The Steady Occupation: Should Obama for America Be Embarrassed by Chicago’s Emanuel?

Joe Macaré

This week, the White House went further than ever before in implying that the grievances of Occupy Wall Street will be served by the Obama administration. In a conference call on Thursday designed to put pressure on Senate Republicans to confirm Richard Cordray to head the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau,” according to the Huffington Post, Deputy Senior Advisor to the President Stephanie Cutter said:The sentiments that lots of people who are out there as part of Occupy Wall Street’ have… those sentiments are shared by lots of Americans. Having Richard Cordray in place obviously would help them.”Unfortunately for Obama, however, this week has also seen several incidents that highlight why any attempt to harness the Occupy movement is going to be problematic and less than convincing, to put it mildly. They all revolved around the American city with which he is most closely associated and from which he is running his 2012 re-election campaign: Chicago. On Friday, Obama for America sent out an email in the name of Campaign Manager Jim Messina, encouraging people to volunteer by invoking then President-elect Obama’s victory speech made in Chicago on November 4, 2008. Unfortunately, the subject line Remember Grant Park?” evokes other, more recent associations for anyone familiar with the Occupy movement and in particular its Chicago version: The 175 arrests on the night of October 15 – 16 and around 130 arrests on October 22 – 23, carried out with the approval of Mayor Rahm Emanuel.
Messina’s email states “A lot has happened since that night in Grant Park.” He probably didn’t intend it to be read “A lot has happened in Grant Park since that night,” but as someone who works in communications, I’m aghast on a purely professional level that nobody involved in the Obama campaign read this email and said, “Wait a minute, what about the Occupy Chicago arrests?” (Or maybe they did, and were thoroughly chastised for their negativity.) Apart from anything else, Messina, or someone in Obama for America, should surely have considered the demographics of the Occupy protesters, and the likelihood that this astoundingly tone-deaf email would arrive in the inbox of people who voted for Obama in 2008, have become greatly disillusioned with the president since, and in October watched their friends and co-protesters arrested for exercising their first amendment rights a few hours later than Obama’s former Chief of Staff could tolerate. Is the Obama campaign’s plan for Occupy Chicago to just ignore it and pretend it doesn’t exist? That seems remarkably naïve. Then again, having attended General Assemblies and marches and spoken to members of the movement (full disclosure: my partner is on the Press Committee, and at this point I feel I’m edging towards being as much a participant as an observer), I can say with some authority that attempting to co-opt this particular local iteration of the movement isn’t going to work. Occupy Chicago is highly aware and on the look-out for attempts to bring them into the fold, and fiercely resistant. Some (but not all) within the movement might welcome support from local, quote-unquote progressive Democrats like Representative Jan Schakowsky, but the presidential re-election campaign? It’s not going to happen. And in the meantime, Occupy Chicago seems to be making up for their continued lack of a permanent space by taking part in a seven days a week, ongoing campaign of actions, large and small, many of which tend to have the side-effect of drawing attention to Mayor Rahm Emanuel and his policies even when he’s not the direct target. This week, as David Moberg reports, a hundred-plus librarians, children parents, library patrons and supporters gathered in City Hall outside Emanuel’s office to protest the budget that would cut a third of the full-time equivalent library staff to save about $8 million in a $6.3 billion budget.” And on Thursday morning, Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker came to address the Union League Club of Chicago, only to be interrupted by protesters who used the human microphone” or people’s mic” to temporarily derail his speech. Video, filmed in part by In These Times contributor and Grant Park arrestee Micah Uetricht, has already made its way onto MSNBC’s Up with Chris Hayes, and can be seen in full below:(Hilariously, several media reports have described the protesters, who were at the brunch because they paid for tickets to the brunch, as “disguised in suits,” as if a suit is something a labor organizer or even an unemployed protester would only have in his or her wardrobe for the purpose of sneaking into a fancy-pants event.) Both these events had an Occupy Chicago presence, even if they were originally organized by someone else (Stand-Up Chicago in the case of the Walker breakfast). But perhaps the most interesting and, for the Obama campaign, embarrassing part of Walker’s visit was not the protesters but what Walker said himself. According to Uetricht, during his speech the notoriously anti-union Governor of Wisconsin praised the budget proposal of Chicago’s Mayor not once, not twice, but three times. One has to wonder how mutual the admiration is, whether Emanuel would ever admit it in a public forum or not. After all, as Ben Joravsky and Mick Dumke revealed this week in a must-read Chicago Reader cover story, Emanuel met for an hour in July 2011 with Mark Furlong, the CEO of Harris Bank, a Scott Walker donor. Appearing on Fox Chicago, Joravsky speculated that Emanuel sees his time as Chicago’s Mayor as a stepping-stone to something else. (Joravsky will also be leading a teach-in on the TIF program for Occupy Chicago… right about now, on Saturday afternoon, November 5.) When members of Occupy Chicago talk about making Rahm Emanuel a one-term mayor, they’re probably not thinking of him going on to higher office boosted by money from the same kind of CEOs who’ve bankrolled Gov. Walker. But then, that’s not the kind of narrative that I’d want circulating if I was Jim Messina, either. After all, Oakland Mayor Jean Quan can be cut loose fairly easily and with little embarrassment to Obama himself. Rahm Emanuel? Not so much.
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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