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Health Care Thu Apr 12 2012

Politics in Woodlawn: Occupation of the Mental Health Clinic

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Politics. A candidate for office envisions his 30-second campaign commercial. He wants five solid accomplishments he can read as bullet points. At least one, he knows, needs to be about saving the taxpayers money. To look into the camera and say, "Faced with a budget deficit, I made the tough decisions and cut X million dollars from the budget."

The thirty second commercial is meant to drive a narrative. So the value of X is less important than the fact of savings. And the consequence of that X is even less so.

Despite what we've come to accept, that campaign commercial is not politics--it's the ephemera of politics.

Politics is what is happening at 63rd and Woodlawn, on the border between a rich neighborhood and a poor one. There, twenty Chicagoans, most of them consumers of mental health services critical to their ability to survive and function in society, have barricaded themselves in a city-run mental health clinic as a last-ditch attempt to save the facility from closure, to ensure they can keep getting the services that mean little to millions of Chicagoans but mean the world to them. Mean everything to them. Make the difference between quality of life and unbearable hardship.

In order to cut the budget, Mayor Emanuel moved to consolidate twelve mental health clinics into six, and privatize the city's six public health clinics. The closure of the Woodlawn facility means consumers of these services will be forced to travel longer distances, into unfamiliar neighborhoods, and seek services from unfamiliar caregivers faced now with more burdensome loads.The uninsured may face serious gaps in care.

Impassioned pleas to the Mayor to negotiate to mitigate anticipated consequences of this "cut" have gone unheeded for months. So health care consumers--not some "special interest," not a political interest group, but people with serious mental health conditions--have done the only thing left to them, as they face the closure of their clinic at the end of the month: occupy it to force the Mayor to negotiate.

Despite assurances that there will be no change in quality care, the consumers of services have not been assuaged. One must assume that is not for no reason; that the closure of their clinic, the severing of their relationships with their care givers, will have some effect not accounted for. So they've thrust themselves physically into the bureaucratic machine to stop it and force those making decisions to deal on something of an even level with those who feel the consequences of decisions.

To do this, they entered the facility late Thursday afternoon, and beginning at 4 p.m., used cement, impromptu fencing, chairs, vending machines, and chains to barricade themselves inside the clinic, where they are prepared to stay.

Meanwhile, outside, nurses, clergy, local residents, and other allies--as many as forty as of 10 p.m.--sat in front of the doors to protect their friends within. No less than fourteen Chicago Police Department vehicles, along with several County Sheriff's department cruisers, had blockaded the section of Woodlawn between 63rd and 64th Streets. After the news media left around 10:15, plainclothes cops in hoodies and jeans arrived. The atmosphere began to feel a bit more tense, as those assembled outside began speculating as to when the police would move in and try to remove the occupiers by force.

A press event is planned for ten in the morning at the clinic. In the meantime, the Mayor has a decision to make about the politics of campaign commercials versus the politics of human need.

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