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Return to Grant Park

It was at Chicago’s Grant Park in the fall of 2008 that presidential candidate Barack Obama celebrated his election night victory with the people. Hope and change was in the air.

Three years later Grant Park is once again the scene of hope and change. But no thanks this time to President Obama or especially former White House chief of staff turned Chicago mayor, Rahm Emanuel. In fact, it was the latter who oversaw the arrest of 175 Occupy Chicago protesters last weekend for refusing to disperse after the park’s 11 pm curfew.

The new version of hope and change is found instead among the thousands of Occupy Chicago supporters who marched in the evening hours of Saturday, October 15, through the city’s loop to Grant Park. In conjunction with the day of global Wall Street protests, the occupiers made their way from their location on the hard sidewalks near Chicago’s Board of Trade and Federal Reserve Bank to the more inviting, grassy expanse of Grant Park.

But not so inviting, thanks to the repressive intervention of Mayor Emanuel and the Chicago police. Unlike Republican retrogrades like House Majority Leader Rep. Eric Cantor (R-VA) or businessman Herman Cain, who condescendingly dismiss Occupy Wall Street as a mob of losers, Emanuel, as a Democrat with ties to both the Clinton and Obama presidential administrations, is well versed in feigning sympathy for the hardships endured by ordinary Americans.

Of course, as the former managing director of the investment banking firm of Wasserstein Perealla, Emanuel is also well versed in how to turn political connections into a financial windfall. It was in 1999 that Emanuel entered Wasserstein Perealla as a managing partner, despite having no experience in banking management. He left two and a half years later $16 million plus richer.

That’s how politics and banking work today. It’s a great club for the lucky few with the right political, business, and family ties. Indeed, for the one percent and their political hangers-on, the American dream is just a phone call or a business luncheon with the right person away. For the rest of the country, however, the system is a big disappointment, rigged from the get-go and getting worse. Indeed, for 30 years average Americans have watched their incomes stagnate, while the elite grow wealthier than ever.

Enter Occupy Wall Street. The 99 Percenters now mobilized in hundreds of American cities and towns represent a radical challenge to a corrupt and torpid status quo. In the broad, idealistic sweep of their demands for democracy and economic justice the movement embodies a better, more humane vision of the world and its potential.

“We come to you at a time when corporations, which place profit over people, self-interest over justice, and oppression over equality, run our governments,” declares the statement adopted by the New York City general assembly at Occupy Wall Street. In a sense, the occupiers are only the advance guard of a far more widespread American anger, percolating now in the fabric of the culture and earning these front line activists more favorable poll ratings in recent days than the man in the White House.

Their complaints are irrefutable in their legitimacy. Record profits and prosperity at the top translate not into an improved life for all, but into stagnant wages, jobs shipped overseas, students burdened with debt, and foreclosed homes. Massive bailouts go to Wall Street firms, given with few restrictions, yet despite record profits still they hoard their money, refusing to create jobs and showering lavish bonuses on themselves.

Instead of a humane, non-profit health care system, they give us corporate health care whose primary mission is not preventive medicine or care for the ill, but profits for private investors and insurers. Meanwhile, hundreds of billions of dollars are poured into wars that generate only misery and death.

Predictably, some Democratic leaders such as former President Clinton and Rep. Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) say they view Occupy Wall Street as a positive development. Such support is ethereal at best, the language of co-optation, familiar and second-nature to the Democratic establishment. How well it will play out this time is questionable. President Obama himself appears hesitant before the raw power of the demonstrating masses, offering only placid observations about how he understands the frustrations of Americans. Such sentiment is offered in the same breath as the reminder that it was right to bail out Wall Street.

The mass mobilizations in Madison, Wisconsin earlier this year against the right-wing governor’s plan to strip away public unions’ collective bargaining rights were a harbinger of the storm on the horizon. Unfortunately, the Wisconsin mobilizations (and the potential for strike actions) were aborted by the state Democratic Party and their allied union leaders, sacrificed to an ill-conceived recall campaign of elected officials opposed to collective bargaining.

Occupy Wall Street is different. This is a movement independent of any political party, rooted in grassroots activism, nurtured by mass mobilizations, and showing no signs of abating. The hope and change on display in Grant Park in 2008, stirred up by candidate Obama’s promise of “change we can believe in,” is now being called to account.

Where the Occupy Wall Street movement will be in coming months remains to be seen. But the least interesting question among all the questions raised is whether the Occupy Wall Street movement will help Obama’s re-election. How much more interesting instead to ponder the potential of the spirit of activism and idealism now finding expression across the land. As one young woman demonstrating at Grant Park told the Chicago Tribune (Oct. 16, 2011), “My soul has been touched in ways that I can’t even express. I believe it’s my civic duty. I am expecting to be arrested every time I protest.”

Such is the spirit of the burgeoning movement. The professional pundits who want to compress this oceanic social movement into the narrow straits of ponderous talk media banalities reveal only the limits of their petty social vision.

In the 1940 film, The Great Dictator, the great comedian Charlie Chaplin speaks out at the film’s conclusion against the tyranny then threatening the world. At the Grant Park rally, organizers played a recording of Chaplin’s short speech over loudspeakers. It was a telling moment. As Chaplin’s voice rose in passion and indignation, declaring “don’t fight for slavery, fight for liberty,” denouncing the “machine men, with machine minds and machine hearts” who would destroy the world with their greed, hate, and violence, the thousands assembled in Grant Park roared their approval.

A social awakening has begun. Indeed, hope and change is in the air. This time it seems like the real thing.

Mark T. Harris is a former Chicago-area writer who now lives in Portland, Oregon. He is a featured contributor to “The Flexible Writer,” fourth edition, by Susanna Rich (Allyn & Bacon/Longman, 2003). Website: www.Mark-T-Harris.com. Email: Mark@Mark-T-Harris.com.

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Mark T. Harris is a writer living in Portland, Oregon. He grew up a few blocks from the site of the old Lindlahr Sanitarium frequented by Eugene Debs in the Chicago suburb of Elmhurst. However, none of the teachers in the local schools ever spoke a word about Debs or the clinic. He does remember Carl Sandburg’s Elmhurst home, which was torn down in the 1960s to build a parking lot. Email: Harris@writersvoice.org

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