It’s been a strange few days here in the sweet and sleepy little city of Springfield, IL. The weather is turning cold and people are busy preparing for another winter in the Midwest. Hearts are warming to the idea of friends, family, and love. And plans are being made by everyone as to how to best enjoy this season. Despite this shift there are still sad details being sorted out here and in the rest of the country.
In particular, there will be 2 million people in January who will lose their unemployment benefits. Illinois will account for roughly 85,000 of those affected. That’s a whole lot of people staring new-found poverty in the face as they plan their budgets for the holidays. It must be terrible to have to choose between traveling to see loved ones (or giving your child that special gift) and eating in January.
Not that people collecting unemployment benefits are living large. Most barely receive enough money to get by month to month. They keep family and loved ones housed, fed, and warmed, at most. That is not an inordinate amount to provide for a person, especially when they have paid in to the system extensively. However, unemployment insurance is a “luxury” that a lot of people are about to lose.
A lot of people are losing jobs due to the poor economy. That is creating plenty of people on unemployment for the first time, often trying to support their families on a paltry sum of money. Business has been bad for a lot of hard working folks out there, people that worked non-stop for a long time, paid their taxes, and bought consumer goods. Now that irresponsible financiers and loose politics have burst certain bubbles, people who worked hard and in good faith are left out in the cold.
It may take quite some time before the economy recovers enough to offer these people jobs that don’t pay similarly to unemployment benefits, and with none of the health benefits, savings, and general social derision. I won’t personally be affected by the ending of unemployment benefit extensions in January without the help of Washington; but it disturbs me to think that some of these good people are. It’s disturbing to think somebody could do the right thing, come by everything honestly, and still not have some kind of social safety net that assures them the same respect and dignity of any living thing on this planet.
Now as I have mentioned, there is a chance that some people can receive more respite from their current condition while they struggle to find a job as the working poor, or severely in debt. H.R.3346, and S.1804 would provide benefit extensions for a short time while things warm up and job creation spikes in the spring, allowing people to once again earn more than a place amongst the working and non-working poor in terms of lifestyle. When I heard about this it seemed to me that something like that was worth some time and energy.
Through an announcement at an Occupy Springfield, IL. (OSI) meeting I found out that the Central Illinois Trades and Labor Council and the AFL-CIO were planning a protest in front of U.S. Congressman Aaron Schock’s office on the corner of Sixth and Monroe downtown in Springfield, IL. Apparently, Aaron doesn’t seem to want to give these people respite, and is willing to block its passage with his vote. Don’t get me wrong, Schock is a very sexy man as a recent Men’s Health Magazine has shown, but one has to wonder how empathetic he could be to the average construction worker with a family of three to support.
I felt he might need to be persuaded to change his vote and since we have a few constitutional protections to share our opinion freely, it might be an opportune time to use that right on December 8th. On Thursday I implemented a plan to express my opinion in a persistent, non-violent way.
For the last few months, members of OSI have been sharing their opinions on various matters using a method named by some as “Freedom Chalking”. After scrutinizing the city ordinances concerning vandalism, we determined that using chalk on a sidewalk was not vandalism. One of our members even contacted the local police department and was advised just that. In addition, various local groups including businesses and Right-to-Life have used chalk on a sidewalk as a way to use free public space for mass communication.
In addition to that, what we affectionately refer to as OSI R&D has developed a cheap and fun way to produce chalk. Using Plaster of Paris, water soluble Tempera paint, plastic tubes, and male prophylactics, you can produce vast amounts of chalk on the cheap. Given the not so vast resources of our small grassroots Occupy cell, chalk is a wonderful way to use public spaces to use our First Amendment rights and communicate our opinion on current events. In the past few weeks, OSI has chalked various establishments such as Chase Bank, U.S. Bank, and Congressman Schock’s office. On a few occasions we had encounters with law enforcement officers, and while there were a few dissenting opinions on the matter, we perceived what we were doing to be within legal parameters, as nothing more than a stern lecture came from these officials.
We spent the night of December 7th and the early morning hours producing chalk, and produced a prolific mess in the process. At around 2:45pm the next day, the first phase went into effect and I marched up to the corner of Sixth and Monroe with an associate, and ‘Operation Schock Chalk’ began. We began chalking things about the effects of blocking Unemployment Insurance benefit extensions, when we were made by the office staff. One of them came out and addressed me, as I chose a spot directly in front of the door. The conversation went something like this:
“Excuse me, Hi, I’m blah blah.”
“Hi” I said as I shook her extended hand and then continued chalking.
“Hi, look, I’m the one who has to clean this up and… look I’m going to get building management.”
I continued chalking as I said “Ok.”
My associate went unnoticed and continued chalking about how jobs could be found 7,783 miles West in China. I was on the second line of writing “2 Million People Will Lose Their Unemployment In January. Don’t Let This Happen” when the building manager entered my sight and said:
“You can’t deface property. You can’t do this, you have to stop!”
I replied” I’m not defacing anything. I’m exercising my First Amendment rights and using water soluble materials. We’ve been doing this at other places for a while.” She seemed upset when she replied:
“I told you to stop!”
I stood up, looked her in the eyes, and said:
“Yes, and I’m defying you.”
Predictably, she said “The police are on their way.”
I finished my chalking and noticed it was time to go pick up a friend from work, as planned. So I left and informed my associate of the situation. He decided to proceed on to the library, as he had planned to do when I left.
I left the site and proceeded to go about my business before I had to return for the 4:30 action with our Union friends. I returned at about 4:45 with a large box of protest signs and chalk, and the demonstration was in full gear as a large group of people marched in a circle chanting “Jobs Now!” and “We need benefits!”. I saw the usual suspects participating and took a spot on the side of the action.
I was informed that my piece of work in front of the office had been washed away. It upset me because I had wanted to have something on the sidewalk when the event began. I intended to do more, but now the workload had increased. I felt this message needed to be spread to as many people as possible, and sidewalks are usually pretty well traveled in Springfield.
So I began chalking in the exact same place again. I wrote “You Can’t Wash Away An Idea” among other things regarding H.R. 3346. I jumped in and out of the marching, and as I was doing so a small phalanx of press arrived and began filming everything and doing interviews. Eventually, a City Council member showed up and joined the fray, and in the end my associates and I had covered the sidewalk almost entirely with information and a quote by Aristotle. In short, a good time was had by all.
Having time to kill, I retired to Gallina’s Pizza with some of the protestors for a Stromboli and waited until our General Assembly began at 7:15. At the assembly I found out that our piece had been washed away already. This was frustrating to say the least, but left me even more determined to get what we considered an important message to Schock and his constituents, who agreed with, or were unaware of, the situation. After the meeting, I collaborated with other members and decided to return to chalk yet again that night.
There was a slight drizzle when we returned around 9:30 with chalk in hand. J.J. Keating and I began working; but before we could finish a police car pulled up, and an officer stated firmly to me: “Alright, that’s it. Get your hands behind your back!”
When dealing with law enforcement officers, it’s always best to be compliant, so I did as he asked and was handcuffed. I did not however fully utilize my right to remain silent, and we exchanged words concerning my actions. He did not agree with my assertion that what we were doing was within our right, and informed J.J. and I that we were under arrest. As he handcuffed J.J., he told me to stay put while reinforcements arrived. We exchanged more words, and I told him I was going to need his name and badge number by the time this was over. He didn’t seem to like that, and responded something to the effect of: “I don’t have a badge number. You see these?”
He pointed to whatever law enforcement rank insignia was on his arm. “These mean I am the boss. We’ve let you slide for too long, and I’m stopping it tonight!”
I told him I was still going to need his name. He seemed upset and aggressively said, as he pointed to his name badge, “My name? My name is Lieutenant J.E. Henry!”
I informed him that it was a pleasure to meet him. I also asked him if he was excited about making the first chalk related arrest in the history of Springfield. He did not seem as enthusiastic as I was.
Eventually, his reinforcements arrived, two squad cars worth. J.J and I were detained in them and informed that we weren’t under arrest, but would still be detained as we waited for the Lieutenant to determine exactly what ordinance we would be charged with. It seemed obvious to me that we were being harassed, by comparison to police actions over the last few weeks; I expressed that opinion to the Lieutenant. He did not agree, and the farce continued.
J.J. and I were un-cuffed before being placed in the cars, and watched the spectacle unfold. I chatted with the officers in my car as another car arrived and a plain-clothes photographer got out, documenting the scene of the crime. I couldn’t help but laugh a little bit. I don’t know if the officers appreciated that.
Eventually, I was let out of the squad car and the Lieutenant informed me that we were fined $500.00. He began telling me how sick he was of having to deal with the complaints. As he started in, I asked him to please keep his value judgments to himself and just explain the situation. He huffed and did so, and I found out that it was a vandalism ticket, but the use of city labor turned that $100.00 fine into a $500.00 one.
He informed me of my court date and told me I was free to go. I smiled and told him I fully intended to have him investigated for harassment before thanking him and extending my hand. He did not shake my hand.
I waited for them to let J.J. go, and we had a conference with a friend who has some experience in protest arrests. He looked over our tickets and we discussed the repercussions when the best show of the night began. A fire truck, complete with lights, siren, and crew, pulled up in front of the police perimeter established to document all the “evidence”. The crew filed out, grabbed a hose, and began spraying our messages off the sidewalk. Apparently that was the city labor our friend the Lieutenant was talking about.
After this grotesque act of ignorance, J.J. returned home and I retired to the Brewhaus to help AJ, our associate that arrived after seeing our predicament on Facebook, determine our response to the police actions. We decided on a press release. The rest of the story can be found in the newspapers and on T.V.
Despite my pending court battle and the derision of a number of people, I am unrepentant. I feel my message was censored, and that the police response was spurred on by the direct involvement of a U.S. Congressman’s complaints. The fact our message pressed him to change his vote may reflect poorly on him in some circles. It is what made it imperative to have it removed.
I pose these questions: If an average citizen were to call in to the police with a similar complaint, would it be given any attention? Would a fire truck be brought out to clean it? Would charges and fines be trumped up? Why aren’t children fined for ordinance violations when they chalk? What about the aforementioned local groups? Why weren’t we fined or even stopped when we chalked in front of Chase Bank, and other places? Why does Aaron Schock have to be so damn good looking? Where does he find time to work on those abs of his during his busy days legislating?
The fact is, at this point in the situation, I have a lot of questions. More than anything I just want some answers to these questions. Needless to say, we are contacting lawyers. People are showing their solidarity with JJ and I by planning actions. By the time it’s all said and done, there might be some big trouble brewing in the sweet and sleepy little city of Springfield. Unfortunately, that won’t help the almost 85,000 Illinois citizens about to lose their unemployment benefits.
If you find what happened to us reprehensible; if you agree that what were fighting for is important; then what is really important is that you help the cause and try to get Congress to pass H.R. 3346. How you do it is up to you, but I’ve been handcuffed, detained, and fined to try and get this message across. Please don’t let that be in vain.