The American Legislative Exchange Council “celebrated” its 40th birthday in Chicago last week, and protestors were there to greet this arm of the corporate shadow government — even rolling out the welcome wagon on the “Moral” Monday before they arrived.
On Thursday, unions and labor organizations promised a show of force — a massive rally with everyone from pilots to pipe fitters standing up against the attacks of ALEC on workers. Of course, one particular union had an even bigger show of force planned: the members of the Chicago branch of the Fraternal Order of Police.
— Kit O'Connell (@KitOConnell) August 8, 2013
Union Leaders Chant, Then Go Home
There were thousands assembled along Monroe street outside Palmer House, the historic hotel selected for ALEC’s meeting. Police had shut down the street for over a block and allowed people off the sidewalk, surrounding a stage where union leaders and politicians like Rev. Jesse Jackson spoke.
The speeches were loud and rousing, and supported by a raucous angry crowd. A member of the Chicago Teachers Union stood up and spoke about the systematic attack on unions and urged the crowd to say “Thumbs Down to ALEC!” A local Chicago worker spoke about the impossibility of feeding a family on minimum wage. “There’s nothing dignified about $8.25/hour.”
We heard about most of ALEC’s myriad attacks on popular democracy, from the environment to women’s rights. Jesse Jackson led the crowd in a call and response chant, “Teachers … stand your ground! Steel workers … stand your ground! Police … stand your ground!”
Despite the three day length of the ALEC conference, the union protest lasted a mere hour. “Keep fighting!” we were told, but this, like Jackson’s speech, was merely aspirational. With the stage disassembled moments later, the crowd began to thin and the police took their turn in the limelight.
For all the speeches about togetherness, teachers, labor organizers, anarchists and other nonviolent activists would be beaten indiscriminately in the moments to come.
Waves of State Violence
Police are brutal thugs and they are murderers, too, when they think no one is watching. An Austin Police Department officer recently killed a Black man for the “crime” of trying to patronize a bank that a White man robbed earlier in the day. None of what follows should be seen as minimizing the horrors they commit on communities of color daily.
Yet even with dozens of cameras pointed their way, I can’t help but notice the particular glee that cops display when it’s time to beat protestors. What is it about free speech that makes them so eager?
If you need more excuse for what follows, the oft repeated rumor was that one of the white shirts (the commanding officers of the blue shirted rank & file police) had lost his iPhone. Did he blame the protestors, or just want to take out his frustration? I leave the answers as an exercise in speculation to the reader.
I can only tell you what I saw. Suddenly, with the crowd thinned from thousands to hundreds, the cops decided the street was closed. Using metal barricades as blunt crowd control weapons, they physically shoved the remaining protestors onto the sidewalk which was now overflowing — the crowd was smaller but still too large for the sidewalk. Protestors chanted, livestreamed, and danced.
And then came waves of attack. Police would lift the barricades and pour across into the crowd. Natalie Solidarity, a well-known activist, happened to be standing in the way of one of their targets. She is a blonde woman who can be seen in many photos & video (see bottom of post) from the protest in sunglasses and a pink and white shirt. Police picked her up and and threw her against a store window and then threw her again against the pavement for good measure. “The window was vibrating,” nearby witnesses told her later. Police piled on each target, so that a half-dozen might be sitting on just one person. One arrested man had his shirt torn off and his face bruised as it was forced into the pavement.
The police repeated this again and again, replacing the barricades, then lifting them again for more violence. I watched as a man went down under a pile of uniformed bodies. As the white shirt kicked at his prone form, he reached for a nearby dreadlocked woman. Instinctively, she reached her hand out in aid. Police poured over her too, tearing at her dreadlocks and pushing her to the ground.
The police filled a paddy wagon with the first six arrested and then brought us a fresh one, just in case. Considerate, but by now the spirit of the protest was broken. Abandoned by the union organizers and its most radical elements bruised or picked off by police, the ALEC protests were essentially over — though the Northern Illinois Light Brigade and Occupy Rogers Park would return that night to shine a message of defiance throughout the downtown area.
— Chapul (@BaburRealer) August 9, 2013
By morning, the six arrested protestors were free and facing misdemeanor charges while the National Lawyers Guild began to mobilize a response to the violence.
Where are the Mighty, Mighty Unions?
The unions have become powerless. Even worse, they refuse to truly support those who might take their power back — the people in the streets.
Once the unions were powerful activists for change. They bargained away that power and had it legislated out from under them, until they even lost their right to bargain. Now the best they can hope for is “flanking.” Constrained by the law and their need to remain supporters of the mainstream, corporate-owned political parties, they can put pressure through formal channels while looking the other way as more radical street activists take direct action. We saw this effectively in Oakland, when truckers and longshoremen supported the Occupy port shutdown behind closed doors even when forced to publicly condemn it.
Yet this strategy requires two-way support. When the activists pick up the fight where unions cannot, the unions must stand by them. Where is the outrage? Why isn’t every union in Chicago marching on the police department demanding apology and redress for an attack that included violence against their own?
“We are the unions, the mighty mighty unions!” goes an old chant. But how mighty can they be when violence goes unanswered?
In the bloodied halls of the Texas Legislature, Rick Perry’s State Troopers beat activist Joshua Pineda until he requires ten staples in his head. In Wisconsin, Scott Walker’s palace guards drop 70-year old veteran Will Williams down a marble staircase for singing. In the streets of Chicago, Rahm Emanuel’s pigs enact their version of the ancient ritual of political violence. Everywhere, police are the tools of the one percent.
We’ve all lost our power until we all rise against them — both the tools and those who wield them.
Tomorrow: an arrested activist in her own words.
All photos by Kit O’Connell, except “punching white shirt” photo by Justin Carlson, used with permission. All rights reserved on all photos. Video by The Video Catalyst Project.