In Focus: Occupy Chicago changes location, maintains goals

Katie Glueck

After a day of international protests in solidarity with America’s anti-Wall Street movement, Chicago police arrested about 200 demonstrators early Sunday morning when the protesters refused to leave the city’s Grant Park.

Demonstrators marched Saturday from the Federal Reserve Bank of Chicago to the park, where they set up a tent city and chanted slogans criticizing the U.S. financial sector.

The Grant Park rally, which organizers said drew about 2,000 people, was the latest in a series of events designed to highlight what protesters see as inequality and corruption in America. It was coordinated by people affiliated with Occupy Chicago, a local chapter of the national “Occupy” movement that protests the financial sector and launched in New York earlier this year.

“This movement is still in its infancy, but it’s growing rapidly,” said Max Farrar, a junior at DePaul University and a member of the Occupy Chicago’s outreach team, in an interview last week.

This fall, Occupy demonstrators are seeking to define the nascent movement, which now boasts a presence in cities across the country and around the globe. Occupy Chicago, like its Occupy Wall Street counterpart, condemns what its website calls the “corporate abuse of American democracy.” Beyond that, however, the national movement is characterized by its big-tent attitude, playing host to participants with a diverse menu of grievances. The broad nature of the Occupy movement is a source of both admiration and criticism – and it’s making waves around the world, from England to Evanston.

‘They’re doing something right’

On Tuesday evening, the eighteenth day of the Occupy Chicago movement, protestors – a number of whom sported septum piercings – held neon signs and packed the sidewalk in front of the towering Chicago Fed building downtown. Over the sounds of a drum circle and Bob Marley songs that blasted from speakers, the crowd chanted anti-Wall Street slogans as a few businesspeople wearing suits pushed their way through to the train.

Benjamin Singer, a 2010 Northwestern graduate, stood in the middle of the action, at the corner of Jackson and LaSalle streets, wearing a suit.

“I’m here now because the American financial industry received hundreds of billions of taxpayer dollars, and yet the spending on services for the most vulnerable people is cut and cut and cut,” said Singer, who is now employed by an organization that works with the homeless.

Singer was joined in the crowd by people expressing frustration about everything from the cost of a college education to the unemployment rate.

In interviews and through their campaign literature, activists said they believe Wall Street’s power needs to be checked. The method of reining in that influence and the question of how far to go are matters up for debate. Such questions are raised at daily meetings of the “General Assembly,” in which every announcement is magnified by a “people’s mic” – assembly attendees repeat each speaker after every few words – and meeting-goers express their approval, disapproval or ambivalence by raising or lowering their hands and waggling their fingers accordingly. The repetition of every phrase gives the impression that audience members are taking an oath, but anyone can hop in line to express an opinion, including a criticism.

Individuals who speak or shout out of turn, however, are admonished by fellow attendees to “stick to format.”

“They are trying to be non-hierarchical, they’re trying to be highly participatory,” said Jeffrey Winters, professor and director of the honors program in NU’s political science department. “They’re trying to symbolize their opposition to all of the power being concentrated in just a few hands.”

Winters, who signed a petition in support of the Occupy movement, said the initiative seems to have staying power.

“It’s very effective,” he said. “In the span of just a little over a month, (the Occupy movement) has spread to more than a thousand locations in the U.S. and has caught on all over the world. Well, surely they’re doing something right. It seems like they’ve hit on a message that is resonating very widely.”

Wall Street vs. Main Street?

In 2008, as major banks and financial institutions teetered on the brink of failure, the federal government offered a rescue package, or “bailout,” for several leading Wall Street firms through legislation called the Troubled Asset Relief Program. The bailout saved Wall Street, but the financial assistance has not trickled down as fully as many Americans would like, said Mark Witte, director of undergraduate studies in economics at NU.

It’s that perception of a double standard – bailouts for Wall Street and little for Main Street – that generates much of the resentment driving the Occupy protests, he said.

“There were some macro shocks and poor regulation that the financial sector was responsible for,” Witte said. “The response in 2008, 2009 was to bolster the financial sector to get it going again. And it’s been reasonably successful, the financial sector is doing pretty well, so I can sympathize with some of the unhappiness (expressed by the Occupy movement).”

But some, like former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney, widely considered to be the front-runner of the Republican presidential field, say the Occupy movement focuses too much on blame and not enough on solutions.

“The idea of dividing our nation at a time of crisis is the wrong way to go,” said Romney in ABC News’s coverage of a New Hampshire campaign stop last week . “All the streets are connected. Wall Street is connected to Main Street. Finding a scapegoat, finding someone to blame, isn’t the right way to go.”

The financial industry is taking some notice of the Occupy movement, although it is difficult to gauge how seriously banks view the demonstrations. The Mortgage Bankers Association, in Chicago for a conference last week, released a statement Oct. 10 acknowledging that “people in our industry contributed to the events that led to the financial crisis.” In the same statement, however, the association voiced concern about Occupy Chicago’s method of expressing frustration.

“We worry … that the focus of the protesters is about what isn’t working in this country, while inside this conference we are working on building a safe and sound system to support the dream of homeownership,” the statement said.

The Chicago Fed, along with several other banks, did not respond to a request for comment for this story. Representatives for JPMorgan Chase and Bank of America answered questions about minor protest-related disruptions at their Chicago locations but declined to answer questions about the Occupy movement.

Defining victory

The Occupy Chicago General Assembly on Tuesday night took place near Grant Park, drawing a crowd of around 100 people. The audience was mostly young and mostly white, and some attendees sported bandannas or fedoras. In the middle of an announcement, two young men ran up, breathless. Police arrested several people that afternoon, they said, for setting up tents in the lobby of the Hyatt Regency hotel, where members of the Mortgage Bankers Association were staying for their conference.

“They foreclosed on our homes, so we just needed to move into theirs,” said Kelvin Ho, a senior at the University of Chicago. Ho, wearing a suit and glasses, was one of those arrested, he said.

But in addition to disdaining Wall Street, Occupy participants say they’re united on another matter: commitment
to non-violence.

“We’re peaceful, not stupid,” said one demonstrator, as members of the crowd waggled their fingers in the air approvingly.

Another young man said the movement should pick its battles “so we’re guaranteed to win.”

Like much else in the movement, defining a “win” is difficult. For Farrar, the DePaul student, the Occupy initiative “wins” by raising consciousness about the state of the American economic system.

“We win when the people rise up and take to the streets,” Farrar said. “The goal is a mass movement.”

“Real change,” he added later, “happens from external pressure on the political system.”

And as protesters direct additional frustration at politicians, the most powerful one in the country has already taken note.

President Barack Obama expressed sympathy for the Occupy protesters earlier this month, saying they highlighted a “broad-based frustration about how our financial system works,” according to news reports. But Winters, of the political science department, said the movement – often considered a left-wing initiative – denounces the economic policies supported by Republicans and Democrats alike.

“This movement has risen on Obama’s watch, and it’s as critical of him as any elements of the political system, including the Republican-controlled (House of Representatives),” he said. “In that sense, it’s not really partisan.”

In fact, the movement is vocally non-partisan. But Winters said the Occupy initiative could still dramatically affect politics, especially as the 2012 election nears.

“A movement can change a political tone, and its ripple effects could be in ways that are hard to trace,” he said. “But it can change the dynamics around many kinds of legislation – what the government feels it can get away with in terms of jobs policies, in terms of how it treats Wall Street, what kinds of proposals the legislature will think will fly with regard to things like taxing the wealthy, welfare and so on. All of these issues could get changed by this.”

Changing the conversation

Two polls from last week suggest that the Occupy movement is gaining traction with a broader population. A Time magazine poll, conducted Oct. 9 and 10, found that 54 percent of American adults – most of them likely voters – had very or somewhat favorable views of Occupy. Separately, a Wall Street Journal/NBC poll from last week found that 37 percent of those surveyed said they tended to support Occupy Wall Street, while only 18 percent said they tended to oppose the protests.

Some NU students are also taking the movement seriously. Earlier this month, Weinberg seniors Will Feinberg and Nicholas Dre, SESP senior Alessio Manti and Weinberg sophomore Andrew Walker, were sitting in their apartment discussing the Occupy Chicago movement. Their views on the initiative – and the movement’s take on Wall Street – varied widely, but they agreed on one thing: NU students rarely demonstrate that level of activism about anything.

That, they decided, needed to change.

The four students, in conjunction with a few other students they select to join their executive team, said they will host a “Tea Party to Occupy the Rock” on Oct. 28 to announce their new organization, “Sincerely, America,” they said.

“To see the Tea Party as so strong, so pervasive, and to see the same thing happening on the left (with Occupy Wall Street) shows that now is the moment our generation finally says, ‘Sh*t, it’s time for me to wake up and find out what my country is,'” Manti said. “It’s time we enter that conversation.”

Their first event – a play on words that incorporates both the Tea Party and the Occupy movements – will be a launching pad for a broader NU movement that will mobilize on behalf of issues like greater government transparency and an end to bitter political polarization, Feinberg said.

“Our idea for our first event is most certainly influenced by Occupy Wall Street,” he said. “But more than anything, it’s a sentiment that … things need to change, and they need to change now. We’ve been inspired by Occupy Wall Street, by the activism (we’ve) seen by people in New York, Boston, Chicago … there’s no reason why we as students can’t stand out and be heard.”

The group will, however, shy away from some of the organizing tactics, or lack thereof, found in the Occupy movement.

“My problem with Occupy Wall Street is that it … gets caught up in the cultural upheaval (that says), ‘Let’s just love the problem away,'” Manti said. “They have yet to prove they can get it together, that they can be practical about getting the change they want to see in society.”

Benjamin Singer, the NU graduate protesting Tuesday, said he agrees the Occupy movement’s message can be vague, but that’s not stopping him from joining.

“You see so many issue areas, the different demands – everyone has their own frustrations,” Singer said. “That’s part of what makes it nebulous, but part of what makes it beautiful.”

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Editor’s note: This article has been updated to make a grammatical change, as per the request of the writer.