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Sunday, Oct 16, 2011, 12:10 pm

The Daily Occupation: Testing the Limits of Freedom

By Joe Macaré

Occupy Chicago set up camp in Grant Park during a General Assembly on the evening of October 15. (Photo: Meg Groves)

The text of the First Amendment to the United States Constitution reads as follows (bolding mine):

"Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances."

As a foreign national residing in the U.S., reverence for the Constitution has sometimes been hard for me to understand, but the importance of that particular Amendment has always been clear.

Yesterday, as part of a Global Day of Occupation, men and women around the world took to the streets to protest the ongoing global economic inequality and the inordinate power of corporations (The Guardian has a good overview). In several cities, that led to clashes with the authorities. In the U.S., the protests put to the test the extent to which elected officials and the police believe in the First Amendment. And the results were revealing.

For coverage of what happened in New York City, read Allison Kilkenny's first-hand account for The Nation, in which she describes "a dramatic confrontation between the NYPD and protesters in which individuals were almost mowed down by police motorcycles, nearly trampled by horses, and ultimately ninety-two activists were arrested."

See also video of the arrests in Washington Square Park filmed by Mother Jones reporter Josh Harkinson, who narrowly escaped arrest himself, and the astonishing video of the arrest of one of 24 people who committed "criminal trespass" by entering Citibank, in many cases as customers who wished to close their accounts. Citibank have since released a hilariously weaselly statement, saying the people who entered the branch "were very disruptive and refused to leave after being repeatedly asked," but also taking no responsibility for a response widely viewed as disproportionate:

“To be clear: no one was arrested for closing an account; we didn’t lock people in our branch – the police decided to close the branch; and we didn’t ask for anyone to be arrested -  that is a police decision.”

And then there was Chicago.

On Friday night, I had attended the Occupy Chicago General Assembly held at Congress and Michigan, and had not been filled with confidence by the fact that discussion of the action planned for Saturday did not seem to be on the agenda.

Moreover, there seemed to be serious divisions within the group regarding this: Specifically whether the location at which to camp out should be made public now, or only revealed on the day itself. At the GA, it was announced that several locations were still being considered and I assumed a vote might take place immediately before the group marched to their decided campsite; by 1:52 AM that night, Occupy Chicago's Twitter corrected me that "There will be no vote on location. We voted on occupying in general already."

However, there was a certain genius to the way in which Occupy Chicago carried this out. A crowd reported to be between 1,000-3,000 strong (and rumored to include rapper Lupe Fiasco, although it's not clear how long he stayed) gathered around LaSalle and Jackson, where Occupy Chicago has been demonstrating outside the Federal Reserve Bank for more than three weeks. They then marched down Jackson, bringing traffic on all cross-streets to a standstill, and temporarily closed Michigan Avenue on their way to the GA spot.

There, under what Occupy Chicago calls "The Horse" or "the racist Indian statue" (it's originally called The Bowman), the GA took the form of a series of representatives from supporting organizations making speeches of solidarity. These speakers included a strong organized labor presence: Jesse Sharkey, vice president of the Chicago Teachers Union, a representative of Teamsters Local 705, and Stand-Up Chicago, who announced they would be staying overnight. Overnight, right on this spot: during these speeches, the first tents were put up right there in the middle of the GA, shielded by the crowd.

In a moment of superb irony, as the tents were erected the word "IDEAS" could be seen in giant illuminated capitals on the Blue Cross Blue Shield building, proclaiming that the last seven days have been the JPMorgan Chase sponsored Chicago Ideas Week, featuring as speakers not only Mayors Bloomberg and Emanuel, but also everyone's favorite teacher-vilifying education "reformer," Michelle Rhee. (See more photos of the night's events on Occupy Chicago's Facebook page.)

We already know that the right of the people peaceably to assemble is not an idea of which Michael Bloomberg approves, and last night it became clear that Rahm Emanuel shares that sentiment. Police announced that the curfew for Grant Park was 11pm, and that they would "respond" at that time to the presence of tents and anyone who remained in the park.

It took several hours, but respond they did: What had been a relatively small police presence was joined by vans and mounted units, and after turning on floodlights and announcing "You are in violation," police moved in to dismantle tents and arrest those who were inside and who were sitting or standing with linked arms around them. 175 people were arrested: Among them was regular In These Times contributor Micah Uetricht who managed to send updates via Twitter even while "chilling" in a police wagon, wearing cuffs.

Despite pleas from various speaker for everyone attending the GA to remain, Occupy Chicago did not have sufficient numbers to make eviction a difficult prospect; or rather sufficient numbers willing to face arrest. Organizers had been careful to remind people to consider the level of legal ramifications they were willing to face, and a crowd estimated to reach 250 people massed on the other side of Michigan Avenue to support those arrested and chant "shame!" and "the whole world is watching!" to police.

However, protesters in general praised the Chicago Police Department for the way in which the arrests were conducted: One by one, and by all accounts as peacefully as possible. "CPD were incredibly nice," Uetricht said via Twitter shortly after being released this morning, while another In These Times contributor who witnessed the arrests, Aaron Krager, described them as "Incredibly peaceful arrests. Have to commend CPD on the slow way they took the arrests." Of course, this is also a testament to the behavior of Occupy Chicago and those who engaged in non-violent civil disobedience with them.

It's also an appropriate reflection of the message that Occupy Chicago (and the wider Occupy Together movement in general) has sent to police all along: "We are the 99%, and so are you."

But all that being said, the fact that the CPD have not engaged in the kind of excesses that have disgraced the NYPD in the eyes of the world and marred demonstrations in several other American cities should not obscure two things.

The first is that last night marked a significant shift in Occupy Chicago's relationship with the CPD. Until now, the movement has worked with police to carry on their protests without any arrests, but the feeling that a "mobile" occupation was not enough eventually prevailed. Occupy Chicago has gone from zero arrests to 175 overnight, and it will be interesting to see how they, the CPD and Emanuel act next.

And the second thing to note is this: No matter how well-behaved individual members of the CPD may have been, what happened in Grant Park last night was still a travesty of the First Amendment.

I was one of a handful of volunteers who were allowed, after giving their names to police, to re-enter the plaza in order to remove any food or water (but not tents or personal belongings other than our own) that was left among the ruins of the short-lived camp. Picking through the collapsed tents, suitcases, sleeping bags and blankets strewn on one side of the plaza was a dispiriting experience.

The small corner of park at Congress and Michigan was described by one member of Occupy Chicago as "this place we have come to love" when discussing possible campsites earlier in the week. Now it has become the site of a major turning point in their movement.

Joe Macaré is a writer, editor and development and communications professional, originally hailing from the UK and now residing in Chicago. His writing has appeared at In These Times, TruthOut, AlterNet, Dazed and Confused, The Times, Plan B and Stylus. He has appeared on WBEZ radio and Chicago Newsroom to discuss his extensive coverage of the Occupy Chicago movement.

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