When and how will the street corner “occupations” in progress around the country, mostly consisting of young and newly poor whites, connect with black, brown and poor communities who have been here all along. Our managing editor reports from Occupy Chicago
From Occupying the Financial Districts to Occupying the Goods in Our Hoods
by BAR managing editor Bruce A. Dixon
The south end of downtown Chicago's LaSalle Street dead-ends at a gray concrete canyon thirty stories deep. Its east, south and west walls are Bank of America, the Chicago Board of Trade, and the Federal Reserve Bank of Chicago. At street level, depending on the day and time, you can find anywhere from 20 to several thousand chanting, drumming, sign-waving, caucusing demonstrators, mostly but by no means all white, and mostly again, but certainly not all young. This is Occupy Chicago.
I came straight there from the airport the afternoon of October 5, and hung around for an hour or two. There were a hundred or so on each side of LaSalle Street and forty or fifty more facing them from Jackson. Between the chanting and the cars and trucks honking their support, normal conversation was a challenge. At 3PM an organizer with a bullhorn announced their general assembly, and two thirds of the crowd moved to the east side of LaSalle Street.
The corporate media rap on these occupations is that participants are “unfocused” and don't know what they really want. But in the first twenty minutes of this Occupy Chicago meeting they adopted a resolution demanding the withdrawal of all US military forces from outside the borders of the US, and the closing of all the Pentagon's military bases on foreign soil. A local TV station interviewed one young man the following Monday, who insisted on the forgiveness of student loans. A friend who called me from Atlanta told me that Occupy Atlanta was including something about “mass incarceration” in its core demands. Didn't sound that vague and unfocused to me.
On Saturday, not quite a thousand marched from the Occupy Chicago site down to Grant Park and joined a rally at which I spoke observing the tenth anniversary of the invasion of Afghanistan. They joined about twice that many and stepped off into the sunshine for a two mile walk through Chicago's Loop. The number of marchers grew a little, hitting five thousand by the time we paused for ten minutes in front of Barack Obama's campaign headquarters before returning to Grant Park. Neither the president, who wasn't there anyhow, nor any of his minions came down to greet us.
The event, and Occupy Chicago too, are overwhelmingly white. For a city that's still a quarter black after losing some 200,000 African Americans in recent years, that's problematic. I didn't see any Latinos either. This was less true on Columbus Day, when transit and teachers unions and SEIU swelled their ranks for an afternoon. But the union leaderships in Chicago have been Democratic Party functionaries for a long time. Their clear objective is to take over, or at least take some credit in the eyes of their members and the public, for the protests.
I asked some south side activists about the nature of their disconnect with the people occupying Chicago's financial district.
“We'll see a lot more black people involved in this occupation stuff,” J.R. Fleming of the Chicago Anti-Eviction Movement told me, “when we start occupying these thousands of vacant bank-owned homes and apartments. You can take a day to protest downtown, and come back here and you're still homeless or about to be homeless. When we occupy the goods in our hoods, that will be the occupation that means something to people out here. That will be the occupation that really makes a difference.”
That about says it. Different constituencies have different interests. Coalitions are built when differing parties adopt and lend tangible support to each others' interests in order to further their own. If the people on those corners can reach out to the communities out here for who economic insecurity and the prison state have long been facts of life, they could give birth to something truly important.
The student loan bubble, along with the shrinking job market has made newly poor white hipster kids mad enough to stage 24/7 street corners protests in scores of US cities, where they have connected with longtime leftist and community activist types, often older and not always white. These are helping keep them focused on the connections between the warfare and prison states and the unavailability of funding for anything else. Establishment Democrats try hard to co-opt them into narratives that place exclusive blame on those awful Republicans and Tea Party scoundrels blocking our brave president. Toward this end, Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton have showed up at street corner occupations, and the likes of Warren Ballantine and Michael Baisden have reportedly done segments from the same. The president himself has issued carefully worded statements that those still thoroughly drunk on hope may interpret as endorsing or even taking credit for the street corner protests. Democrats desperately need to contain this protest, to make sure its message of disgust for both the two parties is not communicated to its own disillusioned base (black) voters.
The Occupy Everything Movement's reliance on electronic and social media is problematic too. Late Sunday night I sat across the table from the friend I stayed with while in Chicago, both of us on our laptops. He asked if I received the two emails he'd sent earlier that day.
“Here's one,” I told him. “I don't see the other. Can you send it again?” He did. When it hadn't showed up a full five minutes later, he sent it again a second time. I told him to copy my Gmail address too, and he did that, and sent a third time. Nothing. No message on my end, no error messages on his. I was able to send to him from that email account, though.
“I'm gonna try something....” he told me. A moment later, he asked if I'd received an email from him. “Yeah, here it is right here,” I said. He jumped up from the table laughing and went to pour himself a drink. The subject of the vanishing message was “Occupy Chicago” something or other. He had removed the word “occupy” and the message went through. I checked my Gmail account, and they were not landing there either. In the next half hour I had him send to my yahoo, hotmail, gmail, aim.com and godaddy webmail accounts from a variety of addresses, with the word “occupy” present, absent, and misspelled. Gmail rejected all messages with the correct and incorrect spellings of “occupy,” whether sent from hotmail, yahoo or AOL, while letting the control messages through. GoDaddy webmail let the control messages through and those in which “occupy” was spelled “ocuppy.” But with the word spelled correctly, those messages vanished too. I checked another GoDaddy webmail account, not mine, to which I had access. The “occupy” messages were showing up just fine there.
We both had a drink, and went to sleep.
Bruce A. Dixon, a lifelong Chicagoan, is managing editor at Black Agenda Report, and based in Marietta GA, where he serves on the state committee of the Georgia Green Party. Contact him at bruce.dixon(at)blackagendareport.com.