It’s official: Occupy Chicago will return to the scene of the “crime” on Saturday—that’s if you believe that peaceful assembly and free speech constitute a crime. Last night’s General Assembly was the first one I attended since last weekend’s arrests, and it turned out to be a significant occasion. The meeting was primarily concerned with a proposal from the Direct Action Committee regarding where at which to set up camp on Saturday. There was no question that a direct action would happen Saturday (this had already been voted on)—just where. Two locations were on the table: Outside the James R. Thompson Center (formerly and still sometimes known as the State of Illinois Center), or “right here,” i.e. in the plaza under The Spearman statue at Congress and Michigan in Grant Park. This location, known as “the Horse” to Occupy Chicago, was where 175 people, including my friend and colleague Micah Uetricht, were arrested for failing to comply with the park’s 11pm curfew last weekend. The process by which the location was decided was fascinating, and the most well-organized and well-moderated instance of direct democracy I’ve yet seen from Occupy Chicago. First, a vote requiring the usual 9⁄10 super-majority was taken on whether to then have a simple majority vote between the two locations. The first vote passed with dissent in single figures: The Horse was triumphant in the second vote by a much smaller margin, and Occupy Chicago will be marching there from Jackson and LaSalle at 7pm tomorrow evening, “in the hope of creating a space where constructive debate and real democracy is possible” (according to a press release issued today). In an official statement from the same press release, the group says:“The 1st Amendment guarantees the American people the right to peaceably assemble. Tomorrow, we are going to use that right. Occupy Chicago calls on all local citizens to stand up and join us in this struggle. Our government is corrupt with money from corporate interests, and it is killing our democracy. America belongs to the people, and as the people, it is our responsibility to stand up and protect democracy when it is threatened.”
I won’t attempt to recap in full the pros and cons that were put forward last night about the two locations, except to note a few key factors. One involves choosing between the best site to establish a (semi-)permanent home versus the best place to make a visible stand. Visibility here means two things: Avoiding arrest and/or the alleged police brutality that has so far been avoided in Chicago but on display everywhere from San Diego to Melbourne, Australia. There is also a theory that goes: Since the Thompson Center is state property, and since Illinois Gov. Pat Quinn is more likely to be sympathetic to Occupy Chicago than Mayor Rahm Emanuel, this location will make arrests less likely. I am no expert on police jurisdiction, so I will just say that seems unlikely. I lean more towards the opinion of a member of the crowd who, when one speaker said “We need a place where we won’t be arrested,” replied quietly “There’s nowhere.” What might make a difference is numbers. According to Occupy Chicago, those arrested last weekend include union members from the Chicago Teachers Union (CTU), the Teamsters, UNITE HERE, and SEIU, and the hope is that tomorrow will see yet more solidarity from organized labor. The numbers game is fascinating, because to an extent it’s an as-yet-unanswered question: How many people need to be willing to sit-in around a camp before the CPD decide it’s impossible or just not worth it to try to arrest or move them all? It’s worth noting that while consensus opinion in activist and independent media circles is that Bloomberg, Brookfield Properties and the NYPD “blinked” last Friday morning on account of numbers, that has never been given as the reason by officials. Still, many members of the movement believe, as someone said at last night’s GA, that “If we have 1000 people willing to sit here, they won’t be able to move us.” Of course, holding the camp in perpetuity is another thing entirely. There’s a Catch-22 here: Right now, according to another speaker, the number of people picketing at LaSalle and Jackson can get as low as “two or three people” overnight. Clearly a camp would need more, but it’s also true that numbers get that low because that location doesn’t have anywhere to sleep, let alone shelter or infrastructure. Which brings us to another factor: “Shelter is a very important issue in this city in the upcoming season,” as one member rather mildly put it, arguing that the Thompson Center provides more shelter. But the Chicago winter was also invoked as an argument in favor of “the Horse,” on the basis that Grant Park allows more room to build structures. And finally, there’s the symbolic value. “We should be clear that Rahm is here to do the bidding of the one percent, and we should target him,” said a speaker, referring to Thompson Center’s alleged visibility from Mayor Emanuel’s window. Forcing a more open confrontation with Emanuel seems like a good idea to me. So far, the mayor’s been trying to have it both ways in terms of his response to the protest itself: He didn’t tell Chicago police Superintendent Garry McCarthy to make any arrests, they were just “in consultation and conversation.” But Emanuel also just issued a budget that among other things cuts funding for libraries and abolishes the city’s LGBT council, while his appointed Chicago Transit Authority President is already engaged in unionbusting propaganda similar to that his boss has used with the CTU. If there was ever a time to finger him as an enemy of the 99 percent, it’s now. Occupy Chicago’s official position, reiterated by Brit Schulte at the GA last night, is that they will not negotiate with the mayor’s office until charges from the 175 arrests are dropped. (They will, however, allow their representative from the National Lawyers Guild to meet with the General Counsel of the CPD at the latter’s request.) While this provides Emanuel the opportunity to claim that he has attempted to begin a dialogue and been rebuffed, I think this is a smart move, especially given the costs of the fines imposed last weekend. But the Horse has symbolic value as well. Another invoked the spirit of the protests outside the 1968 Democratic National Convention, saying: “I think we can follow in Abbie Hoffman’s footsteps.” More importantly, if the Thompson Center represents what they want to confront, the Horse represents Occupy Chicago’s home. Last night, it was clear to me that the Horse would be the choice for those voting with their hearts, and with that in mind, I made sure I could claim bragging writes by Tweeting my successful prediction before vote results were tallied. The winning location already has a catchy chant: “Whose Horse? Our Horse!” (Although the hope is that one day this becomes Horses, plural, when the camp becomes so large that it spreads to the adjacent plaza.) There is excitement and apprehension in the air: Last night a report came through that an individual was arrested at “HQ” (i.e. LaSalle and Jackson) for talking back to police after being asked to stop drumming. Clearly some were taking this as a sign that, as in New York, a crackdown may be coming. “The CPD is probably not going to be as nice to us this weekend,” said a member of the Safety and Security Committee, before reminding protesters, “We must be at the least cordial to them.” And after that? Winter is coming, in a city whose winter has an even more brutal reputation than its police force. But as another member of Occupy Chicago declared in a final rousing speech: “I’m willing to freeze for what I believe in. And I know that you guys are too.”
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.