The 99% Spring: students and solidarity
By Toby Chow, Chair, SOUL Bank Accountability Task Force
Last Saturday student leaders from the Southside Solidarity Network (SSN) at the University of Chicago, a founding member of the IIRON Student Network, joined a 99% Spring training hosted by SOUL. At this training we learned about the economic and political history of the United States. We learned about how we came to this moment where large corporations and the ultra-rich have taken over the economy and political system, and are now implementing austerity measures which undermine public education, social services, and the common good. And we studied the strategy and tactics of non-violent direct action, and considered how we might use these tactics to confront the power of organized money which stands in the way of the emerging movement to construct a better, more humane, and sustainable future which will reflect our shared values.
For SSN, the timing of the training was serendipitous. As readers of this blog may already know, last Thursday (two days before the training) the Mental Health Movement began an occupation at the Woodlawn Mental Health Clinic, located at 63rd and Woodlawn, just a few blocks south of our campus at the University of Chicago. This clinic is one of the six city-run mental health clinics which Mayor Rahm Emanuel has targeted for closure by the end of the month, a move which will cut the number of clinics in the city in half. Prior to the occupation the Mental Health Movement had appealed repeatedly to the Mayor, Chicago’s Aldermen, and the press. The decision to occupy the clinic was made in the face of consistent refusal on the part of the Mayor to speak openly and honestly with the movement.
SSN leaders have maintained a presence at the occupation since the beginning. So when we attended the 99% Spring training, the subject matter was concrete and immediate, not abstract or hypothetical. The clinic occupation is a non-violent direct action (or a series of connected actions), and prior to the training we had already stood, linked arms, sung, chanted, and borne witness as 23 consumers and allies were arrested on the night of the first day of the occupation. Two days later, the 99% Spring training helped prepare each member of SSN to decide for themselves how they wished to proceed as the police pursued increasingly aggressive (and, by some accounts, illegal) tactics in their attempt to break up the ongoing occupation. In some cases (but by no means all), students have firmly decided to engage in actions which they recognize as involving a risk of arrest.
The clinic closures are a tangible, local example of the austerity measures being inflicted on the 99% in the United States and countries across the globe. They are a clear demonstration of the injustice and irrationality of austerity. Austerity is justified in terms of budget crises, and the city of Chicago is undeniably in a budget crisis. But the closures will reportedly save the city only $2.3 million. This is a fraction of the $15 million in TIF dollars which Mayor Emanuel attempted to hand over to his former colleagues at the Chicago Mercantile Exchange (they thankfully turned down the money after a public outcry); a fraction of the costs for the NATO summit; a fraction of the unaccountable $7 billion “trust fund” which the Mayor wants to create. We are told that these cuts are necessary because the city is broke, but the truer explanation is that the Mayor’s priorities are broken. And even if you happen to share his disregard for the welfare of the current clients of the clinics, you still ought to worry that this just might be a false economy, as reduced access to care leads to much greater costs down the line, in the form of increased visits to ERs, or “treatment” in jail cells.
At the Woodlawn occupation, SSN’s students leaders join mental health consumers, community members, and allied activists of all stripes, in a miniature image of the forms of solidarity that will be required to prevent “the 99% percent” from becoming an empty slogan. For we must always be conscious of the very real and problematic lines of oppression and privilege within “the 99%”. And these lines are drawn clearly between the University community and the neighborhood of Woodlawn. For many students at the University of Chicago, the Woodlawn clinic and the University campus might as well exist in different universes. The campus is located in the relatively affluent and racially diverse neighborhood of Hyde Park, while the clinic is located in the predominantly black and relatively disadvantaged neighborhood of Woodlawn. For its part, the University, expressing concerns about student safety (justified to an extent, but also shot through with a predictable mix of classism and racism), works hard to maintain a barrier between the two neighborhood, to form a protective bubble around University students. At SSN we seek to overcome this barrier and pierce the bubble. This is not to deny the very real differences between the two neighborhoods, nor the enormous privileges enjoyed by the students at the University of Chicago in comparison to the residents of Woodlawn. But we believe in building bridges of solidarity across these divisions, through shared shoulder-to-shoulder struggle and the methods of community organizing techniques practiced by SOUL and IIRON. As we, the 99%, join together and organize across all these lines which have been constructed in order to divide us, the Mayor and all those like him will come to see that, truly, the people are unstoppable.