that all sounds distinctly carnivalesque, that’s as good a word as any to describe much of what went on in Butler Field and at Congress and Michigan on Saturday. This was, after all, not billed as a protest exactly, more of a coming together of communities and a celebration of people power. But there were plenty of serious moments: stories from speakers that were tragic and moving or that inspired furious anger.
And if some of that anger was channeled back into satire and surrealist jest, such as the display put on by Larry the Leech (Rahm Emanuel recast as a parasite who ate kittens and excreted candy that was then fed to the crowd—”Get used to eating that, there’s a lot more where it came from…”), well, so be it. Sometimes gallows humor and mockery are the only sane responses to the 1%’s absurd love of power.
From the Prison to the Park
I caught up with the march from Jackson and LaSalle as it headed down via Clark to snake under the El tracks at Van Buren. Participants stopped outside the Metropolitan Correctional Center, to speak out once again against the U.S. prison-industrial complex in the shadow of a very real, imposing example located right there in The Loop.
The march set off again, weaving its way north up Dearborn and then eastbound, filling the streets, a relatively small and ramshackle CPD escort doing little to constrain it. Already the diversity of what Occupy represents was in evidence. One man’s sign read ”restore Glass-Stegall,” but at the front of the march a scrappy group of Occupy Chicago members were demanding more: chanting the chant that culminates with “the whole damn system, shut it down!”
At Michigan Avenue, there was a moment made possible partly by Chicago’s unique layout: The march emerged from the shadows of downtown into the sunlight, seeming to escape from the city and fan out as it crossed into Grant Park.
I sent the only update to Twitter that came to mind:
“So this is totally fucking exciting.”
Occupy Chicago soapboxes, shortly arriving in Butler Field. (Photo: Margo Mejia)
The Real Occupy Festival
Once the march arrived in Butler Park, the energy was palpable. Some of the crowd focused around a rousing soapbox session, backdropped by an American flag.
Reading the Occupied Chicago Tribune in Butler Field. (Photo: Joe Macaré)
Others gathered to witness the Wishing Tree for the 99%, as yet unadorned by leaves (wishes), but already an impressive sight: A pastoral symbol made possible by modern technology, specifically Kickstarter (do I need to disclose I was one of the tree’s two dozen backers?).
Tables were set up, guides to the scheduled teach-ins, talks and performances were handed out, and Rebecca Burns from In These Times observed ”We’re in the milling-about-in-the-park stage of the day.”
Some just sat and enjoyed the sunshine while reading the Occupied Chicago Tribune.
It’s hard to over-emphasize how much was going on in addition to the official program: People reconnecting, or meeting for the first time, impromptu musical performances, handmade art and literature being handed out, children being read stories under the Wishing Tree, and a painter capturing the scene and the Chicago skyline. Occupy El Barrio had brought along an enormous foam pig, representing capitalism and bearing the slogan “TAKE BACK THE FAT.” I couldn’t help but think that the Occupy Festival had happened after all, only without an entry fee.
At one point, a game of Capture the Flag was announced by a man with a bullhorn: “It’s anarchists versus communists!”
“What about Kropotkin-ists?” I asked. ”You can’t play,” was his deadpan reply.
I bumped into some time-travelling Founding Fathers—who are actually the online comedy troupe “I Made America“—and told them “You’re the last thing a British guy wants to see coming down the street towards him.”
“Oh no sir,” they assured me, “There’s no animosity anymore.” And then the one who identified himself as John Adams stepped forward.
“I was this country’s first ambassador to Great Britain,” he told me. “And I will be an ambassador to you, sir.”
Any event so diverse and welcoming draws a mixed bag of participants. There was also a man with a very large Ron Paul 2008 sign, wearing a Ron Paul 2008 t-shirt (“I’ll go back in time and vote for him,” quipped one occupier, “I know he doesn’t win”), and a fairly large contingent of Hare Krishnas—a benign prospect until they try to give you a book and recruit/solicit you.
“The Fight of Our Lives”
But of course, creating a space in which all kinds of people can come together to learn, play and exist for a moment outside of capital is only one aspect of the Occupy movement, and radical movements in general. The other is struggling against the realities being imposed by the 1%. A quick glance at the titles of some of the afternoon’s talks made it clear this was also being addressed as part of the Chicago Spring: ”This is What a Police State Looks Like,” ”The Crisis of US Capitalism,” “Mayor 1%’s Budget of Austerity.”
Rosie Carter from AFSCME Local 31 painted a grim picture of the situation facing public library employees under Emanuel. Her message: Librarians and other library workers have never seen it this bad, and they’re not sure how they can continue doing their jobs faced with the mayor’s open hostility to their union and commitment to cutting their staff and services.
“I think you’re still doing a great job somehow!” said the discussion’s facilitator.
This echoed a moment earlier in the day in Logan Square, where a speaker from the Chicago Teachers Union had said: “We’re in the fight of our lives… It’s a workers’ fight but it’s primarily a fight for our students.” (This, of course, is not what Emanuel, Jean-Claude Brizard or CPS want you to believe.) When she went on to make the impassioned plea, ”Please stand up for us… We feel like the world is against us,” someone in the crowd shouted: “I love you!”
Equally serious and urgent messages were shared by speakers including the Rev. Jesse Jackson, Mick Dumke of the Chicago Reader(who railed against the futility, racism and economic waste of the city’s war on drugs), and Jitu Brown from Kenwood Oakland Community Organization (KOCO). ”Why is the Mayor closing neighborhood schools so aggressively?” asked Brown, before pointing out that these school closures have coincided with the loss of quality affordable housing in the same neighborhoods.
At the Horse, Food Not Arrests
The Wishing Tree arguably marks the point at which the urgency of these messages intersected with the creativity and playful spirit that characterized much of April 7. The messages people had written on its leaves (or sent online to be written) ranged from political demands to more personal tales of dire individual economic straits.
At the end of the afternoon, Teresa Veramendi from the Occupy Chicago Recreation and Arts Committee, an artist, playwright and poet and one of the tree’s creators, explained what will be done with the tree’s wishes. They will be distributed not to politicians wanting re-election—here Vermin Supreme stepped in to play the part of someone willing to promise anything to secure votes—but to the corporations and wealthy individuals who are those politicians’ biggest donors.
A "Freedom Chicken" is cared for at Chicago Spring. (Photo: Margo Mejia)
Vermin Supreme, incidentally, was the only person I saw yelled at by a member of the CPD, and this was for his inability to stay on the sidewalk during the subsequent march to the Horse—perhaps after all the most surreal sight of the weekend was this man with a rubber boot on his head weaving through a throng of police bicycles.
In front of the Horse, a vegetarian meal supplied by Food Not Bombs was dished up by volunteers. The only chicken in sight was in the form of live chickens somehow safely transported in a mobile Occupy Chicago Propaganda Committee information hub.
But before the Freedom Feast, in a moment of unfettered celebration at how well the day had gone, some of Occupy Chicago’s most recognizable participants—some of their leaders, because it is said that this is not a leaderless movement, but a movement of leaders—danced, accompanied by the sound of drums. Suddenly what were once protest chants became party anthems complete with dance moves. On “GET UP!” they sprang into the air. On “GET DOWN!” they dropped into a crouch. “THERE’S REVOLUTION IN THIS TOWN!”
“I haven’t seen some of these people this happy in a long time,” I told Evelyn DeHais, one of the organizers who worked on the event from its inception in late October.
“Me neither,” she replied, “and I’m one of them.”