Arrests won’t stop us in Chicago

October 17, 2011

Nicole Colson reports from Chicago on the October 15 march and rally of the Occupy movement that led to mass arrests--and on the response of activists.

CHICAGO POLICE were determined to force Occupy Chicago protesters out of their newly adopted encampment site of Grant Park's Congress Plaza on October 15--they carried out the mass arrests of at least 175 protesters.

But Occupy Chicago activists had a message: We'll be back.

The day included a whirlwind of events, including a 150-plus person teach-in on the Communist Manifesto in front of Chicago's Federal Reserve Bank building. That was followed by a spirited march of some 4,000 people--students, labor activists, and religious leaders, people who have participated in Occupy Chicago since its beginnings and those who were new to activism.

Protesters chanted, "The banks got bailed out, we got sold out," and "How do we end the deficit? End the wars, tax the rich!" as they made their way through city streets to Congress Plaza, the new site chosen by activists for a permanent overnight encampment. Previously, Occupy Chicago was located on sidewalks outside the Fed building, and had to break camp each night, with police banning overnight camping.

Protesters fill the streets of Chicago on their way to a general assembly
Protesters fill the streets of Chicago on their way to a general assembly (Carole Ramsden | SW)

The crowd at Congress Plaza had a jubilant feel. Well over a thousand people stayed to participate in a General Assembly meeting, featuring speeches from long-time activists and those new to protest.

One after another, people spoke to the sense that they no longer fell alone--that their voice is being heard.

One protester named Shane explained to the crowd why he joined the Occupy movement. "My family's home was foreclosed on," he said. "Not because we were stupid, not because we took on a [mortgage] we knew we couldn't afford, but because we had no choice. What they did with our money was illegal."

Randi Jones Hensley of Campaign to End the Death Penalty told the crowd: "A million Black people are behind bars in the U.S. They are part of the 99 percent. Here in Illinois, we got rid of the death penalty because of what we--the ordinary people--did. And it will be us who get rid of this whole rotten system."

As Dennis, a nurse at Cook County Hospital, spoke out: "We will go back to our workplaces and tell our coworkers what we saw tonight...We will tell them about a different kind of hope, about ordinary people winning the things we need. As the activist and historian Howard Zinn said, 'What matters is not who's sitting in the White House. What matters is who's sitting in!'"

IN AN interview after speaking to the assembly, Armando Robles, president of United Electrical Workers Local 1110, and a worker at Republic Windows and Doors--where workers organized an occupation in December 2008 which won their demands--explained the importance of labor joining the Occupy movement in Chicago and elsewhere:

It's really important because, as the saying went when we occupied Republic Windows and Doors, the people have to do it. This is where the real power is. The power is not with the lawyers, the power is not with the banks. The power is with the people. If the people stop working, if people start doing these kinds of actions, we can make change in this world. We want to prove to the world that we have the power.

Chicago resident Christina Winters said she came out for the first time because:

there are clearly a lot of injustices, a lot of inequality as far as how money is spread around. It's horrible that 1 percent of the population holds so much while the other 99 percent struggles everyday. I know that I struggle working many, many hours a week to make ends meet. Health care is a problem, schools are a problem, housing is a problem--and I'm struggling to see an improvement, which is why I'm here with everybody else.

Jesse Sharkey, vice president of the Chicago Teachers Union (CTU), spoke to the crowd about why the executive board of Illinois Federation of Teachers voted unanimously to support Occupy Chicago:

We're fed up with the lack of resources for kids. We're fed up with a system where, on the same block where school exist, there are not one, not two, but five vacant homes sitting empty...

[The banks] were given billions in bailouts, and yet they turn around and take those profits, keep their bonuses and keep their pay raises, but refuse to adjust mortgages, refuse to make the loans, refuse to put money into our society where it's needed to educate kids. And let's be clear, there's a human cost to their greed...We'll continue to occupy, we'll continue to march, and we'll continue to speak out until it changes.

LATER IN the evening, with the crowd still at least 500 strong, people began preparing for the likelihood of arrests--threatened by Chicago police as an 11 p.m. curfew approached. Police said protesters would be in violation of a municipal ordinance banning overnight camping.

Hundreds of protesters willing to risk arrest formed a human ring around some 30 tents that had been set up in the plaza, decorated with signs reading, "Spent the last of my cash to get here--I guess I'll stay" and "This isn't a recession, this is a robbery. Shut down Wall Street."

As the night wore on, some 100 Chicago police, including six mounted police, were on the scene. The officer in charge walked the perimeter of the circle, telling protesters dozens of times, "If you wish to leave, you may do so, otherwise you will be physically arrested."

Some protesters attempted to appeal to police, with chants like "CPD needs a raise" and "CPD is the 99 percent." Others used the "people's mic" to point out that, by clearing the park, Chicago cops "will be on the wrong side of history." As activist Brit Schulte stated later in the night, "We are right, they are wrong. And while their pensions are under attack, they are not on our side."

By 1 a.m., arrests began in earnest, as the cops first cleared a path to the tents by arresting a section of activists and then removing tents and camping gear from the circle. At one point, police used a knife to cut open a tent that held 13 activists, before arresting each of them in turn. But the mood was high among those arrested--who chanted and sang throughout. "We've got more tents," they chanted at one point.

As one of those arrested, Matt Camp, explained:

I think that so many of the people who are participating in this movement feel so aggrieved--by corporations, by big business interests, by their own government--that they feel that if they don't actually take a stand and put themselves on the line, it just will never get any better. It was a crystallization of that anger that's been building up for so long. There's a really strong sense that this has been a long time coming and people are really excited to be a part of it--and I think that contributes to this mentality of people saying, "We're willing to accept the risks."

By 3:30 a.m., police had cleared the plaza, arresting at least 175 activists--though Occupy Chicago claims the number arrested was actually more than 200.

But according to Camp and other activists, the arrests won't put a stop to Occupy Chicago. Activists are continuing to debate the next steps, including finding a permanent location for the encampment. The day after the arrests, the General Assembly brought out 400 people--and some 200 marched on sidewalks east from LaSalle and Jackson to Grant Park while chanting, "This is what democracy looks like."

As Occupy Chicago organizers wrote in a message to supporters as arrestees were beginning to be released: "There are some of us at the [Federal Reserve building], rain beating down, but we will hold. Others are waiting for our brothers and sisters who were arrested last night...Others are still in jail for having exercised their First Amendment rights. We are still here. We are regrouping. We will come back stronger and with more numbers soon."

Elizabeth Schulte contributed to this article.

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