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Occupy protests echo Chicago's activist past

Occupied Chicago protesters gathered near Congress Plaza this weekend. (Photo/Li
Occupied Chicago protesters gathered near Congress Plaza this weekend. (Photo/Linda Paul)

Organizers of Occupy Chicago say they’re intent on establishing a permanent base for the weeks-old movement. Demonstrators marched Saturday from the city’s financial district east to Congress Plaza, at Michigan Avenue and Congress, saying they intended to camp out for the night. Chicago police had other ideas, and some 130 demonstrators were arrested in Grant Park early Sunday morning. The demonstration had echoes of Chicago’s activist past. 

By now you’ve probably seen the video of protesters being loaded into vans as spectators taunted police. But if you were there, you might have detected a mutual orchestration on the part of police and protesters.

The formal announcement came at 11:00 p.m., followed by two hours of just holding positions. Demonstrators who agreed to get arrested sat peacefully in the plaza. Thousands who didn’t agree to be arrested sauntered out to the sidewalk. Police put up the barricades and stood in a sort of formation, some astride horses, and just, kind of, waited.

Officers staged the transport vans and sheriff's buses right on Michigan Avenue, and set up barricades so that hundreds of demonstrators could see as the arrestees got marched, single file along a kind of rope-line, snapping pictures of the sometimes smiling perps, one cop on each arm.

It was made for TV, and that’s probably the clip that you and all those potential NATO and G-8 demonstrators saw on the news.

The demonstrators were pretty good at staging, too, with a five-block march along Jackson and the triumphant “taking of the Horse”– facilitated by police and all coordinated with tweets, Facebook postings and the ubiquitous Human Microphone. But their biggest achievement might have been the number of ordinary Chicagoans they attracted.

RAMCA: I’m upset about the fact that in my block, my community has been very vibrant and the last couple of years vacant buildings, vacant homes are cropping up all over the place.

Joy Sigur Ramca says her daughter prodded her to come.

RAMCA: It’s just been really difficult, and I’ve said well something’s got to happen.

SOROCK: But our parents were able to make a decent wage and raise a family without college degrees, without fancy jobs and they had a very comfortable middle-class life and I think that is ending for people.

Teacher Alexa Sorock was there with her friend Chad Clark, who wasn’t as sure that keeping up with earlier generations is the biggest problem.

CLARK: We were over-consuming. I think a lot of people here aren’t asking to have three cars, vacations to the Bahamas three times a year, I don’t think that’s what people think is reality, or that’s what we’re fighting for.

So, on a beautiful autumn evening in Chicago, a few thousand folks gathered to hear speakers and to support freedom of expression in the parks, even after 11:00 p.m. With the Bowman statue overhead, a few of the speakers could be forgiven if they got caught up in the moment.

SPEAKER: Nothing like this protest has ever happened in the world.

Semi-retired professor Bill Kreml was wandering in the crowd.

KREML: This city is famous for the Haymarket affair, the Pullman strike, the Republic Steel strike in ’37, and so forth.  I can of course remember the Civil Rights movement. I marched for open housing in the south in 1967 and then we had the war, the Viet Nam war . So for the younger people it is the first time, for those of us who’ve been here, I mean, y’know… 

By 2 a.m. most of the arrests had been made and the crowd was thinning. But, as in protests past, events of the weekend are spilling over into the week. Chicago police say a handful of demonstrators will be heading to court, after a second night locked up.  

There’s talk of a protest march on City Hall on Monday.

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