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“Don’t Trade on Me”

by VIJAY PRASHAD

I. Lasalle and Jackson.

Chicago’s Board of Trade building (1930) is a sentinel of agrarian capitalism. Captured by its stone façade are two emblems of agriculture, an Egyptian holding a stalk of wheat and a Native American a sheaf of corn. They are hooded and tired, defeated by combine harvesters and phosphates, by the congealed capital of the vast agro-businesses that turned the fields into factories. Watching the development of this new kind of farming, John Steinbeck wrote, “The monster has to have profits all the time. When the monster stops growing, it dies. It can’t stay one size.”

Corn bushels and hog bellies would be traded in the Board of Trade’s pit, adding financial turbulence to the normal trials of nature that afflict farmers. Soon the commodities of the soil would no longer be center stage, as the Board of Trade grew to be an enormous base for the trading of derivatives (it merged with the Mercantile Exchange, and as the Chicago Merc is the largest trading platform for derivatives). Fictions on fictions sucked in social wealth. No wonder that the Board of Trade decided to build its mausoleum across the road from the Federal Reserve Bank of Chicago. Agriculture had been handed over to Money.

Between the Board of Trade and the Federal Reserve sits the temporary encampment of Occupy Chicago. It began on the sidewalk of the Federal Reserve, but after ten days the Chicago Police Department threw Occupy Chicago across the street. It is now largely on the sidewalk of the Bank of America building (whose ground-floor hosts Ann Taylor), with some spillover onto the sidewalk of the Board of Trade. Of all the Occupy sites I have visited, this is the only one with no permanent encampment. Mayor Rahm Emanuel, who might as well be Daley III, will not allow it: neither in the heart of the Financial District nor in Grant Park (where Obama’s victory celebrations were held in 2008).

Sarah, Deborah and Ryan hold paper stalks of wheat, with a sign that says, “Don’t Trade on Me.” Deborah says that the absence of tents means that Chicago cannot have a manifestación, a delightful Spanish word that captures the essence of the Occupy encampments.  A manifestation is an appearance into public space of people, coming into plain sight to say that they exist, they have voices. Chicago cannot have a manifestation. In the early hours of October 23, Emanuel sent in his police to enforce a curfew in Grant Park and arrest the protestors. He hadn’t counted on two nurses being in the pack (one of them is Jan Rodolfo, the Midwest director of the National Nurses Union, and the other Martese Chism). The National Nurses, fierce to the core, denounced him and a group of nurses in their red shirts marched down the road to Emanuel’s office to protest the arrests of the demonstrators and the dismantling of a first-aid station.

Kim, standing down the way, has a theory about Emanuel’s tactics. In May 2012, Chicago will host the Group of 8/NATO summit. Emanuel is aware that a ferocious protest is likely. “He does not want to set a precedent” for a protest, says Kim, who spends a few hours of the week holding signs at the intersection. During the mass arrests in October in Grant Park, the Chicago police let slip that this was a practice run for the likely May demonstrations. On October 26, Occupy Chicago and the Coalition Against NATO/G8 War and Poverty Agenda went in to occupy City Hall. They wanted the charges dropped against those arrested and permits for their May demonstration. Emanuel knows the stakes. If he allows a protest, and if it begins to resemble the 1968 Days of Rage, Obama’s re-election in November might be challenged. If he does not allow the protest, and it happens anyway, the outcome might be worse. “The ball’s in Emanuel’s court,” Andy Thayer of the Coalition said.

Dan walks by Kim with a massive “Fuck Rahm” button on his shirt. It is the general sentiment on the sidewalk.

II. Drexel Boulevard.

Sitting in the cafeteria in the Rainbow/PUSH Coalition headquarters in Chicago’s Bronzeville community, I listen to Loren Taylor of Occupy Chicago and Occupy the Hood Chicago. Taylor says that the Lasalle and Jackson protest is “one front” in the battle. It has opened up space for other fronts, such as in the South-Side where poverty rates are monumental and where it has become harder and harder to sustain Jesse Jackson’s civilizational slogan, “keep hope alive.” With Loren is Brittney Gault, college educated and drowning in student debt, but alert to the opportunity that the Occupy dynamic opens up for the African American community as much as anyone.

Brittney is the lead organizer of Occupy the Hood Chicago, and tells me that she is aware that “the system isn’t going to change. We are preparing for five years from now when the problems will be greater.” What Occupy the Hood Chicago is doing is to “reposition ourselves,” to see what people are already doing to survive in dire times and to link movements and individuals to each other. One of the lessons of the Occupy dynamic is that although we have our million grievances and are trying out our million experiments for change, our work has been lonely. Occupy has invalidated the loneliness of suffering and struggle. The direct line that runs from Brittney and Loren to anti-eviction organizers like J. R. Fleming (of Chicago Anti-Eviction Campaign), youth organizers like Shamar Hemphill (of Inner-City Muslim Action Network), and the young people of Fearless Leading by the Youth (FLY) has manifested itself.

“A movement has been created,” says Loren Taylor. “Anything you think you want to do or what you’ve already been doing: now is the time to step up your game.” Occupy the Hood’s mission is to “create sustainable systems of resources for the people, by the people.” This can only happen “with our staged presence in General Assemblies, sit-ins, marches and rallies, when and where needed.” Staged presence is another way of saying manifestación.

Cathy “Sugar” Russell, of Occupy Chicago, is all smiles. She might not have slept much, but she is not tired. We met on Bank Transfer Day (November 5), the brainchild of Kristen Christian (on Facebook) and picked up by the Progressive Change Campaign Committee, whose spokesperson Neil Sroka acknowledges that it “caught fire across the country” because of “the change in conversation that Occupy Wall Street inspired.” With doltish timing, Bank of America announced on September 29 that it was going to charge debit-card users a $5/month fee. It congealed the anger against banks. Over the course of the next month, the Credit Union National Association says, 650,000 customers moved $4.5 billion from the monopoly banks to credit unions. This is an unprecedented number. Russell is enthused about such action. It shows that the Occupy dynamic has some muscle. Radio host Santita Jackson asks Russell if General Winter will force the protests to die down. Buoyed by Bank Transfer Day, Russell smiles and say, “Chicagoans are used to snow. We’re not going anywhere.”

Jesse Jackson’s new slogan is “occupy, occupy, occupy.” Amen to that.

VIJAY PRASHAD is the George and Martha Kellner Chair of South Asian History and Director of International Studies at Trinity College, Hartford, CT His most recent book, The Darker Nations: A People’s History of the Third World, won the Muzaffar Ahmad Book Prize for 2009. The Swedish and French editions are just out. He can be reached at: vijay.prashad@trincoll.edu

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Vijay Prashad’s most recent book is No Free Left: The Futures of Indian Communism (New Delhi: LeftWord Books, 2015).

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