CHICAGO, IL – As the Chicago Police Department closed in on those who had barricaded themselves inside Woodlawn Mental Health Clinic last Thursday, I realized this was a terrible time for me to be going away from Internet access for the next 48 hours.
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.