Media for the 99%

My Year with Occupy

Teresa Veramendi (left, with sign) marching with other Occupy members on the Chicago movement’s one-year anniversary on October 23. (Photo: Sarah Jane Rhee/Chicago Indymedia, Creative Commons)

Teresa Veramendi (left, with sign) marching with other Occupy members on the Chicago movement’s one-year anniversary on October 23. (Photo: Sarah Jane Rhee/Chicago Indymedia, Creative Commons)

I remember July of 2011, complaining loudly to friends and family, “Isn’t it obvious to everyone now that we are getting screwed by the government and the banks? It’s all over the papers. What’s it take for people to stand up?” Little did I know that hundreds of thousands felt the same way, and that I would stand with them as the following year took me down the path of revolution.

When I first read about the beginnings of Occupy Wall Street, I remember my heart leaping into my throat. Could this be? I watched carefully, read the articles, and started following events via Twitter. Many say that Twitter has been an unwitting aid to revolutions around the world. It’s funny how the easiest, fastest, free service of global idea circulation can help organize the people. Sparks became flames quickly — if the Middle East could rebel against heinous dictators, could we not stand in our streets, in the belly of our free-market dragon and demand justice?

Living in Chicago, I could not visit Liberty Park, or as one percenters call it, “Zuccotti Park.” I saw videos and photos online, knowing I would be there if I hadn’t left Brooklyn two years before. So after seven hundred protesters were led by police across the Brooklyn Bridge on October 1, I watched the video the next day of their entrapment and arrests as though it were my body on the line. Almost on cue, an old friend from high school texted me about going to Occupy Chicago that day.

I went down to the intersection of Jackson and LaSalle and was greeted by a warm, electric drum circle that would rise, burst, and hum down the block. The people there varied in class and race, and all around me they were entrenched in deep political conversations in front of the Federal Reserve Bank of Chicago. There was a table with a paper sign that read “tech”, another table with food and coffee, and a buzz of excitement vibrating in the air and making me smile. At that time, the few cops present liked the occupiers, or so we thought. They even brought us coffee in the morning!

Over the following month, I led chants at various marches and General Assemblies and learned how the most disparate group of people could operate via channels of democracy, expression, and 90% consensus for every decision. That consensus was so important, and yet of course made for long meetings at “the Horse” downtown, the cold concrete steps wearing down everyone’s strength. I closed my bank account with Chase, and made a sign out of my debit card pieces.

Occupiers taught me the interconnectedness of our corrupted systems — the greed bearing down on every industry, squeezing labor in an endless pursuit of profits at all costs, at very human costs. I recognized the flood of money corrupting the powerful, drugging them to endlessly legislate the expansion of their own powers and fortunes. I peered deep into the cracks of our society: the houses sitting empty while the homeless are not allowed to sleep or exist; the prisons of profit, full of black men; the war against black people, the suppression of a race, enforced by our police, whom I stopped regarding as protectors.

Occupied Hearts

One General Assembly towards the end of November, a man stood up and said he had written a play for artists within Occupy Chicago to perform. I knew this was my skill set, and I felt immediately I would be a hypocrite not to approach the playwright. I had been looking for a way to give more to the movement, and found it by working alongside William C. Turck to flesh out the script, find a director and cast, perform the lead and co-direct the production. “Occupy My Heart”, a modern day Christmas Carol set against the backdrop of the Occupy movement, was one of the purest labors of love I have ever been involved in. Every time we met, the cast had deep conversations about the role of art, how we could reach a wider audience than a protest, and the story of resistance we had to tell.

In the middle of the rehearsal process I had planned a weekend trip to New York. I was there just in time to witness the December 12 Winter Garden arrests, where a man holding a laptop livestreaming the event (which consisted of dancing and singing in a public atrium) was slammed violently to the ground at my feet. It was the first arrest that broke the crest of celebration, and dragged our spirits into the deep murky waters of the NYPD.

I remember screaming desperately, “Why?!” My white privileged eyes had never seen a police officer grapple so violently with a clearly innocent man, and the realization of the NYPD’s intentional silencing of the press crushed me, as they targeted every person with a camera, and others shouting that they were journalists. An officer took me by the arm, pulling me to the door with a tight grip. I asked over and over, “Why can’t I be here? This is a public space! What law am I breaking? Why can’t I be inside?” To which the officer mostly ignored me, then responded gruffly, “You know why,” and threw me out the door.

The author introduces the Wishing Tree on April 7, the first day of the Chicago Spring. (Photo: Brett Jelinek)

The author introduces the Wishing Tree on April 7, the first day of the Chicago Spring. (Photo: Brett Jelinek)

When we crowded around the windows, the police put a line of men between the glass and us. Then they put a metal barrier up in front of them, and I saw the fear of the powerful written all over the police’s tactics, but only bland resentment on their faces. I told them that we were fighting for their pensions, for their children’s right to a good education, for their parents’ health care, and one officer turned quietly to me and said “Thank you.” I asked them to raise their hand if they thought this was a good use of their time, when someone was probably getting murdered in New York City right at that moment. None felt strongly enough about what they were doing to move. I noticed what looked like a graying businessman in a suit behind the police line, keeping an eye on everything that was happening.

I was followed after that event to a deli, where I waved at a man whom I guess, from his brazen stare and terrible overcoat, was an FBI agent. I went back to Chicago rattled, angry, and even more determined.

“Occupy My Heart” opened on December 23: we braved one incredible performance outside in Grant Park for Occupy Chicago, thirty of whom endured the cold to march to the site and watch us perform the hell out of our play. We made the Chicago Tribune, and followed up with four more free performances indoors. The response was incredible, our talkbacks afterwards were unexpectedly inspirational and motivating for me. We were helping people understand that the world could be different, and that everyone could do something about that.

More than once, the audience asked us, what will the Occupy Players do next? The group of artists glanced with blushes at one another — we didn’t know. At the fourth performance so many came that we had to turn people away, and the last performance was an absolute fire hazard, but no one cared. When another audience member asked that same question, I answered that I was going to start writing a play. Indeed, it had been in my head for years already — a factual re-enactment of the financial crisis, but now I knew it would be a street performance, and end with a people’s uprising which would further fuel the actual uprising happening in the streets at any protest.

Wishing Trees and Rising Tides

From then on, I was hooked. The audience was hungry, and I knew what to feed them. The Occupy Chicago Rebel Arts Collective formed, I worked on my play, “Machine Breaks Down, People Rise Up,” and I began to lead Theatre of the Oppressed workshops at Occupy Chicago. Activism is already tangled up in that Brazilian theatre practice; it was created to revolutionize communities and I continue to love working with it and with Occupy. I met more occupiers from all over the country this way, threw multi-media art events and fundraisers for various causes within and without the movement, wrote performance poetry, and generally did my best to spread the message of occupiers to the public.

In the meantime, a network of political artists of all forms blossomed in Chicago. I organized and created (with a lot of help) the interactive twelve-foot sculpture called the Wishing Tree, a symbol for Occupy Chicago’s April 7 Spring kick-off, to help display our thoughtful and peaceful intentions before the inevitable clash at the NATO summit. We performed our financial allegory (“Machine Breaks Down”) at three different events before NATO, including the People’s Summit, and it was performed in early September 2012 at the Occupy the Space theatre festival in Manhattan. These networks keep laying down more roots, growing higher and out, and my heart keeps expanding to include more causes as the movement opens my eyes to all kinds of oppression, injustice and inequity in this world.

I now recognize our occupation, our movement to occupy every form of oppression everywhere, to be the only possible tide to rise against the financial-governmental machine of privatization, profitization, racialization and devastation of our homes, lives, bodies and thoughts. The 1% demands that we believe in their systems and institutions even as they crack and fall all around them, but the time has come for human beings to evolve. I will continue to use my skills as a writer, performer, and organizer to fuel the worldwide revolution for a sustainable culture until I wake up every last sleepy consumer. I occupy my art and others’ minds as best I can: I see no other way to be.

I suspect the years ahead hold many ups and downs for our goals, but as I watch laborers of all kinds strike all over the world, and people rise up against their governments from Egypt to Spain to Libya to Greece to Chile to Canada to China to Manhattan… I see the tide is rising, in more ways than one. With the arctic melting fast, we only have a few years to end our self-destruction. The time to stand up is now! As I often chant with my brothers and sisters, while dancing uncontainably in the streets:

“We are unstoppable, another world is possible!”

Another world is coming — and all of us are making it.

By Teresa Veramendi

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