Rumblings of discontent with the corporate, authoritarian reign of Chicago’s Mayor Rahm Emanuel have been spreading across the city since his inauguration.
In this excerpt from Mayor 1%: Rahm Emanuel and the Rise of Chicago’s 99%, author Kari Lydersen details how mental health advocates occupied and protested the closing of a city clinic that fell mercilessly to Emanuel’s budget ax.
On April 12, 2012, about two weeks before the scheduled closing of the Woodlawn clinic, the Mental Health Movement planned a party to commemorate the clinic and its consumers. Movement members wheeled in garbage barrels filled with soda and collapsible barricades on which to hang artwork. They brought snacks. Everyone was in a festive mood. Margaret Sullivan and Jeanette Hansen took the bus there together. Hansen took a bad fall as she was getting on the bus, both of them overloaded with bags. A passerby tried to persuade her to go to the emergency room, but she stridently refused. “I’m on the way to a party!” she said.
About two hours into the celebration, members of the movement announced to the revelers that people should leave if they didn’t want to get arrested. The clinic was being occupied with help from members of Occupy Chicago. As it turned out, they had brought much more food than needed for an afternoon celebration; there was enough for about 20 people to survive for a month. The barrels weren’t filled with soda and ice, after all; under a few drinks and a layer of ice cubes were bags of quick-dry cement. The occupiers would add water and then fasten barricades into the mixture, creating immovable obstacles to cordon off the clinic from the adjacent county primary care clinic, which would remain open. Sullivan’s “party preparations” included bathroom cleaning supplies and reams of toilet paper – “the things the boys never think of.”
At the moment the occupation started, movement members also dropped two large banners from the clinic’s roof – the furled fabric had been stowed there before sunrise. One listed the group’s main five demands; the other said, “Stop Stealing Our Health – Save Our Clinics.”
The occupiers settled in for the long haul, passing the time playing cards and Scrabble and cooking spaghetti, washing the Styrofoam plates afterward because they figured they might be in there for a long time.
Soon enough, the police arrived, and an officer in a police department ball cap stood in the county clinic on the other side of a folding barricade, which the activists had fortified with a vending machine and about a dozen overturned office chairs. He talked through a small opening in the makeshift barrier with N’Dana Carter, an outspoken community leader, STOP member and mental health clinic consumer. Officers tried to persuade the group to leave the clinic and join protesters who were gathered outside, but they refused.
“Let me tell you, for three years we have been negotiating with the other mayor,” said Carter. “This mayor, we gave him four thousand letters from citizens that live in the city and visited the city. He did not acknowledge it – .”
“What is your plan?” interrupted the officer.
“Our plan is for you to get the mayor here to negotiate in good faith and stop being a bully.”
“OK, I don’t think the mayor is going to come under these circumstances,” said the officer flatly.
“What circumstances will it take?” asked Carter with a laugh. “This guy, we have followed him . . .”
The officer again tried to persuade the occupiers to move outside where others were protesting, saying that the police presence in the clinic would mean neighbor- hood 911 calls going unanswered. Carter countered that keeping the clinics open would be crucial to making sure police could spend their time “fighting crime,” not dealing with the mentally ill.
“We’re not just fighting for us. We think it’s unfair the police are forced to be babysitters for the mentally ill. . . . You are being shot at by people who are struggling with mental health issues,” she told the officer.
Ultimately the occupiers demanded that Emanuel cancel the plans to close six mental health clinics. Two North Side ones, in Rogers Park and Logan Square, had recently been closed, and four more were slated for closure by the end of the month, including the Beverly Morgan Park clinic.
Around midnight, more than nine hours into the occupation of the Woodlawn clinic, a police SWAT team arrived. They used chain saws and bolt cutters to break through the barricades and arrested 23 people. The activists were taken to the local police station lockup, where they spent the night. Sullivan took it upon herself to keep people’s spirits up, leading a cappella versions of Marvin Gaye songs and persuading the women to get up and do the hokey pokey to keep their blood flowing. Police released Hansen early on, possibly because she had an abscess on an infected tooth. But she refused to leave without Sullivan. By morning all the protesters were released; about half of them faced charges of trespassing, which would result in fines totaling about $1,000 and several suspended jail sentences. Sullivan struggled to walk, as she hadn’t gotten her shoelaces back and her loose sneakers were flopping. Hansen, on the other hand, had planned ahead, intentionally wearing stylish boots without shoelaces.
The Occupation Continues – Outside
The morning after the occupation, the arrestees held a press conference outside the Woodlawn clinic. The next day, a Saturday, movement members had planned a community health fair in the empty lot across the street. Even though the occupation had been broken up, the health fair went on as scheduled. Nurses and therapists offered free blood pressure readings, depression screenings and educational sessions about mental health. Congressman Danny K. Davis dropped by to have his blood pressure tested. Local alderman Willie Cochran also paid a visit. People who had been arrested and other clinic consumers and supporters held a speak-out, offering a litany of stories and testimonials about the importance of the clinics.
“I received lifesaving care at a mental health clinic,” said a wiry woman with glasses. “But we saw what Rahm has in store for us. We were put in jail and handcuffed, which intensifies psychosis, anxiety and other things we have to deal with.”
“You’re going to have an increase in incarceration and more visits to emergency rooms,” said an older African American man leaning on a walker. “I can guarantee you there will be a surge in arrests of people with mental health issues, so the new mental health clinic will be Twenty Sixth and California,” added a young man, referring to the county jail. “It’s not a question of whether the city is broke,” said a young woman. “It’s aquestion of who the city thinks is valuable.” A post on a blog by Occupy Chicago member Rachel Allshiny captured the mood at the outdoor occupation:
If I didn’t know better, my first impression would not have been that this was the site of an embattled protest. As we approached the camp we saw people sitting together – talking, laughing and sharing a bite to eat. A long table was overflowing with food donated throughout the day, and a makeshift grill gave off the scent of fresh barbecue. Music played, people danced. It had all the makings of a great block party – plus, of course, some large protest banners and a few police vehicles idling nearby.
As Allshiny was finishing up the blog post on her laptop, police squad cars sur- rounded the encampment and threatened everyone with arrest. No arrests were made, however, and the occupation continued. Within the following days, police tore down tents and arrested eleven people who refused to leave. Two of the arrestees would later become notorious in activist circles when it was revealed that they were police informants, known as “Mo” and “Gloves.” Activist Matt Ginsberg-Jaeckle spent about six hours in the Woodlawn police lockup handcuffed to Mo. He remembered the young man making lots of jokes and occasionally talking in more serious tones about “taking things to the next level.” Ginsberg-Jaeckle told him it wasn’t wise to talk that way in a police station.
Despite the arrests, the occupation continued for weeks. People were still camping there (albeit without tents) on June 5, the day Helen Morley died. That afternoon Morley’s closest friend Allen McNair got a call from a caseworker at Thresholds, a private mental health provider where Morley received medication. The caseworker told McNair that after Morley had missed several appointments, she was found dead in her apartment, from what turned out to be a heart attack. McNair was overcome with shock. He couldn’t believe it; he couldn’t even react. He was wracked with guilt; he’d been meaning to call her but was preoccupied by preparing to be photographed for a documentary project. He kept grief at bay by fixating on mundane details, like the recliner he was planning to buy from Morley. It wasn’t until the next day, when McNair heard Tracy Chapman’s song “Fast Car” on the radio while driving to his afternoon shift at a grocery store, that he broke down and cried.
A few days after Morley died, the Mental Health Movement held a memorial service at the occupation site outside the Woodlawn clinic. In keeping with Morley’s insistence on speaking out whenever and wherever the need arose – and for as long as she had something to say – friends and supporters gave long, sometimes rambling ruminations about her life and the meaning of the Mental Health Movement. Morley’s therapist, Eric Lindquist, was there, as were advocates for disability rights, universal health care, and fair housing – all issues Morley had adopted as her own. McNair read a long poem he had written in Morley’s honor, “Another Wave of Change.” A blind preacher and accomplished soul singer performed. The memorial service also doubled as a baby shower complete with gifts: one woman who had been camping outside the clinic while very pregnant gave birth right around the time of Morley’s passing. “We commemorated the cycle of life and death,” noted Ginsberg-Jaeckle.
The previous summer, members of the youth activist group FLY (who were also involved with the Mental Health Movement) had built a full-size coffin out of scrap wood to commemorate the death of eighteen-year-old Damian Turner. Turner perished after being shot nearby and transported to the nearest Level 1 trauma center, which was miles away on the North Side. The FLY activists launched a campaign demanding that the University of Chicago open one for South Side residents. After Morley’s death, the group repainted Turner’s coffin to say “RIP Helen Morley,” and used it in a similar way as a prop in their campaign for social justice. They hauled it downtown for a protest outside the health department offices and then kept it in silent testament at the ongoing outdoor occupation.
Meanwhile mental health activist Chuy Campuzano continued his own one-man occupation outside the clinic for some weeks, even after the others moved on. He slept outside in the weathered van known as STOP’s official vehicle. He was determined to make his own personal and political statement, by living in conditions similar to what he envisioned people with mental illness would experience after being cut off from their care: homelessness, cold, anxiety, loneliness. “My point was that by the mayor closing the clinics, this is how you leave people – out in the streets begging for money,” he said. “How many people are homeless here in Chicago, people who had jobs, had medication, were doing well and leading productive lives, and now they are out on the streets? In Woodlawn, in almost any neighborhood you can walk down the street and you see why you need a clinic – you see people asking for money to buy their medication.”
“I amaze myself sometimes by the things I do,” he continued. “Nine weeks in a neighborhood where there were gunshots and violence every night, risking my life. My parents would call me crazy – they were considering calling the police to arrest me to bring me back home. But all the cops knew me around there, they knew what I was doing.”
Sometimes N’Dana Carter stayed with Campuzano in the van, but usually he was alone. On some days he would see former clinic patients distraught, wandering. “I got to experience how messed up a neighborhood can be,” he said. “That’s the way you leave people when you take away their medicine, take away their services, take away their livelihood. A lot of people depended on their social workers and therapists – to see that go away is heartbreaking.”
You can read about the largely untold story of Saul Alinksy tactics being resurrected against the man who earned his spurs as a political fundraiser for Mayor Richard M. Daley – and went onto high level positions in two Democratic administrations and Congress. Get Mayor 1% now with a minimum contribution to Truthout. Click here to read it now.
Copyright (2013) of Kari Lydersen. Not to be reposted without permission of the author or Haymarket Books.