On the Ground at Occupy Chicago

Nearly a month ago the Occupy Wall Street protest began in New York City, an attempt to put focus on the role Wall Street and corporate influence has played in the struggles of the United States economy. For two weeks it was almost entirely ignored by mainstream media outlets.

The crowd on the ground at Occupy Chicago Oct. 9 was more diverse than news reports have suggested.

If you heard about it, it was probably through Twitter. Then police arrested 700 protesters as they marched over the Brooklyn Bridge, and suddenly it was a story. The national media, however, has struggled to figure out how to cover it, mainly resorting to putting a couple of pundits at a desk to debate the merits of a protest they haven’t actually been to.

Viewed through the prism of the television news, the Occupy Wall Street movement appeared as a motley, chaotic group of jobless discontents.

Viewed through the prism of Twitter it read like a knowledgeable, well-organized group patiently searching for solutions beyond those being offered by political parties.

On Sunday, Oct. 9 I found myself in Chicago just as the Occupy Wall Street movement spread to the city. I made my way down to the corner of West Jackson Boulevard and LaSalle Street to see what this protest looked like on the ground, to see which, if either, version of the movement was closer to the truth.

“Banks got bailed out, we got sold out,” they chant as I arrive, not without a degree of anger. This type of chant is one that many in the media, such as CNN’s Erin Burnett, have fixated on to discredit the movement, pointing out that the taxpayers made money on the Troubled Asset Relief Program.

A self-described Libertarian (in bike helmet) engaged in heated debate with a couple of the Occupy Chicago protestors.

What Burnett misses is the larger point that by bailing out the banks the government absolved these institutions from responsibility for bad business decisions. The risk had been socialized, the reward privatized.

“If I make a bad choice, I pay for it,” says Laurie Searing, who works for a Madison insurance company and came down to the protest with her daughter. “They don’t.”

Pedestrians file by, occasionally giving a thumbs up, most saying little, not sure what they’re passing. One man, a self-identified Libertarian riding an old, gold, Schwinn bicycle, stops to debate with a couple of younger protestors. Then a muscled male in his early 40s bounces through, enthusiastically dishing out high fives.

“I support you guys,” he says, “I support what you’re standing up for,” before finding himself enmeshed in a circle of economic debate.

He says he’s a country musician who doesn’t agree with most of the politics associated with the genre. When one of the protestors makes a comment knocking capitalism, he offers an emphatic defense.

“Capitalism’s fine,” he says. “I don’t have any problem with a guy making a buck, but people in capitalism have lost their ethics.”

One of those in the circle is Scott Hiley, who has been at the protest on and off since it spread here Thursday, Oct. 6. I ask if many passersby stop to argue.

“Some people will walk through with their head down and mutter ‘get a job,’” he says. “But people are respectful, and so are we.”

Hiley, in fact, has a job as an assistant professor of French at Northwestern University. He tells me he lives a few blocks away from this corner. Most of the other protestors I meet have jobs as well. I meet several small business owners, freelancers and teachers on the sidewalk today.

Though Hiley says he is a liberal, he rejects efforts to give the movement a blanket label. People here are angry with Obama, angry with Congress, and tired of being ignored, not unlike another movement branded with blanket labels.

“I think the people in the Tea Party are motivated by many of the same frustrations,” he says. “I think a lot of what the Tea Party is after has been co-opted by, in some cases, racist language, but the system isn’t serving them either.”

The drum circle, mostly quiet today, has regained traction right behind us. We move up the sidewalk. I explain that it seems the media is struggling to cover the protests, now popping up across the country, because they lack a singular face or politician at the top.

Big banks and the bailouts have drawn the ire of protesters across the country who feel the banks did not have to account for their mistakes in the financial crisis of 2008.

“I don’t think anyone can represent this movement entirely,” Hiley says. “We need to work the levels of politics as well, but the people need to lead because nobody is leading us.”

“We, are, the 99 percent!” starts a new man with the bullhorn. The slogan has come to define the Occupy Wall Street movement as all-inclusive. It is not liberal, not conservative, but is attempting to force government to represent the rest of us, not the interests of the larger corporations and the wealthiest among us.

So why are they here? It’s difficult to sum up. Trying to represent 99 percent of any group is a difficult task. But if there’s a common thread it is to show that the status quo is unacceptable.

Washington has stopped making progress. Wall Street, after the financial catastrophe of 2008, went back to business as usual. The banks that were determined to be “too big to fail,” only got bigger, swallowing up their failed competition. The job market is terrible, people have lost their homes, and employees are being drowned in the mantra that they must sacrifice in tough times.

But at the two hearts of the collapse, Wall Street and Washington, business as usual continues.

Here, at the corner of West Jackson Boulevard and LaSalle Street, in the dark shadows of the towering Chicago Board of Trade, the Federal Reserve, and in a city cloaked in the red logo of the Bank of America as it sponsors the Chicago Marathon, a few hundred people try to change that.