When the Mortgage Bankers Association decided to hold their annual conference in Chicago, they weren't counting on a welcome committee. What they got was more than 7,000 protesters taking over the road underneath their downtown rooftop reception at the city's Art Institute, chanting, “We are the 99 percent” and “How to fix the deficit? Tax, tax, tax the rich.”
Take Back Chicago, a coalition of labor unions and community groups, were joined by Occupy Chicago in the first of a three-day series of demonstrations around the Mortgage Bankers Association meeting.
The protests aims to highlight the three main pillars of the city's hurting communities – jobs, housing and education – and change policies in these areas that favor corporate giveaways.
The education arm of the Take Back Chicago march. (Photo: Mario Garcia-Baeza)
“What we're seeing here is another sign that average working Americans have joined forces to regain the economic opportunities that were stripped from them when big banks and corporate Americans ran the economy into the ground,” said Elizabeth Parisian, spokesperson for Stand Up! Chicago, the organizing coalition.
Illinois' unemployment rate in August 2011 was 9.9 percent, compared to a 9.1 percent national rate, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. In Chicago, 10.5 percent are jobless, and this rate jumps to 27 percent for youth, according to Stand Up! Chicago.
Action Now community group marches. (Photo: Mario Garcia-Baeza)
Ramiro Lopez, 21, is one of the employed youth, but says that his job brings him into contact with the issues faced by low-income workers.
Lopez, carrying a sign at the march saying: “Capitalism sucks,” works for the environmental justice group Little Village Environmental Justice Organization and said that what he sees daily is “the bosses want way more money for themselves, and to let the workers keep on working for the lowest wage they can.”
Mortgage bankers on roof, with protest sign. (Photo: Mario Garcia-Baeza)
It's many of these same low-wage workers that have been caught in Chicago's housing bubble, the second arm of Take Back Chicago's troika of issues.
In August 2011, the Chicago area saw a dramatic increase in home foreclosures – a 30 percent increase since July 2011 and, despite Illinois receiving a chunk of stimulus money, one-third of the homes in the city have underwater mortgages.
Shelly Ruzicka, director of operations at the ARISE Chicago Worker's Center, says that in the experience of the center's members, after a worker loses their job, the next domino to fall is often the security of their housing.
Protesters surround the Art Institute. (Photo: Mario Garcia-Baeza)
Along with the worker-members that could make it out on Monday to make their voices heard, there were “hundreds affected by these issues who couldn't make it out today,” Ruzicka told Truthout.
Chicago's education landscape has seen rising tensions among the new mayor, Rahm Emanuel, his appointed Board of Education and the Chicago Teacher's Union (CTU). The attacks on the third-largest teachers' union in the country have included a bill passed by the state that will restrict teachers union's right to strike, a rejection of inflation raises for Chicago teachers by the school board and widespread pressure for Chicago teachers to work a longer school day at a minimal pay raise.
Kati Gilson, a pre-K teacher who says that her public school is starved of resources, told Truthout that education is often where the poorest individuals first experience institutional neglect, long before they get jobs or attempt to own houses.
“Our kids are getting shafted,” said Gilson, who has taught on Chicago's low-income West side for 17 years and says that her students are starved of resources. “They don't have a certified librarian so they can't check out books, and our science teacher just came back this year.”
Kristine Mayle, the CTU's financial secretary, said the march “shows that the people of Chicago do support teachers.”
The three marches all began in different parts of the city and marched to the central rally, where ARISE Chicago says 20 people were arrested.
The significance of the protests falling on Columbus Day also didn't get past some of the protesters: the No Name Group, a Chicago-area immigrant rights group, carried a sign saying: “1492: The First Corporate Takeover. Happy Fucking Columbus Day.”
As police threatened arrest to disperse the protesters from below the Mortgage Bankers Association rooftop party and the sun went down, many of the protesters headed to the Occupy Chicago general assembly.
Eschewing its usual discussion on tactics and solidarity messages, the general assembly decided instead to open the people's mike for the demonstrators to tell their plans and inspirations to the assembled crowd of nearly 200.
An African-American woman, the third person to speak after the mike was opened up to the audience, said that she was heading home because her nine-year-old daughter was tired, but first wanted to give a message to the assembled protesters:
“They told Martin Luther King that he would not make a difference,” she said. “Do not stop, do not give up. Continue the fight. It matters.”