The people of Chicago are learning how to disturb, embarrass and block the ambitions of socially destructive politicians and corporate executives, writes Rick Perlstein in The Nation.

Religious groups, senior citizen associations, immigrant organizations, community clubs, labor unions and other collectives are cooperating to form coalitions striving to defend the public from such threats as school closures, fund withholdings and the private capture of public assets. They’re converging on bankers association meetings, union-busting hotel empire oligarchs, and predatory banks in creative ways: One group dumped garbage collected from a foreclosed home outside a Bank of America branch. And the experience is emboldening the powerless.

“I never entered a bank before because of my immigration status,” one participant said. “I felt uneasy, but then we became family.” Another admitted: “I was scared, but my courage grew.” A third: “I can’t believe I sat in the street! That was my first time. It was great!” A fourth: “I am going to educate my children about what I did and bring them up to do the same.” 

Those involved are using innovative protest tactics. In one instance, “They separated into a dozen or so groups of twenty-five. Each group contained members from different organizations; those members planned their own actions, argued together, socialized together and then, when the pivotal moment came, stuck together on the streets,” Perlstein writes.

Another group traveled to Switzerland to confront the International Olympic Committee with a book full of articles from the Chicago press showing “why a corrupt and incompetent city government would botch the Games,” Perlstein writes. “When the dust cleared, the Olympics went to Rio, and a consultant with knowledge of the IOC’s deliberations told [activist Tom] Tresser that his group’s efficient presentation of information had played a significant role in the decision.”

Yet another group is committed to activism through “data liberation”: the tedious extraction and synthesis of information from dense, opaque and difficult-to-search public documents to show how officials are misrepresenting the amount and purpose of available funds. Such a collective embarrassed the Chicago Mercantile Exchange into publicly rejecting city money it would have used to refurbish its bathrooms while neighborhoods for which the funds were intended languished nearby.

“[D]ata liberations have turned into major propaganda coups for the CTU [Chicago Teachers Union] and a major driver of outrage against the school closings,” Perlstein writes. “So did a finding by radio station WBEZ, based on much of this same work, that of the nine empirical claims the school board was making about school closings, all nine were either inaccurate or false.”

— Posted by Alexander Reed Kelly.

Rick Perlstein at The Nation:

Chicago is where the spreadsheets are meeting the streets—and changing the face of politics in the city. Consider the victories of the last few years. Activists helped sink an Olympic bid that would have been a giant boondoggle and land grab (the failure was a key reason Mayor Richard Daley shocked the city by deciding not to run for re-election in 2011 after six terms). The Chicago Mercantile Exchange was embarrassed into returning $15 million in TIF money. The G-8 moved its conference out of fear of an advancing activist army. The CTU led its members in a victorious teachers strike. This kind of thing is not supposed to be possible, because teachers unions are said to be despised, especially by public school parents. But not in Chicago, where in a recent poll the most militant teachers union in the country is supported by 54 percent of parents; only 9 percent side with the mayor. That mayor came into office with national ambitions, but now his disapproval rating is 40 percent, and only 24 percent of Chicagoans believe the city is better off than it was under the also-unpopular Mayor Daley.

Watch Chicago. Watch it this September, when the school year is set to open with fifty fewer schools in operation. “So let me tell you what you’re gonna do,” shouted CTU president Karen Lewis in a rally last March. “On the first day of school, you show up at your real school! Don’t let these people take your schools!” The conditions are ripe for such civil disobedience: the bonds of trust within a variegated activist community; a growing culture of militancy extending all the way down to formerly quiescent middle-class parents; strategic smarts, passion, momentum. Brazil, Bulgaria, Taksim Square… Chicago. The next battle in the global war against austerity, privatization and corruption just might spark off right here.

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