My comrades and I had decided to gather extra early to allow time for prep and a good meal. 5am came quickly and by 6 we were on our way into the bowels of Manhattan.
Having dedicated much of my time over the past few weeks to the Education Zone with my affinity group All In The Red, Harrison and I made our way to South Street Seaport, careful to keep our eyes open. A small crowd had amassed by 6:30 and by 7am. After a short strategic review, our group seemed excited and prepared to face the day.
The following hour and twenty four minutes seemed to play in both slow motion and fast forward. Time frozen and flashing before my eyes. Then my arms were behind my back and I was being slammed into a concrete wall. Again.
“Am I being detained?” I screamed.
Hula hoops falling to the sidewalk. Clearly, I was being detained.
“Am I being detained?!” cameras came rushing.
“Shut the fuck up” I didn’t see his face.
“I do not consent to a search.”
“Do you want to make this difficult?”
Wrists twisting inside flexcuffs, backpack slipping from my shoulder, trapped. The weight immediately sent searing pain up my arms. All I could do was shake my head and keep my mouth shut; I have seen what they do to people who complain. Comrades caught my eye from across the street. I motioned that I was okay and to contact the NLG.
Just as soon as it began.
I was in flexcuffs, with my hoops, in the back of a NYPD van.
To my surprise the following hour was spent reasonably comfortable. Air conditioning, Prince sing-a-longs and real conversations about mutual aid were the last things I expected when I was shoved in that van, but thankfully the first things I received. My “arresting officers” were actually School Safety Uniformed Division Officers, admitting themselves they would rather “be dealing with real crime”. Completely out of their element in lower Manhattan, they eventually started asking me for directions. I kept quiet and enjoyed the temperature-controlled view of the 99 Revolutions. Heart growing with pride, we pulled it off!
After what seemed like hours we arrived at 55 Water, where my van had been sent to pick up “the other prisoners.” Little did I know that as I was being moved between vans, my photo was being taken by a CNBC journalist–hoops and all. The caption would later read “Additionally: hula hoops confiscated”
From 55 Water, van fresh with new (political) “prisoners” we were transported to 1PP for processing. Each “prisoner” had their possessions tagged and photo taken, affixed with a “mass arrest” sticker and placed in a holding cell determined by gender discrimination.
To my pleasure my colleague at Occupied Stories, Julia, was in the same intake cell along with some other familiar faces. It’s always comforting to go through times like these with friends. After additional paperwork and a denied phone call, I was transferred to a concrete holding cell with four other women. A steel platform with dirty blue gym mats hung from the wall and the air reeked of piss. This was my home for the next 10 hours.
BUT WE OCCUPIED THE SHIT OUT OF IT! We shared stories, everyone having a good laugh when I told them how my “arresting officer” wanted to cut my cuffs: “What am I supposed to say? Prisoner did obstruct pedestrian and vehicular traffic with a hula hoop performance? We don’t have charges for this shit.” We stood shoulder to shoulder forming our own “Pee-poles Wall” singing “Solidari-pee Forever” whenever a sister had to use the facilities. It’s amusing to me that after all this time the NYPD still thinks arrest will drive us away from the movement. Some of the strongest bonds I have made since coming to Occupy have been forged in a jail cell.
The final hours of waiting passed painfully slow. I answered questions to the best of my knowledge, having taken some Legal training courses in the event that something like this would happen and I tried to keep everyone in the cell calm and comfortable. Unfortunately, there is only so much that can be done before the madness of a cage sets in. Catching a glimpse of my arresting officer down the hallway I called out to him, my new-found best friend, even offering a birthday card in exchange for my release.
It was roughly 6pm when the key turned in the lock of the cell door. Finally. As he led me down the corridor towards release the men’s cell erupted! Weaving through hands banging on plexiglass, the faces of my male comrades began to emerge. All of them making the same hand motion, a heart. We were all in it together.
After another processing and paperwork line I could finally see daylight, along with my hoops! Once one of the officers realized that I was “The Hula Hoop Girl” his coworkers were talking about all day, he immediately asked me to “do some tricks.” I couldn’t help but oblige as I walked through the gates of 1PP and into the arms of my jail support team. The only people left on the sidewalk.
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.
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.
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. 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.
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.
 We learn later that they are a far right “news” website. As Bel Biv Devoe said, you got to live and learn.
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.
I was not so sure I wanted to go to school though. I had (and technically still do have) a lot of issues I needed to sort though. Trying to manage my IBS (irritable bowel syndrome), clinical depression, manic states, anxiety, and any other number of things. School was the last thing on my mind. It didn’t help that I didn’t have a clue what I wanted to do. All I knew was I loved my art classes.
So at some point I came to the conclusion I needed to go to art school. My parents were wary, but my art teacher and I assured them that there were ways to make money as an artist. This was before the Great Recession, as the economists call it.
Originally I was going to go to a local college, and just generalize in all sorts of art. Until I found Hallmark. It was, at the time, the number one photography school in the country. It has nothing to do with the cards though, bummer.
But I applied to go to the Hallmark Institute of Photography. What a mouthful. And I listened with rapt ears to everything they told me. That there was no such thing as a degree in photography, so what they could offer (a certificate of completion) was the best I could hope for. That $50,000 for ten months of schooling was worth it because it was like cramming two years into that ten months. That they were state-of-the-art (perhaps the only thing they didn’t lie about), and they would always help their alumni to find work.
Well, being the naive 17 year old I was at the time, I was sold. I signed the papers as soon as my portfolio was approved. That’s right, only 300 people at the time were accepted to attend each year. They were elitists, and I was on cloud nine for having been chosen.
Hallmark killed everything in me. Creativity meant nothing when it came to being a Hallmark Photographer. They were looking for a certain high-city look with the photographs their students produced, and I was not producing. Of course, this wasn’t all the teachers; just the ones that mattered. I am not a city girl. I live in the middle of nowhere out where the buses don’t run, and I prefer it that way
So even though I passed all my classes, and even though I went through hell to make it to the end, it was for nothing. I failed my initial portfolio review in which my artistic sense was torn apart by well-known photographers from outside the school brought in for that very purpose. But not to worry, there was always re-review! Which, I was told, was impossible to fail so long as you completed the list of corrections given to you.
So, I had three days to fix half of my portfolio. I don’t remember those three days at all, as it was murder on the depression, and between that and the meds I killed my memory.
What I do know is regardless of the efforts I put in, I still failed. The day before graduation, with no explanation, I was told I failed and I was to sign the papers saying I quit.
I told the dean of the college through tears that this wasn’t the end, I would be a photographer anyway. He agreed to meet with me a week later to review my portfolio in depth. He would later reveal that I probably should have passed, but he couldn’t reverse the decision.
In two years’ time I would find out that this dean had been cooking the books. All the money spent during my year at Hallmark, he had been swindling away our money to pay for things he wanted and possibly bribing people. He was being sued for two million dollars. As if I weren’t already upset that I couldn’t get a photography job because of the economy, and I could hardly pay the students loan when I DID have a job, now I learned that much of my student loan money had gone to lining the pockets of this man who couldn’t allow me to at least be considered a success and not a failure of the school.
I thought about starting a class-action lawsuit, but in the end I didn’t. I didn’t have the time, nor the energy. After all, I’m over $50,000 in debt, and working to pay it back is all I can do. And in this economy, in my area, that means you do your damnedest not to lose your job.
I was in and out of work from 2008 to 2010, enough so that my parents had to pay my loans for a while. I felt like a failure of a child, because they weren’t exactly swimming in money either. But even when I could get a job, it was usually in retail and all I could manage was the car loan I had. It was a horrible feeling.
I did finally manage to secure a job that allowed me to pay my own bills by myself, but I was later laid off. Thankfully rehired. But regardless of that, I’m still buried in debt. I’ve managed to bring it down by maybe $3,000, but under the 6% interest rates it’s not much. I’ll be paying them off until I’m about to retire at this rate.
I’d like to move out, get my own place. Go back to living on my own, being independent, and stop relying so much on my parents. But the only way I can survive with this debt is by living at home. And as I’ve gotten older (I’m 23 now), I’ve accumulated more and more stuff. And it doesn’t all fit in my one little bedroom very well. It’s a cramped lifestyle. But with this debt I’m fairly stuck.
I’d also like to have my own photo studio. Regardless of what Hallmark told me, I have continued to pursue photography. Even though I have to freelance, I do fairly well for myself. And I always pay my assistants well for their time, because it’s the right thing to do. But photography is a luxury and I don’t have enough of a client base yet for it to sustain its own studio.
Sad to say I’m thinking of going back to school, because these days you can’t get a job without the piece of paper I don’t have. It’d mean more debt, and a longer life sentence to it.
If I didn’t have educational debt, I might have a mortgage. Or a studio, and perhaps I’d be employing a couple other people to help. Or heck, I’d just plain have spending money to put back into the economy to help fix it. But I don’t. I pay over $400 a month to a bank for a loan that hasn’t gotten me very far at all. Over $400 that could be propelling me to a much more promising future.
I am the future of America, and my future says that I will be struggling to survive right up until the end. At this rate, I will pay off my loans just in time to retire and lack a nest egg, and probably lack social security. It’s not a pretty picture.
Police clashing with protesters, shattered bits of glass from broken street lamps and bus stops littering the sidewalks, disemboweled traffic lights idling on street corners; the charred remains of a bus, lit on fire in Macul. These are the pictures circulating through the public consciousness following the October two-day national strike in Chile, images of the violence and destruction – the fallout from almost six months of education protests that have yet to yield any sort of concrete result.
In the nascent days of the education movement, when spurts of violence were just starting to make their way onto the streets and into the headlines, I remember hearing the justifications for such acts. They went something like this: The clashes and public vandalism are necessary because they are the only certain way to grab and maintain public attention. They also show the seriousness of the protesters, who have to make it clear that they will refuse to be ignored or shunted aside by an intractable government bureaucracy.
How pallid and naïve those arguments seem now, after this six-month (and counting) war of attrition. The seemingly never-ending stream of street confrontations between the police and the hooded, rock-wielding, Molotov cocktail-hurling encapuchados or masked protesters have begun to alienate people, especially moderate Chileans fed up with the constant, sometimes dangerous disruption of their daily lives. Maybe at one point there was a justification for these acts. Violence was a useful little stimulant, able to rivet the country’s attention for short bursts. But like any harmful drug, habitual use has begun to lead to destructive side effects that are slowly wearing on the Chilean body and psyche.
Two important points need to be made here. First, the police and government response to the marches bears just as much, if not more blame for the current situation. And second, the perpetrators of these violent irruptions make up a minuscule portion of the people fighting for education reform.
To the first point: the aggressive tactics (tear gassing, water cannons, etc.) utilized by the police special forces unit since the early days of the protests have, far from restoring order, served only to escalate tension and engender more violent reaction. The police want to do their jobs: enforce the law, maintain order and keep the streets safe for ordinary citizens. Fair enough. But the events of the past half-year show that these tactics are having just the opposite effect. At first, the violence was unexpected. Now it seems inevitable. It’s almost as if the troublemakers are taking to the streets because they are expecting to clash with the police forces.
The street confrontations play out like an elaborate game of cat and mouse. Police trucks rumble up and down the streets, spraying water and tear gas at delighted protesters who duck for cover and then emerge again, a few moments later, chucking stones back at their pursuers. After getting riled up into a frenzy, the protesters retreat, and that’s when the real destruction begins.
During the Oct. 6 protests, generally agreed to be one of the most violent days of the education movement, police vehicles chased students down the streets. As they retreated, groups of people would swarm around streets signs and park benches, using their collective force to turn them out of their concrete foundations. Of course, there is no justification for this type of vandalism, but the police response certainly didn’t help. If anything, it created the hysterical, fear-laden atmosphere that made those acts possible.
To the second, and perhaps most essential point: the vandals, encapuchados and whoever else is taking advantage of the strange, uncertain environment brought on by the marches, represent a tiny portion of the protesters, the great majority of whom conduct themselves peacefully and with great dignity. On Oct. 19, the second day of the two-day national strike, nearly 200,000 people came out to march in Santiago. They marched peacefully and without incident for most of the afternoon, until a small percentage of troublemakers broke off from the group and started causing problems. But this is what people were talking about the next day.
And that is perhaps the greatest tragedy brought on by specter of continuous violence; it dominates the conversation and saps urgency from the student cause. When I went out to observe the Oct. 19 march, I was struck by the enthusiasm of the crowd and the air of passion and positivity that ran through this mass of people. Protesters came out in costume and groups of musicians and dancers performed in small pockets of space. People, young and old, marched together. They laughed and joked with each other, but there was also an underlying seriousness of purpose. It was a culture event, a parade of discontent but also an expression of joy, creativity and possibility.
The process of reform – lasting and systemic – can be messy and slow, full of setbacks and frustrations. But the art of change, something we are seeing not just in Chile but all over the world, from Wall Street to Tunisia, can be a beautiful, collaborative process that shows humanity at its best. Ultimately, violence is not a means to anything but more violence- a distraction that obscures the true potential of people searching for a better path.