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Chicago Rising! | The Nation

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Chicago Rising!

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Occupy Chicago has also played a fascinating role in the city’s burgeoning protest movement. Listen to wiry, intense and voluble Jerry Boyle, the movement’s pre-eminent legal defender. Boyle is another product of a “classic South Side Irish family”—this one, though, made up of stalwarts of the Irish Republican Army. “I’m a green diaper baby,” he says, which explains something of his fascination and passion for street politics, a subject on which he has emerged here as something of a theorist.

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About the Author

Rick Perlstein
Rick Perlstein
Rick Perlstein is the author of Before the Storm: Barry Goldwater and the Unmaking of the American Consensus, winner of...

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“It has really encouraged me to see what’s happening here over the last few years. I mean, there has always been a good, strong activist community here, but two things converged that I think made a big difference. One was, Rahm Emanuel became mayor of Chicago, OK?” (Boyle expels one of his thin, reedy laughs.) “And the second one was the particular character that Occupy Wall Street took on as a result…Rahm knew he had NATO and G-8 coming [to Chicago], and he didn’t want that mess on the streets.” 

The mayor’s decision to prohibit encampments turned out to be the movement’s ironic source of power. In contrast to other occupations, Chicago Occupiers were forced to move around; they had their own flying squads. They moved, for instance, to places where the mayor was scheduled to appear in order to provoke him. “He has ambitions,” Boyle explains. “Chicago is just a steppingstone for him…and he’s kind of a control freak.” When things don’t turn out the way he wants, Emanuel famously loses his temper. “One of the best weapons the Occupiers have is, you don’t get elected president when you’ve got a temper like that.” The Occupiers would go where Rahm went, “and he left—because he didn’t want to get pissed off.”

The Occupiers also moved one mild October evening to Grant Park, the city’s front yard. Many were arrested for violating the city curfew, some violently—one reason the White House announced, in March, that the G-8 was taking its conference elsewhere. Meanwhile, lawyers working with Occupy contested their arrests before a judge named Thomas Donnelly. Late in September of 2012, Emanuel was served another humiliation—his second in weeks after losing the school strike—when Judge Donnelly dismissed the charges by ruling that the application of the curfew law violated the First Amendment because it was applied differently for different political events, such as President-elect Obama’s legendary victory party in Grant Park in 2008.

By then, Jerry had watched his Occupiers mature into seasoned, effective hell-raisers. “This whole generation of people have a first-rate education from experience,” he says. And unlike elsewhere, where Occupy energies feel dissipated, “they’re all over the place, OK? They’ve spread like a virus!” Even, he relates, in this very cafe where we’re sitting. One day, Jerry watched as the mayor and his entourage walked in. The wait staff here write the customer’s name on the cup, to call out the order when it’s ready. “And they didn’t realize he was being waited on by someone who was busted during OWS. Straight face: ‘And your name?’

“Rahm. Went. Ballistic. ‘Are you fucking kidding me?

“The whole room is silent. The manager, also busted during OWS, says: ‘Sir, if that behavior is repeated here, we’re going to have to ask you not to come in.’”

And so Occupy Chicago is everywhere. “They go down to the South Side! They’re so clueless, they don’t care!” exclaims Jerry, imitating old-generation Chicago lefty activists who, he says, “wouldn’t be found dead on the South Side…. Just yesterday, there was a vigil and die-in down on the South Side. I see brilliant Occupiers wearin’ shirts spattered with fake blood, in handcuffs. “They’ve changed the whole face of protest in Chicago. It helped lay the foundations for what the teachers did.”

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