On Saturday, April 7, Occupy Chicago began their Chicago Spring: the name of not just a day of citywide action, but everything planned for the next two months including protests at the NATO summit in May. The day itself was given the hashtag #TakeTheSpring on Twitter, a reference to the movement’s two attempts to #TakeTheHorse (i.e. camp out at Michigan and Congress), which led to 300 arrests and much debate about strategy and tactics. By the end of Saturday, there had been no camping, no arrests and little debate about one thing: With a conservative estimate of over 1,000 people participating, the first day of the Chicago Spring was an unqualified success.
The Occupy Chicago Press Committee’s Rachael Perrota had assured me beforehand: “Saturday is already a success. The diverse communities and groups participating, and the internal organizing structure that grew around A7, will be with us, and strengthened by this day of action, long after NATO has come and gone.” But of course, I had to see for myself.
Frankly, it felt to this observer (and to other people there with whom I spoke) as if Occupy Chicago was in need of a clear win.
The movement had been thrown too many curveballs recently: The G8 relocation was a victory itself, but one that required plans to change and made some people wonder if the NATO summit protests will still be such a big deal. Plans for May were also complicated by the unsolicited assistance (or, depending on your point of view, attempt to hijack the Occupy Chicago name) by the magazine Adbusters. Even the unseasonably warm weather of the last few months seemed to throw the movement off balance: The indoor space at 500 W. Cermak, full of potential but also expensive and high-maintenance, was secured for a Chicago winter that never came.
There had been too many marches and rallies where the numbers seemed too low for a city Chicago’s size, too many understaffed committees, too many burnt-out and exhausted individuals. And too many internal debates: about Adbusters, about privacy, transparency and live-streaming, about the Occupy Festival, about the merits of the indoor space versus outdoor occupation. Some of them may have been necessary, but none of them were easy and many of them felt interminable.
The first indication that the day would be a success began, for me, in Logan Square, where Occupy the Northwest Side held an “Occupy the Eagle” action in front of the monument of that name. Local residents brought and accepted donations at a Give/Receive Circle, speeches included an impassioned and affecting call for solidarity from a representative of the Chicago Teachers Union, a mock auction sold off “the historic symbols of Logan Square and the Chicago Northwest side” to the highest bidders, and volunteers from a crowd of 50-60 people joined in an eviction blockade rehearsal/training.
And if some of that anger was channeled back into satire and surrealist jest, such as the display put on by Larry the Leech (Rahm Emanuel recast as a parasite who ate kittens and excreted candy that was then fed to the crowd—”Get used to eating that, there’s a lot more where it came from…”), well, so be it. Sometimes gallows humor and mockery are the only sane responses to the 1%’s absurd love of power.
I caught up with the march from Jackson and LaSalle as it headed down via Clark to snake under the El tracks at Van Buren. Participants stopped outside the Metropolitan Correctional Center, to speak out once again against the U.S. prison-industrial complex in the shadow of a very real, imposing example located right there in The Loop.
The march set off again, weaving its way north up Dearborn and then eastbound, filling the streets, a relatively small and ramshackle CPD escort doing little to constrain it. Already the diversity of what Occupy represents was in evidence. One man’s sign read ”restore Glass-Stegall,” but at the front of the march a scrappy group of Occupy Chicago members were demanding more: chanting the chant that culminates with “the whole damn system, shut it down!”
At Michigan Avenue, there was a moment made possible partly by Chicago’s unique layout: The march emerged from the shadows of downtown into the sunlight, seeming to escape from the city and fan out as it crossed into Grant Park.
I sent the only update to Twitter that came to mind:
“So this is totally fucking exciting.”
Once the march arrived in Butler Park, the energy was palpable. Some of the crowd focused around a rousing soapbox session, backdropped by an American flag.
Others gathered to witness the Wishing Tree for the 99%, as yet unadorned by leaves (wishes), but already an impressive sight: A pastoral symbol made possible by modern technology, specifically Kickstarter (do I need to disclose I was one of the tree’s two dozen backers?).
Tables were set up, guides to the scheduled teach-ins, talks and performances were handed out, and Rebecca Burns from In These Times observed ”We’re in the milling-about-in-the-park stage of the day.”
Some just sat and enjoyed the sunshine while reading the Occupied Chicago Tribune.
It’s hard to over-emphasize how much was going on in addition to the official program: People reconnecting, or meeting for the first time, impromptu musical performances, handmade art and literature being handed out, children being read stories under the Wishing Tree, and a painter capturing the scene and the Chicago skyline. Occupy El Barrio had brought along an enormous foam pig, representing capitalism and bearing the slogan “TAKE BACK THE FAT.” I couldn’t help but think that the Occupy Festival had happened after all, only without an entry fee.
At one point, a game of Capture the Flag was announced by a man with a bullhorn: “It’s anarchists versus communists!”
“What about Kropotkin-ists?” I asked. ”You can’t play,” was his deadpan reply.
I bumped into some time-travelling Founding Fathers—who are actually the online comedy troupe “I Made America“—and told them “You’re the last thing a British guy wants to see coming down the street towards him.”
“Oh no sir,” they assured me, “There’s no animosity anymore.” And then the one who identified himself as John Adams stepped forward.
“I was this country’s first ambassador to Great Britain,” he told me. “And I will be an ambassador to you, sir.”
Any event so diverse and welcoming draws a mixed bag of participants. There was also a man with a very large Ron Paul 2008 sign, wearing a Ron Paul 2008 t-shirt (“I’ll go back in time and vote for him,” quipped one occupier, “I know he doesn’t win”), and a fairly large contingent of Hare Krishnas—a benign prospect until they try to give you a book and recruit/solicit you.
But of course, creating a space in which all kinds of people can come together to learn, play and exist for a moment outside of capital is only one aspect of the Occupy movement, and radical movements in general. The other is struggling against the realities being imposed by the 1%. A quick glance at the titles of some of the afternoon’s talks made it clear this was also being addressed as part of the Chicago Spring: ”This is What a Police State Looks Like,” ”The Crisis of US Capitalism,” “Mayor 1%’s Budget of Austerity.”
Rosie Carter from AFSCME Local 31 painted a grim picture of the situation facing public library employees under Emanuel. Her message: Librarians and other library workers have never seen it this bad, and they’re not sure how they can continue doing their jobs faced with the mayor’s open hostility to their union and commitment to cutting their staff and services.
“I think you’re still doing a great job somehow!” said the discussion’s facilitator.
This echoed a moment earlier in the day in Logan Square, where a speaker from the Chicago Teachers Union had said: “We’re in the fight of our lives… It’s a workers’ fight but it’s primarily a fight for our students.” (This, of course, is not what Emanuel, Jean-Claude Brizard or CPS want you to believe.) When she went on to make the impassioned plea, ”Please stand up for us… We feel like the world is against us,” someone in the crowd shouted: “I love you!”
The Wishing Tree arguably marks the point at which the urgency of these messages intersected with the creativity and playful spirit that characterized much of April 7. The messages people had written on its leaves (or sent online to be written) ranged from political demands to more personal tales of dire individual economic straits.
At the end of the afternoon, Teresa Veramendi from the Occupy Chicago Recreation and Arts Committee, an artist, playwright and poet and one of the tree’s creators, explained what will be done with the tree’s wishes. They will be distributed not to politicians wanting re-election—here Vermin Supreme stepped in to play the part of someone willing to promise anything to secure votes—but to the corporations and wealthy individuals who are those politicians’ biggest donors.
Vermin Supreme, incidentally, was the only person I saw yelled at by a member of the CPD, and this was for his inability to stay on the sidewalk during the subsequent march to the Horse—perhaps after all the most surreal sight of the weekend was this man with a rubber boot on his head weaving through a throng of police bicycles.
In front of the Horse, a vegetarian meal supplied by Food Not Bombs was dished up by volunteers. The only chicken in sight was in the form of live chickens somehow safely transported in a mobile Occupy Chicago Propaganda Committee information hub.
But before the Freedom Feast, in a moment of unfettered celebration at how well the day had gone, some of Occupy Chicago’s most recognizable participants—some of their leaders, because it is said that this is not a leaderless movement, but a movement of leaders—danced, accompanied by the sound of drums. Suddenly what were once protest chants became party anthems complete with dance moves. On “GET UP!” they sprang into the air. On “GET DOWN!” they dropped into a crouch. “THERE’S REVOLUTION IN THIS TOWN!”
“I haven’t seen some of these people this happy in a long time,” I told Evelyn DeHais, one of the organizers who worked on the event from its inception in late October.
“Me neither,” she replied, “and I’m one of them.”
Around 6:00pm, the officers returned to Peavey Plaza with copies of the ordinance to pass out. The ordinance itself applies to any type of item that is infringing upon the public’s right-of-way. It is important to note that while we had tents erected, they were not on the sidewalk, but rather they were upon the plaza itself. It is also important to note that the city of Minneapolis had just recently erected signs along the edge of Peavey Plaza advertising the planned renovation, and that those sit (unpermitted) upon the sidewalk itself along with the Minneapolis Police Department’s stationary cameras. They would not comment as to whether or not they felt that their own signs and camera were within the jurisdiction of the law itself.
After we received this notice, occupiers held a meeting to decide what it was we were to do when the officers chose to enforce the law itself. They had not given us a time-frame as to when they would be back to enforce this.
At around 8:30pm, the Minneapolis Police Department including Chief Dolan had returned to Peavey Plaza to enforce the law that they had found and chosen to enforce against Occupy Minneapolis. As they ordered us to either remove the structures or have them forcibly removed, we chose to pick up our tents and march through the streets. We marched to Loring Park where our other Brothers and Sisters were gathered, and were followed by the Minneapolis Police. Upon vacating Peavey Plaza, the remaining items were taken by the Minneapolis Police. They also removed all signs, sidewalk chalking, and any other trace of the day’s events from the plaza itself.
After gathering in Loring, we decided as a group that we would attempt to take back Peavey Plaza and place our structures upon the plaza itself. It is important to note that while the law has been on the books in Minnesota for a while, there was no mentioning of it prior to our reoccupation and the enforcement of the law is a clear sign that the City of Minneapolis has no respect to our First Amendment rights of both freedom of assembly and free speech. (Congress shall make no law…)
We marched from Loring Park, up Hennepin Avenue, and then back down First Avenue until we arrived at Peavey Plaza. We sat our tents and canopies back down, and began to have an open discussion as to why we all occupy. This was interrupted by the Minneapolis Police Department as they gave us a warning that the structures were in violation of the law and that we must remove them. Again, they gave no time-frame of how long it would be until they acted. After I literally forced them to give us a clear deadline (they gave us 10-minutes) we decided that we would take to the streets again. Individuals raised up our tents and canopies again and began walking up the Nicollet Mall.
While we were walking up the Nicollet Mall (in the streets) the police tried to block us from continuing our march. As they had not completed their barricade, they ordered us onto the sidewalks or risk arrest. Protesters complied with their request, and went onto the sidewalk. After passing through their failed barricade, most protesters remained on the sidewalk and continued heading North near the Target store on the Nicollet Mall. A few protesters took to the streets again but were met by mounted police (on horseback) shortly after crossing the intersection to continue North. Police then grabbed the canopy that these individuals were holding and began to bend the metal legs of it, whilst shaking the grips of protesters from it. Several protesters were knocked to the ground by the force of the police along with the fact that the mounted police were commanding their horses into the protesters. Those that remained in the streets were arrested.
While the police arrested the individuals in the streets, they also began to grab onto others that were standing upon the public sidewalk. These individuals had complied with the police, however several were still arrested without proper cause. During that time the mounted police then directed their horses onto the sidewalk itself in an attempt to intimidate and possibly injure those that were peacefully complying with their orders. I was one of those individuals. A Minneapolis Police Officer had grabbed me in what seemed to be an attempt to take me into custody, however a mounted officer began to direct his horse onto the sidewalk at that time. I was pushed into stanchions that were on the sidewalk (the stanchions were placed there to separate a restaurant’s patio from the main sidewalk itself) and as the horse pushed me, it was also kicking. If I did not have my bicycle in front of me blocking the hooves of the horse, I surely would have ended up being trampled.
During this time, across the street, Minneapolis Police Officers had grabbed onto the camera of a local reporter from KSTP. The reporter himself claims that he was assaulted. They threw his camera onto the ground and kicked it despite the fact that he had vocalized that he was with KSTP. The camera itself was ruined and his footage could not be salvaged.
According to our most recent confirmation, 9 individuals were arrested. We have been working to bail all of them out of jail tonight. After the confrontation with the police, we moved from the Nicollet Mall back to The People’s Plaza to debrief about our evening and hold a solidarity rally for those that were placed under arrest.
It concerns me that the city of Minneapolis had intentionally searched for a law to cite against us whilst claiming that they respected our First Amendment Rights. It is clear to see that the type of behavior that the Minneapolis Police Department showed to us is beyond aggression, it is clearly oppression. A reporter for a local media outlet had his camera ripped out of his hands tonight, which shows that the freedom of the press itself is not being respected. The Occupy Movement focuses upon using civil disobedience as a method of protest, and tonight’s marches were no different than those that we had last fall.