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Shaina Humphries/MEDILL

Natalie Gould/MEDILL

Protest in Chicago's financial district gaining momentum

by Natalie K. Gould and Shaina Humphries
Oct 04, 2011


Shaina Humphries/MEDILL

Occupy Chicago is an offshoot of Occupy Wall Street in New York

Protesters waved signs and shouted slogans on the corners and sidewalks at Jackson Blvd. and LaSalle Streets in the heart of Chicago's financial district for a 12th day Tuesday to, in their words, "fight corporate abuse of American democracy."

The protest, Occupy Chicago, is patterned after Occupy Wall Street, which began on Sept. 17 and has rapidly made its way to 47 states.

“We want to get to the causes of the conflicts we’re in,” said protester Neal Rysdahl, referring to the national debt crisis. “We’re in a global recession and we didn’t make this mess.”

LaSalle Street’s protesters say they’re finding support from passing taxicabs and even CTA buses, whose drivers have honked and waved their approval at the anti-banking, anti-corporate-America slogans.

“Capitalism should have generosity,” said Tony Cisneros, a part-time auditor in Chicago who joined the protest in part because he’s tired of corporate executives giving themselves raises when others in the economy are suffering.

Evelyn DeHais, press liaison for the protesters, said that at peak hours the group has numbered more than 300. “Everyone here is angry, but we’re channeling that anger into hope.”

DeHais said the group is using peace and education, rather than violence, to further its goals. “The point is to raise awareness,” she said.

A spokeswoman for the Chicago Police Department said police have maintained “open lines of communication” with participants and that they have “complied with all requests in accordance with city ordinances.” There have been no arrests.

Protesters pointed to nearby Bank of America, which took taxpayer bailout money in the 2008 financial meltdown, as a symbol of the financial crisis. B of A further angered consumers last week when it announced it would begin charging customers $5.00 per month for debit card transactions.

Diane Wagner, senior vice-president of media relations at Bank of America in Chicago, countered that the bank has modified 33,000 mortgages in Illinois since 2008 and has lent nearly $383 million in the first half of 2011 to small businesses.

"Protest organizers choose to ignore the facts, and instead focus on increasingly aggressive PR stunts," Wagner said.

Mary Bernstein, associate professor of sociology at the University of Connecticut, said for protests to be effective, they need to be unified and they need large numbers of people. “They need to show they’re a significant force.”

Bernstein said the real power comes from getting public attention focused on the issues. “Right now there’s a lot of discontent in this country about corporate America, Wall Street, the banking crisis,” she said. If the protesters frame their demands right, Bernstein said, they could have an impact, but it won’t be immediate.

More than 700 protesters have been arrested in New York. Bernstein says violence can make a short-term impact, but that the long-term results of such a strategy are fleeting.

Occupy Chicago protesters say December may be the end of their presence on LaSalle Street, but Rysdahl plans on staying at least until May when Chicago hosts the NATO and G-8 summits. “We can’t let that one slide.”