Feature photography by Bob Chambers
There’s an uprising of the Nation’s Broke happening, and the Second City ain’t sittin’ out- they’re sitting in. Occupy Chicago, a local group of demonstrators inspired by the Occupy Wall Street world-wide movement to advocate financial reforms and promote economic equality, has been camped out in front of the Federal Reserve Bank at Jackson & LaSalle since Friday September 23rd. The Chicago demonstration started when a woman named Charlie started a Facebook event, and roughly 20 strangers (aching to stand in solidarity with New Yorkers as the thousands of dissidents were starting to get stomped) assembled to protest.
The seven protestors who slept through that first night dubbed the spot “Camp Downpour,” huddled under tarps in rain that didn’t dampen their resolve. Throughout the day, occupiers chant and wave signs addressing various grievances including opposition to bailouts and corporate personhood, dancing to improvised drum beats. The group is small in the morning, swelling to just under 200 by 5 p.m. At night it can take on more of a carnival atmosphere, with a juggler, a unicyclist, and a film presentation of “The Crowd” one night, a visit from Critical Mass on another. In the wee hours, folks huddle in blankets talking into the morning.
Over the five days I spent amongst them, I met people from many walks of life*. Many Chicago Occupiers are highly educated young people who are unemployed, though most have jobs. While nearly all trend liberal, their political philosophies are diverse, creating a bewildering cacophony of ideas for onlookers to sort out.
One demonstrator has developed fliers that will have a different face daily. There are so many faces, among them Keith McHenry, co-founder of Food Not Bombs; Mark Banks, an unemployed biochemist; Andy, whose uninsurable medical condition got him fired from a waiter position; Darrell, an unemployed couch-surfing father from the Austin neighborhood who digs philosophy; a pro-capitalism military man from Indiana who worries an injury will lose him his job in the medical field; two female would-be college students for whom lack of funds impedes their dreams to become a cosmetologist and a writer.
Like the larger NYC demonstration, these folks came together to shout and drum first, and have been cobbling together a cohesive ideology as the days and numbers increase. They are determined to maintain the protests’ roots as a leaderless, democratic, egalitarian group, ensuring minority opinions are heard and demanding a 90% consensus for passing policy. The fledgling Chicago branch of the Occupation movement faces many challenges, not the least of which is the threat of increasingly shitty Chicago weather.
Many onlookers are critical of the protest. One bystander, Mark “from the Bay Area” who “love[s] capitalism,” said, “I don’t think they know what they’re doing. It’s just silly, naive lashing out at what they don’t have and what they think is wrong with the world.”
Dale, a busker, said, “it’s all bullshit. Those kids got it made.”
Outside the Cultural Center, one of a group of anti-Scientology demonstrators in V masks (popular with Occupiers), joked, “it won’t last…protesters are like ravens. Oooh, something shiny! Oooh, something shiny!”
The demonstrators are aware of their image, discussing it constantly. They want to bring more of Chicago’s impoverished into the movement, make it a more diverse representation of “the 99%.”
Protestors are peaceful and legally compliant, releasing an Open Letter to the Police expressing respect. While initially CPD left them alone, they’re now using the groups’ compliance against them, relying on city ordinances that forbid everything from sleeping on the sidewalk and setting up tents to resting backpacks on sidewalks and drawing with chalk. It is a much shrewder strategy than the infamous “bust skulls” approach. Still, it makes one question exactly how much freedom to peaceably assemble we have here.
One thing the Chicago Occupation has on its’ side is heart. Occupiers push themselves past their physical limits so frequently that their General Assembly* has mandated a “buddy system” to push folks to sleep.
For many, the greatest value in demonstrating is in building community, shaking off apathy, turning frustrations into something that feels constructive.
Time will tell how long this will last, what it will grow into it, and how it will end. The Occupation movement is a symptom of unrest, a rebellion that is just beginning. I’m doubtful it will kickstart the revolution some dream of, but it seems this movement must have some small impact on the national consciousness.
I am going to continue to bring you stories from the Occupation in coming days, so stay tuned. You will find them at my new blog, BrokeChicago.blogspot.com.