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Occupy Chicago Mon Jan 23 2012
By Joe Macaré
January has been something of a resurgent month for Occupy Chicago, with a new indoor space secured just in time for a late-arriving winter, and the beginning of preparations for the "Chicago Spring," a mass rally and day of action scheduled for April 7.
But the last month has also seen something of a shift in focus, with a great deal of energy being spent protesting the 2012 National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA), Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA), and Mayor Rahm Emanuel's protest and parade ordinance. This hasn't just been in evidence just at protests and actions specifically organized around these issues: When Occupy Chicago made a conscious effort to get people back out to LaSalle and Jackson for a "Return to HQ" on Jan. 13, two of the first people there were young women handing out fliers about SOPA.
In some ways this is simply the result of timing and circumstance: President Obama signed the NDAA to mark the New Year, and the past week saw both the culmination of protests around SOPA (and its Senate equivalent, the acronym-within-an-acronym PROTECT IP Act, aka PIPA) and the passage of Emanuel's ordinance by the subservient City Council.
And much like the focus on police brutality and repression that emerged in New York, Oakland and many other cities, Occupy Chicago's preoccupation with issues of how the state deals with protest and dissent is itself a reaction to the state's reaction to Occupy. It's very easy to forget -- because police violence has been such a common occurrence elsewhere, and because commentators keep overplaying the CPD's restraint -- that arresting 300 people for sitting in a public park past curfew is not actually a proportionate reaction nor one in keeping with the spirit of the First Amendment.
"We've seen a huge reaction from state and local governments which has been violent and repressive," says Aaron Cynic, a contributor to Chicagoist who has been covering Occupy Chicago closely since it began in September. "That kind of reaction will make anyone conscious of larger issues concerning free speech and civil liberties."
However, this focus also reflects the interests and priorities of those involved. According to Cynic, Occupy Chicago "recognizes the correlation between legislation of this nature as far as it limits free speech and corporate control of government." He explains:
"The same politicians in the back pockets of Wall Street lobbyists are the same politicians who would support the dangerous provisions of NDAA. As far as SOPA and PIPA are concerned, since organizations like the Recording Industry Association of America and Motion Picture Association of America are the chief backers of said bills, connection between corporate control and free speech is pretty obvious."
When I asked Occupy Chicago activist Brit Schulte if there's a danger of distraction from the core message about corporate control of government, she was emphatic: "Absolutely not." For Schulte, who was on the frontlines of protests at City Hall during the Council vote on Wednesday, January 18, "The fight for censorship-free Internet access, free speech and protest are intrinsically linked and at the core of the Occupy Movement."
"This is the fight against the 1 percent's version of democracy," she told me. "We are struggling for people power. In order to win this fight we have to show solidarity in struggles where civil rights and liberties are under avid attack."
I'm reminded of something The Nation's John Nichols has said about media reform: That it should be every activists' second issue. The point being, corporate dominance of the media can prevent every activist's primary issue from being heard.
The same is true of police brutality, and the same is true of legislation that infringes upon civil liberties and freedom of speech. That's why representatives from so many different activists groups were at the press conferences that took place on Tuesday and Wednesday mornings, announcing their opposition to Emanuel's proposals even as we were all being reassured they had been revised and no longer posed any threat to the First Amendment. Even anti-abortion activists spoke up during the Committee Hearing on Tuesday, voicing their concern that their ability to protest would also be impeded.
Defenders of the ordinance have already to begun attempts to discredit anyone still unhappy with the final version. "The ordinance itself is not as extreme as many, with their own agendas, have made it seem," says Alderman Joe Moreno. Move along, nothing to see here. It's just radical professional troublemakers like Andy Thayer and Joe Iosbaker who are still complaining, right? Nothing that need trouble everyday, mainstream Chicagoans.
But as Adam Ballard of ADAPT pointed out on Tuesday, when he described the disability rights advocacy group as "the organization that brought you lifts on CTA buses" and the Americans with Disabilities Act, these victories were only accomplished in part through the use of direct action.
Hopefully Chicagoans will remember that what is everyday, mainstream and taken for granted now usually starts out as a radical proposal, and that protest, including non-violent civil disobedience, is an essential part of the process by which the latter becomes the former.
Joe Macaré is a writer and development and communications professional, originally hailing from the UK and now residing in Chicago. He is a contributor to the Occupied Chicago Tribune and has also written for TruthOut, In These Times and Global Comment. He has appeared on WBEZ radio and Chicago Newsroom to discuss the Occupy Chicago movement.