Wednesday, January 2, 2013

Occupy Chicago - One Year Later

A few weeks ago I attended the Occupy Chicago General Assembly in an attempt to understand what the organization had been doing over the last year. The Occupy Movement, started as "Occupy Wall Street" in New York City, fell out of the mainstream spotlight as the winter weather and presidential politics overwhelmed the protestations of "the 99%" against the control of the elite. I joined some friends at one of the events that Occupy Chicago held last fall in Grant Park, and remembered thinking that this movement would last as long as it had the ability to bring large crowds to conspicuous locations in Chicago, Oakland, Zuccotti Park, and beyond. But I doubted its ability to survive the winter.

But survive it has. Twice a week for the past year, Occupy Chicago has met on the South side of the city in an old warehouse off of Cermak. So just as my curiosity led me to Grant Park last fall, I ventured down to the Occupy Chicago headquarters to see what the group had been doing as of late.

The first hurdle to overcome was gaining entrance. I brought with me a friend who had connections to the Occupy Chicago organization, but as we circled the building, we were stymied by the utter lack of accessibility. There was one doorway along an alley, but the address did not match the one advertised on the group’s Facebook page. Finally we were able to make contact with a regular Occupier and gain entrance. Once inside we were guided by a series of signs through a winding series of hallways, up a well-worn service elevator, and to a suite of rooms who's door pronounced "Occupy Chicago". Once inside, we meandered through several rooms littered with signs of previous protestation and banners of social education into a back room bearing a loose circle of metal folding chairs. There were a half-dozen citizens of various demographic already gathered and discussing topics of general interest when we arrived, and we joined the circle. At the first available moment, I explained my intentions and asked the group permission to record their session. The facilitator, a young man named David, asked the group for a temperature check - an informal vote taken in traditional "Occupy" fashion. Members of the group either wiggled their fingers up in approval or downward in disdain. This action, one of several unique parliamentary customs that are commonly harnessed by Occupy movements, drew one negative vote, which led the facilitator to respectfully ask that I not record during the broader conversation.

Listen to an exerpt from my conversation with David here.

The facilitator quickly created an agenda through an open call for topics. Seven requests were distilled into three items: the escalating Israel/Palestine conflict and what Occupy Chicago could do to affect that deteriorating situation, an Anti-Austerity organization is planning an event and would like to call upon the Occupy Chicago movement for solidarity and support, and an overarching discussion of Occupy Chicago’s mission, failures, and successes over the last year. It is worth mentioning that the final topic was brought to the floor by my friend, assumedly for my benefit. Before opening up the floor for the business that had just been identified, there was an opportunity to call upon the group for support or awareness of anything coming up in the near future. One woman brought to the group a request for support at her upcoming court appearance. She told us how she had been arrested and detained for six hours before being charges with “Criminal damage to federal property” a felony charge for what turned out to be chalking protest epithets on a sidewalk outside a federal building. Upon hearing the charge, the group erupted into sardonic dissent against the arresting body. One attendee mentioned that according to state law, this charge was only applicable if the graffiti was “permanent and damaging”, not quite descriptive of sidewalk chalk.

After a short break, the group dove into the aforementioned topics. When they began to discuss the strengths, weaknesses, and direction of the organization, I quickly saw two visions for Occupy arise. Several members spoke of the group in the language of social justice and organization akin to the civil rights movement. They spoke of the need for unity and public demonstration – “Occupy has become fragmented. We need to establish a movement…gain public attention.” Another member spoke of the need to empower people, beyond the Occupy Chicago members. “We don’t want to be ivory tower activists”, referring to the predominantly middle class and student representation over the last year.

Others, aligning more with David’s philosophy, see a real value in the fragmented influence of the Occupy movement. One member mentioned that the attention paid to “income inequality” during the presidential election was a direct result of the Occupy rallies in late 2011. It was asserted that the organization cannot only be measured in rallies and public events. “We need to also measure the intangibles…It’s not just the event. It’s engaging the community before and after.” One of the participants brought up a protest at a local Dunkin’ Donuts (Dunkin’ is owned by Bane Capital). “The workers are the victims, but we didn’t engage them. We didn’t have their backing.” This camp of Occupy saw the definition of purpose including education of the community and growing passive support among non-members. These members felt as if Occupy is fighting against corruption on behalf of the oppressed, but the oppressed aren’t always with them. This model is unsustainable.

Over the course of the evening, words such as Marxism, Socialism, Centrist, and Anarchist were dropped in describing some aspect of the Occupy Movement. I found it intriguing that such different philosophies could be applied to one movement. But by looking at this organization as the confluence of multiple organizations that bear a common grievance against the abuse of power in our society, these conflicting ideas make sense. I left this Occupy Chicago meeting with just as many questions as when I entered, but they are now different questions. My view of the organization is from a different perspective. It’s not the question of “what is Occupy?” That question is too simple. The question is ever evolving. When, who, where, and why is Occupy? At any given moment, the answer might be completely different.



  1. Chris, your after-college life is so intriguing ;)

  2. Nice writeup. Would love to hear more specifics in the future.