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Occupy Chicago Tue Oct 18 2011

On The Street With #OccupyChicago

by Daniel Hertz

Evelyn and Josh come running across Michigan Avenue from the Grant Park side, where the Chicago police are in the process of arresting almost two hundred protesters and dismantling their tents.

They're laughing. It's two in the morning.

Evelyn runs up to another demonstrator, puts one hand on their shoulder, and hunches conspiratorially with her back to the line of cops guarding the sidewalk. There are about five hundred people on this side. Because it's not in the park, and therefore does not close at night, the police are not arresting anyone on the east side of the street.

"If I start gesticulating, and pointing this way," Evelyn says, waving her hands now to the left, "they'll think I'm ordering people around." She's still breathing heavily from the run. "They think I'm a leader. I'm not actually saying anything, but they'll think we're doing something!"

She bolts the group that's formed around her and starts jogging around the sidewalk, pointing at people.

"We'll start counting people! They'll think we're starting something." I must have a quizzical look on my face, because she stops for a moment and says, "The cops said they have their eyes on me." She points two fingers at her eyes, and then at mine. "Like that." She starts counting again.

Soon, though, she and a handful of other protestors have to do something other than pantomime leadership, as the passionate, but more or less orderly, character of the protests is threatening to break.

The arrests have been happening for about an hour now, but it's not at all settled what the reaction from the protestors should be. The Occupy Wall Street movement has repeatedly expressed its dedication to nonviolence, and the Chicago branch-unlike, say, in New York-has generally had a good relationship with the police. But as the full paddy wagons drive off, a group of about twenty people is chanting, "This is what a police state looks like!"

When a city bus pulls up to take away the remainder of the arrested protesters, a buzz runs through our side of the street. Some people want to block the bus, form a line of bodies so it can't leave.

Erin disagrees. She has not been elected to any leadership post in Occupy Chicago; more to the point, there are no official leadership posts to be elected to. But she has a megaphone, and announces herself as a "police liaison."

"This is the red light side," she says to a gathered group of people who are visibly angry. "The people over here are here because they can't, or don't want, to be arrested. If we block the bus, everyone is going to jail. We need people to be here to continue the occupation."

A young man objects. "Who's making this decision? We need to show solidarity!" People are agreeing with him. There are shouts at the police.

"Mic check, mic check!" Erin says through her megaphone. She has short, pink hair, black pants and a black jacket, skeleton-print gloves, a flower-print purse, and cowboy boots. She says "Mic check!" again before everyone stops, repeats the words, and turns to listen to her. "If you want to get arrested by stopping the bus, you can. But if you want to help the cause, work as a group! Let's stick to our guns. Continue as a group if you want to succeed!" No one leaves the sidewalk.

A few minutes later, an ambulance pulls into the median of the street, its lights and sirens on. People are alarmed. Almost instantly, it seems, people are shouting that someone has been maced by the cops. One man says he saw it happen-that a guy was maced after he had been handcuffed, and points to someone being held up by two police officers on the other side of the street. "That's the guy."

Other people join in. "I saw him writhing! We need a badge number!"

Evelyn shouts over them, "I need to know if that's real! I need to know if that really happened!" The chanting on this side, which had been a standard "The people, united, will never be divided," has changed to "Shame! Shame! Shame!" Evelyn asks the nearest cop if she knows why the ambulances are here. She shakes her head.

Erin volunteers to go to the other side to see what happened. The line of police are not letting anyone cross to the park-I had asked about an hour earlier and been rejected-but they seem to know Erin, and let her through. I'm a step behind her and they don't stop me this time. When we get to the other side, no one has heard of anyone having been maced. "The worst thing that happened," one protestor tells us, "is that someone's cuffs were on too tight. We got them some ice."

Erin goes back to relay the news. People calm down. The chants go back to normal.

It's close to 3:00 am now. It's about 55 degrees. There are only about twenty-five people left on the Grant Park side.

Evelyn sits on the sidewalk. "There's nothing in the tank for Evelyn. I've had nothing to eat but coffee today." She laughs. "I forgot to eat. Fuck!"

Josh comes and sits down. He takes out a cigarette and hands Evelyn a granola bar. "Oh my God," she says.

"I love you."

"I love you more!"

As they're sitting, people are coming up to them, telling them they have to leave, but they'll be back. An older man comes by and says he's going home for the night.

"Thanks! I love you!" Evelyn says. "Say hello to your wife and tell her we need you!"

Another woman kneels down, kisses her forehead, and says, "Thanks honey, thanks so much," before walking down the street.

"We're not leaders, I just want to make that perfectly clear," Evelyn says to me. I ask her about Erin, how she became a police liaison. "She just did. That's how anyone does anything. They have an idea, and they do it. The occupy movement is all about empowering individuals to take action for the good of the movement."

Soon she's called away to the curb. There's a wagon with laptops and a small camera that's transmitting a video feed. Apparently the protestors in New York are projecting the Chicago video live, and they want someone to talk to them. Evelyn and Josh give interviews.

After a few brief moments when a handful of people tries to get everyone to rush the police and free the people left in Grant Park, and then to create a petition demanding their immediate release-both proposals quashed by Evelyn, Erin, Josh and a few others on grounds of impracticability-there is a debate about what to do once all the protestors on the other side of the street have been taken to jail.

A young man with dreadlocks wants to march to the Thompson Center, where there are state offices, and occupy it. Erin says they need to go to the jail to support the people who were arrested. Evelyn agrees: "This needs to be a family decision, not a political decision."

They agree, with half a dozen people around them nodding, to go down to the jail at 18th and State, a little over a mile away. "We need to get everyone together in one big group!" Erin says.

Evelyn volunteers to call the remaining protestors-maybe two hundred people-together. "Everyone knows me."

"Shit, after tonight everyone knows me too!" Erin says, like she's kind of surprised.

They are sitting again, waiting for the last people to be arrested. As opposed to Erin, who looks the part of a left-wing activist, both Josh and Evelyn are dressed fashionably but conservatively. Josh is in an argyle sweater, layered over a blue collared shirt with a gold-colored tie; Evelyn is in jeans, with a plaid jacket and a white and grey scarf.

She says she's from Westchester County, New York; her family was never as wealthy as her neighbors, and she "felt like I didn't fit in." She graduated from the University of Chicago two years ago. She does graphic design work as well as tutoring-she had to get up at 6 am today, almost twenty-four hours ago, to work a test prep job.

"It's hard to focus on the outside world now, though," she says. "But I don't think this will happen again in my lifetime." She joined the protests on their fifth day, and became part of the "press corps" on the sixth. Why? "There were no women on it then, although now it's quite diverse. I'm not afraid of talking. And I can...there's a need to be objective. There are hundreds of thousands of people invested in this movement, and you need to be able to put personal beliefs aside and speak for people."

What does she think the movement's goals are? "It's hard to say without any sleep. But this is just the twenty-third day. People are like, get a message. We have groups working towards a message. But this is really about community. People of all backgrounds agreeing the country is broken. Everyone agrees that the 99% have been completely disenfranchised."

Josh chimes in. Like everyone else I've talked to, he feels the need to begin with, "We're not leaders." He pauses. "We're just some people taking initiative."

He tells me he's a law student at John Marshall. Why is he here? "I think the purpose is to change the relationship between corporate America and the government. We have an image in the media of being very haphazard. But we're very focused. The relationship between government and the people is not right. I'm not anti-corporation. I think corporate personhood is correct. But we're saying the government needs to make decisions for us, not corporations. That's pretty clear if you ask me."

Someone comes by looking for a bathroom. "There's on in the Congress Hotel," Evelyn says.

"Is it public?"

"It is if you pee in it."

Suddenly we look up and almost everyone has left for the jail already. A few dozen people are still milling around. Apparently they heard the announcement and decided to follow it before the announcers were quite ready.

"Yeah!" Evelyn says, half amused and half frustrated. "This is what democracy looks like."

They gather their things and get ready to join them, by way of the original protest site at Jackson and LaSalle, in front of the Chicago Board of Trade and the Federal Reserve. As we leave, Evelyn notices that someone has spray-painted graffiti on the door of a hotel: "Don't feed the greed!" "Oh, God. Does someone have a pen and paper? Can I get some paper to leave a note? We should pay to repaint this. I want to leave a note saying we'll repaint this."

Josh is saying goodbye to the police, and thanking them. "I just wish everyone had gone home," one officer says. He's slumping a bit. They've been standing there for about five hours at this point. "I mean, you guys made your point. Now everybody just gotta pull their money out of banks-Chase, American, all that."

Josh thanks them again and runs back, clearly excited to relay the conversation.

As we're walking, Josh and Evelyn are practically skipping down the street. They're talking fast, trading statistics about how many followers and retweets they've had on their Twitter stream.

"Everyone is watching us," Evelyn says.

"We had the most arrests of any city in the country!" Josh says.

"Not that that was our goal."

"Right. But still."

In front of the jail, Erin is directing people to a van that's taking them to a church nearby, where there are blankets, food, and other supplies. "Mic check!" she says and everyone says it back. "The van pickup is on this corner. Line up here if you need to go back to Grace." The plan is to keep up a presence in front of the jail as people are released. At six am, when the park reopens, they'll reoccupy it.

I ask her about herself. She's from the suburbs, and is now a freshman at Roosevelt majoring in political science. She's twenty-two. "This is my third try at college. For the last few weeks, my studies have been kind of neglected. I spent the last few days trying to focus on work, but it's not relevant when there's a general assembly outside my classroom window, and on the blackboard there's something about the social effects of inequality. What am I supposed to do? Leave. That's the only thing to do."

Why is she doing this? "I want to make sure my parents have Social Security." She says she used to be a Democrat, but now considers herself an independent. "I don't think it matters when Congress is made up of different kinds of bitches."

Someone comes up to her and asks if she knows where another protestor is. She can't place the name. "I've met hundreds of people," she says, "and they all have the same fucking name." She stops for a second.

"There was some guy, either Dan or Nick. But he's legally blind and he was arrested. I need to make sure he gets out okay."

She gets a call from Grace Church to see if there are more people who need to go back. She makes the announcement and another dozen people line up at the corner. She checks her phone again. She has forty-eight messages.

She looks at all the people around her. "I had no idea I had so many friends."

*Last names have been withheld at subjects' requests on grounds of their safety.

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Jeff Burdick / October 18, 2011 4:40 PM

The Occupy Movement, which I have supported in person and online, is all about active expression. Especially in Chicago and Illinois, we are too accustomed to just assuming all the corruption will never end, but ironically it is partly our lack of active involvement (even staying up on civic issues) that contributes to their perpetuation. As a humor writer, I've seen the same among the local comedy ranks. When was the last time you saw really penetrating, knowing local political comedy? I have to go back to the days of Aaron Freeman and his "Council Wars" act in the 80s. My attempt to combat this comedic apathy is a series of lampoons of Rahm Emanuel entitled "Rahms' Hand." Hope you enjoy and comment on them:

Erin / October 19, 2011 1:02 AM

Thanks, this is gorgeous. You can keep my last name, I don't mind. Hope to see you soon. I'll bring a fresh mini-Molskin and a decent pen. No more dirty red-eye notes. (*personal response-off the clock-unoccupied)

Rodger Malcolm Mitchell / October 20, 2011 2:45 PM

If Occupy Chicago every gets a leadership, he/she would do well to read: Suggestion for progress.

That will help them greatly.

Rodger Malcolm Mitchell

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