As Occupy activists from around the country begin heading home to their respective cities after a weekend of protests in Chicago, many say the massive gathering has helped revitalize a movement that has gone months without staging the kind of headline-grabbing spectacle that made "99 percent" a popular concept.
Ever since police forces around the country started evicting protestors from their encampments about two months after the tents first went up, people in the movement have found themselves responding to a discouraging refrain: "Is Occupy still going on?" This weekend's protests should leave little doubt that it is, if nothing else.
Thousands of protestors descended on Chicago for the NATO summit this weekend, filling the streets and rallying outside of the mayor's home, the convention center where delegates were meeting and many other places. It was a show of defiance on a scale that rivaled some of the anti-globalization protests of the late 90s and early 2000s. And while it's hard to say how many protestors were affiliated with the Occupy movement, there's no doubt that several Occupy groups -- and in particular Occupy Chicago -- played a central role in organizing the demonstrations.
Occupy activists coordinated live-streaming video coverage of the protests, and used an extensive conference-call system to hone the movement's talking points for the weekend. A working group from Occupy Wall Street arranged for protestors to travel to Chicago from eight different cities on bus trips funded by the national nurses union. Occupy Chicago put some visitors up on couches, provided a hub of online information, planned events and organized marches.
Activists say the work was a result of months of communication. "Over the winter Occupy might have been quiet," said Nicole Powers, an Occupy activist from LA and managing editor of the edgy feminist website Suicide Girls, "but behind closed doors, or tent flaps, so to speak, there's been a massive conversation about the shape of the movement going forward."
Rachael Perrotta, a member of the Occupy Chicago press committee, said she thought the protests would lead to even more communication. "We've been able to create a much stronger network between different occupations," she said. "People have come to town from all over the country, and they've now met with each other face-to-face, not just over the internet or social media like before."
Many activists echoed this thought. Joan Donovan, a graduate student, has often found herself at the center of these conversations as the de facto director of InterOccupy, a conference-call network used by protesters to hold general-assembly meetings. Donovan said plans are in the works for protests of the Democratic and Republican National Conventions and the November elections, as well as for a national gathering in Philadelphia on July 4. The Chicago experience will help, she said. "Practice makes perfect, as the saying goes."
Powers said she'd met people in Chicago from Occupy groups in half a dozen cities. "We all bonded and got a lot tighter," she said. "We know faces, we know names, we know email address. Moving forward it's going to be a lot easier to organize. Next time we know the tent flaps to knock on."
And perhaps more people will be knocking. Apart from building connections with each other, many protesters say they're counting on the big gatherings to win new converts to the cause. Powers, for one, said she deemed the Chicago protests a success in that respect. At a rally outside the mayor's home in the Ravenswood area, she found herself chatting with a member of the neighborhood association who'd brought his young son out to teach him a lesson in democracy.
Powers said, "We're reaching out to a wider community."