They call me Sugar. Being a protester with the Occupy Movement has meant that ever since the mayor’s budget proposal, which included closing half of the mental health clinics while privatizing the other half, I knew my battle. My family has a history of mental health issues. I still have the scars on my wrists from when I tried to kill myself and I still fight panic attacks. I understand why these services save lives.
On Wednesday, April 11th, I heard a rumor that clients were going to occupy the Woodlawn Clinic. As a protester, I was motivated, but I knew my role in this battle was not to protest. It was to be a neutral medic providing a service to these clients in their desperate attempt to save their lifeline.
On Thursday, April 12th I took my place in a proud history of street medics, which began during the Civil Rights Movement out of necessity to treat protesters being brutalized by police, a system, and society. Today’s suppression and abuse comes from the Rahm Machine and focuses its violence on the mentally ill and poor, leaving it to the emergency rooms, police, and courts like these to replace treatment.
As the primary medic at the Woodlawn Occupation I have helped clients feel safe and cared for. I listen. I hug. And, more often than should happen, I treat handcuff injuries on protesters and the strong, amazing, and desperate clients who do not back down from the Rahm Machine. I have witnessed a community step up and lend their voices, provide food, and share their stories of why these clinics are important to them. This movement has moved me in ways that I do not even know how to express.
What Rahm is doing is wrong. His priorities are skewed. He claims that closing these clinics is about money. But how is it fiscally responsible to close these clinics to save “$3 million” when it throws onto the hospital and justice system the extra workload and expenses, which well exceed the $3 million in savings, and also allows people to die? How is it that he can pressure Pastor Finny to lie about owning property in order to illegally evict the Woodlawn Occupation and get away with it?
Everyone in this movement has personally felt the hand of this immorally, repugnant machine come smacking down. Yet we stand, unwavering. I am honored and humbled to have the backs of those on the front line.
I plead guilty today, not because I am on the wrong side of history, but out of necessity. I wish I could go to trial, but speaking today has got to be enough. I stand in solidarity.
The judge smiled and thanked us for the work we were doing to improve the community. She respected what we were doing and respected us as individuals.
-Sugar- (photo from the Occupied Chicago Tribune)
Editors note: Read more of our ongoing coverage of the Woodlawn Occupation (still going strong!)
Woodlawn Mental Health Clinic Occupation
The Woodlawn Occupation is Not Leaving
I want to take a minute to make a confession. Before this occupation began, I don’t think I had ever visited Woodlawn before in my life. It’s easy to say that I simply haven’t had any reason to; I live on the opposite side of the city, 20 miles away. Except that the reality is I never wanted to visit Woodlawn before. It’s a place I’ve only heard of in passing as the site of tragic shootings.
I wasn’t sure how the people who live and work in Woodlawn would feel about someone like me setting up camp on their front lawn, to be honest. But the reaction to our presence in the neighborhood has been overwhelmingly positive. I couldn’t begin to count the number of people who have thanked me for coming down and spending some time with them, fighting their fight. They’ve been welcoming and kind. I don’t know if it’s the recent gentrification, the ever-present police surveillance, or my fellow Occupiers, but I feel safe there. I would sleep there at night if I could. Plus, it’s a lovely drive down the lakefront and through the heart of the city. It’s so easy to become ensconced in the parts of the city I’m familiar with and forget how far it stretches, and what a beautiful place Chicago really is.
While occupying on Sunday, I heard more detailed plans for the clergy event, including the intention to set up tents again. This time, each tent was named after a clinic being closed by the city. It was a win-win situation; either the city arrested us during a prayer service with some prominent local religious leaders in our midst, or the tents stayed for a while.
I was still working when the event began, but made it down to Woodlawn by 8pm. There were about 60 people present, speaking out in the form of a prayer circle. They gave testimonies about themselves and loved ones who struggle with mental health issues and need this vital resource to continue being available. They told of friends and family members who lost the struggle, and the horrifying consequences. It was poignant and heartbreaking. There is a heavy stigma attached to mental health problems that makes hearing them spoken about so openly truly inspiring.
When the tents went up, before I arrived, police presence increased and threats of arrest were made. But by the time I got there, only a couple patrol cars remained parked across the street. The atmosphere was charged, but in a positive way. Nobody doubted the police would be back, but for a time we were free to discuss exactly what is at stake when public clinics are closed or privatized.
As the prayer circle concluded, I wandered between groups of friends discussing the movement and speculating about what the night would bring. A small group went to collect firewood and marched it back through the streets, chanting. We built up the fire and stayed close for warmth. Someone brought a guitar over and started singing in Spanish. It was the most relaxed part of my day, despite sensing the squad cars (many unmarked) circling ever closer.
The calm was shattered by the sounds of sirens as two fire engines and an ambulance pulled up to the retirement home next to the lot we have been occupying. As it turns out, this was a dry run for what was to come later. But as the fire engines drove past us on their way back to the station, they honked and shook their fists in solidarity, eliciting cheers.
A while later, some of us went to a nearby church which has given us a key in order to use the bathroom. On our way around the block, we noticed an unmarked car with plainclothes officers watching the encampment from a distance. On the way back, three more unmarked cars were congregated. We knew something was going to happen, and soon.
Sure enough, at 10:30pm (conveniently timed for when the news broadcasts all go off the air), a legion of police vehicles descended upon us. The street was completely lined with them, all points of access blocked off. We were given 30 minutes to clear out before eviction. We all took to our phones to call, text, and tweet for supporters to join us. And then the signs and banners came out, and it became a protest again. That struck me as odd, how it had felt more like a friendly campfire sing-along until the authorities showed up and turned us back into the angry protesters you see on TV.
When the police came to make their arrests, most of us had moved to the sidewalk. Two patients told their stories via megaphone as the supporters standing with them were cuffed and taken away. Then they came for the patients themselves. Have you ever seen a man arrested with his walker? It’s not something I’m likely to forget.
The tents came down, and still CPD occupied our lot with officers numbering close to our own 40 or so people left. They said we had to keep moving or we would be ticketed, so we marched in a circle, still protesting. And then we found out what they were waiting around for as our new friends from the fire department returned, sirens blaring. Several
firefighters jumped off the front engine and put out our grill fire in less time than it took to read this sentence. It was the funniest thing to me, that they would call the fire department out to douse our small, contained grill fire. An Occupier standing near the engines asked why they had given us thumbs up as they drove by earlier. They said they support the occupation and were just following orders. Their jovial attitude made it clear they felt those orders were as ridiculous as we did. Then they pulled away, honking and waving in solidarity.
The cops left, with 10 of our friends in the paddy wagon. What was accomplished? The tents are down, but the space remains occupied. Our fire was restarted within minutes. Surely this whole operation, complete with semi-staged arrests on shaky legal ground, cost the city. How much is it worth to afford us less of a visible, permanent status in the community? And when will they learn that we don’t give up so easily?
The Woodlawn occupation is not leaving, and neither am I.
If you aren’t up to speed, here’s the situation. Under Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s budget, 6 of the 12 public mental health clinics in Chicago are scheduled to be shut down. Adding insult to injury is the fact that the clinics slated for closure are uniformly located within the poorest, hardest-hit neighborhoods of the city.
In other words, those who need it most will no longer have access to mental health services.
The Mental Health Movement associated with STOP Chicago has been working for the past 4 years to protect mental health clinics from closures and privatization. When Emanuel’s budget was about to pass, they staged a 10-hour sit in outside the mayor’s office that Occupy Chicago joined in solidarity. With the Woodlawn Clinic set to close on April 30th, however, it was time for drastic action.
Last Thursday night, doctors, patients, activists and Occupiers barricaded themselves inside the clinic while others supported the occupation from outside. Shortly after midnight, CPD cut their way into the building with chainsaws, arresting 23 people.
When I returned to the land of Internet connections on Saturday, it was to the welcome news that the clinic had been re-occupied with a small tent city established on an empty lot across the street. Eviction seemed imminent but they held through that night and the next, despite severe wind and thunderstorms.
After work on Sunday I was able to join the occupation for several hours in the afternoon and evening. Before heading out, I blindly tweeted an offer to drive any interested northsiders down to participate in the occupation. I got one reply, a political science and sociology student from Northwestern University named Isa–formerly a stranger, now a friend and first-time Occupier. People at the encampment also tweeted me with supplies needed, which I was able to deliver. And, naturally, I brought homemade cookies–because it’s not a revolution until somebody bakes cookies.
If I didn’t know better, my first impression would not have been that this was the site of an embattled protest. As we approached the camp we saw people sitting together–talking, laughing, and sharing a bite to eat. A long table was overflowing with food donated throughout the day and a makeshift grill gave off the scent of fresh barbecue. Music played, people danced. It had all the makings of a great block party–plus, of course, some large protest banners and a few police vehicles idling nearby.
I introduced myself by my Twitter handle and joined the group in discussions of philosophy, recaps of the arrests, and just plain socializing. One Occupier said (and I’m afraid my memory is not good enough for this to be an exact quote): “I don’t care if they arrest me. My friends will bring me books to read, and when I come out I’ll have even more knowledge and power.” It began to rain; everyone rushed to cover the food table with tarps.
The cafe on the corner has been more than kind about letting us use wall sockets and bathroom facilities during business hours. A small group of us were recharging ourselves and our various electronic devices when I noticed an Occupier, one of the 23 arrestees, talking to a Chicago police officer. It’s a conversation I wish could be duplicated with every police officer in the city. She explained why we were out there protesting and how the closure of public mental health clinics would affect him directly, as he would be encountering untreated mental health patients out in the streets. He listened attentively and seemed to understand what was at stake–but told her the order to arrest came from above.
This occupation is the work of the Mental Health Movement and STOP Chicago–we at Occupy Chicago are joining in solidarity. As such, the core Occupy Chicago members whom I’ve gotten to know over the past several months were interspersed with other activists and those whom use the clinic and know firsthand how devastating it will be to lose it. It was humbling and inspiring to be amongst both those who have worked so hard to keep the clinics open and those who will be directly affected by the loss of this community resource.
The evening concluded with a meeting to discuss next steps and possible uses of the occupied space. We haven’t held a space for over 24 hours in Chicago until now, and the possibilities are exciting. It’s in a community where we haven’t held any actions or done much outreach, but now we’re out in the open, talking to the neighbors and spreading the word. All of that gives me a great deal of hope that we can change hearts and minds by reaching out to those who need our help the most.
Update: As I was writing the final paragraph about being hopeful for the future of this occupied space, the encampment was surrounded by squad cars and threatened with mass arrest. After dismantling the tents, the police left without making any arrests. Many stayed overnight anyway, sleeping in cars or staying on the sidewalk.
UPDATE (April 17th 5:35pm): Woodlawn was briefly re-occupied this afternoon just after 2pm. CPD moved in almost immediately, demolishing tents and destroying personal property. Two Occupy Chicago participants standing on public sidewalks were arrested, including press liaison Rachael Perrota.