Occupy’s Chicago Spring

Claire Hungerford

Political movements can be hard to maintain–especially when they intend to publically bear the force of weather, police, and internal debate for as long as it takes to bring about change. In the earliest days of Occupy Chicago (OC) way back in September, thousands of people showed up at the city’s financial district in the Loop to protest a political system that is “carrying out the agenda of the 1 percent.”

When the demonstrators could no longer fit on the sidewalks of Jackson and LaSalle–perched either outside the Bank of America, or kitty-corner, in the plaza outside the Chicago Board of Trade–they moved to Congress Plaza Gardens just outside of Grant Park, where wide, shallow steps and plenty of open space made it easier to see and hear all of the group’s members. For even larger demonstrations, they’d move into Grant Park itself. The group set up overnight encampments, held general assemblies, endured at least 300 arrests, and began to take shape as a bona fide movement.

Today, a good day at a general assembly (GA) brings in about 25 people, many of whom are “been-here-since Day-1” members. But it would be unfair to presume that the movement is floundering–the last two months have been some of its most productive, as the group has organized around the NATO summit, occupied Brian Piccolo Elementary School along with parents and students, and prepared for what they’re calling the Chicago Spring: weeks of demonstrations with other city-wide organizations to inspire the social conscience of Chicago.

While the group’s first plans were voted on outside, these days the conversations have taken place indoors. Since the end of January, OC has conducted its business from its headquarters at 500 W. Cermak. The Riverfront Work Lofts house artist studios, offices, and now two “working units” for the movement’s storage and meetings. But as the days grow warmer, OC has begun its movement back outdoors, and is working to figure out what that would mean for the indoor space they fought hard to obtain.

In the early OC days, crowds flooded the streets night and day, armed with signs, megaphones, and sleeping bags. But the movement struggled to keep account of its own goals and proceedings. Ryan Metz, a research technologist and member of OC’s Secretariat Committee, the group that helps set the agenda for each GA, said, “I became a walking filing cabinet. I had all of our files and archives in my backpack, and had to be out there every day. All I wanted back then was a filing cabinet. It was unsustainable.”

(Claire Hungerford)

The movement reorganized in order to get most of its day-to-day activities running like well-oiled machines, following relatively strict procedures voted on during general assemblies. In fact, a proposal entitled “Well Oiled Machine” passed early on to smooth out procedures for announcements, proposals, speakers’ lists, and voting at the GA meetings held four times a week. Two-dozen functional committees were formed to handle issues of housing, the press, social media, arts and recreation, education, and so on.

But as the weather facing outdoor demonstrators and overnight campers became colder and snowier, the crowds began to thin. People worried that the movement would be incapable of persisting through a Chicago winter.  “Everyone understood intuitively that we needed an indoor space,” said Metz. “People really believed that when we got the space, everyone would come out again, everyone would come back.”

Despite a consensus on the necessity of an indoor encampment, securing a specific space was far from easy. A Housing Committee was created to research real estate options and devise a list of four prime locations to be voted on during GA. Metz, who also happened to cast the final vote, said, “It was the single most contentious issue in our occupation’s history.”

Daily committee meetings and dozens of threads on the movement’s website debated the relative merit of locations around the city. The four options that were eventually brought to the table included Printer’s Row, the South Loop, a “no place at all” option, and a Cermak Road space in Pilsen. Placement was such a heated issue that the group temporarily switched to approval voting just to decide the location, with the option garnering the greatest number of votes deemed the new winter headquarters.

Though an anonymous benefactor, nicknamed Benefactor X, offered to put up half the rent, the group proceeded conservatively. Many preferred Pilsen because it was the cheapest option that included a roof. “We only had so much money from our benefactor, and the other options for their sizes just weren’t affordable,” said Metz.

Footage of the housing issue’s final December vote has been placed on YouTube–in the end, OC voted for the Pilsen option. At the end of the video, OC member Danielle Villarreal faces the camera and comments on the movement’s decision to move to Pilsen: “I am extremely excited this was approved tonight, finally, and that we will be moving into this location, in a blighted area that needs a lot of help, which is suffering from injustices across the board.”

After the votes were counted and the Pilsen space was officially chosen, the crowd began to bounce up and down, shouting, “WE ARE UNSTOPPABLE, ANOTHER WORLD IS POSSIBLE!”

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“The way I originally conceived of it is by saying to people, ‘Look, this is going to be the coolest place to be in the city. It’s going to be artists, musicians, and activists plotting the peaceful revolution,’” said Metz.

And in some ways, the two spaces on Cermak–501, on the fifth floor, where tech rooms and office spaces are located, and 700, on the seventh, where GAs take place–have served their purpose as a creative, political hub for the movement.

“It’s a really cool place. We have amazing teach-ins, we’ve had conferences, we have beautiful artwork on the walls, food, murals,” said student and occupier Larissa Pittenger. The combined space is about 7,900 square feet of exposed brick, huge windows, desks, and, to many members’ relief, filing cabinets.

Between the night the decision to move to Pilsen was made, in the beginning of December, to the first indoor GA on January 20th, a month and a half went by. “That’s when people stopped showing up at GAs,” said Metz. “Because people felt like there wasn’t anything immediate to do.”

Chris Ivanovich, a member of the Press Committee, has an explanation: “It was winter, and fucking cold. Numbers were bound to drop.” But even after the move-in, Ivanovich concedes that the indoor meetings did little to encourage growth: “The movement was kept alive by conversations between smaller groups, in committees and around proposals. In that way, Cermak succeeded.”

At the Cermak site, they’ve also been building up a People’s Library (now at somewhere near 800 books), collecting art by members of the movement, and dealing with the normal problems that come from living and working in a shared space. Though members claim they effectively scared away the G8 summit through their aggressive organizing, participation in committees and at GAs has continued on a steady drop.

“There are probably 3-10 people right now who go to every GA, and spend most of their time at Cermak,” said Ivanovich. He adds, “but there are probably 20-30 more who are just as committed, but maybe are students, or have a job, and can’t make it out all the time.” The heart of the movement, it would seem, has moved from general assemblies to committees and smaller groups organizing around specific demonstrations.

Priorities for some members may have shifted, but others speculate that the space itself began to pose problems that distracted from OC’s movement.

During the GA on March 30, a newer member named Mandy took the figurative mic. “My name is Mandy, I’m going to Cermak later to sleep. I’m also going to eat there, drink there, and not do any work there,” she yelled. “Someone stop me. Please, somebody kick me out.”

Mandy’s rant was in reference to a proposal to ban a member who consistently visited Cermak to use the space’s Internet and store his things. He allegedly used threats of violence to bully other members into letting him stay late into the evenings, though he never attended GAs, and participated in none of the committees. That proposal passed with no opposition and four abstentions.

The last proposal on the floor was, in a way, an extension of the problem of policing members within Cermak. Members debated whether or not to hand in a 60-day notice for the 501 Cermak working unit, with proponents arguing that the space is a drain on resources and source of intra-movement conflict, discouraging regular participation by new potential occupiers.

But for opponents of the proposal, which was eventually tabled, the root of the issue is that the movement has yet to find a way to really take advantage of its indoor component.

“All we do now in 700 is stuff we could do in 501, and all be a little closer,” said Sam Sandmel, a member of the Press, Secretariat, and Social Media committees.

Where other Occupied cities, like Oakland and San Francisco, have fought desperately for an indoor location, Chicago is the only occupation discussing its relative merits and challenges. Members like Metz, who wasn’t present at the Friday GA, believe OC can work both in and outside of Cermak through the spring. “We have a great resource, and if we throw it away it’ll be a shame.”

During GA, a member named Margo summed it up: “Underutilized space to me sounds like underutilized minds.”

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“The beauty of Chicago Spring is that it’s going to bring local and global issues into one space,” said Ivanovich. The events are clearly meant to evoke the revolutions during the Arab Spring. “We view them as brothers and sisters fighting in a companion struggle,” added Sandmel.

The Direct Action Committee has already made plans for two months worth of events, in conjunction with several other committees, numerous outside groups like STOP (SouthSide Together Organizing for Power), and the Chicago Anti-Eviction Campaign. On April 7, the kickoff day for Chicago Spring events, the Bridgeport Alliance is hosting brunch in the neighborhood’s Benton House Gardens community center to discuss local issues; the autonomous group Occupy El Barrio is hosting a Carnaval del Barrio in Pilsen “for a celebration of arts and city wide solidarity”; and Rev. Jesse Jackson, Sr. will be hosting a panel discussion with Rainbow/PUSH on the Occupy movement.

At 1pm, the smaller events will converge at Jackson and LaSalle, spending the rest of the afternoon at Butler Field, where workshops have been scheduled to engage in conversations about NATO, education, housing, and the movement. More demonstrations are planned for the following weekends in April, and other major events are slated for May Day, eventually culminating with marches and protests for the NATO summit on May 20 and 21.

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During GAs last week, the group decided that Occupy would put in their 30-day notice, as per the lease agreement, to shut down the 700 space loft, where GAs never took up the full 2,500 square feet anyways. It will be vacated by May 1.

On the table Friday was whether or not to keep 501 open during that time by putting in a 60-day notice, terminating their stay in Pilsen on June 1. The GA began when a critical mass of around twenty people clustered on the corner of Jackson and LaSalle. It was only the third GA held outdoors this season, ushering in an awkward transition from the Cermak space. A member named Sugar (her “revolution name”) called for the assembly to begin around 7:20.

When the “stack” of speakers who wished to comment on the close of Cermak opened up, members urged one another to remember that, at its core, the movement is a public demonstration of widespread dissatisfaction.

“There were a lot of important things that happened at Jackson and LaSalle, but there are a lot of things that can’t happen out there. Because it’s noisy, because there’s weather, because you can’t block the sidewalk with a bunch of people with laptops out. I would just hate to lose that space and to have our indoor space be the McDonald’s again,” said Sandmel.

The issue was ultimately tabled. There were too few people at the assembly, and those people were too cold to be able to reach a meaningful decision that night. Some went back to Cermak, while others found their way home.

On Saturday’s GA, the issue was tabled for even longer. Benefactor X was out of the country, and it was proposed that official decisions be held off until their return. By the end of April, the benefactor will be back, and the movement will be able to ask questions about the stipulations of their contribution, and come to conclusions about how to proceed.

In postponing the decision, it is guaranteed that 501 will remain open at least 30 days after May 1, through the start of June. But by that point, it seems likely that the space will be mostly abandoned as a place for public assembly. Chicago Spring has all but guaranteed that events taking place all over the city will put the focus back on Occupy’s outside demonstrations, and, in all likelihood, revive interest and participation.

“The most amazing feeling in the world was sitting, eating, and talking outside during those early months,” says Trina, a member heavily involved in the Arts and Recreation Committee.

Adds Bunny, another longtime member, “It’s where we’re supposed to be.”


Disclosure: Chris Ivanovich, a masters student at the UofC, has contributed to the Weekly.