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Breaking With Convention: Occupy Chicago Protests GOP in Tampa, Democrats at Home
(Photo: Lig Ynnek / Flickr)

Breaking With Convention: Occupy Chicago Protests GOP in Tampa, Democrats at Home

(Photo: Lig Ynnek / Flickr)

On September 17, Occupy Wall Street will mark its one year anniversary with a spirit somewhere between celebration, outrage, and the need to reaffirm its own identity and significance. But in Chicago the Occupy movement seems to have other priorities for September, namely protesting the Democratic National Convention and supporting the likely teachers’ strike.

Some activists from Chicago will travel to New York City for #S17, of course, and Occupy Chicago will mark its own anniversary on September 23. But, as was the case in May when preparations for NATO trumped involvement in the national Occupy “General Strike,” Chicago is operating on its own schedule – perhaps to the movement’s benefit.

“GOP 1% Go Home”

Convention season being the exhausting gauntlet that it is for media and activists, some of those planning to protest the DNC only just returned from the GOP equivalent in Tampa, FL. Arun Gupta has pointed out some of the dangers of Occupy involvement in protests at the Republican National Convention:

The right would unleash a world of pain on most Americans. But the nature of our endless electoral process, which sucks all the oxygen out of the brain, blinds most Obama supporters to how the Democratic Party is complicit in pushing our politics to the right.

This is a problem that affects far more people on the left than just those who still identify as part of the Occupy movement (and it will be interesting to see how the “independent” media covers the DNC itself and the protests around it).

But for Occupy Chicago activists like Danielle Villarreal, travelling to Tampa to protest the RNC wasn’t about partisan politics. Instead, Villarreal’s opposition to Republicans like Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker stems from class analysis. She says Walker’s speech at a Faith and Freedom Coalition event was targeted “because he represents a figure that’s completely out of touch with the working class and is denying the importance of unions, which provide support in the struggle of the working class.”

The banners that read “Walker Hates Working Families” and “Walker Has a Koch Problem” were just two of four that Villarreal was involved in dropping (as seen on Democracy Now!): the others were from a condo building overlooking one of the “public viewing areas” designated as protest zones (“Mitt Ain’t Sh*t” on a 9′ by 49′ banner), and from a billboard that overlooked both the temporary “Romneyville” camps and the highway that delegates leaving the convention would have to drive on (“GOP 1% Go Home”). It’s “a nice message for them to see as they left,” Villarreal says. In addition to being heavily involved in these “independent direct actions,” Villarreal says she was also peripherally involved in protests including a disruption at the Republican Governors Association Dinner carried out primarily by minimum wage workers.

Villarreal rejects any idea that Occupy participants protesting the RNC can be seen as a tacit advocacy for Obama as a false argument: “To say that if you’re against one side then you must be for the other – it doesn’t make any sense to me.” Instead, she says:

I think it’s anyone’s job to call attention to anything that’s corrupt or anything that’s not being done well. If you have any type of politician that’s supposed to be representing the people and they’re not, then it’s our duty as citizens, or as non-citizens even, unfortunately, to call them out on that regardless of where they’re coming from.

It seems like many occupiers from across the country agree with her. According to at least one report, more people affiliated with Occupy are protesting the DNC than were at the RNC, and Charlotte has already been the scene of protests that are ongoing as I write.

Occupying the DNC from Chicago

I wasn’t able to confirm that any members of Occupy Chicago were traveling to Charlotte to protest, but this doesn’t reflect a fondness for the Democrats. On the contrary, the reason occupiers in Chicago will be staying home is because they have their own series of protests planned, targeted directly at a man this city has often liked to claim as its own: President Barack Obama.

Villarreal was also involved in planning the actions being promoted as “Occupy Obama,” and says they arose from members of Occupy Chicago “feeling it necessary to call out the fact that while a lot of people want to support Obama because they feel he’s the lesser of two evils, he still is highly problematic and needs to be called out and criticized especially in a time when he’s running a giant commercial for himself.”

“Our location is pretty key here,” says Kelly Hayes, also involved in planning this week’s actions. “Chicago is Obama’s hometown. We have Obama’s National Campaign HQ. That gives us a unique opportunity for action that is hard to ignore.” But it’s nothing personal or partisan: “If Romney were headquartered here, he’d have fared no better.”

Hayes says she is one of those who four years ago believed Obama “might affect some desperately needed change.”

Instead, he catered to the bankers who looted our economy, he escalated our military endeavors abroad and he gave us indefinite detention. The litany of disappointments we’ve been handed by this administration is mind-blowing. Obama’s presidency is proof positive that aligning behind progressive ideals at the polls will not save us. He is owned by the same members of the 1% that own his Republican equivalent. Such men are not public servants. They are corporate servants.

Another Occupy Obama organizer, Matt McLoughlin, acknowledges that any protest targeting Obama in Chicago “obviously was not going to be a popular idea,” (more on this to come) but “was a really important thing to do” (perhaps for that very reason – it’s certainly been ducked by some others on the left, even when criticizing other worthy targets).

“The main reason we decided to do this was to help separate Occupy from the Democratic Party, which a lot of people tried to pigeonhole us with, or they envisioned us as being the Tea Party of the left,” says McLoughlin.

We definitely don’t see ourselves as that and don’t see the Democratic Party as being much different than the Republican Party. Most people within the Occupy movement and on the left in general have already recognized that Mitt Romney doesn’t represent the 99%, but there’s still an illusion that Barack Obama in some way, shape or form cares about the 99% or wishes to enact policies that would represent the 99%. Going into the election, we thought it was really important to try to highlight that they’re not all that different. We keep seeing these same false choices play out over and over again in our elections, and we need to start thinking about moving beyond our electoral system in this country.

The actions begin Tuesday evening with an event that invites participants to “Reject President 1%, End Obama’s Wars On The World’s 99%.” These wars don’t just refer to foreign policy (although Occupy Chicago’s model drones, as seen at the Air and Water Show, will be there), but also to alleged wars on the working class and on the environment (as characterized by the authorization of the Keystone XL pipeline and the push for clean coal). Accompanying the drone replicas on a march from Jackson and LaSalle to Obama HQ will be 12 caskets bearing the words “Hope” and “Change” and the message “Rest In Peace,” representing both the abuse of these concepts in Obama’s campaign rhetoric and the thousands of human casualties of drone strikes.

McLoughlin hopes these actions will send a message to other Occupy branches around the country: “that it’s okay to take a stand against Obama, that we need to call him out for what he is, if we ever want to see the kind of world that we’ve been talking about for the past year.”

Is Rahm Scrambling?

Chicago’s week of dissent and trouble for the Democrats has already begun, of course: Monday’s rally in support of the Chicago Teachers Union’s fight for a fair contract pulled more numbers than Occupy Obama could hope for, and gave us the unforgettable spectacle of City Hall surrounded by teachers and supporters in red chanting “Hey hey, ho ho, Rahm Emanuel’s got to go!”

The timing of the Occupy Obama action and the build-up to the likely strike wasn’t planned. For Obama, Arne Duncan and Emanuel, it’s very bad timing that the CTU’s fight coincides with the DNC (assuming anyone in the media connects the dots), but for pro-labor activists like Villarreal, it’s good synergy: “It’s great that it’s happening at the same time, because it’s a galvanizing thing to see so many people in the streets again.”

Contrary to what Alderman Joe Moreno (himself a big UNO supporter) told me in February, Villarreal doesn’t see any difference between how the Republican governor of Wisconsin and the mayor of Chicago view working families. “They’re pretty similar! I don’t understand how Rahm even considers himself a Democrat – as little as I support that party, it doesn’t make sense considering their typical platform.”

Education is another issue which highlights the Democrats’ tendency to favor corporations over ordinary Americans, not to mention the gap between Democrat rhetoric (which with a few notable exceptions still throws the workers a bone) and policy. The battle between the Chicago Teachers Union and the Board of Education has shone an undeniable spotlight on this issue.

Not all Democrats seem to have gotten the memo about co-opting Occupy rhetoric: Juan Rangel, executive director of UNO, the largest charter school network in Illinois, recently bitterly attacked the city’s public school teachers while lavishing praise on “Chicago’s wealthy community” and dismissing the 99% vs. 1% framing as “silly talk.” Rangel then went on to dismiss comparisons with Republican New Jersey Governor Chris Christie by saying that he’ll be at the DNC rather than RNC – which would rather seem to make Occupy Chicago’s point for them.

Emanuel will now be returning to Chicago in time to catch more of the Occupy Obama protests, after being asked to return on the pretext of hosting a viewing party, but with the near-inevitable teachers’ strike widely believed to be the real reason. “I would hope that that’s got him scrambling,” says Villarreal.