Standing up to clinic closures

Brian Bean reports on a struggle to maintain access to public mental health care.

Mental Health Movement coalition activists speak out against the closure of the Woodlawn Mental Health CenterMental Health Movement coalition activists speak out against the closure of the Woodlawn Mental Health Center

PATIENTS AND workers at the Woodlawn Mental Health Center on Chicago's South Side are taking action against budget cuts that will close half of the city's mental health clinics, including the one in Woodlawn.

Protesters from the Mental Health Movement and Southside Together Organizing for Power (STOP), among other groups, occupied the Woodlawn clinic overnight on April 12. Twenty-three people were arrested in the early morning hours after Chicago police broke in the back door of the clinic.

The next day, demonstrators set up a tent city across the street from the clinic, which they maintained around the clock until police moved in again, early on April 17. Protesters say they obtained proof from city property records that their occupation was shut down illegally, and they tried to set up tents again later in the day. But police broke up the second occupation as well, making several arrests.

The Woodlawn clinic is one of six clinics run by the city's Department of Public Health that are slated to be shut down on April 30. The closures will hit the predominantly poor and minority South and West Sides the hardest--exactly where the need for public mental health care is greatest. The closures will affect 5,300 individuals, 61 percent of whom are African American and 17 percent of whom are Latino. Yet according to department officials, the cuts will save a miniscule 0.03 percent of the city's annual budget.

Funding for public mental health services has been under assault for years in Illinois, declining by $150 million since 2008, a drop of 22 percent. The result has put terrible strains on the existing clinic system--and they will only get worse if the closures go through, contrary to the city's claim that shutting half its public mental health facilities is a "consolidation" of services.

The National Alliance for Mental Illness was already grading Illinois' mental health care system at a "D" in 2009, and this past year, the state was put on the alliance's list of the 10 states suffering the worst service cuts.

So this year's budget, pushed through by Chicago's Democratic Mayor Rahm "1 Percent" Emanuel, will only further shred an already fragile and deficient system.

Emanuel's claim that the cuts are necessary as a matter of fiscal responsibility is disingenuous and offensive. They are part of a wider plan for austerity that is hitting other parts of the health care system, as well as schools and library. Yet Emanuel has been able to raise $55.5 million in order to host the NATO summit here next month, and he handed out $100 million in tax savings to the Chicago Mercantile Exchange, where Rahm used to sit on the board.

For an organization dedicated to waging war abroad, Emanuel offers lavish dinners and entertainment. For the working people of Chicago who desperately need health care and other services, he slams the door and says "sit down and shut up."

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ON THE afternoon of April 12, activists took the latest step in the long fight to save the mental health care clincis.

Around 4 p.m., participants in the Mental Health Movement, which consists of activists, clinic workers and mental health consumers, along with activists from STOP, took over the Woodlawn clinic. They were equipped with provisions to last a month.

The protesters barricaded themselves inside the clinic by chaining the doors and building a physical barrier out of office furniture, metal gratings and cement. Outside, joined by activists from Occupy Chicago, a crowd of over 100 people formed to rally. Demonstrators sat down and linked arms at each of the doorways to form a human blockade, preventing entry by the increasing police presence.

Rousing chants of "Whose clinic? Our clinic?" and "Fight, fight, fight, health care is a human right" kept spirits high. Though a small group of police officers were able to get into the adjacent clinic early on, we were successful--despite several attempts by cops to push their way through--in not allowing them access to the door of the one that was occupied.

A long standoff ensued, with the clinic and those defending its doors surrounded by a growing police presence. Later, at about 12:45 a.m., police made their move--they used bolt-cutters, crowbars, hammers and, according to one report, a chainsaw to break into the back door of the clinic and cut through the barricade built by the demonstrators inside.

As police marched in to arrest those inside, we watched the whole scene from the front door, and the crowd seethed with anger and sadness as troops of armed officers arrested a group made up largely of mental health consumers, who were putting their bodies on the line to preserve the care that they required in order to make it through the day. Many of those arrested were elderly and not in good health, and at one point, a woman who required a walker was knocked over by the police.

The profane absurdity of a system that denies people the services they require to live and then criminalizes their attempt to speak out against this was obvious to all those who gazed through window.

Thinking quickly, we decided to move the human barricade to the alleyways leading to the back of the building, and surround the police line in order to prevent the wagons carrying those arrested from leaving. With lines of protesters at the three exits to the back parking lot, the police were unable to leave, and another standoff ensued while we continued our lively chanting and demanded the police release those arrested.

We maintained the blockade for nearly an hour, at which point one of those under arrest contacted us and asked that we discontinue our blockade to allow for quicker processing and release of those arrested.

The fight to preserve the clinics continues. But with a April 30th deadline for the closure of the clinics, there isn't much time. The link between clinic workers and mental health consumers is important. It's also crucial to develop strong ties with the community. The very lives of those involved may depend on this struggle.