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What’s Wrong With This Picture?: The Story of My Arrest by the NYPD

New York, NY–There’s rarely a dull moment when they go marching in the land of Occupy, and the weekend of the 1-year anniversary ramped up to revive a lot of the energy seen swirling around Zuccotti Park last fall.

After a year of shaping their vision, forming their message, and battling with the police, the movement had a broad range of actions planned for Monday, September 17th, the day of the anniversary of the first tent pitched in Liberty Square. The overall plan showed that the past twelve months have forced Occupiers to evolve. No longer would the activity be focused on one massive march, but rather dispersed and mobile, adapting to responses by the police, but with the same goal they had from the beginning: To protest the machinery of Wall Street finance by shutting it down.

As I arrived near Zuccotti Park around 6 am, NYPD forces where already out and ready, Wall Street barricaded from all sides, as was Zuccotti Park, the bull statue and parts of Broadway. The news media was out in force, with TV trucks clogging both sides of Broadway. Little brings out the news crews in New York City like the possibilities of a potential blood bath … Both the police and mass media seemed ready for that. But the occupiers had other ideas.

By 7:30 am, about 500 protesters had assembled in this one of four assembly points, and led by Episcopalian bishop George Packard and other clerics, started marching down Broadway towards the intersection with Wall Street. The original plan was to block the intersection by sitting down in the street. However, barricades set up by NYPD forced protesters to stay on the sidewalk, and, rather than – as in the past – trying to battle their way through the barricades, the protesters decided to make their point by sitting down on the sidewalk instead. Still, the arrests quickly began, as now they were obstructing pedestrian traffic. Though the possibility that maybe the barricades and lines of cops the NYPD had set up might do a better job of blocking passage than anyone sitting on a pavement ever could, probably didn’t occur to the police commander in charge of the scene….

I had found myself stuck in the press pen that was handily provided on one corner of the intersection of Wall St and Broadway, so I couldn’t see the actual arrests, but several arrestees were quickly led away.

Looking for more freedom of movement and better angles for observation and photography, I decided to change venue and moved down Pine Street towards Nassau Avenue. As I reached the intersection of Nassau and Pine, the back side of Federal Hall, another popular flashpoint between OWS and NYPD, I encountered mayhem. Police had started to arrest protesters in this location and cops were grabbing at anything and anyone that couldn’t run fast enough, including a legal observer from the National Lawyers Guild, even though he was clearly marked by wearing a bright green hat marked “NLG Legal Observer”. I took some photos of arrests, but soon decided to move on further down towards Wall Street as I heard there were some activities going on there.

As I walked down Wall Street, protesters were marching on the sidewalk across the street from me, chanting and gearing up to block the intersection of Wall St and Pearl St. A massive contingent of police scooters along with cops in riot gear were standing at the ready for the encounter. A police officer started to read out a dispersal order to the protesters assembled at the street corner, and anticipating a new sit-in and some arrest shots, I crossed the street to photograph the officer with his megaphone, as well as any upcoming interactions. As I arrived on the sidewalk I started photographing the scene: The cop with his megaphone, other officers standing around that looking at the protesters, and I was just about to turn around and photograph the protesters, as I hear the voice over the megaphone saying “if you don’t move, you will be arrested.” I took one more shot of the cops standing at the corner, when the white shirt officer in charge of the scene pointed at me and said: “That’s it. She’s done. Take her,” and he promptly grabbed my hand. I shouted out that I’m an independent photographer, and showed him my credentials from the National Press Photographers’ Association. The officer looked at my badge and said “they’re not ours, so I’m not interested.” (an independent account and a great photo can be found here)

I was spun around and felt the zip ties tighten around my hands. This being my first arrest ever, I was surprised that I felt relatively calm and just let them do their thing, but I did notice that the cuffs were beginning to cut off the circulation in my hands. The white shirt officer handed me off to one of the cops standing next to him in riot helmets, and designated him to be the arresting officer, which meant he was now in charge of bringing me to the station for processing and staying with me until I was either released on a Desk Appearance Ticket or sent to court for arraignment. A couple of legal observers took my name, and information, and several other observers asked for it, too while I was being led away. At least I felt people would know where to look for me.

As I was being led to a van, my arresting officer was told that he couldn’t put me there, as only males were in there. So, the officer turned around and called over the radio “I have a body. I need a car.” — Well, while I was out of commission for the moment as a photographer, I still felt very much alive, and found that description of me rather disconcerting. Yet, the numbness in my hands continued to increase, so I decided that, rather than getting into argument with him over terminology, I’d plea my case for getting the cuffs loosened enough for the blood to be able to flow to my hands. The officer explained to me that the zip cuffs they were using could not be loosened without cutting them, and he couldn’t do that unless I was in a van. We walked back and forth searching for a van for me to be put into for another 10-15 minutes, until I was finally placed in front of a door, photographed with a Polaroid camera, and placed into the bus – joining four others already in there – with my backpack still on, and my camera and press pass hanging down in front. When I asked again to get my cuffs loosened, the officer said he didn’t have a knife, so that would have to be done at the station.

Other arrested protesters joined us in the bus and a dialogue started soon amongst everyone: About the day’s protests, occupy’s philosophy and other topics. One of the protesters started making his case for occupy to two of the arresting officers sitting with us in the van, who seemed nice enough to engage in the conversation. Whether any hearts or minds were changed remains to be seen, but it seemed clear that once the confrontation of the actual protest was out the way and a civilized conversation was possible to be had – and the boss wasn’t listening – some rank and file officers were not all that unsympathetic.

Before the cops were ordered out of the van again to accommodate more arrestees, one of them finally cut my cuffs, my hands now a darker shade of blue, and deep imprints from the edges of the cuffs visible on both my wrists. I was allowed to take off the backpack, put the camera into my bag, stretch out my fingers for a second, before I had to be re-cuffed, thankfully looser this time.

Overall the atmosphere in the van was quite festive. The other arrestees seemed to be at peace with their situation and were looking to make the most of it.  One of the late arrivals managed to access his cell phone and started livestreaming from our van. Another one, sitting next to him started reciting some rap poems he had written about Occupy, manifesting some accute wordsmanship and creativity, while another protester accompanied him with a drum beat by banging against the backwall of the van.

About 90 minutes after my arrest, we were finally delivered to Central Booking at 1 Police Plaza for further processing. There I noticed that we were referenced to as “perps”, short for “perpetrator”. While this term may seem a tad less dehumanizing than “body”, it still felt hardly appropriate for a group of people arrested for such “crimes” as sitting down in an intersection, or photographing on the sidewalk.

As we were herded across the outer courtyard of Central Booking, had our names and addresses taken, any cary-ons removed etc, the treatment I received seemed reasonably courteous. I had requested that the Swiss consulate be notified of my arrest, which seemed to make an impression. While I wasn’t necessarily expecting the need of diplomatic interference, I felt it important to ensure access to it, should the need arise. Given how little decision room I was given with every step being pre-ordained (“two steps over here, back against the wall, one step over there) it also felt good to mark at least a little corner of my territory.

I was pulled aside with another arrestee still wearing his press credentials around his neck. He was a livestreamer and reporter for a website based in Portland, Oregon. We were asked as to where our work could be seen and what we were doing exactly, then that officer went away. I’m not sure whether he was a regular plain-clothed officer, from the press office or the legal team, but he was dressed in civilian clothing. Finally, my press pass still hanging around my neck, I was led into the back door of central booking, where my identity was verified, I had to pose for another photo – this time with the arresting officer – and was placed into a holding cell for further processing. My arresting officer seemed pleased with the photo of the two of us and showed it to me. When I jokingly asked him whether we should put that on facebook he laughed but said no, that he didn’t want to be tagged.

In the holding cell I found Nicole, one of my colleagues from the Occupied Stories website, who is also trained as a legal observer. She was arrested for hoola-hooping while directing pedestrian traffic in an intersection, leading her arresting officer to complain “Lady, we don’t have charges for that.” But, on orders of his white shirt officer, he arrested her anyway.

After a while I was taken out of the holding cell and led past the holding den containing many of the male protesters that had been arrested that morning, by that time around 70 of them. They were having a party in there, cheering on every protester who was led by their den, chanting, drumming and even dancing. One officer passing by along with me shook his head and exclaimed “what a zoo!” Others seemed less amused, but unsure what to do about it, so for the time being they let the protesters be. The holding room had glass windows, not merely bars, so the noise level wasn’t quite as bad as it could have been, but they were clearly heard all the way down to the holding pen I was about to be placed into.

I was led to another intake officer who collected all the possessions from my pockets, my press pass, and also my shoe-laces. I was allowed to make my phone call but only to a number within New York City. Other arrestees behind me where not so lucky. Several of the out-of-town protesters who had come to New York for the OWS anniversary didn’t have a local number to call. So, they were sent off to their cells without being able to notify someone outside what had happened.

I was led into a block of 9 cells, each designed for one occupant but allowed to hold up to four, furnished with a wooden blank with some mats on top, a sink at the wall and a toilet besides that which didn’t provide any privacy what so ever. The front wall of the cells were metal bars, so everyone walking by could see right in. Nicole and I were placed into the same cell, along with a sleeping medic and two out of town girls. We could also hear and communicate with the occupants from the other cells, which by that point held around 30 other protesters (we maxed out at 37 in our block). The two female intake officers were in a very foul mood, so any chanting or singing between the cells was met with verbal abuse and threats of delaying our release. We knew they didn’t have the authority to make such decisions, but it clearly put a damper on the festive mood in our corner of the building. Still, we quickly built solidarity around the privacy issue of the toilets that were provided. Every time one of us had to use the bathroom, the others lined up in a wall around her, facing towards the hallway, to shield her from view, all the while singing “Solidari-pee Forever”. We called it our Pee-ples Wall.

As the day dragged on conversations swerved from philosophy to politics. Also, Nicole gave advice to us less familiar with legal proceedings surrounding arrests, as to what to expect in terms of release, possible punishment for different charges etc. While at that time I was not given access to a lawyer (I had asked my godmother to contact a good lawyer we both know on my behalf), it did feel good to have somebody knowledgeable on the subject in the room. Still, time is passing slowly in a prison cell even with the best of conversations, and gradually we all started to chomp at our bits to be released, feeling we were missing things still going on out there.

Some entertainment was provided by our guards trying to assemble a proper count of all female inmates in our block. First the one officer passed by, counting each head, expecting four arrestees to each cell, as they passed by our cell their count got out of synch with their expectations, since we had five people in ours. However, that would take a moment to sink in, so they passed us by, kept counting, and about 2 cells later started to realize that something was amiss. So, they’d come back and do it again, then send a second counter to do the math, and finally a third, and we still had five ladies in our cell. “But it’s not supposed to be that way”, one of them exclaimed, pointing at one of us. “You were supposed to be in number seven”. After a while of headscratching they gave up and left things as they were. Clearly, these ladies are not loaded down with student debt …

Around 1pm, we were served “lunch” which consisted of two sorry excuses for peanut butter-jelly or cheese sandwiches, and a small carton of milk. I didn’t mind the PBJ in principle, but these two comprised basically two pieces of cardboard that had been dragged past a jar of peanut butter and a gotten drop of sugary something plopped on top. I was grateful for some food, and I do understand the impact of budget cuts, but this was ridiculous.

As the afternoon dragged on, one of the out-of-town girls got increasingly agitated, as she became worried about what would happen to her and her friend. As she got more and more upset and started screaming at the cops about not getting her phone call, her friend tried to calm her down, but to little avail. Irrespective of the tone in which she asked to make the call, it was indeed disturbing that she was denied what is ultimately one of her fundamental rights.

Around 5 pm I was finally released with what is called a Desk Appearance Ticket and a charge of “Disorderly Conduct”, which photography in public apparently now qualifies as in the City of New York. Before I was let out, we had to retake those two Polaroid photos I had posed for during my arrest. Apparently, they had gotten lost in the shuffle, but I couldn’t help but notice that this time my press credentials were not hanging around my neck … The entire upper body is visible in these photos, so any press pass hanging around my neck would have been clearly visible.

While I found the experience of this arrest very insightful into a part of America I have never personally encountered before, it also angered me that I lost an entire day’s worth of photographic work over a bullshit arrest. I don’t blame the poor beat cop who got stuck with posing as my arresting officer. This issue begins with his superior who decided to arrest me for whatever reasons he had or was given. I can understand how the prison system can break people, given just how little humanity is allowed to those it oversees and is supposed to reform and prepare for re-admission into the general public. Obviously, with the view from my holding cell I’ve only scratched the surface of what prison life in America can be like, but the stories I’ve heard are beginning to make a whole lot more sense. My spirit is fine but my wrists still hurt, and parts of my hands still have no feeling, which sucks when you’re trying to hold a camera.

Also, if intimidation was the goal of me being snatched off the street, the plan has backfired. I have no intention to interfere with events as they unfold, but I believe that the emergence of a movement like Occupy is one of the largest news stories of our time, and as such it needs to be properly documented. That includes the good, the bad, and the ugly. So, I will keep taking my pictures, like it or not. But obviously, I need to take better care of staying one step ahead of the body snatchers …

Far from reformed, once out of jail I went straight back to Zuccotti Park to reconnect with the day’s events and people I had spent the better part of last year with and grabbing dinner at an Irish pub with some of the photographers I had met on marches and in the park. The park had much of the energy back that swept through it last fall. While the park was surrounded by a sea of cops, inside occupiers had a great time reconnecting, and sharing their experiences. It was fun to hear stories about everything that happened, and annoyed me once more that I couldn’t be there to see it myself. Still, I also realized that I was lucky, in that my arrest was not a violent one, as I heard some of the horror stories of what the others saw and experienced. Around midnight I finally went home, completely exhausted, but also well aware that this thing is far from over.

- Julia Reinhart -

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A Journalist’s Arrest at #S17

This story was originally published at The Phoenix.

I wasn’t supposed to be sitting in a bar, my right elbow bent like a bastard, on the night of September 17, 2012. It was the anniversary of Occupy Wall Street – a movement I’ve been covering for about a year – and the plan was to be out in the streets, tweeting, taking pictures, and scribbling obscenities in my notepad. That’s what I do. I’m a reporter. It’s my fucking job.

But I wasn’t on the streets, recording so much senseless brutality. Instead I was a victim of it, having gotten viciously tackled and abused less than two hours after reporting for duty. I hardly planned for this; if I had, I would have left my weed at my motel. But having covered comparable actions in more than 20 American cities over the past year, I’ve learned how to get my story without getting bagged. Or so I thought.

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I intentionally slept through the early morning Occupy efforts to troll Wall Street suits as they arrived at work. I’d been up late tailing protesters to Times Square, plus I’ve written about journalist mistreatment in such circumstances, and had an inkling that there would be mass arrests during the rush hour festivities. It turned out that hunch was on point; when I showed up at noon in Battery Park, most people were rapping about how ugly the AM actions got.

After surveying the crowd of several thousand in Battery and smacking back some water, at about 1:15pm I went to work, and headed north toward Zuccotti Park. But between the tourists, cops, and activists there, every slab of pavement was mobbed, and I didn’t even enter the old encampment. Instead I followed about 100 protesters – an intriguing mix of hardcore Occupiers and labor picketers – east on Liberty Street.

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It was hardly different from any other hot situation that I’ve covered. Signs were held, chants were yelled, and after about 10 minutes of people lambasting Chase bank, cops ordered everyone off of the sidewalk. I was in the street – tweeting, taking notes and pictures – when a cop chased me across the pavement and away from the action: “YOU – GET ON THE [OTHER] SIDEWALK – IT’S THE THING MADE OUT OF CONCRETE.”

No problem. I went exactly where they told me to go. But soon after, so did the crush of protesters, who by that point had been joined by at least another 100 comrades heading north on William Street. Once there, they all began to pile into a courtyard up some steps, but I stayed on the sidewalk, obeying orders, and snapping pics of what seemed like an imminent dispersal. That’s when the ringleader cop in the white shirt and black leather cloves pointed directly at me. All I heard was, “CHOPPER – SICK BALLS!”

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I must be a seriously fat shit because, somehow, my nose didn’t hit the ground as I was pushed, grabbed, and tackled while standing alone, with no one nearby to cushion the blow. It did hurt, though, especially since despite not battling back, I was repeatedly jabbed in the lower back and told to stop resisting. Pleas for my cellphone, which went flying when they sacked me, and my screaming “I’M A JOURNALIST” just made the fuzz angrier.

One reasonable cop did rescue my horn, but only after one of his colleagues grabbed my right arm, forced my hand far enough up my back to touch my left shoulder, and twisted until we both heard the uneasy sound of muscle tearing. At that, they stood me up and asked if I was “okay,” to which I just nodded and continued to repeat, loudly, “I’M A JOURNALIST.” Surrounded by more than a dozen cops, I doubt that any civilians or protesters heard me ask for someone to call my editors in Boston.

Nobody was happy about how much shit I had in my pockets. Not me, not the dimwits digging through my pants, and not the nice young cop who was eventually assigned as my “arresting officer” despite having little to do with my beat-down. As they cleaned out my jeans near the police wagon, I was yelled at several times for carrying a notepad, pens, a towel, my camera, and a small container full of trees, which prompted some serious hilarity. When asked why I was holding marijuana, I told the officers that I smoke it to prevent anxiety – to which the biggest dope among them said, “Wait until the media finds out that you were working and doing drugs. You’re finished!”

After the dumbest cop of all accused me of trying to escape – while tied up, with my belongings in their custody, in the middle of a police state – the wagon doors were slammed, and I sat alone with no ventilation or air conditioning for about 10 minutes. Between the lack of oxygen and plastic cuffs choking my hands, I was sure that I would puke or pass out, but then the doors opened, and in came Tyler. A 21-year-old day trader from a wealthy Connecticuit family, Tyler was not a protester or a journalist. He was just a pedestrian who happened to be passing by when I got sacked, and who made the mistake of pulling out his cell phone to record the craziness.

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Tyler was absolutely freaked. On his way to lunch near Battery Park, his day had taken a dramatic turn, and by the time he wound up in the meat wagon with me, dude was really bothering the cops. I told him to shut the fuck up – several times – and for the most part he followed my directions, except for when he asked, half-seriously, if we were going to be water-boarded. To diffuse the situation and calm him down, I made a joke about there being seat belts in the bus, which only a contortionist could possibly fasten while cuffed from behind.

While in custody, I made it a point to tell every cop I came in contact with that I’m a journalist, and was either ignored or ridiculed each time. One steroid fiend with a pre-school education quipped, “So you’re one of the blogger idiots who thought you wouldn’t get arrested protesting.” Another cop at the station took my business card to a superior officer, who looked at it, then glanced at me, and determined there was no way that I was really a reporter.

After a not-so-awful booking process in which my balls were barely grazed, I was led into the holding cell where about 75 protesters were hanging and chanting. I realized right away that they were entertaining company, not to mention a diverse scrum if there ever was one. Before long I was trading arrest stories with New York anarchists, a senior citizen from Maine, two teenagers – aged 15 and 16 – who had come down from Philadelphia, an NLG volunteer who still had his green cap on, a minister from Somerville, two Veterans for Peace, and an aspiring MC who spit all types of flames for us to nod to.

If there’s one thing I’ve always found about Occupiers, it’s that they know how to flip shitty situations inside out. This was especially true in the can, a despicable 800-square foot dungeon with flickering fluorescent lights, two turd-filled toilet bowls, and a broken telephone. Given those conditions, activists used the slices of American cheese from our stale sandwiches to cover the security cameras. And when the five-gallon water jug was finished, they used it as a bongo until one of the steak boys came in to confiscate it.

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Other highlights included seeing such familiar faces as Noah McKenna from Occupy Boston, and John Knefel, a fellow journalist who does the internet show Radio Dispatch, which I’m sure will be waxing about this. And how could I forget the New York Occupier who, through the bars, kept berating a cop who was watching movies on his phone? Or the officer who entered the pen to tell the 16-year-old from Philly that his father had been contacted, and that his parents were extremely pissed off. We all got a real kick out of that one.

After roughly five hours of watching officers struggle with tall piles of paperwork – the NYPD apparently has yet to upgrade from pens and pads to computers – my name finally got called. So with Tyler and another new friend – Paul Mayer, an 81-year-old Catholic priest from New Jersey who had been in since about 8am – I collected my belongings (though they kept my weed) and walked with a desk appearance ticket for December 5, when I’ll argue that if anyone was guilty of “disorderly conduct,” it was the pack of Neanderthals who rammed me into that “thing made out of concrete.”

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It should go without saying that, while I didn’t get to report as planned, the day was hardly a waste. Though half of my cellmates expected to be arrested for civil disobedience, an equal number had been fucked like me, and assaulted, cuffed, and stuffed because some dope in a uniform disliked the way they looked. Hearing their stories reinforced everything that I already knew about the extreme savagery that’s been aimed at this movement, especially in New York. To quote Mobb Deep, “There’s a war going on outside no man is safe from.” No woman either, as it turns out.

As for Tyler – he was kind enough to offer me some bong hits at his apartment near Union Square, where we got wicked stoned and ate tacos before I got to writing this. At 2pm yesterday, he was an aspiring broker who was walking to lunch, when he got violated by people who, up until that moment, he thought were there to protect him. By 4pm, Tyler was chanting in solidarity with a horde of Occupiers. And by the time that we got out, he was itching to head back towards Zuccotti and get more footage of police beatings. If that’s not the best birthday present that Occupy Wall Street could ask for, then I don’t know what is.

Chris Faraone

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A Year of Revolt, A Day in Jail

New York, NY – Yesterday I woke up before dawn and headed down to the financial district to celebrate one year of Occupy Wall Street.  I met some friends at the assembly point for the Debt Zone and set off with the group to confront the police cordon around the Stock Exchange. We spilled into the street and briefly formed a wall in front of the barricades but police immediately moved in, made arrests and pushed us onto the sidewalks or down the street. Police blocked streets and formed moving lines around us and we retreated back to the assembly point to regroup and splinter into smaller groups.

From there I joined some friends and walked toward Wall St. once more. There was a group of protesters on either side off Broadway near Wall Street, mixing with business men and women heading to work. There were police horses behind the barricades, lots of police in the street and police cars and prisoner transport buses parked. When I stepped off the curb into the crosswalk during a chant of “Whose Streets? Our Streets!” I must have caught the attention of one of the white shirts. When it became clear that even with the red light I would not be able to cross I returned to the sidewalk but I saw a white shirt point at me to a new line of police that had just arrived. I tapped my friends on the shoulder and said, “I have to go, I think the police are targeting me.” With that I felt someone grab my arm and pull me toward the street but I was able to jerk free and duck under some scaffolding. I ran a few seconds before a large man stepped in front of me, blocked my path and gave me what amounted to big bear hug. I assume this man was an undercover police officer. Within seconds uniformed police that had pushed through the crowd, forced me against the metal scaffolding and tightened cuffs around my wrists.

They walked me onto the police bus where I had a front row seat to watch some clergy sit down in front of Wall Street in an act of civil disobedience. When the police crammed thirty of us into a holding cell, our cuffs still on and increasingly painful as blood collected in our hands, swelling them against the hard plastic rings, an 81-year old priest I had watched lay down at the foot of financial power led us in song. “I’d like to share some freedom songs I first sang with Martin Luther King in the jailhouse of Selma, Alabama,” he said. We sang songs, the dozen women in the holding cell across from us joining in. Our voices pushed out beyond the bars, and we alternated singing with mic-checks and soapboxing why we choose to join the movement. The 81 year-old priest then mic-checked a message to the police, dozens of whom clogged the space between our cells. I cannot quote the words but clearly remember the meaning and emotion: We are all brothers and sisters in this struggle and I urge you to see us as allies in a common cause rather than enemies. We each repeated his eloquent words and I could see a burly police officer directly in front me nodding his head. At the close, he looked at the priest and placed his hand on his heart. It sent chills through my body.

Finally, my name was called, my cuffs cut, my person searched then led to an even larger holding cell. When I walked in I saw about one hundred people pressed together between bars and reinforced glass, sitting on wooden benches, lying on the concrete floor and standing in the spaces in-between. All of them were clapping. As each new prisoner was added to our cell, we clapped. We clapped when each female was lead past us to the women’s cells. There was a non-stop flow of cheer. The holding cell had been self-organized into a very crowded section against the cell door that was loud and boisterous, while at the far end near the two metal toilets was quieter and some people lay on the benches or floor, using their shoes as a pillow. Within the louder section there was also a small General Assembly that formed where people shared their arrest experiences and discussed tactics. Every few minutes as new prisoners were added we heard new tales from the outside: We shut down a Chase Bank; I was plucked off the sidewalk for no reason; we blocked the doors at Goldman Sachs; I was trying to take pictures of an arrest when they grabbed me; etc. etc. At various points some prisoners grabbed garbage cans or water jugs and started drumming. Everyone else quickly picked up the rhythm clapping their hands or banging on benches, walls and metals bars and a hundred of us made music together before the police stormed in and took away the makeshift drums. The time between the noises we made together were filled with hundreds of subversive conversations.

It was wonderful. Each time I heard a new story of the actions taking place on the street after I was picked up I felt like I was missing something; but I also knew the community we formed in our cells was one of the most incredible things that would happen all day; one of the most liberating things I would ever feel. I knew that just by going out with Occupy Wall Street I was risking arrest; and in fact that was a major motivation in coming out, to show that I will not be intimidated, to count my body among the opposition. The power of the system is never so naked as when it forces it’s dissenters into a metal cage. Only then does it become so transparent and so obvious that they will never control my actions, that they will never control my thoughts and suppress my hope for a different world, a better world.

When I was released, nine hours after I was detained, a group of friends were waiting for me with food and love, thus completing the experience and ending it with warmth and inspiration rather than fear. Yesterday, I was free.

- John Dennehy -

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Blocking the Bankers

On the morning of September 17th  at 7:15 a.m. I showed up at Liberty Plaza to find it closed by a private “security” force and downtown New York crawling with NYPD, as expected. But I knew the protest would be someplace, and found it over by the orange cube sculpture across the way from the stone bench I slept on during the first occupation of Liberty Plaza last year at this time. A mic check. A set of experiences elaborated by the human microphone. And we were off to block the corners leading into Wall Street and the Stock Exchange, with the aim of at least obstructing the normal operation of criminal banking practices.

And obstruct we did.

I felt alone, just one body in motion, when I showed up, but as the crowd walked down the sidewalks and into the connecting streets of the Wall Street area, I joined in what appeared to me to be an overflowing celebration of our vitality and connection. The brass band played. The guy with the guitar strummed along. We laughed, smiled. Another guy with a guitar and an American flag turned upside down–a signal of “distress” and of course that things are upside down here, and in the world.

We wandered in towards the Stock Exchange, filling the sidewalks. And as we got closer, it became apparent that our numbers were enough to hold the intersection. We flooded in to one intersection, and our flags and protest signs were raised. I looked around. I saw so many cameras, as if everyone were attempting to live this moment in multiple places at the same time–and that’s what it was. We were multiply present, here, everywhere at once, watched and watching, our bodies blocking the street, blocking and obstructing the flow of capital.

When a huge team of very large cops flooded into the center of the intersection, people didn’t resist. We just moved, let them flow past. Standing in the street I thought it wise to try for a piece of curbstone to avoid arrest, and I  managed to get my toes up on one, and hang on to a lattice of poles, to keep me up; then, a colorfully dressed, long-haired, older guitar-wielding guy and his wife eased in in front of me; and as the crowd gathered, one cop started barking orders: “On the sidewalk or you’ll be arrested!”

Behind me  protesters were laughing at a man in a suit who was trying to get to the Exchange. The guy in the suit was trying to squeeze through, and getting frustrated and nervous. He wasn’t going to get to work. I laughed too.

Then with swift force and violence, as the old guy with the guitar tried to get to the sidewalk 4 or 5 cops grabbed him and forced him to the ground, right in front of me. It was like a traffic accident, when you are in the middle of a moment of violence, it all becomes clear, heightened, and I started a cry, “The whole world is watching!” and the guy behind me started shouting it, and everybody started shouting it. We shouted, “Shame! Shame!” on the cops. The whole world is watching. But they used their testosterone-pumped bodies to block our view, our cameras, to make secret what they were doing to the guy as his wife screamed from the curbstone in a shrill pitch: “He didn’t do anything!”

Then I saw three well dressed bankers in suits just walk right down the middle of the cop-filled street. The cops parted like water before them. Big cops, stepping out of the way.The suits walked as if charmed.

Cops filling the street, parting before bankers, violently arresting protesters. It just made things so immediately clear to me. Things are upside down. They are arresting the wrong people. But I felt satisfied, saw, felt, “knew” and owned the obstruction we had all created: we filled the streets, the cops filled the streets, everywhere things had stopped. We did this. Placing our bodies here, multiply present, we delayed their work, we blocked the bankers.

It’s what Occupy Wall Street began as. And it’s fitting that on our anniversary we show what we are all capable of, again and again.

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Day Six of the CTU Strike: Narrating My Own Life

Editor’s note: This story originally appeared at Simone and the Silver Surfer.

1.

I awake at 7:45 to Simone saying, “Knock, knock. Who’s there? It’s daddy!” and flinging the pillow off of my face.

The day feels rushed from the start. Simone has a birthday party to go to, Beth wants to work out and clean the house, Pearl won’t nap and everything feels condensed, agitated, exacerbated. Before I know it, the clock reads 11 and I soon need to leave.

“I don’t want our kids to say fifteen years from now, ‘Mom, you missed out on history to clean the kitchen?’” Beth says.

I call Jonathan, see if he wants to meet. He can’t; he’s doing the school thing. We chat for a minute about books and the ennui and he says he feels the same perennial self-dislike I wrote about two weeks ago. I say I feel frustration with the human race. “Our brains are ninety percent chimp,” he says.

I want to take Simone but I’d literally have to turn around and come right back. I vacillate. I waffle. Maybe I should skip. Spend some time with my family. What difference does one person make?

“You should go,” Beth says. “Just go. Go. Go.”

Simone has no pants on. I leave her behind. She cries as I shut the door.

On the platform, the day is warm. I’m taking notes. I can’t think of how to spell “exacerbate.” I entertain the notion I’ve had a mini-stroke.

People discuss college football. I want to yell, “Don’t you know what’s going on? Don’t you know what’s at stake?”

Black shirts and baseball caps. Baby strollers—anger isn’t our main obstacle; apathy is.

Sports television bubble gum Coors Light and holding hands in a grassy park and brunch and lunch and dinner and the bright glowing wondrous banal spectrum of living without the burden of other people’s problems.

The train arrives. I get on. The trip is uneventful. I can’t read or write on the train else I get a headache so I let my thoughts drift. I’m antsy. Visions of a riot, police in riot gear sobbing while dousing protestors with tear gas. I save two dozen small children, meet the president, become a folk hero. Someone like Josh Ritter writes a song. Where do my thoughts come from?

I exit at Washington/Wells, cross under the tracks. Five years in Chicago and I’ve never been on the pink line. I sit on a metal bench. Someone has written in black letters on the seat: “Are there any pimps left?”

Other teachers, other red shirts. A ten-year-old wears a blue shirt that reads only, “Love.”

I wish Simone were here with me. I’m glad she’s not. I wait glum and unshaven. At least it isn’t hot. I’m not hungry but I want to eat. I don’t smoke but I crave a cigarette. I’m struggling with the sublimation process. How to let go of all this frustration in the air? How do I find the courage not to hate?

2.

Union Park is huge. I enter through the wrought-iron gates. Fifty aqua-blue portolets line the edges of the park. Two dozen people stand in line to buy hot dogs. An enormous crimson crescent of people encircle a stage. I make my way over. It’s hard to gauge how many people are here. Thousands, yes, but maybe not tens of thousands. It’s a Saturday. The contract negotiation appears to be over. The sense of historical importance has faded just a touch.

A church spire slices through the trees. I see two helicopters and a plane. One of the Occupy Rogers Park people says hi. She invites me to the next occupy meeting.

I get a text from Bill. He isn’t coming. He has his wife and their upcoming child to attend to. He’s sent an impassioned little text to all his teacher friends.

I find a patch in the middle that isn’t crowded. I listen to a female speaker with a gut-wrenching voice. She gets right to the heart of it. “It’s time for the working people of Chicago to take back the city that works. . . . We got to stand up to the tactics that are destroying our city. We got to hold every damn body accountable, the teachers, the parents, the mayor, the alderman, every damn body.”

I cheer. I clap. The mood of the gathering is less festive. More resolute. There’s already a touch of grim resolve in the air, not one full week in.

Another speaker. A union organizer and teacher for charter schools. He explains that charter school teachers aren’t the enemy, just the mindset that would allow teachers to work for so little pay. I clap. He explains how hard the charter schools fight any talk of unions at all. I cheer.

More speakers appear but I’m losing interest. I agree with what they are saying, I have my family at home, I’d prefer to march and chat and sing.

I feel a hand on my ass. It’s Jonathan. We catch up. He’s at Hawthorne now. He’s writing an entire curriculum for the upper grades, connecting all the subjects. He’s nuts. Every night, after the marching and chanting and yelling, he goes home to work on a new unit. He has a tambourine and he hits it with what looks like a tiny maraca. He was a union organizer years and years ago. He’s in a rock band. He rules.

Another speaker mentions a teacher strike in Baltimore back in the day. She ends with this: “I used to tell people, if you see me wrestling with a bear, help the bear.” The crowd roars. “We’re fighting the bear, but we don’t need any help.”

Jonathan asks if I want to get a beer, but I can’t. I want to make it home to help with Simone and the birthday party. We hug, I leave out. The rally is subdued but well attended. A coalescing of union people, antiwar people, hippies, and teachers. Teachers haven’t been part of the counter culture for a long time. It feels right.

I climb back up the stairs and wait for the train. The anxiety and sleeplessness and uncertainty of things has left me with weary legs. Two police officers lean on the banister overlooking Union Park. A sea of red. I think of red blood cells. One of the cops has a cigar. They seem amused. We can’t quite make out what the speaker is saying from here.

Two teachers emerge from the train. “Is it over?” they ask.

I feel sheepish. “Oh, no, no, I have two little children at home, else I would . . .”

Everything’s a rush. The American condition. Hurry up and wait. The daily dilemma. One reason I’ve never ridden the pink line is it only seems to run every six hours. I wait. I look at the clock on my cell. An ivy-covered chimney juts out into my view. The train arrives. I board, noticing how clean and new the train feels. I transfer back to the brown line and head north.

3.

An old-timer with his name tattooed on his forearm speaks to me about the strike. He has big teeth and an odd way of speaking. “Is it almost over?” he asks. His name is Don.

“I think so. I hope so,” I say.

“There’s no money.”

“There’s money,” I say, and the whole train is listening, “it’s just a question of priorities. Money for schools or no-interest loans to property developers?”

“People in the suburbs like me are being double-taxed for Chicago public schools.”

I wince inside. “You’re being double taxed?”

He nods. “Cook County.”

“I don’t know about that, but I do know that Chicago has for decades underfunded public education. Some students don’t even have textbooks.”

He’s mad at first, but I just talk with him and soon he isn’t mad at all. He moves over to my side of the train.

He tells me his story. He’s a product of Chicago public schools. He has severe dyslexia, so severe he still can’t read. “But I own my own business, I’m doing just fine.” He has a little window washing company that cleans the windows of every Dunkin Donuts downtown. “The teachers then knew I wouldn’t pass any tests, so instead they taught me how to cook, how to use my memory, how to fix things.”

I explain that people like him—smart people with learning disabilities—are precisely the ones who are most harmed by the always-be-testing mindset.

He goes on. “Every Friday, back when I was in school, two teachers and they would rotate, two teachers would donate their time to run a dance. They would pat each person down, make sure there were no weapons or anything, and then we would have a dance. It was great. The kids, we all knew that the teachers cared about us. School was more than just a place you had to go.”

I said we do the same thing now—just not the patting and the weekly dance.

Don loves to talk. And he loves to reminisce. He keeps saying the expression, “back when I was in school.”

Turns out the lady sitting next to me is his wife. She’s quiet, also a product of Chicago public schools, and soon all three of us are having a nice time as the El stops pass. Don then tells me how he ran a building for a while. “A guy says to me, I like you, I can’t get my tenants to pay the rent, why don’t you work for me for a while? So I get into the super business on a building on Sheridan, in Uptown. When tenants didn’t pay their rent, I would take their doors off the hinges. I would shut down the elevator. I would turn off the washer and dryer. People came up with the money real fast with no door on their apartment. You see, back then, the door was considered part of the building, not the apartment. And it cost you $942 to take someone to eviction court. Better to take the door off the hinges, let them walk five blocks for laundry. Man, they paid.” He and his wife laugh, they aren’t bad people but I’m uncomfortable with this new story. I give a cursory laugh anyway.

We shake hands. I thank them for their company.

At home I find Beth in the kitchen and Simone running around the house naked. No nap. The party starts in 20 minutes. Beth hasn’t been able to clean. Simone fights me about what she wants to wear. She’s tired but excited about the party and it is a bad combination. We leave early, meet a neighborhood friend on the way.

4.

The block party is just starting and children are making their way to the three-year-old’s birthday bash. A little table with glue and stickers and party hats, a bowl full of bagged dried apples and cheese goldfish, juice boxes swimming in a tub of ice and a keg of Half-Acre beer. I’m angry at the dissonance of the world, I can’t help it, I’m too tired for any kind of decent small talk, I sit alone and brood.

I sip a beer feeling morose. The alcohol does its dark magic. The party has two ponies, one white the other black, for the kids to ride. Simone is fascinated by them but passes on getting in the saddle. “That’s too scary for me,” she tells Beth.

I lean back.

There’s a danger in writing about something as you are going through it. You begin to narrate your own life. I look up at the sun-touched branches, the green tips of the thousand leaves turned gold, and I think, “I look up at the sun-touched branches, the green tips of the thousand leaved turned gold.”

Day six has ended. The strike has not. I fall asleep quickly, but Simone awakens me at 2 to tuck her into bed. After that, I’m up. I sit down and begin writing, hoping to capture as much as I can before the memories slip away.

- Ben Beard -

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Day Five of the CTU Strike & the World is Not Our Oyster

Editor’s note: This story originally appeared at Simone and the Silver Surfer. You can read the author’s previous account on the CTU strike here.

1.

I am awake at 6:30 and feel refreshed. I eat a big bowl of oatmeal and almonds and dried cherries with Simone. I kiss my family goodbye. I pedal under subtle sunlight. I arrive at 8:05. The bulk of the staff is already present.

We remain a raggedy group. The big story is how many of our staff were in the media the night before. Kris was interviewed by ABC about tif funds. Dina was interviewed on another news channel. Robin was interviewed on ABC, too.

And I was interviewed in the Chicago Tribune. (You can read my comment here.)

People recount yesterday’s march. Some Chicagoans are angry. On Wacker, yesterday, someone said to Kris, “Get back to work, you dirty piece of shit.”

“What’d you say?” I ask.

“Nothing. I just got away from him and then cried.”

Some teachers write hopeful messages to our students in wet chalk on the sidewalk. Our principal appears, says hello to everyone. One of the many children present hands him a fair contract sign. He drops it like it’s kryptonite, makes a joke about no one catching him with a camera.

The plan is to canvas the neighborhood, speak with people, hand out flyers. We get ourselves together. People munch on bagels and donuts, slurp down coffee and eat a chocolaty confection that makes me sleepy just looking at it. Four of our students walk by.

“I saw you on TV last night!” Brian[1] says.

“Me?” I ask. “You saw me?”

“Yeah, you were marching, dancing.”

I feel a shiver of embarrassment. “Was I interviewed?”

“Nope. Just singing and stuff.”

We head out in small groups. I walk with Daryl, Hannah, Abbey, Larry, Doctor O. We walk past Dominick’s, through the EL station. Larry tells me some crazy lady upbraided him yesterday morning. “She came over and yelled, ‘We don’t do this kind of shit in China! Go back to work!’”

“China?” I ask.

“What kind of nonsense is she talking?” Doctor O. asks.

2.

The media tide is turning. After being called lazy and greedy and selfish and horrible and callous—multiple pundits warned of danger to the students if we did have a strike—things are turning our way. The issues we care about—neighborhood schools, equal funding, smaller class sizes, money for arts and music education, and so on—are percolating through the various news filters. Some of the pernicious lies remain. If I hear one more report of how charter schools out-perform public schools, they absolutely do not, I’ll scream.

Paying (often) less qualified teachers less money somehow equals a better education for students. It’s madness.

3.

A big thing is the shoes. I have one pair of newish shoes that kill my ankles, and an ancient pair of good shoes that destroy my feet. I go with the feet destroyers. The feet can handle a beating better than my ankles.  I try wearing flip flops but it feels strangely inappropriate.  For all my banter, striking is serious business.

We stand in front of the west-facing tunnel. It is a beautiful day. The sun is above but there’s a chilly breeze. We speak with a few people. Almost everyone is friendly. We mill about, try to look busy. The enervation shows. We’re easily distractable. My voice echoes through the tunnel. I pretend to be God.

Hannah and Abbey and the others speak with two teenagers sitting on a metal bench. Doctor O. and Larry talk about cutting off aid to Egypt. I feel a bouncy nervousness in the balls of my sore feet.

I walk to the corner, turn right. I see two red shirts in front of the station and I amble over to say hello.

Howard past Clark is a touch dodgy. There’s gangs and dealers and unemployed dudes and the place is turning itself around, but I wouldn’t wander around here after 10. There’s tension and toughness in the ether. It really isn’t the nicest of places.

I say hello to the other two teachers. Thirty seconds of small talk and I’m wondering why I came over. We have little in common. My mind wanders to The Odyssey of all things. The conversation ends. I want to extricate myself but am not sure how. I put my hands in my pockets.

An overgrown man-child dressed all in black rides his bike within one inch of my foot. It’s a provocative move, but I don’t take the bait. He smokes a thin cigar.

A group of dudes mill about in front of a liquor store. “I’m going to knock you the fuck out!” one of them yells. I don’t turn to see if he’s speaking to me. That’s rule number one, of course. Don’t make eye contact with anything you don’t want to tangle with. I move along.

An aged dude in a flowing green button down and expensive black slacks stands by the entrance, says hello. I say hello back and he beckons me over. He has a bandage on the back of his head, he’s slurring his words. He has a hospital discharge bracelet on his wrist. “My name is Willie,” he says. “I got robbed. They clubbed me in the head. I just got out of the hospital but my brother ain’t here. Can you give me two twenty five for the El?”

I sense I’m being hustled but it’s a good con. I dig into my bag. I have the exact amount. I hand it over. He thanks me, goes into the station. I don’t have the patience to wait for him to come out.

I return to the group. “There are some street toughs over there,” I say. No one laughs at my old fashioned word.

We all walk over to Howard. Daryl looks for the guy on the bike. He isn’t around. “There’s a Jamaican bakery that way,” he says. He grew up around here. We walk, speak with a few people, smile and wave. He buys Ginger beer and beef pockets and soon we are heading back to Clark. Daryl shares the beef pockets with the others, the ginger drink with me. It’s great, but bothers my throat so I only sip a little.

The hustler with the bandage on his head stands outside the station.

“Shit,” I say. “I don’t want him to be uncomfortable. Let’s just cross the street.”

Daryl shakes his head. “He won’t be embarrassed. Come on.”

“Last time this sort of thing happened, the guy turned it into a joke. I can’t bear a second sob story.”

We walk past him and his features have hardened. He no longer looks like a victim, but more like a hawk. He’s standing by some of the street toughs. They all seem to know each other.

Two of them argue over who is more of the neighborhood. “Fuck you man, I graduated from Field,” all in black man child says. “I’m all Rogers Park.”

We head back to school. The day remains a stunner.

“I always give money,” Daryl says. “Always. I figure if someone has to get into the street to beg, then I can spare a little to help.”

This leads into a discussion on welfare and I start to get loud. I’ve become a terrible conversationalist. I’m combustible. I’m tendentious. I’m cantankerous. I raise my voice in restaurants. I bang my hand on tables. I’m some Don Rickles parody. “What’s so good about this morning?” I’ve turned into some foaming junkyard dog.  I’m having trouble controlling my temper over small things.

I’ve said it before. There’s something in this process that propels you.

4.

We’re not alone. Lake Forest teachers are now on strike. Highland Park is one week away. Other areas of Illinois are in the contract process. We hear rumors of other school systems, other public sector employees, getting behind us from all around the country.

Most everyone was friendly with me today. Others weren’t so lucky. Some were yelled at. Sheila was accosted by an old man. She tells me the story. “He yells, ‘I’m a taxpayer, go back to work!’ I said, ‘Do you want to talk to me about it?’ and then he gets on the bus,” she says. She pauses. “The next person who’s rude to me, I’m punching him in the face!”

Dina recounts how two people muttered rude things to her as they passed by. The Walgreens parking lot seems a hotbed of animus towards the teachers.

“If the strike goes on,” Stu says, “another week? I think there’s going to be a lot more anger towards us.”

“But if it lasts a month, I think we’ll have more support than we do now,” I say. “There’s peaks and valleys.”

Liz rallies us all in front of the school. She reads us the Boston Teachers Union letter. We clap and cheer.

Hal is on the roof. He takes photos of all of us and a few of me.

My self-concept is not in synch with reality. I think of myself as dignified. An ambassador type. In the photos I seem insubstantial, wispy. A pale-skinned scarecrow with wood splinter limbs and a haunted hawkish face. Something out of a horror movie. Ah, vanity, it never fully leaves you.

We plan to attend the Saturday rally tomorrow. Most everyone leaves.

I lose ten precious minutes to a conversation about the inequalities in the school system. I feign outrage but I’ve tired with the constant moral indignation.

Soon, I am biking home. My mind stays blank for most of it. It’s all physical sensations. The sound of crunching rocks, the working thigh muscles, the sun above in its blazing indifference.

5.

There’s been some misconceptions. We aren’t paid during the strike. We aren’t striking for money. We aren’t greedy vicious hateful racist pigs. We aren’t purveyors of avarice. We are not haters of children.

The strike has three major components: working conditions, public education, and the union’s right to protect its members.

The working conditions piece speaks to the nuts and bolts of our profession. This is the salary increases (we can’t negotiate our salaries ever, so some type of incremental increase is essential); the proposed new evaluation system (we already have an evaluation system in place. We refuse to be graded on the student test scores, for a variety of good if not easily explicable reasons); class sizes, and so on (which we, alone in the state of Illinois, are not allowed to strike over).

The public education piece has to do with social justice and equal access to a good education. The city has consistently underfunded public education in a variety of ways. The worst schools are in the poorest neighborhoods, almost uniformly, and these schools also have a dearth of resources. For instance, I interviewed at a job in a very destitute area and the students, at the end of the year, didn’t have enough textbooks. Their playground was a parking lot. They played football on concrete. They had a handful of working computers in the entire school. Contrast this with my first job, which had a computer lab on every floor, and a separate computer lab for every six classrooms. I bet anyone could guess which school has better test scores.

The mayor and his ilk see the problem as abstracted—just numbers on a spreadsheet—with a practical solution. Shut down failing schools, fire all the failing teachers, and let charter schools take over. This releases the mayor from accountability, and it’s cheaper, in a way. But the idea that teachers making less money, with less credentials, will provide struggling students with a better education makes no kind of sense. Yet, that is what the mayor wants to do.

And he wants to replicate this in over one hundred neighborhoods. That’s union jobs eliminated—one lady on the news called it downsizing—and that’s less money going into neighborhoods that really need more. A teacher working in Englewood should make $150,000 a year. Then the best teachers in the world would try to get that job. (And yet, Englewood schools would still have low test scores.)

Finally, the union piece. There’s been a national movement to eliminate or dis-empower public sector unions. Wisconsin and New Jersey both in the past few years saw a significant decrease in the teachers’ union’s ability to collectively bargain. Charter schools are part of the problem. They are fiercely anti-union. (One charter school fought the unionizing process for two years.)

We are fighting in part for our right to exist.

6.

I’ve been through a tornado, a house fire, the death of a dog, and three minutes of CPR for my oldest daughter. But this strike—the facets to it, the swirl of vitriol and misinformation, the heft of it, its dimensions and nooks and crannies—it’s in some sense more terrifying than the other travails. A cloud of uncertainty. If we lose, if all of this were for nothing, I don’t know. The job would feel tarnished. I would feel betrayed by my profession.

I recall some of the things I’ve said and heard the last few days.

Such as, “The U.S. has had a containment policy since Johnson. We do good work in a bad system.”

And, “We’re operating under an industrial model. Our educational system in the whole country is hopelessly outdated.”

And, “You got your handout, too. You were born white in the U.S., there’s your handout.”

And, “They demonize Karen Lewis because she’s a strong, black woman with a shrill voice who’s overweight. If she looked like Paul Ryan, the criticism would be different.”

And, “We should declare victory, and take the board’s latest proposal.” (This last one is from me, not my most courageous hour.)

7.

Hannah calls mid-afternoon. Turns out the word choad has two meanings. She actually looked it up. “And, as a teacher, I thought I would be remiss if I didn’t share them both with you. And, oh, the strike isn’t yet over. They say there’s a framework, but not an agreement.”

I hang up. I tell Beth. I go over the mistakes I’ve made due to the psychic dissonance in the atmosphere. I feel that queasy dread in my insides. The idea of this going for four or five more days fills me with profound weariness.

Simone naps. Beth goes to work out. I play with Pearl. She crawls for the first time. Only five months old. She’s some kind of advanced superhuman.

“Maybe she’ll be an Olympian when she grows up,” Beth says.

I spend too much time looking for the video of me Brian mentioned. Ah, vanity, there you are again. I never find the video. It’s just as well.

Night and I’m making dinner. Beth has our daughters at the park. The apartment is quiet. I realize I haven’t listened to a single piece of music all week. And there’s that about this process, too—it squeezes out the simple pleasures, the small joys.

Day five is over. I stumble through Jack’s nightly walk. It’s only 11 and I can’t keep my eyes open. Sleep comes quickly. I don’t remember my dreams.

- Ben Beard -


[1] Not his real name, of course.

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Day Four of the Strike & Rumor of an Agreement

Editor’s note: This story originally appeared at Simone and the Silver Surfer.

Chicago, IL–My new morning ritual—two Motrin with a handful of vitamins and my reflux medicine. I stretch my sore body. My Achilles’ tendons have joined in on the ache parade. My lower back, ankles and knees all feel like hardened mush beneath a thin layer of skin. I eat a bowl of almonds and dried cranberries and chopped nectarines. I want coffee but don’t want to risk waking Simone, so I go without. The sunscreen forms white inkblots on my forearms.

The same indigo sky, the same stretch to school on my bike. Traffic is light. I make good time. Much of the group is there. We’re a raggedy bunch. Still smiling through. Daryl’s brought his son, Jawan.

The sun appears. Signs are passed out. We head across Potawatomie Park, the grass freshly mowed. Above, dark clouds in the distance head in our direction. We station ourselves on Clark and Rogers. We stand on opposite street corners. Leah seems indefatigable; she dances and waves and smiles. Stu leans against a pole and toys with his iPhone. His dog, Trevor, is happy to be at his side.

Behind us a street vendor sells champurrado and hot horchata.

The morning is warm for a short time and then the weather changes. The dark clouds move nearer. Soon, it is cold.

We’re slaphappy. We’re tired. Some of us seem bored. Kris has a fit of hysterical laughing. Melissa sings the entire song of Barenaked Ladies’ “One Week,” while Katie and Hannah and Abbey listen on.

We’re chanting less. We break into it here and there. The sky is now gray. We hear a rumor that the city is towing cars by the school. Daryl and I head back. He’s in a bad mood.

“I’m just sort of cynical about things right now,” he says. He has a show tonight. He looks tired. The sky is amazing. The storm clouds are a pastel blue. There’s a clear line of demarcation where the storm begins.

The cars are fine. Lena moves hers anyway. Better to be safe.

A scruffy lineman in a worktruck at the end of the street asks me how it’s going.

“I think they’re close,” I say.

“Is it about tenure?”

“Not really,” I say. “It’s a whole bunch of things. Our paraprofessionals are part of the union, and CPS doesn’t want to give them the same raise they’re giving the teachers. That’s just one thing.”

“I’m a union guy,” he says. “If those politicians weren’t such fucking thieves all the time . . .” he trails off. I thank him and move on.

Daryl drinks a grape juice. His spirits improve. Nothing like fructose to buoy the spirits. “Cornel West gave us a shout-out last night,” he says. “And they weren’t even speaking of this situation.”

We return to Clark and Rogers. It is a honking paradise. Almost everyone waves or nods or honks or offers a fist in the air. We feel the love.

I wonder why we’re getting a better reception here than on Sheridan.

“It’s because,” Sheila says, “they’re no Evanston and Northshore people on their way downtown.”

We talk in an information loop. Everyone agrees on everything. There’s an arc to a strike, and part of the trend is a conformity of opinion. I find it disturbing. I prefer the texture of spirited disagreement. It keeps the mind sharp.

We continue to circle back to waving and chanting. Across the street, some of our staff sit in folding chairs. It almost looks like they’re waiting for a parade.

Jawan and I speak of horror movies. He’s only 15 but a budding cineaste. He’s already made the big jump; he can see the value in movies he doesn’t like.

The “Things Rahm likes,” game moves through the group. Someone says he likes Coldplay; this irks me. They aren’t a bad band at all. Daryl agrees. “X & Y is a great record,” he says. “Come on.”

The game evolves. We turn it salacious. We make up rumors about the mayor. “Did you know,” S— says, “that Rahm bronzed his foreskin and keeps it on his desk?”

I rut in the gutter for a while. I tell little anecdotes about the mayor’s sexual proclivities. “And then,” I say at the end of each little story, “he puts his clothes back on and goes back to work.” It gets some laughs.

The best rumor we can think of is that Rahm produced the “Two Girls, One Cup,” video. We tell others.

“What’s ‘two girls, one cup?’” Hannah asks.

Somehow, amidst the picket and struggle, among the exhaustion and the fatigue, I find the strength to tell her.

We walk down to Alderman Moore’s office. He isn’t there. We mill about on the sidewalk, take a few pictures, while Liz and Maggie ask Moore for support, both now and when this hot mess is over. The morning’s work is done. With plans to meet in the afternoon, we all depart.

2.

Beth and Pearl and Simone are in better spirits. Simone had music class and is happy. I brew some coffee, make some lunch. Simone watches Sesame Street. I lie down to nap but Pearl is in a fidgety mood. I nod off for a little while anyway.

I wake up and dress.

The Tribune reporter calls, informs me that they killed her story. She asks me for a response to the end of the strike. “Was it worth it?”

“I don’t know yet,” I say. “I hope so.”

I leave for downtown at 2:45. The day is cloudy and gray, chilly but with occasional rays of sunlight, the kind of day I love. I don’t look anyone in the eye; I’m too tired for confrontation.

I hear the El stopping above. I sprint on tired legs up the escalator. I make the train. I sit in an isolated front compartment. I can’t control my foolish thoughts. They drift above the passing rooftops. Soon I am in a second heroic daydream. I’m arrested by the police, the union send in a lawyer, there’s a big trial and after I give a stirring speech the city is redeemed. I get a medal. Someone throws a banquet.

I’m embarrassed by my own silliness. I vacillate between the macabre—I often mentally recite obituaries of my family and friends, or imagine losing my loved ones—and the absurd. Such as the hero dream above. The human mind is a bizarre muscle.

I snap out of it. Downtown draws near. I exit at the Merchandise Mart, walk over the river and turn left on Wacker. There aren’t many protesters. I’m apprehensive. Was the event called off? Or did everyone else elect to stay home?

A few more red shirts here and there, and soon there are dozens of us. I should have stayed home. I turn the corner to Michigan. Tens of thousands of people on the upward bend. It’s a glorious sight.

“That’s the most beautiful thing I’ve seen all day,” the old timer next to me says.

I make my way past the blue police barricades to the protesters. Gawkers take photos from the balconies on the Hyatt and other buildings that limn this stretch of Wacker. I stand on the median, look for my friends. It’s the same festive atmosphere with drum lines and picket signs and smiling people. There’s a high school marching band. I find Bill, Ana, Daryl, the rest of our school staff. I see Jonathon, too, but after a quick embrace he moves along with his colleagues.

Bill’s energy remains. He leads us in numerous chants. He jumps. He gyrates. He dances. He sings. His voice is hoarse. So is mine. We’re soon in the thick of it. We pass a drumline, we dance, everyone is dancing, the thing feels right and true.

We keep circling; they haven’t opened Michigan Avenue yet. A man passes out red plastic ponchos in case of rain.

We’re interviewed by Maggio News. Neither of us know who they are[1]. I try to answer calmly, but Bill rips into his high-energy spiel. “We’re out here fighting for working people,” he says, “we’re protesting the inequality of our schools, we’re fighting for every Chicago public school student.”

The best I can do is: “I don’t like Arne Duncan.”

We move on. I see Daryl limp up the stairs. The physical demands of this thing are immense.

Schools hold up banners. Vuvuzelas buzz. Trumpets blare. Drumskins beat. Bill continues his thing. He has the energy of five people.

“You’re amazing,” Ana says to Bill.

“It’s thirty percent self-serving,” he says.

We laugh.

3.

The march begins and soon we are on Michigan. “Get up, get down, Chicago is a Union town!” we chant over and over, raising our hands on the up and leaning forward on the down. Three helicopters hover in the distance. Bill and I intermingle our chanting with talk of movies, cooking, babies. We move through a number of old union songs. We sing “Solidarity forever.” We chant “Hey hey, ho ho, crowded classrooms got to go!” We yell, “Show me what Democracy looks like? This is what Democracy looks like!”

Handheld megaphones bolster tired voices. Two marching drums run with baseline rhythm. Thousands of protest signs bounce up and down. Hand-painted banners on wooden sticks. Love and camaraderie and common purpose.

A figure raises both hands out the top story window of one of the high rises. We respond with a loud cheer. A second figure hangs a Che Guevera sign out an open window. This too, strangely, gets a loud cheer.

We pass the Art Institute. Some Occupy Chicago people have set up a sign. We walk. We chant some. We’re almost done.

Bill bemoans the tepid response from his liberal friends. I concur. He says he thinks it’s that Union has become a dirty word. I agree. He’s stayed away from too much talk with his family. Me, too. The whole issue is emotionally and politically charged. It’s damaged at least one close friendship already. He admits the same.

We’re too close to it, others are too far away.

We’re too tired to stay on one topic for long. We both speak elliptically anyway; it’s one thing we have in common.

“What’s your favorite Cassevetes?” I say The Killing of a Chinese Bookie. He says A Woman under the Influence. We’re too tired to press our cases. At the end of the march, we break off from the protest. We’re soon two red-shirts amongst the downtown set.

Beth calls. I’ve taken both sets of keys; she and Pearl and Simone and Jack are effectively locked inside the house.

“Why don’t you just leave the doors unlocked?” I offer.

“Are you crazy?”

Bill departs for the Blue line with a hug. I want the strike to be over, but outside the protests I don’t know when I’ll see him again.

I stop in at Beth’s dad’s office for more homegrown tomatoes. Away from the energy of the crowds my body begins to give in to fatigue. The elevator ride is interminable. The gold inset patterns on the walls seem to move.

I hurry home. I carry the tomatoes gingerly, hoping this time to keep them safe. The train is crowded but I can breathe. The people around me fool with their smart phones. I feel gangly, skeletal. Another protestor stands next to me. Oddly, he’s wearing a shiny knight’s helmet. We’re too tired for small talk. I don’t even have the energy to compliment his headgear.

I make it home at quarter to seven. Simone is cracking eggs with Beth into a mixing bowl. Beth looks frazzled, she’s had both daughters all day, and she’s a teacher, too. Bad portents loom. Simone has a slight fever. Beth’s grandmother is in the emergency room. But it all ends well. Simone goes to sleep without fighting. Beth’s grandmother returns home in good health.

We don’t have the heart to listen to anymore news. We make a promise not to speak of the strike, politics, anything acrimonious at all.

It’s a good deal. By 10 I’m too tired to write anything of the day’s events. We watch the second half of Roman Holiday. Watching Gregory Peck and Audrey Hepburn gallivant through the streets of 1950s Rome, the money worries and media battles and marching and protesting and singing and hardship, the pernicious poverty on the west side and south side and marbled throughout the middle, the gang violence and the presidential election and the embassy attacks all seem light years away.

We’re nestled into our safe little cocoon. My children are sleeping.

Day four is over. I take Jack out for his nightly ablutions, brush my teeth and get into bed.

Day five, we hope, will be the last.

-Ben Beard-


[1] We learn later that they are a far right “news” website. As Bel Biv Devoe said, you got to live and learn.

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Dispatches from Chicago’s Teacher Strike, Day 2: The Revolution Will Not Be Standardized

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.

-Rachel Alllshiny-

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Dispatches from Chicago’s Teacher Strike, Day 1: Out of the Classrooms and into the Streets

Chicago, IL – You know things are getting serious when you find yourself sitting with a roomful of occupiers, silently and on the edge of your seats watching the evening news.

This past Sunday I attended GA at one of our most active neighborhood occupations, Occupy Rogers Park. Afterwards we went to a nearby café for some coffee, then on to an occupier’s home for more socializing. I kept nervously checking Twitter, knowing that negotiations between Chicago Public Schools and the Chicago Teachers Union were coming to a head. When we got word that press conferences had started, our hosts took a minute to figure out how to turn on their TV (it had apparently been a while) and we watched it all unfold with bated breath.

Full disclosure: I am a certified teacher, currently unemployed due to severe education budget cuts that have schools firing teachers and increasing class sizes rather than hiring new ones. My father is a public school teacher in the suburbs; his mother (my grandmother) taught at CPS. This is my city’s fight, my family’s fight, my fight.

My first thought that night was to head downtown immediately to join the picket line in front of CPS headquarters in the Loop. Then I remembered how little sleep I was running on, and that there were bound to be plenty of opportunities to show support in the morning. So after a flurry of social media updates and a blog post I headed home to get a few hours’ sleep.

In the morning, I had about 600 picket lines to choose from. Every non-charter school had teachers in front, wearing red CTU shirts and carrying signs. The focus was on the 144 schools which remained open, providing half days of activities for students. But even the schools I visited that were closed had large crowds of strikers and supporters outside.

My first stop was Amundsen High, a school on the north side. Teachers lined the entire campus in small bunches of 5 to 10 and bigger groups of 20 or more, waving at passing traffic honking in solidarity and sharing coffee and conversation. There were a few police cars on scene but CPD was more relaxed than I’ve seen them in the past year, chatting with teachers on the sidewalk. One group of students approached the school, and a teacher explained to them that there was a strike and the regular school day was cancelled. They asked if they could still get breakfast inside, and he sent them in. I know I was raised to never cross a picket line, but you can’t blame kids who have no other way to eat during the day. There is such a wide range of services provided by our schools, and it really is unconscionable that we refuse to fund them properly.

Next I headed to Lane Tech, a large college prep high school. As I parked a couple blocks away, I noticed several trees draped in red ribbon and lawn signs announcing support with CTU. I also noticed two or three “red shirts” standing at each corner with on-duty crossing guards, keeping them company (since there were no students trying to cross) and eliciting plenty of honks and cheers from passing cars.

There were a few hundred people on the picket line at Lane Tech. Parents with small children, teachers, and a rather vocal group of students. The students found drums and took to marching the perimeter, lively chants receiving approval and applause from teachers lining the sidewalk. CPD drove by every few minutes, blaring sirens in solidarity. It made me jump every time, because usually the police are not on my side when I’m protesting. A news helicopter hovered overhead.

I spoke with a teacher and school librarian who referred to our current and recent mayors as “King Rahm,” “Richard the Second,” and “his father, Richard the First.” Their no-nonsense disapproval of politics-as-usual was entertaining and refreshing. Other teachers quizzed students on what the strike was about and why they were supporting it. Meanwhile cars pulled over and drivers gave their own messages of support.

When I told people I met on the picket line that I was with Occupy Chicago, the first question was always, “Were you at the NATO protests?” They seemed impressed that I was. Some asked me about the NATO 5 cases, which I was happy to discuss, as well as my jail support work. And they all loved to find out that we have a library.

I was getting ready to leave when I was stopped by another teacher who commented on my shirt (which reads: RADICAL MILITANT LIBRARIANS). He told me he’s thankful for the Occupy movement because in his 15 years teaching social studies, he’s always found it difficult to teach about economic stratification in a way that his students will respond to. “For 14 years, it just went over their heads,” he told me. Now, in the past year, Occupy has given him the language to discuss it in a way that is meaningful to his students. They understand the concept of the 99% and it’s a great tool to show economic inequality.

I stopped by one final school on my way home, Mather High School, which had at least 100 people outside despite being closed. A teacher held a sign that said, “We are teaching right now.” I overheard a student say to his friend, “I would rather sit through seven hours of school than have to stand out here so our teachers can get paid.” By this point I was exhausted, and it was only 10am. So I headed home for a quick nap.

What struck me about joining the picket lines was the power of having public spaces for communities to gather and discuss topics such as workers’ rights and the state of our public education system. It’s what I have spent the last year seeking out, with the help of Occupy. Want to talk about the economic crisis? Let’s meet in the financial district. Mental health clinics closing down? Meet us across the street and we’ll discuss why we need them to remain open and public. NATO bombing civilians without your consent? Time to show up outside their summit and bear witness to veterans decrying the War on Terror.

We can become so insulated in today’s world. We spend so much time inside, interacting with people via electronic devices. But we must not forget the power inherent in meeting with our neighbors, face to face, and standing together to confront the challenges of our communities and world at large.

In the afternoon, I took the train downtown to the rally. My train car was full of red shirts and more got on at each stop. I saw a tweet from a local mainstream media news outlet claiming that “hundreds” of teachers were converging on downtown; I tweeted them back to let them know there were hundreds on my train alone. Try tens of thousands total. Waves of red shirts getting off the train streamed toward the rally, forming informal marches that fed into the mass gathering.

It was exhilarating to be in the streets with so many people, fighting for public education. There was a drum line that kept everyone stepping lively. The march moved through downtown with surprisingly little police interference. We eventually circled City Hall, chanting such gems as: “We want teachers, we want books. We want the money that Rahm took!” Students and others wrote notes with their reasons for supporting Chicago teachers and posted them along the march route.

And then, far too soon, I had to leave to go to work. It was tough to pull myself away, but I knew I would be back in the streets the next day, and for however long it takes to get a fair contract.

-Rachel Allshiny-

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Debt To Burn

Last Sunday I took the L train out to East River State Park, a beautiful riverside park in the ultra-gentrified waterfront of Williamsburg, Brooklyn. There, wrapped by new luxury condos and a stunning view of Manhattan across the river, about 100 people gathered to make a statement against debt.

The action was organized by Strike Debt, a group of occupiers who are organizing a campaign that specifically targets debt and its impact on the 99%. This was their inaugural action; a symbolic first step to building a union of debtors and mounting an out-right debt refusal movement.

After a meeting about the group’s #S17 plan, we gathered in a half circle a few yards from the water and lay down banners that declared “SILENCE = DEBT” and featured images of the word DEBT alight in a blaze.

People came up and told their debt stories and then using an empty coffee can (in the style of the draft burnings during the Vietnam War), they burned their statements and collections notices. It was a symbolic act, but also strangely powerful. Students told stories of taking out loans in pursuit of a degree and a job, only to find themselves in a dead-end and underwater. A young woman told about having to choose between going to the doctor and being financially stable and taking on thousands of dollars of debt after getting sick. Some had mortgages that were underwater, some burned credit card bills.

The power of this action didn’t come from the burning itself,  but from the telling of those stories. Society tells us that debt is shameful and that defaulting on credit is a moral outrage. This unspoken cultural rule is an important part of the mechanisms that keep us all indebted. It was truly inspiring to watch people confront this stigma head-on, and release that cultural shame. It made me wish I had brought a credit bill to burn.

After the stories were told and statements were burned in the coffee can, we walked as a group out to the water’s edge, on a makeshift beach on the western side of the park. We pseudo-ceremoniously dumped the ashes of our debt into the East River, narrowly avoiding a “Big Lebowski” moment when the wind blew some of the ashes back onto the beach.  Then we did what occupy does best: we built community.

We continued sharing our stories and contacts with one another and talked about how to create a viable movement against debt. Oh, and we also ate cake.

Here a short video from the event:

-Danny Valdes-

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