Chicago - Protesters in downtown Chicago, often criticized for being haphazard and unfocused, have taken steps to make their mission clearer.
Members of Occupy Chicago, one of many spinoffs of the Occupy Wall Street protests in New York, listed 12 demands to help resolve the nation's economic crisis and bring relief to the "99 percent" of Americans who are not among the wealthy elite.
The protesters so far have little direct political influence, but some say the demonstrations could help change public discourse about the current economic crisis, just as the tea party movement gained influence.
"This is an opportunity for the progressive forces in the United States and the president to tap into that same anger that the right wing has been tapping into," said Michael Mezey, political science professor at DePaul University. "Maybe it can change the conversation away from the notion of ending government spending and toward the question of how can we actually move toward a situation of shared sacrifice."
Much like its New York counterpart, Occupy Chicago proclaims to be leaderless, nonpartisan and reliant on group consensus. The demands were developed in twice-daily general assemblies; some were adopted from the Wall Street version, while others were local additions.
One of the group's most repeated demands is to repeal the Bush-era tax cuts from 2001 and 2003, which critics contend disproportionately benefit the wealthiest taxpayers.
Some demonstrators have issues only loosely connected to the list.. Cory O'Brien said politics represented corporate rather than popular interests.
"It was really disheartening because it basically reduced the power of politics to money," said O'Brien, 21. "If we don't collect enough money, we can't save the environment. If we don't collect enough money, we can't protect civil rights. I feel like we're losing the ability to participate in our democracy."
Sean Richards, of Oswego, held a cardboard sign reading "Troops Home Now."
"I'm tired of this endless war that's using up all our tax money," said Richards, 21 , who is taking time off from his junior year at Illinois State University. "Why am I getting loans instead of grants? I think education should be a top priority."
The inability of the weeks-old protest to pinpoint a unifying goal does not mean it should not be taken seriously, said Michelle Nickerson, assistant professor of history at Loyola University.
"It takes time for activists to find each other, for them to identify common grievances and goals, even to identify their political opponents and how to attack the problem," Nickerson said.
Nickerson cites the 1960s Vietnam War protests, the civil rights movements and the tea party as examples of demonstrations that began modestly but eventually became influential. Still, the demonstrators need to quickly figure out how to implement their ideas, she said.
"They have to work with people who do have power to wield some influence," Nickerson said. "Do they want to try and lobby legislators? Do they want to be going to statehouses? Do they want to be working with Washington?"
However they proceed, the "occupiers" face challenges. One goal is to pass the Fair Elections Now Act, sponsored by Sen. Richard J. Durbin, D-Ill., which seeks to establish a public fund for Senate election campaigns. That bill and its House counterpart have not made it out of committee in the two previous congressional sessions.
As for repealing the Bush-era tax cuts, two proposals in December to extend the cuts for middle-income earners and revert to the higher rates for upper-income earners were thwarted by a Republican filibuster in the Senate after they had passed the House.
The Chicago protesters have vowed to stay in the streets until their demands are met, but the movement won't necessarily be a failure if they fall short, Nickerson said.
"All these movements never succeeded in changing politics to the extent that they'd hoped for," Nickerson said. "I don't think it's fair to dismiss the 'occupiers' because they have ambitious demands of a Congress that can't pass anything at the moment. I think what we're seeing here is a mass expression of discontent, and it's valuable in its own right."
Until then, some demonstrators seem content with letting the protest develop at its own pace.
"I don't know what the next step is," O'Brien said. "Right now, this is a rallying point, a place you can go and know there are people who will help you, people you can talk to. Ultimately, I think we're building a platform that people can present to elected officials."
Occupy Chicago's list of demands:
1. Pass a bill to reinstate Glass-Steagall, a safeguard separating banks' commercial lending and investment operations. "Its repeal in 1999 is considered the major cause of the global financial meltdown of 2008-09," the group states.
2. Repeal Bush-era tax cuts.
3. Prosecute "the Wall Street criminals who clearly broke the law and helped cause the 2008 financial crisis."
4. Overturn a 2010 Supreme Court decision that allows corporations "to contribute unlimited amounts of money to campaigns."
5. Pass the Warren Buffett rule on fair taxation, close corporate tax loopholes, prohibit hiding funds offshore.
6. Give the Securities and Exchange Commission stricter regulatory power, strengthen the Consumer Protection Bureau and help victims of predatory lending whose home loans have been foreclosed.
7. Take steps to limit the influence of lobbyists and eliminate the practice of lobbyists writing legislation.
8. Eliminate (the) right of former government regulators to work for corporations or industries they once regulated.
9. Eliminate corporate personhood.
10. Insist that the Federal Elections Commission "ensure that political candidates are given equal time for free at reasonable intervals during campaign season."
11. Pass the Fair Elections Now Act.
12. Forgive student debt.
Source: Occupy Chicago http://occupychi.org.
Dawn Rhodes writes for The Chicago Tribune.
© 2011 The Chicago Tribune
© 2011 McClatchy-Tribune Information Services
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