Chicago dissidents' loft headquarters provide resources, a place to stay
05/02/2012 10:00 PM
The Occupy Chicago movement has been making news since last year. But what many Pilsen residents may not have realized is that the organization’s headquarters is practically in their back yard.
The Occupy Chicago headquarters doesn’t particularly advertise itself. Located in an industrial area along the Chicago River at 500 W. Cermak Road, the building itself is an artists’ loft largely made up of studios, workshops and storage spaces. Indeed, the most prominent sign on the building is an advertisement for storage.
Occupy Chicago isn’t listed in the building’s directory, and the one contact number listed on the movement’s official website was disconnected. But if one is able to get inside the building and reach the fifth floor, finding it becomes much easier. The sign on the door is straight to the point: “Occupy Chicago, 24/7, 365.”
Occupy Chicago has been at this space since December of last year. Mandy Kirkwood, one of Occupy Chicago’s volunteer coordinators, told Chicago Journal that the purpose of space has grown over time.
“Originally, we wanted to have a working space, a space where we could hold general assembly [meetings],” she said.
But, as Kirkwood explained, its role as a meeting space had diminished. The general assembly meetings are currently held near Woodlawn Mental Health Center, where Occupy Chicago has been protesting its impending closure. As another Occupy Chicago member put it, they wanted to be in the middle of the struggle, closer to the people they are trying to help.
Other organizational meetings don’t necessarily take place at Occupy Chicago headquarters, either. For example, the final planning meeting for Tuesday’s May Day events took place at Workers United Union Hall, 333 S. Ashland Ave. in the West Loop.
But that’s not to say meetings aren’t held there. On Monday evening, Kirkwood met with a small group in the main space to discuss how they could contribute to the May Day march and planned post-rally activities. At the same time, the Citizens Against NATO (CAN), an organization allied with Occupy Chicago, held a meeting at a smaller meeting room by the front door.
But for the most part, the headquarters serve other, non-meeting functions. Occupy Chicago press releases, flyers, pamphlets and other printed materials are prepared here. It has two rooms fully stocked with paper and art supplies for posters and hand signs. The Occupy Chicago website is maintained and designed from the headquarters’ computers. The headquarters — along with the storage space on the seventh floor — also holds miscellaneous equipment and supplies.
It also functions as community resource for Occupy Chicago members and affiliated groups.
“This is a place where Occupy members can do art projects,” said Kirkwood. “We have computers everybody can use, and we have a wireless connection. We provide housing for homeless Occupiers, or for Occupiers who don’t want to stay home. We collect clothing donations. We have a shower and a kitchen.”
Matt, another member of the Occupy Chicago movement, explained that when Occupy movement members from elsewhere in the country arrive in Chicago, many of them come to the headquarters to stay. He is one of the people who makes sure that the kitchen is always stocked with food. Matt also explained that Occupy Chicago tries to make sure that no matter what happens, there’s always at least one person to welcome the new arrivals.
That may be one of the reasons why Occupy Chicago headquarters has a small library of donated books. While many of them are related to the movement’s goals, covering subjects such as political philosophy and non-violent protest tactics, nearly as many are more casual. That includes art books, travel guides and even a compilation of Elizabethan literature.
But while the headquarters are a good resource for existing Occupy movement members, it is less friendly to new arrivals. When asked when the next General Assembly meeting is being held, different members gave different information. Checking the official website was not particularly helpful. A volunteer named Cary mentioned that the organization holds orientation sessions for new members on Saturdays, but he wasn’t sure if that was every Saturday.
Part of the problem is that the plans are subject to constant tinkering, and details can change within minutes. The website has a calendar, but it’s not updated quickly enough, and some events are left off altogether. That isn’t a problem for anyone directly involved, but the other prospective volunteers are forced to play catch-up.
A volunteer who asked not to be named summed it up thusly:
“If you want to get involved, you need to know someone in the movement. And if you don’t know someone who’s in the movement…”
Ruben Rodriguez, who programs Occupy Chicago’s website and handles other IT issues, was candid about the situation.
“Most political groups are very organized,” he said, “but they can’t get enough people out on the street. We have a lot of people who want to get involved, but what seems to be failing is organization.”
Rodriguez feels that the way the website has been set up was part of the problem. He is currently working on revamping the site to make it more organized and easier to navigate. He is also planning to move the calendar from Google onto the site itself, which, along other things, would make it more manageable.
For now, the Occupy Chicago members are focused on the more immediate goals. The volunteers who talked to Chicago Journal saw the May Day events as major recruiting opportunities. Kirkwood was determined to do everything she could to make sure everything was in place.
As she took a group of volunteers to the seventh floor storage, she remarked.
“I have so many things on my plate,” she remarked. “But I have to do them.”