Thousands take to the streets in Chicago, demanding economic change

It reminded me a lot of election night 2008. Crowded, blocked-off streets. Hordes of people – singing, chanting and waving signs.

Except Monday, the air was different. It wasn’t filled with celebration over electing America’s first black president, but rather with a collective anger that can’t be contained. Three years ago, on that warm November night, it was joy that couldn’t be contained – people hugging each other, singing, crying. There was still that sense of camaraderie this week, but it felt more like everyone was on the same sinking ship, grateful to see each other and recognize their common struggles.

It struck me, as I thought about it on the train ride home. In ’08, there was such a sense of hope. The air that night felt magic, and the world felt like a place where anything could happen. That our country wouldn’t be stuck in the same rut forever and that new things were growing. Our hope was in politics, a different kind of politics, we thought. One that would respect the people and their needs.

In 2011, we’re not appealing to politicians. Most of the protests I go to – and as a journalist, you attend quite a few – are asking a politician to listen, to speak out or to just notice what’s happening. The time for that is over, it seems. Depending on your view, politicians these days are horribly corrupt, or even worse, just as helpless as everyone else.

These days, the people are taking a direct path. Why ask politicians for help, when they’ll leave your rally to be wined and dined by some high-paid lobbyist, whose well-reasoned arguments will drown out the cries of constituents? People these days are taking their grievances directly to the people with money, the people they’ve suspected all along are really in charge here – not the politicians, but the money makers. The top 1 percent we hear so much about.

I wondered a few months back, when around the time of the Iowa straw poll, GOP candidates started talking about how the middle and lower class don’t pay enough taxes. I wondered: how long are people going to take this kind of talk? Unemployment is too high, homes are in foreclosure, we’re still at war, and budget cuts are hurting social programs at almost every level. Are people really going to put up with this?

There’s been a lot of arguing over whether these protests, from Occupy Wall Street to every other city where people have taken up pickets and moved into the streets, are effective. If they have enough solid demands, enough structure. Big media outlets like the New York Times have gone from covering the Wall Street protesters like a group of errant hippies to a respected social movement that represents substantial social quandaries.

That’s what I felt on Monday – that “the people” were taking back respect. That they were no longer satisfied with being talked about, vilified and ignored. The demands of these protesters from around the country are diverse – they cover health care, education, jobs, financial reform, housing, poverty, labor, civil rights and more. But wasn’t every single one of those topics the part of the 2008 campaign? They were promised change, and it hasn’t happened.

So maybe it’s time to stand up and make change happen. How do we do that? I don’t think anyone really knows. But at least they’ve gotten our attention.


Photos: Megan Cottrell and Crystal Vance Guerra

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