Life after occupation

Arun Gupta visits Mobile, Alabama and Chicago, and asks: Can an occupation movement survive if it no longer occupies a space?

Emily Schuler, a Mobile native and college student, says the Occupy movement made her rethink her place in society, calling it “one of the best things that has ever happened to me.” Schuler says, “I love Mobile, but it’s ultra-conservative.” She explains, “I always felt like the black sheep because I sensed that the way the world was working was not good … There is a lot of pain and suffering. I think it has a lot to do with the way the system works. Because right now it’s profit over people. And it should be people over profit.”

To the world-weary in New York, a silent protest and proposition that the American system values “profit over people” may seem prosaic. And it would be prosaic were it not happening in a place like Mobile, Ala., and all over the United States. Dozens of occupiers have told us this movement is an “awakening” for them or for others.

One eye-opening aspect of our evening with Occupy Mobile was that none of these people knew each other a month before. The movement has created a new political community virtually overnight.

“We all felt alone,” Chelsy Wilson says. “Now we know that’s not the case. We’re going to try to reach out to other people who feel this wa … People say they have a new hope for Mobile. A lot of us were looking for jobs outside the city, we wanted to move away as fast as we could, and a lot of us have changed our minds. We want to stay here now.”

In smaller, conservative cities, the creation of a new community may be success enough for the movement, enabling a new network to consolidate and spread its message without a public encampment. But for larger cities that already have a strong progressive presence, the experience of Occupy Chicago is more relevant — and more sobering.

Occupy Chicago is forging ahead with maintaining a public presence despite never having established an occupation in the first place. It’s not for lack of trying. On two consecutive Saturdays in mid-October, Occupy Chicago tried to take Grant Park, known for Chicago’s head-bashing police plying their trade during the 1968 Democratic National Convention.

On the day of the second action, Oct. 22, we caught up with the protest as it was marching to the horse, a statue that provided the rally cry, “Take the horse.” It was impressive compared to New York. A march some 3,000 strong, bullhorns, banners, resounding chants and marshals providing a buffer from the police. Occupy Chicago felt like any of hundreds of demonstrations I’ve been on in the last 20 years. To be fair, the energy and stakes were higher, but it seemed like protest as usual. It was far better organized than Occupy Wall Street’s chaotic peregrinations — and that was the problem.

In New York, Occupy Wall Street actions surge with electricity. No one quite seems in control because everyone is in control. Amoebic blobs of protesters break off and take the streets. Chants are thrown out, and the hive mind picks a winner. It is atavistic, often lacking signs, denied sound systems and shunning permits, but powered by hearts, lungs and passion. Exciting and unpredictable, it attracted greenhorns, drove the cops nuts, paralyzed Bloomberg for weeks and captured the world’s attention. That was why it worked and why the boot came down in the end.

In Chicago, the first time protesters tried to take the space on Oct. 15, 175 people were arrested. We were there for the second round of arrests of about 130 people. I talked to Jan Rodolfo, a 36-year-old oncology nurse and National Nurses United staff member. While preparing to be arrested along with other union members and scores of others, Rodolfo said Occupy Chicago needed “a permanent encampment because it allows the movement to grow by creating a central place for people to come. ”

Another activist said, “It would have been a big victory for the students, unions and other groups putting their efforts into the movement.”

It wouldn’t have just been a victory; it would have created a different movement. What made occupations in New York City and other cities so successful is that they brought new people into the movement in droves. Chicago has strong networks of activists, unionists and community groups, which are all involved in the Occupy movement. What they were missing was crucial: the people who were previously non-political.

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