State Police disrupt Occupy Chicago vigil: Eyewitness report

Photograph: Krystal Thibault

While I appreciate and even share their concerns, I’m not part of the “official” (is there an “official?”) Occupy Chicago movement. I’ve never visited their base camp and don’t know where it is or what they do there all day, just that around 7pm most evenings—while I’m still working at the Time Out Chicago offices—I hear them moving past on Jackson, chanting and beating drums.

But last night my friend Jocelyn— who is more familiar with the Occupiers than I am—said she was going down to the Thompson Center, since she had heard there were state troopers with guard dogs and gas masks threatening to arrest people who were holding a candlelight vigil in honor of Scott Thomas Olsen, the former Marine and member of Occupy Oakland who was shot in the face by a tear-gas canister fired by an Oakland police officer. As with most things in my life that have ended up to be interesting stories, I figured I didn’t have much to lose. (See: my flying into New York 24 hours before Hurricane Irene landed.)

So we headed down to the Thompson Center which, indeed, was surrounded by Illinois state troopers. There were a dozen or so armed men guarding the plaza—protestors had been forced onto sidewalks by officers saying the plaza was “closed”—and I could see the shadows of dozens more people inside the Thompson Center, what looked to be an impromptu command center. OC was reading poems, the First Amendment and excerpts of inspirational literature on the sidewalk—though a bullhorn—while people held candles dripping wax onto their hands. An anonymous donor dropped off fruit trays and other food while I was listening to the speakers, wondering what had happened to the vigil I had heard was happening.

We were going to leave, and started to, but then I realized I wanted to know why OC was on the sidewalk talking through a bullhorn instead of sitting silently with candles, praying for Scott Thomas Olsen. (I felt as though I’d been lied to by the Occupy Chicago Twitter feed I’d been following, which said there was a peaceful vigil and the state troopers were breaking it up.)

I found one of the men who had spoken a few minutes earlier, and I asked him to chat with me about what had happened. After explaining I wasn’t a nut trying to entrap him and just a curious member of the media, he started to open up. And while he wouldn’t give me his name, he was a white man in his early 30s, a former Marine, who had been involved with OC since the beginning. The facts he presented to me:

•    At 7:45 OC made a slow, silent progression into the plaza of the Thompson Center, arriving near the front doors and sitting down.

•    The Illinois State Police were already waiting for them, about 50 or 75 officers in military formation.

•    There were at least five dogs, and many troopers had gas masks.

•    Around 9:45pm a woman—a civilian who wouldn’t give her name but said she was “in charge” of the troopers—came out and talked to vigil organizers. She said that OC was in violation of Title 44, Section 5000, Subsections 930 and 940 of the Adminstrative Code, and members of OC would be arrested if they remained in the plaza past 10:15pm.

•    At 10:15 pm, the state troopers in military formation were called to attention and marched forward.

•    Not wanting to cause a confrontation, OC set up their vigil on the sidewalk on Wabash—which they were told was city property, not state property.

•    For about 20 minutes, the troopers continued to let people who were not part of the OC vigil to cross the plaza without arresting or stopping them. OC asked to come back every time this happened, and they were told they would be arrested if they attempted to do so.

•    After 30 minutes of the sidewalk vigil, OC moved on to speeches and talking through a megaphone, which is how Jocelyn and I found them when we arrived a little before 11pm.

Now, I’m a curious person, so after talking to this Marine veteran, I thought since I’m a member of the media I’d approach to the state troopers and ask them some questions, or—at the very least—find out who this civilian woman was that cited the administrative code. I wasn’t surprised at the response: they told me if I didn’t leave I’d be arrested. That was at 11:45pm

I didn’t really have anything going on Thursday night, and I have a half-dozen people who would probably bail me out of jail, so I wasn’t worried. Also, based on past experiences, police officers would rather let someone go if they ask a lot of annoying questions about civil procedure, constitutional rights, and criminal law (those extra classes preparing to go to law school before ending up a writer helped a little). Anyhow, one of the officers was so close to me I could smell his breath, until an unwitting cyclist wearing headphones tried to ride by and the officer literally yanked the kid off of his bike and threw him to the ground. (The kid was more startled than anything, and said something to the effect of “but I ride across here every night!” to which the officer replied, “not tonight, you don’t.”).

I wasn’t asking questions to be annoying, though. I really was curious as to who this woman was, who called the troopers out and why they were threatening to arrest people for walking in a plaza that people regularly and freely walked through at all hours of the night on other occasions. Sample dialogues include:

•    Who called you here? No one. So you just randomly decided come down here? Yes.

•    I was told there was a woman who came out earlier and cited some legal code. No there wasn’t. So there was never any woman here? No there wasn’t.

•    Who is in charge? No one. There is no one in charge? No. So you are all rogue officers, acting on your own accord? Yes. So they why are YOU deciding to arrest people who walk across the plaza? Because it’s closed. What are the hours? I don’t have to tell you. Where are the hours posted? I don’t have to tell you.

•    Why are you going to arrest me? Because you’re asking questions after hours. After hours? Yes. The plaza is closed. I understand that you are telling me it’s closed, but you haven’t given me any proof of that, any hours or information about where to find the hours. Stop asking questions and just go away. I’m not going to stop asking questions until you answer them or YOU go away. Ma’am, [moving in an intimidating way to stand about 6” away from me] leave now or I will have to arrest you [jingling the zip ties, as he seems to get one ready to use].

OC vacated the sidewalk around 12:15am, and the officers left about five minutes later to go inside the building. I waited about 15 more minutes to see if they would come back out, but they did not. I was tempted to walk across the plaza, to see what would happen, but I also needed to get home to feed my cat and my hedgehog (yes, a hedgehog).

This morning I looked up the Administrative Code that the phantom “woman in charge” had cited to the Marine vet and found some interesting details:

•    Section 5000.930 (Prohibited Activities)
      Point E mentions that “no person or group of persons shall use any electronic loudspeaker, bullhorn or other amplifying device within the building or grounds, unless prior permission is granted. Question: If this is the prohibited activity that was taking place, wouldn’t the obvious solution be for someone to say, “Hey, we don’t allow megaphones here” and then make sure said amplifying device is put away? How does this entail kicking people off of state property and threatening to arrest them. Or, further, assembling more than 50 state troopers in military formation with guard dogs and gas masks?
•    Section 5000.940 (Demonstrations)
      Point A mentions that demonstrations “near the building or on the grounds is prohibited unless a permit for the activity is issued [via a written request 48 hours in advance]…unless the requester can show that the cause or reason for the demonstration was not known, contemplated, or reasonably foreseeable or resulted from changed circumstances not in existence within those 48 hours.” But Scott Thomas Olsen was injured Tuesday night, and it’s not unreasonable to believe that the OC camp wasn’t fully aware of it until very early Wednesday morning—less than that 48 hour window.

Before going to the Thompson Center last night, I was at best ambivalent about the Occupy Chicago movement. It doesn’t seem to be as organized or focused as other cities’ Occupy efforts, but that could just be my cynicism talking. I’ve been involved in civil disobedience of one form or another for the past 25 years, and I know all of the pitfalls social-justice movements fall into. It also seems as though idealistic young people have an aversion to learning from the mistakes of their elders, as though they will be selling out if they listen to someone who’s “been there, done that.” In my experience, reinventing this social justice wheel every four or five years—about as long as it takes one group of 18-year-olds to make it through college, then give up the protesting life for jobs and money—does a disservice to protest movements in general, and that was (and, somewhat, still is) my perspective on the OC situation.

That being said, the behavior and attitude of the Illinois state troopers I encountered—and the ones who “moved” the vigil off of the plaza and onto the sidewalk—is equally baffling. Have they, too, learned nothing from their elders? (You have to be living under a rock in Chicago not to feel the lingering presence of the 1968 Democratic Convention.) I don’t understand why there was such hostility involved, where it came from, who put them in that state of mind, why people who are part of the “99%,” so to speak—as surely the average state trooper isn’t in that 1%—would turn violent (or threaten violence) in response to a largely peaceful action.

Personally, had I been in on the vigil from the beginning, I wouldn’t have moved when they told me to vacate the plaza. And I wouldn’t have lamented being arrested. The reason? One of the most moving pieces of literature I read in high school was Martin Luther King Jr.’s Letter from Birmingham Jail. And while I’m no pastor fighting against a lifetime of discrimination and prejudice—I’m just a Kids Editor for Time Out Chicago who showed up at the Thompson Center—I do believe that standing up against injustice means not only asking questions and not walking away when people don’t want to give them (risking being arrested, for sure) but also standing steadfast and firm. I don’t wish that anyone gets hurt—least of all a former Marine like Scott Thomas Olsen—but who becomes the villain when that happens? Do we remember the letter from Birmingham Jail or the men who made such a letter a necessity? After last night, I’ll remember my answer to that question much more clearly. 

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Laura Baginski, Editor (@TimeOutChicago)