Occupy Whatever: Rockford Federal Courthouse Edition

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This piece was originally posted on my blog, #Occupy Rockford Federal Courthouse March on November 1st, 2011. I've edited it a bit here. In the interests of disclosure: I didn't vote for any of those people except Larry Morrissey. He fulfills my general requirement of voting for independent politicians first. The others do not. And in the most recent (2013) election, I didn't vote for him, either.

To say Beattie Park was packed tight would be an overstatement, but there was a small contingent of about 75 people. In the center of the park, around a sculpture, there were pre-made signs and materials to create one. A bundle of American flags was there, as well as a flyer titled "Tea Party Lies about OWS." Unfortunately, someone could have used an editor and a graphic designer.

There was a man offering buttons for free but also soliciting donations; if someone had a dollar to give (and I did) he could continue to make little buttons that said "Occupy" or "99%" in white print on a black background. The one I got says "Occupy."

Most people had no masks, but there was at least one Guy Fawkes mask and several people with bandannas and such. The variety of people was pretty typical of Rockford, if a little caucasian, though other races were represented. There were several men in suits but mostly jeans and t-shirts. I went polo and khaki--the regular biz-cas, if you must know. There were children and elderly. There was a gentleman in a sit-down scooter and his (I assume) granddaughter. He had a 99% sign, but his grandchild had an "End the Fed" sign; I had found an elusive tea party/OWS overlap, which oddly did not come up again, but instead was contrasted later.

I had never been to a protest. The use of signs was encouraged and I didn't want one, but I felt a strange pressure to make something, so I spent way too long thinking of random stuff to write on a sign that I really didn't want to carry. However my wife, Amanda, made a clever sign. I eventually just gave up trying to think of something pithy and sign-worthy.

That was approximately when I heard a banging somewhere in the group. There was a man with a large drum.

"Is the bongo drum necessary?" I asked someone I came with.

"It's not a bongo drum, it's a djembe," he said and smiled. "But the drum is very necessary."

Then they started chanting. I guess it was practice. There were several call and response chants: "Rockford!" "Wake up!" was a popular one. "Show me what democracy looks like." "This is what democracy looks like." was another. Several people had megaphones. I personally counted three. But the drum was necessary. It kept everyone in time.

Before we started marching, a police officer addressed the crowd. He asked where we would be marching. He then asked that we stay on the sidewalk across the street. This wouldn't due, obviously. The sidewalk in front of the courthouse is public property, he was informed. I think he called on the radio for instructions or he may have realized we were right, because he changed his instructions and told us we couldn't go on the grass or the wall that was in front of the courthouse because that was federal property.

"So we own it?" someone asked. This was met with a cheer.

Occupy Banner on a Parking Garage.
Occupy Banner on a Parking Garage.

Yes we did. But that was as far as things would get right there.

At about 10:30, we started marching south towards the courthouse via sidewalks. Along the way, the chants continued. Quite a few people honked their horns as they drove down the street. Apparently, there is a law that says one cannot protest in the street, so signs were lowered as those held them crossed through the crosswalk. The chants continued for the entire march.

Chant: "Listen, listen! Bank of America owns my politician."

Eventually we reached the courthouse, which I had never seen before, kind of out of the way of my usual travels. This building and the grounds cost approximately $100 million, and more than one of us would have liked to seen where all this cash went a little closer. I could tell from simply the layout, that security was a significant portion, as the building itsel is set back a little ways and there is a large wall in front of the grounds, which is what we were not allowed to sit on.

The courthouse itself.
The courthouse itself.

"Listen, listen! Chase bank owns my politician."

Variations on the chants came up again and again, "Show us what hypocrisy looks like." Then the crowd answers, pointing at the building, "That's what hypocrisy looks like."

%%%

The protest was orderly until a couple of women marched up the stairs from the sidewalk onto the courthouse steps. They wanted to get arrested, you could tell. This pushed the crowd to get louder and push a little closer to the steps. The police came up to the women and started talking to them, but I couldn't hear what they said.

The women weren't arrested, but they proceeded to start leading some of the chants from the top of the stairs. Shortly after that was when we learned that Durbin would come out and speak to us.

For a while, that was where the tension kind of topped off for a few minutes. Then someone saw a tea party guy. His outfit was a likely unintentional parody of "try to blend in." He was recording everything with, what I understand, the goal of editing it together to make the Occupy movement look bad. Which is fine. Let me repeat that. That's fine. He can do whatever he likes. He just looked, well, silly.

A few people chose to engage with him, but, by and large, most people didn't. I kept half an ear on his arguments and found them typical and full of personal anecdote which, while interesting and perhaps rhetorically satisfying, do not really teach us anything. If I wanted to hear those kind of arguments, I would choose my news outlets differently or listen to people at work. I don't, so...here we are: A person who thinks Obama isn't liberal enough.

For the record, there was no counter-protest right then, just this one guy at this point. I was slightly disappointed. I like the idea of people protesting, even if they have a different view.

Not long thereafter, they blocked off traffic from the road so no motorists could drive by and see our protest or honk in solidarity or whatever. I don't think this was a political decision, but simply a practical one in order to prevent possible accidents. However, it did have the effect of reducing the visibility of our protest to the wider public.

"Listen, listen! Wall Street owns my politician."

%%%

Some time later, separate crowd broke off and moved half-way down the block. It seems that there was some kind of dispute about a sign that some young men on skateboards had carried onto the scene. The sign looked like a penis. My fellow protesters said the sign had the words "Dong Manzullo" and "Dick Durbin" on it. There is a video of the event on YouTube.

The police carried off the penis and tried to hide it behind a van. They called the paddy wagon to cart it off in, but the dong was too large to fit in the wagon. Lewd lube jokes were made as they drove away with the sign hanging out of the rear doors.

Apparently, one of the officers that participated in the taking of the sign in some fashion refused to give his name and badge number, so one of the gentlemen whose sign it was talked to the chief of police. The chief gave the name of the officer in question without hesitation. In fact, he was polite and engaged whoever spoke with him with respect and what seemed to be honesty. According to the more seasoned protesters, this is a common tactic. Think "good cop/bad cop".

%%%

Eventually, the women that were on the stairs came down and rejoined the crowd. Shortly thereafter, the police put barricades in front of the stairs.

Then came the lull in the action.

A few people left for whatever reasons (jobs, kids, etc.). Some left to get food or to use the restroom. Some of the people I came with went to a nearby bar. They were told they had to buy a beer in order to use the restroom, which they did. They then mentioned what they were doing and they said that those in the bar were supportive.

Eventually, some people started to leave the dedication ceremony from the courthouse. I didn't know who most of them were, but there were helpful members of the crowd with megaphones who pointed out, "Say 'Hi' to Dan Lostenkowski, candidate for..." Mayor Morrissey left with surprising little fanfare. I suppose, given his independence, he was not the focus of a lot of the ire of the people. This was the first time I had seen any elected officials face-to-face.

We milled around a bit at this point. There was some discussion of whether Durbin was stalling and looking to out wait us. A few more of the both the dedication ceremony and the protest left. About 12:45, Durbin came out and stood among the crowd to answer some questions.

Unfortunately there was some asshat trying to block a tea party person (not the one above) from filming. Durbin rightfully told the obstructionist to let the guy film what he wants.

After that, the questions came. I'm sure there is video out there, but his answers seemed to be mostly as one expected. One of my friends kept asking about Durbin's opinions on the Oakland protests. He did this several times and was eventually answered. Durbin called the Oakland police reaction to those protestors an "over-reaction."

The main issue he had was the issue of campaign financing, which resonated pretty well with the crowd, though he didn't seem hopeful for real reform. Unfortunately, several of the questions seemed to imply that the interrogators hadn't even passed high school government class. It's always disappointing when people you might agree with turn out to be ignorant fools.

He talked about 15 or 20 minutes and then had to make his way to whatever it was he was going to do.

That was pretty much the end. Some local news organizations interviewed a de facto spokesman. I tried to record that to see if they would splice his words around and such, but my audio is poor, and so the exercise was wasted.

"Well that was anti-climactic," I said to one of my friends.

"That happens a lot. Sometimes people get arrested. Sometimes people get to talk to someone. Then we go home," he said. "That's the way it is."

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This account is obviously slightly morphed from reality in that it's how I remember things. The precise order might be off. Also, to narrate the several hours in "real time" that we were out there would be tedious for both me and the reader. I am not a reporter anymore (if what I did so long ago even counts). You are welcome.