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Occupy awakening

After a winter under the radar, Occupy Chicago looks to jumpstart support base ahead of NATO protests

  • Occupy protester Marcus Demery on April 24, 2012. (Lenny Gilmore/RedEye)
Occupy protester Marcus Demery on April 24, 2012. (Lenny Gilmore/RedEye) (Lenny Gilmore )
May 09, 2012|By Georgia Garvey,RedEye

The average Chicagoan might be dreading traffic, road closures and CTA reroutes during the NATO summit May 20 and 21. But Occupy Chicago member Marcus Demery is actually kinda psyched.

"It's literally like waiting for a storm," said 20-year-old Demery of Hyde Park. "A beautiful storm, though."

For groups like Occupy, the NATO summit—which will draw leaders of NATO member countries—will be like a spring awakening. There will be mass protests, rallies, concerts and competing summits (one called "The People's Summit" runs May 12-13) in Chicago. After winter of hibernation, at least in terms of visibility, it's a shot in the arm for the Occupy Chicago movement.

"I don't think we ever went away. We just kind of went inside," said Occupy member Jackie Spreadbury, 22, of Oak Forest. "It's not like we're coming back. It's just we're going to be outside so you're going to see us more often."

Occupy Chicago, which first began as a movement in solidarity with the Occupy Wall Street protests in New York, hopes the events planned for mid-May will energize, invigorate and refocus formerly active members and those who've been sitting on the sidelines up until now, according to some members.

"Some of these events and protests will hopefully set a historical precedent," said Graham Czach, a 32-year-old Occupy member and musician who lives on the Northwest Side. Czach organized the Occupy festival, which has since been postponed, and a concert at the Abbey Pub on May 18 to coincide with some of the protests. "Hopefully, [NATO] can propel some of this discontent for what's going on in our society and our world in general ... it will hopefully flourish."

The upcoming protests against NATO's political, economic and military policies have been anticipated by officials. The city of Chicago recently passed ordinances intended to restrict protesters, making it harder to get a permit (some say rendering it nearly impossible) and bumping up fines. Last fall, hundreds were arrested at protests in Chicago.

James Cox, 26, of the Near West Side, has been arrested twice while protesting. She says some Occupy members are frustrated by the efforts to corral them and plan to stand their ground during NATO, albeit nonviolently.

"I'm not going to be asking" for the right to protest, Cox said. "I'm just going to do."

Occupy Chicago's mission as laid out on its web site, is specifically nonviolent. But other groups expected to protest during NATO, like anarchists, do not have those same commitments. Despite that, the city said it has tried to create a relationship with many activist organizations. Roderick Drew, of the city of Chicago's law department, said the city has met with attorneys from Occupy and other protest groups to improve relationships. In particular, Drew said the city hammered out an agreement to warn protesters before arresting them.

"The city of Chicago respects the rights of all people to exercise their first amendment rights and we will continue to do so ... while also fulfilling the city's obligation to protect health and safety of all citizens including protesters," Drew said.

Chicago police officials said those talks have smoothed out interactions between Occupy and police, to a degree.

"If you can talk through things first amicably, it just makes things a lot easier," said Chicago Police Commander Christopher Kennedy of the 1st District. "In most respects, it worked out pretty well."

The ACLU of Illinois has held informational sessions online and in person to explain the law to protesters and how they should act if they are arrested or confronted by police. But during the NATO protests, don't expect Chicago police officers to differentiate between an Occupy protester and an out-of-town activist.

"I would hope we treat everyone across the board the same," Kennedy said. "Only if their actions necessitate otherwise will we take a different turn."

Meanwhile, Occupy protesters are gearing up, a bit nervous in some cases but mostly hoping to return their causes to the forefront of people's minds.

"I really can't even imagine what [NATO] is going to be like," Cox said. "I'm not scared; I'm sort of excited."

ggarvey@Tribune.com | @gcgarvey

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