Grey City: What Lies in Store for Campus Activists?

The last protests of the "99 percent" have died down. What now?

By Linda Qiu

Sydney Combs / The Chicago Maroon

GREY CITY

  /  

December 4, 2012

On a May morning earlier this year, at the back of a northbound CTA bus packed with activists from the U of C, a sociology Ph.D. student named Peter Fugiel told me that the Occupy Movement was dying.

The “People’s Summit” we were headed to—Occupy’s contribution to the NATO conference protests that day—would likely be the movement’s last, great hurrah, Fugiel said. He and the U of C’s Occupy group had prepped during the winter months, and were determined to show their resolve. Later that day, when their protest permit expired, the People’s Summit erupted into a skirmish that resulted in around 60 arrests (none of them UChicago students), ostensibly ending Chicago’s Occupy moment.

But the students on that bus were looking forward to carrying on the legacy and excitement of Occupy. They were planning: It would be a “summer of protests.” The Occupiers, their allies, and their sympathizers may have shared the sentiment that the movement which began last September in New York City’s Zuccotti Park was slowly and gracefully retiring, but the causes mustered under its banner were prepared to re-emerge emboldened.

The Occupy movement was always an umbrella for pre-existing student activism groups. They adopted its brand mostly as a show of solidarity. The core of UChicago students who had a role in organizing Occupy have since returned to their own unresolved but interrelated grievances, says Toby Chow, a philosophy Ph.D. student involved in several activist groups.

“Economic inequality, divestment, the environment, health inequity—all these things are part of broader issues. It’s all tied together,” said third-year Aija Nemer-Aanerud, a leader of the campus and community activism group Southside Solidarity Network (SSN).

Chow personifies the interconnectedness of issues taken up by community and campus activist groups: He led SSN, plays an active part in Southsiders Organized for Unity and Liberation (SOUL), and participates in Students for Health Equity (SHE) and UChicago Climate Action Committee (UCAN).

Chow’s level of involvement is not rare in this community of around 40 campus activists. UCAN, SSN, SHE, SOUL—all form a loose affiliation of activist groups. Fourth-year Olivia Woollam, a leader of SHE but a participant in other organizations as well, lightheartedly calls it, “the social justice ghetto.”

“It’s a wonderful, tight-knit community,” she says, explaining that in certain ways the closeness can be useful. “It’s a great support system.”

It also makes it easier for commonly aligned groups to coordinate their activities. In April, when city officials announced steep budget cuts on public mental health clinics, SHE partnered with SOUL, SSN, and the campus Occupy affiliate in protest of the move. And earlier this year, five campus groups worked on a program of screenings, discussions, and information sessions to educate first-years in the College about the issues taken up by students on campus and basic community organizing, dubbed “Disorientation.”

But there can be limitations to this sort of organizing, especially if community activism is supposed to be a big tent.

“There will be events that are overexposed and under-attended because it’s so much within that community,” Woollam says. “It gets easy to say, ‘Oh, that went well. Twenty people showed up,’ but it’s the 20 who were at the planning meetings showing support, and it becomes very internal.”

There are also logistical problems. Chow and Nemer-Aanerud say that the insularity of the “social justice ghetto,” coupled with the quick turnaround of College students who graduate within four years, often amounts to a “recipe for unsustainability.” Such shortcomings haven’t gone unnoticed, and groups try to offset the revolving-door effect with concerted recruitment efforts, like the “Disorientation” event, which drew some 70 first-years in September this year.

It can be difficult to bring in new blood, however. Often, campus groups find themselves pushing a social narrative that clashes with the one forwarded by the administration. In O-Week 2007, the University began screening its annual “You Are Here” videos, which were intended to illustrate the U of C’s historical relationship with its surrounding communities. “You Are Here” was tweaked in 2010 and removed completely in 2011, in favor of a community service panel that was in turn discontinued this year.

“Disorientation” was meant to offer an alternative to the University’s particular community engagement pitch.

“It was a push back on the dominant narrative,” Woollam said.

In particular, activists sense among the student body a wariness of Do-Not-Cross boundaries encircling the University community, inscribed in part by the physical borders of campus, but also by students’ perceptions of crime and poverty as well.

“The University has tried, I think justifiably, to ensure that students aren’t hurt. But it seems to think that a student going into Woodlawn would necessarily mean a student getting hurt,” Woollam said. “That ‘If–Then’ statement, even if not promoted, disseminates into student mentalities.”

Woollam put the problem in pop-culture terms:

“There’s a wall in Game of Thrones. You get sent there when you’re being bad, and everyone is terrified of it and won’t go near it,” she said. “But a character in the show gets sent there, and he finds that there are just people there.”

Clearly, the University is aware of its image as a gated community in a socially troubled and underserved area. “You Are Here” was, if anything, an attempt to instill students with a civic awareness of their surroundings, which might lead to active engagement—socially and politically—with the community.

For some, it had that effect, but not in the way the College intended.

“I remember watching [You Are Here] and thinking, ‘This is so messed up,’” Nemer-Aanerud said, “and I found these groups that agreed...A lot of people see the relationship between the community and the University in ‘You Are Here,’ and it really rubs them the wrong way.”

It is this historically strained relationship between the University and the South Side that Nemer-Aanerud and others cite as a foundation for causes and groups that seek community partnership.

Eight years ago, for example, a group of students took a course here on gentrification in Chicago. “The University sort of pioneered a lot of the techniques of gentrification under the label ‘urban renewal’ back in the day,” said Chow, referring to the U of C’s 1960s southward expansion into Woodlawn. “But the students also found that gentrification was not only the history of the University, but, in fact, the University was still doing it.”

Around the same time, plans were being drawn over the potential redevelopment of Grove Parc Plaza, a housing complex bound by East 60th and 62nd Streets and South Cottage Grove Avenue, managed by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development and the Woodlawn Preservation Investment Corporation (WPIC). Two of the project’s board members were then-Vice President of Community and Government Affairs Hank Webber and Executive Director of the UCPD Rudy Nimocks. The plan, tenants and activists said, was to turn the project into a site for the potential 2016 Olympics in Chicago.

“So the students, they organized and started a campaign with STOP [Southsiders Together Organizing for Power] to save Grove Parc,” Chow said. The campaign eventually culminated in a sit-in, arrests, and a court case. From that event was born SSN.

Like SSN, SHE’s origins lie in a single University-targeted campaign: the absence of a level-one trauma center at the University of Chicago Hospitals. Led by Fearless Leading by the Youth (FLY), the demand for a level-one trauma center at the University of Chicago Medical Center points to a perception that the University has a responsibility to serve the community around it.

Still, Woollam doesn’t always consider the University an antagonist: it is simply that basic, textbook organizing instructs activists to identify a clear target close at hand. Since the University is the most impactful actor in the community, she explains, inevitably activists will find much to scrutinize.

In fact, University and activist partnerships have occurred and continue today, an “inside” approach that Nemer-Aanerud says is just as vital to achieving campaign goals as an “outside” approach. The Grove Parc campaign—spanning many protests targeting WPIC, meetings with the WPIC, and years in conversation and conflict with WPIC—demonstrates the complicated relationship between activists and their partners. But, to Nemer-Aanerud, the inconsistency of roles is inherent to political organizing, and expectations are always in flux.

“All campaigns should be winnable... They should have a goal,” she said. “Meeting that goal can be a measure of success. But meeting part of that goal can be success. Negotiating down can be success. Radicalizing people can be success."

Whether the University’s interests can align with the goals of activist groups may depend on their separate ways of understanding social justice.

Last November, for example, students affiliated with a number of campus groups—as well as Occupy—rallied against a talk at I-House featuring former Treasury Secretary Hank Paulson and former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice. The night of the event, administrators announced that the talk was being postponed. Protesters claimed it as a victory, despite administrators’ insistence that a scheduling conflict was the cause of the sudden change.

Occupiers released a statement declaring that Paulson and Rice’s postponement suggested that “they can’t handle free inquiry.”

Elly Daugherty, assistant vice president for student life, says that the University’s values, which have established its reputation for respecting free inquiry, are not unlike the values of activists—after all, she said, Occupy celebrates open discourse. In fact, she says, activism encompasses many forms of impassioned expression, including “what we do every day, in our Core classes, in lectures, in seminars.”

“We confine activism to standing outside with a placard,” she said. In reality, however, “activism is speaking with a passion and conviction within, that makes it necessary to express an opinion whether you’re in agreement with everyone else.”

But for members of the “social justice ghetto,” such passion and conviction should translate into action. Nemer-Aanerud described that crucial part of activism—acting—with a metaphor popular in the circle. “There’s this river with some infants drowning in it. Some people do nothing. Some people will be horrified and immediately try to save the babies or call the police. And some people will not rest until they find out who was responsible for throwing the babies in the river,” she said.

And sometimes, action means getting arrested. The Occupation of Grant Park last fall resulted in 13 arrests of U of C affiliates, while SOUL’s anti-eviction campaign and SHE’s mental health clinic campaign added to the count. These arrests, planned and intentional, are meant precisely to demonstrate conviction, with the added bonus of media attention and solidarity.

“For people who get arrested together, I mean, that’s a strong bond,” Nemer-Aanerud said.

The activist chooses to be arrested, Chow emphasized. And the decision to do so “is not an easy one,” Nemer-Aanerud pointed out. Often, the decision alienates the activist from her family, or jeopardizes a career path. Second-year Collette Robichaux, who was very involved with Occupy Chicago, spoke of tensions with family members who resented seeing her name in print coupled with “arrest” or even “Occupy.” And second-year Adam Kahn, who took part in Occupy events last fall, says that his parents are unnerved by any affiliation with activism—especially if it leads to a night in jail.

“Most people are freaked out by the potential [of arrests]. It’s not an easy decision to make. It’s not the majority that would choose it,” Nemer-Aanerud said.

Without Occupy, social justice groups on campus no longer have a wide front they can rally behind. But their motivations, which are common to many, run deep in the history of the University, and are unlikely to dissipate now.

“Occupy’s only a name for an energy that’s been there,” said second-year Brendon Leonard, who is a leader of UCAN in addition to his participation in Occupy. “I don’t think that’s gone away. Even if we don’t call it ‘Occupy’ anymore.”

Nemer-Aanerud is even more optimistic.

“Occupy shaped a national conversation,” she said. “Once people are talking about it, there has to be a tipping point. And that’s when change happens. So now, we need to harness that energy.”