Last week the U.S. Chamber of Commerce — the world’s most formidable big business lobby — quietly abandoned a trademark infringement lawsuit against a number of individuals connected to activist pranksters the Yes Men, including John and Jane Doe 1-20, in whose mysterious company I was presumably represented. It’s been a while since I’ve given any thought to the circumstances surrounding the four-year-old suit, and while the news came as a relief, it also made me a little nostalgic for a particularly madcap chapter in my colorful career. By the standards of my fancy sounding job, that year as “Director of Marketing and Outreach” for the release of the Yes Men’s latest documentary film, “The Yes Men Fix the World,” being sued by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce felt par for the course.
Allow me to take you back to the fall of 2009, where from a small, crowded academic office-cum-film distribution headquarters, my official duties involved coordinating a marauding ragtag volunteer “Survivaball” army, helping to organize mini-riots at Whole Foods, and avoiding capture by the NYPD after a failed attempt to launch an amphibious assault on the U.N. (which led to the apprehension of one of my colleagues). There was also a film to release, marketing materials to distribute, post-film Q&As to schedule and so on. So with the documentary slated to run in Washington, D.C., Yes Men cofounder Andy Bichlbaum and I had been chatting with activist groups there about other fun stuff we could do as long as we were in town. Over the course of those conversations a big, bad bogeyman kept rearing its head: the U.S. Chamber of Commerce.
Rewind for a quick bit of context. It feels like eons ago now, but at the time there were real hopes for a binding agreement to cut down global carbon emissions, with the big U.N.-sponsored climate summit in Copenhagen just months away. It was also Obama’s first year in office, there were Democratic majorities in both the House and the Senate, and the Senate was in the midst of debating substantive climate legislation, after the House passed similar legislation.
Enter stage right the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, a group claiming to be the official voice in Washington for millions of American businesses, big and small. In practice, especially when it comes to energy policy, the Chamber lobbies for hard-right policies favored by the biggest of the Big Oil and Big Coal companies. That year the Chamber was easily the largest force working to kill climate legislation, spending $300,000 a day on lobbying and, as we would learn in due time, it was also one of the most litigious.
With the lawsuit no longer hanging over our heads, details of which I’ll describe below, now feels like a good time to pull back the curtain and share a useful step-by-step guide for anybody else out there looking to get sued by the Chamber of Commerce or another equally worthy foe. I should be clear that usually getting sued by a majorly cashed-up corporate lobbying group is probably not a great idea. No matter how spurious their case, these groups are expert at using the law as a blunt weapon to silence critics. But in this case, especially after high-powered legal allies stepped up to the plate to help the Yes Men and John and Jane Doe 1-20 defend themselves from the suit, I think the Chamber just ended up calling extra attention to the issue at hand — the big business mega-lobby’s corrupting effect on our democracy.
So having assessed the risks, for all those tempted to try their luck at related high jinks, I recommend following the steps below.
Step one: Get to know some scrappy, talented young climate activists in the nation’s capital. If they have office space to work out of in D.C., even better. Spend some time on the phone with them and do some brainstorming on creative ways to get news outlets interested in looking at the destructive role the Chamber’s massive lobbying apparatus plays on our politics.
Step two: Free your mind and think about what kind of role the Chamber could play in U.S. politics if its better angels were allowed to hold sway. Think about how to make that happen. Call up the prestigious National Press Club, two blocks from the White House, and find out how much it costs to rent a room for an hour or two (much less, it turns out, than at the Chamber of Commerce itself, which was our first choice).
Step three: Study the Chamber of Commerce’s website, then mimic the content and style of the Chamber’s site. Register a few new email addresses with that domain, and borrow the Chamber’s cheesy logo and slap it on top of a press release template. Now you’re ready to tell members of the press about an exciting new direction for the Chamber.
Step four: While driving a minivan down I-95 from New York to D.C., prepare a speech that the Chamber will deliver at a packed press conference the following day. Don’t forget to print out a full color copy of the Chamber’s logo to slap on the podium at the front of the room.
Step five: You want members of the press to show up at your press conference and that the room is packed. After all, you’ve got a great speech, and you’ve got Yes Man Andy Bichlbaum styled out in a $20 thrift store suit. Solution: Contact some friends and colleagues in D.C., ask them to dress business casual and show up at the National Press Club with reporter notepads, and to be ready to ask the Chamber of Commerce some tough questions on climate change.
Step six. Showtime: Send Andy Bichlbaum, aka Chamber of Commerce flack “Hingo Sembra,” out to the podium to deliver a speech, the likes of which have rarely been heard in the well-appointed National Press Club; a speech that opens with a stark warning:
Ecologists tell us that if we don’t enact dramatic reductions in carbon emissions today, within five years we could begin facing the propagating feedback loops of runaway climate change, which would mean a destruction of food and water supplies worldwide, with the result of mass migrations, famine and death on a scale never before imagined. Needless to say, that would be bad for business.
Step seven: While the press conference is the main event, don’t forget to send the release out to broadcast outlets that may not be able to attend. That way both CNBC and Fox Business News can give on-air breaking news updates about the Chamber’s surprise about-face on climate policy.
Bonus step: After the speech and a first round of questions from “reporters” and reporters, make sure an actual press rep from the Chamber barges in and declares the press conference a fraud. Cue an unforgettable showdown, massive national media coverage that puts a spotlight on the Chamber’s backward stance on climate, and soon thereafter, a lawsuit from the Chamber alleging amongst other things that the spoof was all part of an insidious plan … to sell DVDs. As if anybody actually buys DVDs any more.
Extra bonus step: Enlist the pro bono legal support of ace freedom of speech defenders, the Electronic Frontier Foundation! Then imagine the Chamber having a very bad day.
Four years later and with the lawsuit now officially history, I’m reminded of the initial doubts I had about accepting that film release gig in the first place — a job I took on shortly after graduating from one of the country’s most prestigious journalism schools. At the time, I figured that going to work for a group of people whose notoriety comes from fooling the media to call attention to social and environmental ills — in lieu of say, landing a cub reporter gig at some second tier news outlet — would be the effective end to my career as a “serious journalist.” And I do wonder sometimes where I’d be now if I had followed a path that put me in a place to report on that faux press conference, as opposed to being one of the people who produced it. For the most part though I haven’t looked back since. I love journalism, and many of the people I respect the most are journalists. But while I still call myself a writer, I stopped calling myself a journalist with a big-J a while ago. It’s just too damn fun helping to make news happen, shaping events and working in some form or fashion as an activist, lawsuits and all.]]>
The brutalization of random protesters was rampant throughout the day, apparently as another tactic by the NYPD to punish political dissent, and intimidate those not brutalized into leaving – and to intimidate those who were not there in the first place from ever coming to a subsequent protest or event.
The day began for my group (me, my girlfriend, and friend, who all trekked in from Brooklyn) similar to last year’s #N17 action. We left in a column from the Red Cube and marched down Broadway to Pine & Nassau. Some Occupiers sang parody lyrics to the tune of the Ramones’ “I Wanna Be Sedated,” including lines like, “Hurry hurry hurry / Get me out of jail / I am an occupier / I can’t afford the bail / Oh no no no no / Ba ba ba / I was incarcerated.”
Police lined the streets facing protesters, who mostly stayed on the sidewalks. A saxophone-playing Occupier played The Star Spangled Banner. Protesters massed on all four corners of the intersection. As the song reached “the land of the free” climax, a glitter bomb was popped over Nassau Street. An arrest most of us couldn’t see occurred in the intersection. Chants of “Shame! Shame! Shame!” Then the saxophone played and we sang, “Which side are you on? Which side are you on?” Someone berated the police about how Bloomberg would be stealing their pensions and laying them off soon enough, and then they’d be on our side.
An occupier Mic Check’d saying, “If they block the streets here then go around!” But those of us who were attending and not wanting to be arrested didn’t know where to go around to – we were trying to be witness to those participating in the traffic-stopping sit-downs, as planned and announced on the S17 website.
The Amalgamated Bank (a Union-owned bank; and the bank I switched to from Chase last autumn) on Broadway greeted the day’s protesters with a large poster in their window: “Amalgamated Bank supports the UFT and the Occupy Wall Street Movement.”
By 8:15am, we decided to go find the Labor protest contingent, slated to begin at 8:30, and started heading back up Broadway. But this proved difficult with police lining the sidewalk (on the street). Particularly so because the police themselves relentlessly insisted that we “Keep moving. If you don’t keep moving you will be arrested for obstructing pedestrian traffic” even as they themselves impeded more pedestrian (and vehicular) traffic than anyone else. (Many Occupiers were sure to let the police know about this with chants of “You are blocking pedestrian traffic! You are impeding pedestrian traffic!”) One female protester called out, “The NYPD shuts the city down for us. Great job, boys!” I was reminded of May Day 2012, when police were so concerned that protesters would shut down the Williamsburg Bridge that the police themselves shut down the Williamsburg Bridge. Obviously who shuts it down is more important than that it is shut down at all.
As we marched north on Broadway on the sidewalk, spirits were high. A band of horns and percussion had everyone clapping and feeling good; spoons were used on scaffolding to accompany the band. And right on time the police entered the sidewalk, waded into the crowd to randomly grab a protester, slam them to the ground, and arrest them. This split the march into two as people recoiled from the brutality. Several white-shirt police with macabre faces lunged at us, grabbing a protester next to me by his backpack and slamming him to the ground, and then a blue shirt cop jumped on him, then cuffed him. I had no doubt that he was grabbed instead of me because he was black, young and male – and I was let alone because I was a white male.
It was at this moment that I felt a peculiar failure as a protester: I didn’t grab my fellow protester from the police and try to pull him back to me. In the split second between being grabbed and being thrown to the ground, he looked at me and said “Help me out!” and I didn’t do a thing. Should I have grabbed him back and probably been arrested myself? I don’t know. I know I should have gotten his name and followed up with jail support, but in the chaos I lost him and did not. The money I was able to contribute later was a minor penance for this failure, which I partially blame the police for creating (he had done nothing to warrant the arrest, after all) but mostly just myself, for not knowing enough going into the action and not being confident enough to know what I should and would be willing to do at any given moment. I hated the police for having created this situation, but that is a futile waste of time and energy.
Wall Street itself was barricaded at Broadway, with police behind the barricades, in front of the barricades, and on the street. Protesters were attempting to move their way north, but the police suddenly cut the march in two, separating me and my friend from my girlfriend. Several people were brutally arrested. The police pushed us north onto the sidewalk, and then stopped. Then they came at us again and pushed us further and further north, until we were practically to Pine Street.
I began calling my girlfriend over and over waiting for her answer, fearing she’d been brutally arrested. Finally she answered the phone and we re-convened. She told me that the police had been pushing her from behind to move south, and she’d told them she wasn’t going to push the people in front of her just because she was being pushed by the police. She told them she wasn’t going to hurt someone else just because the police were pushing her. Then a protester near her was thrown to the ground and arrested. The police continued to push her, and she asked them if her moving south was more important than the brutal arrest going on right in front of them. The police told her, Yes, it is more important. She told them they had fucked up priorities. They told her to move.
Eventually we found our way to Bowling Green, where hundreds of protesters were gathering. An enormous Debt Bubble was pushed from hand-to-hand over the top of the crowd. We set out to peacefully march around the bull, which was at least triple barricaded by this time, as well as lined with police on foot and on scooter. We were pushed back almost immediately, and ended back where we started. The immense resources going to protect this bull are always astounding. Protecting the bull from what? An occupier straddling it? Graffiti? What other harm could befall it? It is as though the city fears that Occupiers “taking the bull” would mean the downfall of the whole establishment. Is there a secret self-destruct button on there?
Back at Bowling Green near the Museum of the American Indian, some musicians playing guitar sang songs I didn’t know and some I did – including a rousing cover of Sublime’s “What I Got,” which rang true and pure over the OWS crowd: “Loving / Is what I got.” Signs in the crowd hailing the Love Generation, or Time For Love, were, like the Troggs song says, all around.
I felt transported in time, as though it were 1968 and 2012 at once. It was like I’d imagined the 60s generation, and I was no longer wishing it was the 60s – I was ecstatic to be alive today, to be alive to witness and participate in OWS.
At Bowling Green several people spoke using the People’s Mic, including Rev Billy, and Green Party presidential candidate Jill Stein, who said that the world was “on a breaking point. It’s time to change the breaking point to a tipping point” for the movement. Helicopters overhead lowered as though to drown us out with their noise, and then elevated again.
Taking a break for a seat, some coffee and a salad in a nearby lunch counter, we overheard some exhausted-looking protesters needing ibuprofen. We provided some from our pockets, glad to be helping.
In the afternoon protesters swarmed into Liberty Park. I was surprised the police had allowed anyone in at all. And of course the population was diverse: young and old, whites and blacks and Latina/o and etc., LGBTQ, the disabled. I spotted again the French fellow who’d kept shouting over police brutality all day, “This is a peaceful protest, thank you!” I spotted at least three city council-members. And perhaps best of all, plenty of people who supported OWS even though they had serious problems with it. It is a place of solidarity, but also a place of disagreement and debate.
For about an hour, I stood in the midst of the drum circle (complimented with sax and trumpet; drummers banging on drums, staircase-handles, the ground, etc.) and joined Occupiers in the jubilee of celebration. As someone announced after calming the drummers into quiet, “The greatest thing we have done is meet each other.” The number of actions, groups, events and change that come from us having met each other can probably never be quantified – which means Wall St will never understand or respect it. But it is an amazing achievement.
I and a few other ebullient, celebratory souls led the chants over and over, familiar ones like, “Banks got bailed out / We got sold out!” and “An / Anti / Anti-capitaliste!” But mostly the one refrain: “All day / All week / Occupy Wall Street!” The refrain, repeated so many times, took on new and different meanings. For one, the initial meaning: Occupiers occupying Wall Street non-stop demanding change. But further, it also meant: We support the movement that is Occupy Wall Street, and we support it all day and all week. Or: There is a movement called Occupy Wall Street, and it exists all day and all week; it exists in me right now as I stand here in the midst of my fellow Occupiers; and it exists in me as I move through the world making decisions and taking actions; it exists in me as I try to learn about the world and better the world; it exists in me and changes me, and I change it. And in Liberty Square it exists within me and all around me, palpably.
A drummer, taking a momentary break, reminded the crowd via the People’s Mic: “All you need to solve all these problems is to love each other. And that’s the truth.”
-Joel Chaffee –]]>
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 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.)
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 –
 Not his real name, of course.
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.
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.
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:
Philadelphia, PA–Last night I saw one of the most beautiful moments of my entire 40 years on earth. The Veterans for Peace and Occupy Marines acquired a permit to have a canopy and information table on Independence Mall next to the first amendment monument. They have been there, 24 hours a day, since Saturday. Yesterday afternoon the National Park Service notified the veterans that their permit had been revoked and that they would be evicted from their spot in front of Independence Hall at 9pm.
News spread quickly among the Occupiers, who have been camping on the grounds of an historic site owned by the Quakers at 4th and Arch Streets during the night and gathering at the city-owned Franklin Square Park at 6th and Race for workshops and festivities during the day. We asked the Veterans to let us know what we could do for them to stand in solidarity. The Veterans were determined not to be removed from the space that they believe their brothers in arms had died to defend their right to be there, assemble, engage in free speech and petition their government for a redress of grievances. “That tent and info table will remain there until we have been physically dragged out of the park and the National Park Service comes in with a bulldozer.” Due to Independence Mall being federally owned land, any act of civil disobedience that takes place there will land you in the federal detention center with very serious charges and very high bail. One of the Veterans said “I signed up to die for the right to stand here, jail is nothing compared to death.”
By 8pm the presence of park rangers, park service and city riot police, bike cops, US Marshals and Homeland Security forces began to escalate dramatically. A few minutes before 9pm the Veterans met with park officials at the edge of the park. It was a tense 5 minutes as the 20 or 30 of us who were there in solidarity with the Vets awaited the results of the meeting. When the Veterans from the meeting returned, a mic check was initiated and the Vets announced that the park rangers would take no action until 11am the next morning when a high enough ranking park service official would meet with them to negotiate a possible compromise. Imminent eviction had been avoided, the fate still left to hang in the hands of some unknown bureaucrat, to be determined by his whim in the morning.
Just moments after the announcement was made a march of 400 occupiers led by a Revolutionary War-style drummer came around the corner. We ran to greet them and inform them that what had looked like it would be a massive confrontation was now a celebration! Shouts of joy went through the mass of Occupiers as they joined us in a now festive celebration of solidarity with the Veterans and the temporary retreat of the Park Service.
As songs, mic checks, sign wavers and even a hula hooper reveled on the sidewalk in front of the Vets for Peace canopy tent and info table, an extremely large contingent of police officers and federal agent remained all around us. About 20 riot police in full gear stood in formation just feet away from us, staring robotically straight ahead. The veterans asked us to move back 10 feet from the line of riot cops and promised us that the vets themselves would form a line of protection between the riot cops and us. As soon as that arrangement had been made the riot cops turned and marched in formation off of independence mall to rapturous cheers and clapping from all who had gathered.
The celebration continued for at least an hour before the Veterans mic checked us and asked anyone who wanted to remain overnight in solidarity do so by sleeping across the street, off of federal land, in front of the regional headquarters of Wells Fargo. Walking past on my way to the train for a quick pit stop at home, there were at least 30 groggy occupiers waking up from a night of sidewalk sleeping. I will return shortly and all of us, Occupiers and Veterans for Peace, will await the results of the meeting at 11am today.
It is impossible to describe the joy and beauty that I witnessed last night. I had a lump in my throat and am still beaming with positive vibes even though I too am exhausted after my 3rd night of sleeping on the ground in a Quaker parking lot.
– Mattymoo –]]>
Philadelphia, PA–There was a synchronicity manifesting at the Gathering:
In one of the Trainings, there was talk about making a direct action at Independence Hall. A smaller group took the idea up. People agreed that some action should be taken on such a symbolic day and symbolic place as July 4th, 2012 at Independence Hall–but no one could agree on what to do. We started organizing, spreading the word, and drafting a statement, but as the day approached, it gradually fell apart. Me and another fellow decided to make a last-ditch effort, but he was delayed, and so it turned out that on the morning of Independence Day, I was the only one who showed up.
The Occupy Legal Team had requested that they be notified of any Autonomous Actions beforehand, and this was turning out to be an entirely autonomous, Autarchic Action, so I called them and notified them.
At 9:00 in the morning, I continued on to Independence Hall, and took the first tour. At the end of the tour, in the room where the Founding Fathers signed the Declaration, I stepped over the barrier. I said “don’t worry” to the other citizens, and I walked right up to the desk where the original Declaration of Independence was signed by John Hancock. It got really quiet.
I set down the written Declaration I’d brought with me, and I signed it right there on the desk. Then I unfolded the Solidarity Economy flag I’d made, and I spoke extemporaneously to the citizenry. This is approximately what I said:
“In the name of People of the United States–the American People–we declare our independence from Corporations, and our Interdependence with one another. This is a flag for an Interdependent Economy of America–for an Occupied Economy achieved through the Separation of Business and State.”
The other citizens were calm and listened to me. When I’d finished, the ranger said that he understood and related to “what you all are trying to accomplish”, and requested that I leave. I had said what I came to say, and I wrapped myself in the flag and walked out.
In the foyer of the Hall, the National Park Police and Rangers were in full scramble mode. I was arrested and imprisoned in the Federal Detention Center. It was worth it.
In there, I met up with the one Occupier who was still in prison, who’d been imprisoned since the tent-ring on Saturday: 20-year old Nate St.-Martin from New Haven, CT.
I was accused of two misdemeanors: Entering a Closed Federal Area and Interfering with a Federal Officer. We were both released the next afternoon, July 5th.
(Side note: when we organize an Occupy event, we ought to make sure we tell participants to write the phone number of the legal team ON THEIR ARM WITH PEN OR MARKER when they are going on a march or action, because police simply take all one’s papers, including slips of paper with phone numbers, and won’t give them back. Both Nate and I were not able to phone the Occupy Legal Team because of this.)
I got my own “occupy uniform” because the Federal Bureau of Prisons mailed my clothes to my home in upstate NY. So I left with a cool gray federal prison jumpsuit, size XXX Large. It’s actually pretty comfortable, and I felt it was a fitting outfit for present-day America. And it made a striking complement to my “Red Square, Blue Stripes” economic flag that served as my sun-screen and blanket as I continued on.
As I was leaving town that night, I walked up to a random person on the street to ask for directions, and he was astonished (and I was too): he was the Park Service tour guide at the Declaration of Interdependence! We spoke amiably for awhile, he asked to take my picture, and he looked on his phone for directions for where I needed to go. We shook hands and wished each other good luck.
– Travis Henry –]]>
Philadelphia, PA–The second day of the Occupy National Gathering began with some sense of stability, with Franklin Square set as the permanent location for workshops and the Friends Center’s parking lot as the permanent sleeping area. However, the day of speakers and skill-shares precipitated an evening of arrests, with 25-30 reportedly taken into custody.
The morning of thematic meet-ups was followed by a series of speeches by activists like Occupier Lisa Fithian and CounterPunch contributor Mark Provost. At around 2:00pm, Occupiers broke out into workshops that ranged from the Money Out of Politics Voting Bloc to Code Pink.
A group of protesters, including many who are part of All In The Red, led a casserole march against debt, in solidarity with Montreal’s student strike. The protesters donning red squares were blocked off at Penn’s landing by a line of police. While there were arguments with police, and brief physical contact when cops let civilians pass through the line, there was no real confrontation.
At 6:00pm, Chris Hedges addressed the crowd of Occupiers. Hedges described the state of political America, including the death of the radical class, the “monstrosity of faux liberals like Bill Clinton and Barack Obama,” and the marginalization of structural critique in political discourse. He addressed Occupy’s future, articulating Occupy’s immediate goal “to reverse the corporate coup d’état and put the power back in the hands of people.” Hedges opined that the black bloc’s tactics are destructive because it plays into the hands “of those who want to destroy us” by demonizing Occupy in the mind of the public. But he remained hopeful and urged patience, citing his experience in movements that took time to build: “This is the dress rehearsal for the end of the corporate state.”
At 7:15pm, the first Occupy National Gathering Feminist General Assembly met. Through small and large group discussions, the participants in the FemGA shared how feminism can be alienating, shared common objectives (like ending sexual violence and strict gender roles) and listed the main goals of the FemGA.
By 9:00pm, Occupiers some were getting ready to settle into the parking lot at 4th and Arch and others were preparing to march in a jail solidarity protest. At around 10:30pm, a group of marching protesters were kettled and arrested. Cops used bikes to push Occupiers and refused calls by protesters to explain the charges. Of the 27 reportedly arrested, 7 were released by 9:45am. Others are being released slowly.
– Zachary Bell –]]>
Philadelphia, PA – After arriving by bus from New York late Sunday morning, I found the National Gathering in Franklin Square. The crowd was smaller than expected: a few hundred people sat in thematic clusters, hiding from the heat in the shade and wrapping up the morning discussions. In the afternoon I joined a march with All in the Red but the highlight, by far, of my first day was going to sleep.
Around 10pm a group of nine of us left the main group that had gathered at the Quaker house parking lot in search of an appropriate bank to sleep in front of. Along the way we picked up another occupier and the ten of us found a PNC bank at Walnut and 9th Street and set up camp. While we began to lay out our yoga mats and sleeping bags, one of the group, who had split off in search of nearby materials we could scavenge, announced he had found a dumpster full of cardboard boxes and even couches and chairs. A team went out to pick up whatever we could use. Once our cardboard beds were made we turned our energy into making signs about our protest; my favorite was a play on the bank’s initials and read ‘People Not Corporations’ on the side of the bank, hanging above our couch. While we were still setting up, a taxi stopped and offered us a ride.
“No we’re sleeping here,” we told him.
“Occupy?” he asked with a heavy accent.
“Yeah,” we told him.
He gave us a big smile and beeped his horn.
Over the next hour two of our group left to make their way back to the Quaker house but two more occupiers passing by joined us, keeping our group at 10 all night. Other occupiers and pedestrians stopped to chat, debate and lend their support. The police and a Homeland Security SUV came by but left us alone, and aside from one heckler who shouted at us, it was all positive.
Our sleepful protest captured some of what I loved so much about Liberty Plaza in the fall: the protest was not a temporary reprieve from our everyday life; our everyday life, both waking and sleeping, was protest.
The actual sleep was not very good, but when the sun rose I still felt refreshed and reenergized. When the bank opened we picked up our cardboard signs and formed a mini picket to greet the arriving employees and customers.