I want to take a minute to make a confession. Before this occupation began, I don’t think I had ever visited Woodlawn before in my life. It’s easy to say that I simply haven’t had any reason to; I live on the opposite side of the city, 20 miles away. Except that the reality is I never wanted to visit Woodlawn before. It’s a place I’ve only heard of in passing as the site of tragic shootings.
I wasn’t sure how the people who live and work in Woodlawn would feel about someone like me setting up camp on their front lawn, to be honest. But the reaction to our presence in the neighborhood has been overwhelmingly positive. I couldn’t begin to count the number of people who have thanked me for coming down and spending some time with them, fighting their fight. They’ve been welcoming and kind. I don’t know if it’s the recent gentrification, the ever-present police surveillance, or my fellow Occupiers, but I feel safe there. I would sleep there at night if I could. Plus, it’s a lovely drive down the lakefront and through the heart of the city. It’s so easy to become ensconced in the parts of the city I’m familiar with and forget how far it stretches, and what a beautiful place Chicago really is.
While occupying on Sunday, I heard more detailed plans for the clergy event, including the intention to set up tents again. This time, each tent was named after a clinic being closed by the city. It was a win-win situation; either the city arrested us during a prayer service with some prominent local religious leaders in our midst, or the tents stayed for a while.
I was still working when the event began, but made it down to Woodlawn by 8pm. There were about 60 people present, speaking out in the form of a prayer circle. They gave testimonies about themselves and loved ones who struggle with mental health issues and need this vital resource to continue being available. They told of friends and family members who lost the struggle, and the horrifying consequences. It was poignant and heartbreaking. There is a heavy stigma attached to mental health problems that makes hearing them spoken about so openly truly inspiring.
When the tents went up, before I arrived, police presence increased and threats of arrest were made. But by the time I got there, only a couple patrol cars remained parked across the street. The atmosphere was charged, but in a positive way. Nobody doubted the police would be back, but for a time we were free to discuss exactly what is at stake when public clinics are closed or privatized.
As the prayer circle concluded, I wandered between groups of friends discussing the movement and speculating about what the night would bring. A small group went to collect firewood and marched it back through the streets, chanting. We built up the fire and stayed close for warmth. Someone brought a guitar over and started singing in Spanish. It was the most relaxed part of my day, despite sensing the squad cars (many unmarked) circling ever closer.
The calm was shattered by the sounds of sirens as two fire engines and an ambulance pulled up to the retirement home next to the lot we have been occupying. As it turns out, this was a dry run for what was to come later. But as the fire engines drove past us on their way back to the station, they honked and shook their fists in solidarity, eliciting cheers.
A while later, some of us went to a nearby church which has given us a key in order to use the bathroom. On our way around the block, we noticed an unmarked car with plainclothes officers watching the encampment from a distance. On the way back, three more unmarked cars were congregated. We knew something was going to happen, and soon.
Sure enough, at 10:30pm (conveniently timed for when the news broadcasts all go off the air), a legion of police vehicles descended upon us. The street was completely lined with them, all points of access blocked off. We were given 30 minutes to clear out before eviction. We all took to our phones to call, text, and tweet for supporters to join us. And then the signs and banners came out, and it became a protest again. That struck me as odd, how it had felt more like a friendly campfire sing-along until the authorities showed up and turned us back into the angry protesters you see on TV.
When the police came to make their arrests, most of us had moved to the sidewalk. Two patients told their stories via megaphone as the supporters standing with them were cuffed and taken away. Then they came for the patients themselves. Have you ever seen a man arrested with his walker? It’s not something I’m likely to forget.
The tents came down, and still CPD occupied our lot with officers numbering close to our own 40 or so people left. They said we had to keep moving or we would be ticketed, so we marched in a circle, still protesting. And then we found out what they were waiting around for as our new friends from the fire department returned, sirens blaring. Several
firefighters jumped off the front engine and put out our grill fire in less time than it took to read this sentence. It was the funniest thing to me, that they would call the fire department out to douse our small, contained grill fire. An Occupier standing near the engines asked why they had given us thumbs up as they drove by earlier. They said they support the occupation and were just following orders. Their jovial attitude made it clear they felt those orders were as ridiculous as we did. Then they pulled away, honking and waving in solidarity.
The cops left, with 10 of our friends in the paddy wagon. What was accomplished? The tents are down, but the space remains occupied. Our fire was restarted within minutes. Surely this whole operation, complete with semi-staged arrests on shaky legal ground, cost the city. How much is it worth to afford us less of a visible, permanent status in the community? And when will they learn that we don’t give up so easily?
The Woodlawn occupation is not leaving, and neither am I.