Chicago, IL–I didn’t think much could top the excitement, energy, and inspiration I felt during the first day of the Chicago Teachers Union strike. Enter day 2.
First, an activist PSA: self care. Practice it. I wanted to join the picket line every morning, and the rallies in the afternoons, and to march everywhere in my red shirt. But I also needed to eat and sleep and work. So I took the morning off and hopped a train downtown fresh and rested for the afternoon rally.
When I boarded the train, about half of the passengers were wearing red in solidarity with CTU. I sat down next to a young woman who glanced at the #noNATO pin on my bag, then did a double take, perplexed. “What does that mean?” she asked. “That you voted against NATO or something?” I smiled and told her, “I was at the NATO protests.”
The train car went silent as people literally swiveled around in their seats to stare at me openmouthed. A Real, Live NATO Protester, right on their train! Oh my.
Then she broke my heart by asking, “How much did it cost to get in?” I told her that protesting doesn’t come with a cover price; protesting is free. All you have to do is show up. She seemed skeptical.
A couple stops later she remarked to me, “More teachers get on at every stop!” I told her we were headed to a rally downtown in support of the strike. She said she knew her daughter didn’t have school but wasn’t sure why the teachers were striking. I started talking about the contract situation but was interrupted by a striking teacher. So I shut up. He started passionately describing the problems at his school – no AC, average class size of 40, etc. Soon others joined in and we held an impromptu speak-out all the way downtown. It was amazing, sitting and listening to people share personal experiences and grievances publicly and spontaneously. It was exactly the kind of public discourse that Occupy embraces, and I was proud to witness so many others practicing freedom of expression.
I invited this young woman to join us at the rally. She wanted to know how. I told her it was as simple as following the red shirts off the train…which she did. Amazing.
Walking toward the rally, an officer blocked oncoming traffic for me and said, “Go get ’em.” It felt surreal; no cop has been that friendly to me in the past year. The rally was already underway. Somebody told me Karen Lewis, CTU chief, was about to speak. All I could hear were periodic cheers. I moved closer. The crowd seemed larger and more energetic than the day before, if possible. I was finally able to hear bits of her speech; the line that stuck out was this one: “The revolution will not be standardized.” No, it won’t. It will be individual and creative and dare to color outside the lines.
Then the march began. This time we marched south, towards the financial district. When I realized we were headed to Jackson and LaSalle, where Occupy Chicago was born, I thought I was going to cry. It felt like coming home. We stopped and gave the bankers and traders a bit of a street show. A woman next to me pointed up to a 4th floor window, where a banker in a suit was wielding a bat at us. She was incredulous. “He’s swinging a bat at us? But this is a peaceful march…” Having seen what I’ve seen in the past year, it didn’t surprise or shock me particularly. I just shrugged and went back to cheering on the drum line.
A teacher had told me earlier that she recognized me from a picture in the paper, which I was unaware of, so out of curiosity I stopped and bought a copy as we passed a newsstand. As I stood there leafing through it, looking at the photos, another teacher came up behind me. “Excuse me,” he said, “There’s no reading in the halls. You have to go back to your room.” For a split second, I felt that guilt of having done something wrong. Then we both broke out in grins and he gave me a high five.
The march circled a six-block radius downtown. I didn’t realize how truly massive it was until I looked over at a cross street and realized it was still going past where I had been half an hour prior. Eventually we lined up on Jackson for the final leg of the march, which would later make it all the way to Buckingham Fountain and Lake Shore Drive. It was time for me to be getting to work, so I missed that final stretch, but while the march was stopped to collect everyone I decided to walk the length of it on my way back to the train.
It was over five blocks long, two hours after stepping off time. Everyone was still in good spirits and eager to keep marching. A half-block long CPD escort trailed behind, consisting of officers on foot, bicycle, in squad cars, throwing in a paddy wagon for good measure. The officers were relaxed, though, talking and joking. A stranded bus sat at the intersection of Jackson and State with its doors open, the passengers and driver cheering us on, regardless of the delay.
I left reluctantly, with newfound hope and determination. We are powerful when we join together for a noble cause. Don’t ever forget that.