Peter Dellos used to work in a bank. At the Oak Park headquarters of Park National Bank, he was another friendly face proudly announcing the building of a school, or investments made in hard-hit communities. A regular guy with a bright future and steady job. Then… things went downhill for Park National. Closed by the FDIC. Sold to US Bank. Immediately, 500 people were out of work. Peter was one of them. That was 2 years ago.
Now, Peter is on his fourth day of Occupy Chicago. He doesn’t see the irony. “I was looking at Occupy Wall Street,” he says. “Saw they had a sister movement here in Chicago. I decided I needed to come down.” He and about 40 others have taken over the corner of LaSalle just across from the Fed to the West, and the Board of Trade (you know – where the Tea Party found its first shrieking “voice”) to the south… and directly under a flag saying Bank of America. It’s a good location – lots of foot traffic, buses and cabs. The diverse group sits down on the sidewalk to have another meeting and take some key votes. Committees are being formed, roles taken by fresh volunteers. Peter seems most concerned with keeping a path clear for pedestrians to get by the group easily.
The reason for Peter’s concern is across the street: a rather bored-looking Chicago police officer. Neither group wants to antagonize the other, it seems, and so some of the veteran protesters (anyone over 2 days) are trying to live up to the agreement presented by the CPD: keep the sidewalk passable, no tents or structures, or we’ll cite you for loitering. Down came the first aid tent and temporary rain-proof headquarters. It’s an uneasy peace. “Some bigwigs are coming to the Fed this week,” says Peter. “They want us gone.”
IN a group that is resolutely without a leader, where every action is decided by a vote, and where everyone gets their chance with the bullhorn, Peter is conspicuously quiet. Until I ask him about his goals, the reason he’s here. “We’re trying to raise people’s awareness – break them out of their complacency. How can we not be outraged by the criminality and corruption of Wall Street? They move right from the banks to the S.E.C. – it’s the fox guarding the chicken house. One percent of the country is controlling us – it’s time for the 99% to stand up and be heard.” It’s the closest to “fiery” this friendly, open man is willing to get, and it’s more sincere than incendiary. But he takes a pause, looks up at the flag above his head. “Bank of America just announced they’re going to cut 30,000 jobs. They’re supposed to be the job creators? They’re the job death knell.”
Thirty feet away, holding his sign on the corner, is Luke MacRoberts. When the hand-painted “#Occupy Chi” pickup truck swings by, the enthusiasm feels like a high school football game. When they’re gone, Luke is back to cheerfully saying hello to stone-faced people getting off the bus or walking to the train. He also seems to prefer waving any one of his numerous signs to participating in the meeting behind him. “I found out about the New York protest via Facebook,” says Luke. “I wished I was there. Then I found out about this little baby movement here in Chicago, and I wanted to join. Hopefully,” he adds, “This will grow.” The native Chicagoan commutes every day he doesn’t have a freelance gig to go to, jealous of the students who get to be here every day.
Both Peter and Luke describe themselves as “Underemployed” – two more of the shadowy sub-culture of long-term unemployed making due with work as a temp, bartender, or in Luke’s case… freelance writer. The years lost from their respective careers; the life derailed by mistakes not made by them, but made by people who got to keep their millions while so many lost everything; the frustration of not being able to do anything about it – you’d think these guys would be raving mad. You’d be wrong. They are two of the friendliest people in this noticeably polite and upbeat crowd. And why should that surprise anyone? It feels great to be doing something, anything, to change the direction things are headed in.
“I want everyone to know how important it is for them to come down here,” says Luke. “People are criticizing us, but they don’t realize – we’re protesting for them, too. Even our critics. This is not one issue – this is general unhappiness with our government.” Government… and media. Today on the corner of LaSalle and Jackson, reporters from media outlets all over the world came to photograph the protesters and film the response. One of the crush of reporters was from Al Jazeera. “WGN led off today on the morning news with the verdict of the Amanda Knox trial,” Peter notes, shaking his head. An awful lot of people still don’t know these occupations are even happening – much less in their city.
“The most important thing for people to do is to get informed, and come down here, and pick up a sign and participate!” adds Peter. “Come down here and help us occupy this corner.”
As he’s speaking, a middle-aged man in a suit shouts at him to “Put the sign down and get a job!” I recoil, but Peter just nods at him. The man who works whenever he can, and then protests in between the little work he can get, simply hoists his sign a little higher. “Good one,” he mutters to me. “He thought of that one all by himself.” And then he laughs, a genuine laugh, asks everyone to “keep the path clear” once again, and goes on with today’s work.