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Can Occupy Chicago survive the winter?

Protesters fighting corporate greed anticipate a season of bitter cold.

Illustration: Tom LaBaff

Last week, Occupy Chicago endured what could’ve been one of the most significant setbacks yet to its round-the-clock presence in front of the Chicago Federal Reserve. It wasn’t the police, despite arrests of 175 protesters in Grant Park on October 16, as well as the cops’ periodic enforcement of an ordinance preventing demonstrators from storing supplies on the public way. No, the oppressive force was Mother Nature.

For the first time since the local marches began five weeks ago, inspired by Occupy Wall Street’s condemnation of corporate greed, the coming winter was palpable. Temps dipped into the low 40s, wind gusts knocked down tree limbs, and constant rains soaked the sign holders and drum bangers down to their Che T-shirts. Shivering under an umbrella on a Financial District sidewalk on October 18, demonstrator Alex Caldwell took issue with those such as New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg, who recently said winter will hasten the movement’s end. “What we’re doing is bigger than the weather,” the 22-year-old waitress said. “We’re not going to be like, ‘It’s cold, we give up.’ ”

Protester Steve Steele, who was within earshot, agreed that the occupation can continue through the snowy season. “I sell papers in the morning on the sidewalk,” said the 53-year-old, who can be heard barking “Sun-Times!” every day at the corner of Jackson and Wabash. “I’m out there in the cold for hours and hours a day. So it can be done.”

Protester Erin Walker wasn’t so sure. “You don’t want to lose momentum, but with all of the cold, people are obviously not going to want to be outside for as long,” the 21-year-old Julius Meinl barista said. “Even today, it’s, like, 40-some degrees only and people are complaining about it.”

“Neither rain, nor snow, nor sleet will end our occupation,” @OccupyChicago tweeted last week. “We’re chicagoans, weather doesn’t effect us!” But the inclement conditions and the arrests spurred organizers to start seriously discussing at the twice-daily general assemblies the lack of a permanent tent-city home and plans for winterizing the occupation.

“It’s going to require, basically, two groups: one that will rotate in to maintain the occupation while other people go to a base of operations where they can warm up,” said Peter Diebold, 23, an unemployed U. of I. grad from Glen Ellyn. He added that Grace Place, a church at 637 South Dearborn Street, is providing Occupy Chicago storage space and giving a limited number of people shelter; he hopes more organizations follow suit. “Obviously, our numbers will shrink in the winter. It’s going to be long and hard, but I think we can keep it going. There are people that are really dedicated at this point.”

It’s the protesters’ dedication that’s being underrated, says Roosevelt University professor Erik Gellman, an expert on Chicago history and social movements. “The way the 24-hour news media is covering the Occupy movement seems to be suggesting that, Oh, these kids are just out at a Bonnaroo-type concert, and as soon as the weather goes sour, no one’s gonna want to do it anymore. They’re mistaken.”

Plenty of protests have survived nasty Chicago winters, Gellman notes. Albert Parsons, who would become one of the Haymarket martyrs, and other local socialists demonstrated on behalf of the unemployed throughout the winter of 1875. In the depths of the Depression, hunger, anti-eviction and Unemployment Council marches occurred during the winter months.

“If the winter doesn’t kill us,” Diebold told me, “I don’t think anything else will.”

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