Protest too much.
Time to Settle Accounts
February 1, 2013: Protest too much.
“It’s god damn freezing outside,” I said to Evan, a fellow ChicagoNower. We were making our way to a protest at the University of Chicago in the face of a relentless wind slashing across our noses. Tears welled in my eyes and I gritted my teeth with every gust. My toes were beginning to disappear, a trait I’d felt most memorably at Barack’s first Inauguration.
“You said Ellis?” Evan asked. He knew the campus, and was leading us down 58th Street, ideally toward a building on Ellis Ave.
I nodded and blinked my wet eyes and saw the address straight ahead, 5801 S. Ellis, on a long brick building that cuts off 58th. “Jesus, thank goodness!” My gloveless hands were huddled in my pockets and I was thrilled to finally be taking shelter.
The protest was in response to the police brutality inflicted by university police at a another protest the previous Sunday, which itself was a protest against the school building a new 700 million dollar hospital while the community lacks an adult trauma center. Four protesters were arrested, (a pre-meditated act on their part), but the police were violent and aggressive, assaulting several protesters.
I’d seen a story in the Tribune about the protest and assaults, and then New Jack (who is at UC for an anthropology program) told me about this protest, and I decided I’d like to go just to see what was happening, with the possibility of pitching a story on the event or the movement to RedEye. And of course, if anything popped off again, I liked the idea of being there as a journalistic witness.
I walked up the steps and saw through the windows a line of protesters coming in the door from the other side. They were all holding flowers. We got inside and saw that the flower holders were heading up a flight of stairs inside the building. The foyer was quiet – the protesters weren’t talking, and the only other people inside was a woman working with the university and a university police officer leaned against a back wall, looking rather bored as he watched everyone traipse through.
“Hi!” I said to the woman. “Where is everybody going with the flowers?”
“Upstairs to the president’s office, though if you want information, you can talk to him,” she said, pointing to a man walking quickly between the inside part of the line and other people outside. I watched him zip in and out, and then the woman started talking again: “But I’m very sorry, you’re not allowed to be here. It is private property.” I looked at her, a desperate, nervous worrier attempting to dress every corporate order as a gift to the human soul. Her card listed her as Assistant Director for Student Emergency Response Systems. “So you’ll just have to step outside,” she said, and then, out of order, “And who are you?”
“I’m a reporter, but really I’m just a guy here interested in seeing what’s going on.”
“Well that is wonderful. I’m just an assistant dean. I’m glad you’re here, and please, yes, just right outside.”
I then spent about five minutes talking to the man she’d pointed out. The flowers, he explained, each had a note listing a person the flower bringer knew who had been afflicted by any sort of violence, from bullying to bullets. Outside, a crowd was gathering, as more and more people finished bringing their flowers to the president’s office and stepped outside to begin the rally.
A young woman with a bullhorn took a step forward and began leading the crowd. “They say cutbacks!” she shouted, and the crowd, already knowing the ending, responded, “We say fight back!”
“What do we want?” “Health care!” “When do we want it?” “Now!”
“They lock me up and beat me/ but they still don’t want to treat me!” “WHAT!”
I started counting the protesters, but couldn’t see over the top of people. I climbed a small iron railing to stand up on a concrete ledge and started counting people, but the woman from inside was now outside and motioned for me to “get down from there” like a kindergarten teacher.
I politely acquiesced, not interested in a showdown so early in what could end up being a sustained adversarial relationship. Who knows? So I stepped back down, having already seen the crowd’s depth. I did a rough count from there on – all told, I’d say there were 120 some protesters present.
Soon the rally was over. The crowd dispersed. The kindergarten teacher went back inside and I did too, pretending to read the bulletins on the lobby corkboards but really darting my eyes over to the woman, who was standing with the bored UC cop plus two other UC officers and watching the people walk away. I opened the lobby door to the foyer.
“I just want to thank you again for having us,” I said, which she followed with some company line about the University wanting to ensure a safe and appropriate process for the students to express themselves.
“Absolutely, absolutely,” I said. “And I hope I didn’t worry you too much when I stepped up onto that ledge.”
She smiled, strained & painful. “No no, I just didn’t want you to fall and then sue us,” she said. “I’m too broke for that, and as you might have heard,” she said strangely, “we don’t have a trauma center.”
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(Ed. note: For reasons that are not important, this story was not posted until February 5.)