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Occupying Chicago: How a Social Movement Failed Itself

Occupy the Hood members marching in the Los Angeles Kingdom Day Parade, January 16, 2012.



The Occupy Wall Street movement transformed mass political participation in the United States from private spectatorship to public engagement and creative direct action. When Occupy participants protested wealth inequality and private-sector control of politics with a practice of encamping in public space and democratizing the peoples’ right to location, they came face-to-face with the urban United States’s historical elephant in the room: racial segregation. In this study of the rise and fall of the Occupy movement in Chicago, contextualized by the city’s history of geographic segregation, the reason for the movement’s failure becomes evident: organizers’ refusal to acknowledge and then address neighborhood-defined racial seclusion/exclusion within their occupation praxis led Chicago’s Occupy participants to desert the movement. In contrast to the Chicago case, other urban Occupations across the nation, those whose organizers opted to locate their activism within under-resourced communities, were more successful. These others achieved significant and lasting, community-defined results, and their successes provide lessons for the organizers of new and future movements intended to mitigate and ideally eradicate economic inequality.

The Structure of an Anti-Structure/ What Led a Leaderless Movement?

Often identified as the starting point of the Occupy Wall Street (OWS) movement, an anti-corporatist Adbusters meme published in July, 2011 read simply: “What is our one demand? #OccupyWallStreet September 17th. Bring tent.” But the impetus for the untamable groundswell of participants that soon became Occupy Wall Street was a stark economic fact that burdened millions of Americans in 2011: after the more than $700 billion federal bank bailout of 2008 (following the U.S. mortgage banking crisis), income inequality worsened for the next three years. The bottom 99% of earners (later known as the 99-percenters) in the U.S. suffered earnings losses of .7% while the top 1% of earners (later, the one-percenters) saw their earnings grow 11.5% (Schwartz 2011, Collins 2015, Price and Sommeiller 2014). Additionally, when Occupy began, the U.S. unemployment rate was 9.1% and the total income of the one-percenters was 24 times that of the 99-percenters (Bureau of Labor Statistics 2011, Price and Sommeiller 2014). Discontent had been brewing for several years, beginning with the Great Recession, and thus on the heels of those who were influenced by that early Adbusters meme to bring their tents and to occupy the park on that first night, the masses quickly followed. Occupy caught like wildfire.

In the article that follows, I will first describe the ideologies and structures which distinguish Occupy from the social movements preceding it. Following this, I will turn to the case of Occupy Chicago. By analyzing what went wrong in the Chicago case, I will then cross-compare Occupy Chicago’s struggle with racial equality to the city’s historical racial inequality. Finally, I will highlight alternative decisions Occupiers in other chapters made that better aligned their ideology with their movement strategy.

Occupy Wall Street: A Movement Unlike Its Predecessors

The methods OWS organizers utilized to promote their movement and embody their protest made OWS both distinct from and also more expansive than economic disparity addressing movements of the past. The fast-paced sharing of information, made possible by the real-time, on-the-ground, amateur, social media-based reporting of young millennials attracted to the movement outpaced communications of the past and left then-contemporary mainstream media pundits in the dust (Earle 2012, 4). By the one month anniversary of OWS, in fact, 125 Occupy-affiliated Facebook pages existed for different locations across the U.S. (Berkowitz 2011). The viral-ness of Occupy was possible only as a result of these new, grassroots communications, combined with the willingness of protesters to “prototype” activist methods (Rushkoff 2019, 343). Occupy circumvented the historically established professional protest industry by adopting a horizontalist, leaderless structure. Participants did not wait for permission to claim public space, for example. Instead, they went ahead and did it. And telling of the success of the new Occupy strategy, even Time magazine couldn’t resist profiling the 2011 Person of the Year as “The Protester” (Andersen 2011). On the cover of the issue, the Time editorial team recognized OWS as a global influence. They chose to display, as “The Protester,” an image of an androgynous, anonymous individual with a bandana that covered the face. The image would later become iconic of the movement, and it communicated its mass appeal.

Consensus structure and direct democracy: Zuccotti Park and beyond

Early organizers refused to brand the OWS movement as anything less enigmatic than, “We are the 99%”, and the actions that unfolded following the first night of occupation explain why (Apter 2012, 95). On day two of OWS, the protesters held a public assembly in Zuccotti Park to vote democratically on what to do next. The result was the decision to continue camping out each night while marching to protest Wall Street during the days (which garnered an increasing number of participants over time). Additionally the early group elected to issue a list of demands to the government. The demands focused on remedying corporate banking crimes and ending the oppression of the majority of Americans under a government ruled by “Corporate Masters” (Gee 2011). As it grew in permanence, OWS quickly became its own society. And with hundreds to thousands of protesters participating at any one moment and further, with the eyes of millions more on them, Occupiers were required to structure this newly birthed society to ensure civility. OWS participants set up a tent city and a medical tent. They established a system for receiving food donations from benevolent individuals and organizations and planned locations to utilize public restrooms. They set up art, assembly, educational workshop spaces within the park. A team of volunteer legal observers joined in, all of which happened alongside ongoing marches and meetings (Democracy Now 2011). Occupiers developed their own culture within the first few weeks, including a repertoire of shared protest chants (Juris 2012, 259). In Zuccotti Park (and copied in parks and plazas of more Occupy chapters across the nation), among the clamor of musical instruments, the masses could frequently be heard chanting, “We are unstoppable! Another world is possible!” (Juris 2012, 271). Zuccotti Park quickly became a laboratory not only for rethinking rights to space but also for reshaping human social and political-economic relations (Schechner 2012, 7-8).

The daily General Assembly was the core organizational event which movement participants used to govern themselves (and which every local Occupy across the nation copied from Zuccotti Park to some extent). The Assembly was outside and open to the public. Anyone who chose to do so, could get in line to speak, air grievances, and debate topics, submit proposals to vote on group actions, and share ideas and community news. The governing process by Assembly attendees was one of “direct-democracy”, meaning that all participants individually voted on policies as part of a governing body, rather than electing representatives to vote in the best interest of constituents. The “consensus” voting process they used typically consists of a 90% (if not unanimous) vote to pass a measure, following the intention that participants come to mutual agreement over collective issues, rather than imposing majority/minority rule, just like how consensus decision making functions in the case of U.S. court juries.

The non-hierarchical organizational structure suited the movement well, given that OWS’s initial participants were outraged by a representative system in the U.S. that was, in their view, either hijacked by oligarchs, or equally easily argued, inherently married to upper-class beneficiaries of capitalism (Aranda 2010, 242). Historian Ted Aranda, who later participated in Occupy Chicago’s General Assemblies, argued in The Racket and the Answer for a return to the roots of democracy in a public, direct way, as modeled by the Athenians. To truly achieve democracy (rule of common people in Greek) rather than oligarchy (government by the few) citizens must have an organizational structure to govern themselves, rather than by representatives. The base of Athenian democracy, and how most of the state’s decisions were made, was in the public “Assembly” where any citizen could speak and vote on policies, most similar today to ballot referendum initiatives, which are rarely utilized in the U.S. (Aranda 2010, 18). Elite leaders could not stray far from the common good of the majority, as Aranda found that “combined with the extraordinary degree of direct involvement by ordinary citizens in the routine governance of the state, this new leader-citizen relationship broke the age old ‘elite stranglehold on the political process’” (Aranda 2010, 54). When Occupy erupted, it developed an agenda that ran parallel to mainstream political agendas of the time; Occupiers focused, however, not on policy but instead on returning political economic power to the common people (Rushkoff 2019, 344).

Some seasoned activists who rose as Occupy leaders and who gained social capital in the movement but never any elected status, did maintain political agendas, assuming (somewhat utopically, perhaps) that their communal governing process could expand and ultimately overturn the representative democratic system of the U.S. present. Most participants, however, partook in the process simply because they found it to be personally empowering and inspiring. Occupier Patrick Bruner reflected that “people are coming out here … to voice themselves in a direct, democratic fashion… It’s really refreshing for people to think that they can effect change in this system that has essentially made it so that only one percent of the population are citizens” (Democracy Now 2011). Because of the grim reality one-percenters created for 99-percenters, Occupier Gerardo Renique further claimed, “this type of demonstration raises the fact that we need to start thinking… [of] an alternative model of civilization” (Democracy Now, 2011). Besides economic unrest, OWS’s spontaneous, welcoming approach to movement building and participatory decision making is why it attracted so many people — including myself — to participate and transform as citizens through it. It welcomed anyone on the streets to curiously engage with politics, when public politics in the United States is all but absent, alongside diminishing access to public spaces. Unlike a predetermined protest, again, passersby could approach Occupiers with questions on a city street, on any given day, and end up in hours-long public debates with other average strangers about society’s problems and ideas. They would then have the chance to let their voices be heard in a more structured form at the nightly General Assembly (for many, it being the first time they had a chance to speak to a public audience), and make a perceivable impact through voting on proposals in the movement. They could get involved in a working group around an issue that was important to them, which became their first work in activism. This was public politics standing up against an increasingly privatized and hyper-consumerist society where citizens are passive spectators of politics, being steered by leaders on TV instead of directly engaging in the political process (Aranda 2010, 7). As Donald Rushkoff explains in Permanent Revolution: Occupying Democracy, Occupy didn’t want rights bestowed from politicians nor to “be ‘heard’ by a politician or incorporated into some party’s platform,” and they instead focused “to develop coherence together.” (Rushkoff, 2019, 342)

In this way, OWS threatened the status quo of not just political orientations (initiating a mass shift towards populist anti-corporatism), but the very method of human relating, itself. It explains Occupy’s indeterminate demands, which is also cited by historians such as Ethan Earle who, in A Brief History of Occupy Wall Street, claimed, “It would be untrue to the nature of the movement to give the impression that people were simply protesting a faltering economy. From the start, the occupation served as a point of convergence for an incredibly wide range of critiques and viewpoints: big, small, radical, moderate, revolutionary, reformist— united mostly by a broad sense of injustice and converging in a public (physical and metaphorical) space where they knew they could express themselves” (Earle 2012, 3). Because of their unique public practice, Occupy’s “one demand” (as prompted in the original Adbusters meme) became “another world” with all of society slated for change, just as the movement’s popular protest chant proclaimed. The greater question was then: how would they produce another world after incubating their ideals in urban centers of power across the nation? This would require Occupy chapters to assume social responsibilities to 99-percenters beyond their public assembly process (including how social inequality was reproduced within their Occupations) which different chapter participants would grasp to less and greater extent (Cohen et al. 2103, 302; Davis et al., 77; Khan and Ng 2012, 269-271).

Occupy wasn’t the first organization to employ the direct-democracy consensus model, and some chapters would eventually fall prey to the shortcomings other movements have experienced when they did not collaborate with the needs of pre-existing communities (Ancelovici 2016, 199). As Andrew Cornell reflects in Occupy Wall Street and Consensus Decision Making: Historicizing the Preoccupation With Process,

Certain tendencies on the Left have repeatedly scaled back their own ambitions to carving out small elective communities that practice expanded freedom and cooperation within their bounds, but which have little power to change external social relations. The sense of community that consensus builds among self-selecting activist practitioners cannot change the world on its own, and it often ends up distracting us from the work required to do so. (Cornell, n.d.)

This is reminiscent of the mistakes of past anarchist movements and autonomous communes that championed the self-governing consensus process, but which were ultimately dissolved because of their refusal to confront and change the larger national government they were subject to (Cornell, n.d.). OWS faced this risk and their relevance to the everyday lives of the broader 99% within its first few months, and the events of the Chicago chapter most distinctly exemplified this challenge.

Locating Chicago’s 99%

The Chicago chapter of OWS began on September 23, 2011 as a round-the-clock protest in downtown Chicago’s financial district, at the intersection of Jackson Blvd. and LaSalle St., directly outside the buildings of the Federal Reserve, Bank of America, and the Board of Trade (Williams 2011). Unlike most other Occupies, Chicago never had a tent city occupation. When they attempted to establish such a space, on October 16, 2011 after announcing the plan on social media the day before, thousands of occupiers marched from the financial district to close-by Grant Park’s Congress Plaza to entrench themselves. Instead of entrenchment, however, 175 occupiers were arrested on the order of Mayor Rahm Emanuel for violating city municipal codes by erecting tents without city permits (Rhodes 2011). The mayor stayed firm in his zero tolerance policy when protesters attempted to encamp a second time on October 23, 2011. This latter event resulted in 130 arrests (Bailey 2011).

Though Occupy Chicago never erected a tent city, for which OWS and most of its local chapters were known, it did look and sound like OWS in most other ways. Chicago protesters participated in a sun-up to sun-down, standing protest for months, claiming space along the sidewalks and streets of the financial district. They facilitated a public General Assembly each night in Grant Park (the site of their failed attempts at encampment). They utilized the same direct-democracy voting practice for participants through the General Assemblies, though Chicago participants voted to alter their process slightly upon finding that consensus with hundreds of participants proved cumbersome. They proceeded with measures closer to majority vote on general proposals. Detailed work in the organization was relegated to “working groups” that anyone could join (such as Social Media, Occupy Art, Fundraising, and Outreach) and these groups would bring important projects they developed to be approved at the General Assemblies.

After months of momentum stretching from September to November 2011 — with dozens of single-issue protests, arrests, news coverage, mass attention downtown, and non-profit and union support — the infamous Windy City winter arrived. And it was at this time that the movement encountered crisis. With below freezing temperatures, constant protest and outdoor General Assemblies in the evening became unsustainable. As a result, Occupy Chicago participants relocated to the indoors, made possible by a generous anonymous donation that enabled them, starting in January of 2012, to lease a large commercial space at 500 W. Cermak, just south of downtown Chicago (Cynic, 2012). The new space was located in a former warehouse of the old industrial district, a building which developers had transformed into business work spaces for rent, and this (an unrecognized decision to gentrify alongside of the business class) became foretelling of mistakes the movement would make in the future. Organizers spent the early months of 2012 indoors in their loft space until May, hosting committee meetings, workshops, and their now-weekly General Assemblies, but participants and public interest were steadily declining.

At a General Assembly indoors on Sunday, May 15, 2012 the movement in Chicago reached a pivotal crossroads. Given that Occupy was founded on public occupation, it was past time to go back outdoors. Participants had to decide: should they go to the same location — rallying in the financial district and hosting the General Assemblies in Grant Park again; or should the movement, after heavy participant loss over the winter, adopt a new strategy? This debate was not unique to the Chicago OWS faction. In the words of Occupy historian Ethan Earle, “a theoretical and strategic debate over whether energy was better spent creating pre-figurative societies or conducting outreach to bring awareness to new populations and new geographies” took place throughout the Occupy movement (Earle 2012, 9).

At the Chicago Assembly on May 15, which I attended, a definitive proposal to move outdoors was again on the table. Members from two neighborhood subgroups — Occupy Southside and Occupy el Barrio — were in attendance and submitted, together, the proposal to rotate future Occupy Chicago meetings between Southside and el Barrio (with the possibility for additional neighborhoods to host if interested organizers from other subgroups submitted successful proposals). The Occupy Southside and Occupy el Barrio members argued that the issues Occupy targeted were most relevant in black and Latino communities, despite the overwhelming whiteness of Occupy Chicago’s member population. They also claimed that blacks and Latinos were alienated by the movement in its then-form because Occupy wasn’t present in their neighborhoods.

Since the previous fall, Occupy South Side and Occupy el Barrio had hosted meetings in neighborhood plazas in Bronzeville and Pilsen, which are historically African American and Mexican American respectively. In these neighborhoods, they performed outreach and recognized and targeted economic injustices specific to Chicago’s black and brown residents. The phenomenon of Chicago’s subgroups attracted journalist Don Terry who wrote in a November 2011 article for The New York Times, “While [Chicago] organizers applaud and support the Occupy movement and its daily protests at the doorstep of American financial centers… they say they will continue to concentrate their efforts and resources in the neighborhoods.” With their local commitments driving them and bearing contacts to prominent social justice leaders in their respective neighborhoods, Southside and el Barrio residents showed up to participate in Occupy Chicago events downtown. By requesting that future Occupy events be held in their (much browner, less centrally located) neighborhoods, the backers of the pending proposal provided Occupy Chicago with an opportunity not only to merge Occupy Chicago’s general body with historically established community organizations in the city, but to relocate “headquarters” to the neighborhoods most in need of the reforms Occupy sought.

The primary argument of those against the proposal was that downtown Chicago was most central and thus most accessible to all — residents, students, and workers — given that the public transportation system, the Chicago Transit Authority (CTA), particularly the subway “L” trains that traverse the city, converge downtown. The CTA is most utilized by the working-poor and middle class, which is a fair argument for accessibility, but the assertion about centrality was inaccurate when downtown demographics are considered. Central for whom? Racially, downtown Chicago shows patterns of segregation: at the time that Occupy was active, blacks and Latinos comprised roughly 30% each of the city’s population, yet 84% of downtown residents were white (Statistical Atlas n.d.). I.e. downtown Chicago is a white neighborhood. Additionally, the many universities with downtown campuses in Chicago were (and are) predominantly white, meaning that the downtown student population whitened the city center even further (Data USA n.d.). Occupy Chicago’s home turf could hardly be described as diverse, nor did it deserve the implication that, given its centrality, it was therefore racially neutral ground.

The proposers from Occupy Southside and Occupy el Barrio made logical arguments for changing locations, and for confronting historically established, ongoing racial injustices by privileging “unseen” under-resourced locations via the decision to change, that fifteenth of May in the Chicago General Assembly. But they didn’t succeed: the majority white Assembly formed a voting block larger than Southside and el Barrio’s and elected to return the Occupation downtown, hoping to relive last autumn’s glory. The contentious proposal with the heated debate that followed and ultimately resulted in the rejection to move into neighborhoods of color reinforced a statistically evident, already long discussed fact that Chicago was (and still is) a segregated city (Betancur 1996; Biles, 2001; Massey 1990, 331; Moser 2017; Shipp 1984, Terkel 1967). Its Occupy, it turned out, would remain similarly segregated. Understanding Occupiers’ decision not to leave downtown Chicago on that night requires understanding how Chicago’s ubiquitous condition of segregated neighborhoods — black and white, impoverished and affluent — came to be.

Slums and Securities in the Second City

When Martin Luther King, Jr. came to Chicago in 1966 to start the Chicago Freedom Movement, he was shocked to discover just how racist the northern city was. Despite Chicago being a sanctuary in the Great Migration of African Americans escaping the racial terror of the Jim Crow southern United States, King uncovered a different, more virulent strain of white supremacy up north than what he had experienced in the south, remarking, “I think the people from Mississippi ought to come to Chicago to learn how to hate” (Bernstein, 2016; Rivlin 1992, 7). This was after King led marches through white neighborhoods such as Marquette Park demanding housing integration in their moderate, liberal city, and was met by a mob of white residents that attacked him with rocks and lit overturned cars on fire (Bernstein, 2016; Pearce 2016).

King understood from the start of the northern campaign that the segregation there was one that ran through economic and urban policy, particularly through discriminatory real estate practices that confined blacks to dilapidated, dangerous, and overcrowded slums on the south and west sides of Chicago. He moved into a common, black North Lawndale tenement apartment during the campaign and rallied frequently outside white real estate offices for reform while organizing tenants’ unions in the “End Slums” initiative (Bernstein 2016). Chicago politicians had proven they didn’t need “Whites Only” signs to delineate class and racial subordination. Instead, they used zoning laws and real estate tactics (Satter 2009). Chicago’s segregation through real estate practice was so widespread and effective in the establishment of northern, white-only privilege that King told community organizations at the start of the campaign, “If we can break the system in Chicago, it can be broken any place in the country.” (Bernstein, 2016).

The system had to be broken in Chicago because the most influential discriminatory real estate practices were founded in Chicago, by Chicagoans. At the turn of the 20th century, cities across the nation were struggling to find local methods of stopping integration because of the Supreme Court case Buchanan v. Warley in 1917, championed by the NAACP, which prohibited residential racial segregation by government policies (Nightingale 2012, 306). In addition, Chicago politicians were reluctant to explicitly segregate through policy, despite white residents’ wishes, because the black population was a strong voting block, unlike the south which had engaged in black voter suppression since the Reconstruction. In response, Chicago politicians and their real estate and investor sidekicks innovated elusive ways to segregate beside city policies.

The black population in Chicago, which grew fastest in the booming industrial economy during and after World War I, were confined to the slums of the Black Belt, a strip of tenement housing south of downtown along the “L” train. Population increase pushed the Black Belt’s boundaries outwards, along with a growing black middle class whose members sought to and often did buy homes on the edges of then-black communities. In this way, black property owners and renters inched east towards upper-middle class, white Hyde Park and several working class, white neighborhoods to the west. As a result, white neighborhood homeowners associations increased pressure for segregationist policies through racist propaganda, such as the Hyde Park Protective Association which had a speaker in their public meetings announce, “In every land and clime, man obeys the second law of his nature and seeks his own kind avoiding every other.” (Nightingale 2012, 311). Meanwhile, the affluent whites’ working class counterparts chose acts of violence as their medium, forming street gangs like the Hamburgs that committed to terrorizing black residents, forcing them away from the white neighborhoods into which they might move. The Hamburgs and those like them committed routine hate crimes such as bombing black homes at neighborhood borders (Bernstein 2016; Nightingale 2012, 311), culminating in the Red Summer of 1919, when white mobs instigated a nearly week-long, city-wide riot that left dozens dead, both black and white, and roughly 1000 black homes burned to the ground (Bates and Fuller 2019; Nightingale 2012, 311).

Along with white pride, residential segregation was a matter of enforcing white wealth. The initial myth of racialized property values was peddled by Chicago’s neighborhood associations as a scare tactic at their public forums to keep fellow white homeowners from selling to blacks. Real estate agents exacerbated white paranoia of plummeting property values in response to desegregation by hosting “blockbuster” stunts, in which they persuaded whites to sell homes at cheap prices by providing (often false) hints that blacks bought neighboring properties (Biles 2001, 33-34). They then sold those same properties to black homeowners at exorbitant prices and under predatory terms. As a result, what was initially myth quickly became reality, one propelled not by desegregation and/or the movement of black bodies, but instead by Chicago real estate speculators who lied and cheated.

Soon after, and with the interests of white homeowners in mind and under the guidance of economists, architects, politicians, and real estate developers, the Chicago Real Estate Board (CREB, founded in 1883) decided to “crackdown” on blockbusting by introducing new regulations to the real estate industry. According to Carl Nightingale, author of Segregation: A Global History of Divided Cities, CREB was the national incubator for urban segregation, piloting as early as the 1920’s a “real estate blueprint” designed to skirt legal rulings that outlawed explicit racial zoning in housing — effectively protecting exclusively white enclaves. CREB founders created for early members of the organization legal guides designed to “maintain a stark distinction between racial discrimination by government statute, such as disallowed in Buchanan, and discrimination by ‘private contract’ as in title deeds” (Nightingale 2012, 327). Because the Supreme Court wouldn’t prevent private discrimination in real estate for another half century, CREB guides facilitated the creation of more white neighborhood associations across Chicago. Owners were allowed to use restrictive covenants in deeds along with other measures to prevent resale to blacks. Later, CREB promoted public and private investment in restrictive zoning through city ordinances which zoned developments intended for whites as “single-family homes-only,” thereby barring the development of apartment complexes which were far more affordable options for incoming black industrial workers (Biles 2001, 33).

The National Association of Real Estate Boards (NAREB, established by CREB members in 1908) produced three key Chicago-based real estate mandates that were later copied in cities across the nation: a legal reference document titled Standard Form, Restrictive Covenant, a realtor textbook on real estate law citing Plessy v. Ferguson’s “separate but equal” precept, and a code of ethics defining realtors’ “grave social responsibility… and patriotic duty” to refrain from “introducing into a neighborhood… members of any race or nationality… whose presence will be clearly detrimental to property values of the neighborhood” (Nightingale 2012, 326). Between class-based city zoning, and private sector real estate practices of race-based discrimination, racial segregation in industrialized America was first and, perhaps, most successfully executed in Chicago. So effective were these measures that, by 1930, the majority of the city’s black residents lived in wards that were 90 to 100 percent black (Nightingale 2012, 327).

Starting during President Roosevelt’s New Deal, the federal government used CREB/NAREB racialized property value appraisal processes to ensure prospective black homeowners would not get insured by the Federal Housing Authority (FHA) loans (Rothstein 2017, 89). They also utilized color coded maps (known as “redlining”) of black and white neighborhoods as initially defined by Chicago realtors, to deny mortgage subsidies to black families across the U.S. Along with subsiding suburban “white flight” and their inflating equity wealth, the government’s hand in housing inequality made homeownership and investment in black neighborhoods increasingly out of reach (Rothstein 2017, 70).

King and the Chicago Political Machine

King fought to disrupt the deep economic scheme that defined white and black life during his time in Chicago. There, he confronted Mayor Richard J. Daley, who he described as “worse than Bull Conner (the violently racist then-commissioner of public safety in Birmingham, Alabama)” (Rivlin 1992, 17). It’s impossible to define Chicago’s economic order and segregation problem without understanding Daley’s profound role in shaping its political machine, as he dominated for twenty-one years in office. The difference in Mayor Daley’s Chicago compared to the south that King was used to, was that there was an iron-clad relationship between white real estate and developers, the Chicago Democratic Machine (with the Cook County Democratic Party also chaired by Mayor Daley), and key black middle class leaders because of Daley’s deeply ingrained patronage system. The system had been rigged this way by Daley for over a decade before King’s intervention, which included black ministers and the “Silent Six” black Aldermen (named derogatorily by black activists) who, through unconditional support of Daley, refused to support King’s Freedom campaign (Bernstein, 2016; Rivlin 1992, 14). After a year of struggle, the Chicago Freedom Movement reached a watershed. Daley’s ironclad political machine was able to tighten the vice on King’s ability to mobilize black Chicago, while the government and police department appeared “hands-off” so he could not garner the attention he received in the south. King forfeited this battle, enraged, disturbed, and radicalized from what he learned about the U.S. economic system there. The campaign culminated in a toothless agreement between King and Daley, with Daley claiming he would improve integration, which he never followed up on (Bernstein 2016). The civil rights icon left the city in 1967 and set aim at Washington D.C. to champion the Poor People’s Campaign, a national multiracial effort to end poverty, and he was engrossed in economic justice until his assination in 1968 (Bernstein 2016; Finley 2006).

Under the Daley political machine, Chicago Housing Authority (CHA) public housing developments were built as a solution to black poverty, but it later served to reinforce it. Initially, Chicago’s public housing was built as a compromise with black constituents frustrated with being forced into unsafe, unsanitary living conditions in tenement rentals, and it was an improvement. But the high-rise housing developments were restricted to black neighborhoods in order to save on property costs and to appease white neighborhood seclusion, and the developments, after decades of neglect, became hot-beds of crime as black unemployment rose and the War on Drugs expanded (Biles 2001, 37). Daley’s son, Richard M. Daley, Jr. who served twenty-two years as mayor, used this excuse (and unofficially because the State Street Corridor had become the highest valued land in the city) to dismantle nearly all CHA housing in early 2000s. Politicians and heads of the CHA claimed equitable, scatter-site housing would replace it, but the land zoned for development two decades later remains empty, if not sold to private developers in the recent gentrification process (Bittle, Kapur, and Mithani 2017). Over 30,000 family units were demolished, causing approximately 200,000 black residents to leave Chicago between 2000-2010 (Eltagouri 2017), contributing to what has begun to be termed the “reverse Great Migration” of the early 2000s, in which lack of affordability, jobs, and public housing has caused a steady decrease in Chicago’s black population towards suburbs and the U.S. south (Falk et al. 2013, 1398; Sisson 2018).

While the foundation of modern racial segregation in Chicago was built on the black-white dichotomy, other races are not immune to white supremacy in urban planning. Chicago’s second largest population and fastest growing, Latinos, followed a residency process similar to African Americans of the Great Migration, where Latin American immigrants moved into historically working class, white Eastern European neighborhoods due to affordability and lack of restrictive covenants and white-designed zoning (Rivlin 1992, 349-352). Previously Eastern European immigrant neighborhoods such as Pilsen and Humboldt Park became Latino-majority wards in the 1960s and 70s and neighbored black enclaves (Mitchell 2014). While newer to the scene, Latinos would were quickly included with black residents in Chicago’s discriminatory housing practices.

The Mortgage Crisis of the Great Recession

The financial condition for black and Latino Chicago had greatly worsened by the time OWS arrived, even though homeownership increased since the 1970s in black and Latino neighborhoods. Both communities were hit the hardest in the foreclosure crisis of the early 2000s, when banks targeted them with “reverse redlining” (Husain 2016; Rothstein 2017, 109). Based on geographic locations of already segregated communities, increasingly unregulated lending institutions targeted blacks and Latinos with predatory lending starting in the late 1990s by providing these populations with credit on unfair terms, particularly through subprime mortgages. Before the Great Recession, Blacks and Latinos were 80% and 70% respectively more likely to receive subprime loans than whites, with 35% of subprime mortgage receivers actually having qualified for prime mortgages (Henry, Reese, and Torres 2013, 5). These subprime loans ended up eight times more likely to result in foreclosure. The disparity is documented in a recent Zillow study showing, “Nationally, 19.4% of all foreclosures between 2007 and 2015 were in Hispanic communities – but only 9.6% of homes are in those same areas. Similarly, 12.7% of foreclosures occurred in black communities, while 7.7% of all homes are in black communities” (Braun 2019). These disproportionate foreclosures were even more harmful because both communities held more collective wealth in homeownership, as they had less assets outside home equity than whites on average to depend on (White 2015; Rokosa 2012).

This resulted in a 54% loss of total wealth for African Americans, with Latino losses close behind (White 2015; Rokosa 2012). Despite some investment banks being brought to court for reverse redlining discrimination, the fees have been mere slaps on the wrist compared to the ongoing federal bank bailouts since 2008 that ultimately rewarded these lending institutions. Despite $75 billion being allotted for foreclosure relief from the Troubled Asset Relief Program (TARP) through the Obama Administration’s Home Affordable Mortgage Program (HAMP), the plan was purposely designed to let the same crooked mortgage servicers to proceed over mortgage refinancing (Taibbi 2013). The majority of foreclosures that qualified for HAMP funding continued with the servicers receiving cash incentives on foreclosure sales, and only $4 billion of the relief budget was spent on loan modifications by 2012 (Taibbi 2013). Without new sincere legislation to rectify discrimination in the foreclosure crisis, and no bank CEO’s prosecuted for crimes, the condition of Chicago’s black and Latino communities became bleak: according to University of Illinois at Chicago’s Tale of Three Cities study on black, white, and Latino inequality in Chicago in 2017, “Black and Latino neighborhoods were especially hard-hit in the foreclosure crises, and large portions of some minority neighborhoods continue to experience long-term vacancies with as much as 10% to 25% of housing stock abandoned in places like Englewood and Riverdale” (Flood 2017). Right before OWS, foreclosures in Chicago’s Cook County reached its peak of 50,000 foreclosure filings in the year 2010 with the majority of them in black and Latino neighborhoods (Woodstock Institute n.d.). The wreckage of the foreclosure crisis was palpable in these communities as the most recent wave of economic injustice, and they would be the obvious center of an economic movement like OWS, but how could Occupy Chicago be relevant to them while refusing to be present in these frontline and long-excluded neighborhoods?

King’s struggle for freedom by demanding economic justice in the black slums foreshadowed the need for future movements in Chicago to strategically address neighborhood racial segregation and economic inequality together. This and contemporary economic violence specific to black and Latino neighborhoods were vital lessons for the Occupy Chicago movement to embed themselves in if they wanted to successfully topple wealth inequality in such a difficult city (Squires 2014, 86).

The Future of the 99%

On that evening of May 15, 2012, when Occupy voters rejected the Occupy Southside el Barrio proposal to relocate the movement to regions of the city that were (and are) browner, poorer, and more-central to the houses and lives of those who stood the most to gain from Occupy, they acted in accord with a one hundred year history of racism and classism in residential politics in Chicago. Excepting a brief surge in numbers following the movement’s involvement in the international protest against the Chicago-hosted NATO Conference during the weekend of May 21, 2012, Occupy Chicago never again regained momentum with which it began (Kilkenny 2012). Occupy Chicago was not accepted by neighboring, affluent locals and professionals downtown. It was no longer a novelty to journalists and other media pundits. And it didn’t justify the the two dollar and twenty-five cent train ticket to get from the south and west sides of the city to Occupy’s so-called “central” locale in Grant Park. Thus, even those most in need of the kinds of reforms Occupy participants once espoused, found participation decreasingly worth their time and money.

Meanwhile other Occupy chapters, similarly affected by racial disparities, chose to address those disparities. A Fast Company survey of OWS participants taken in October 2011 revealed people of color were in the minority, and most starkly, only 1.6% of the participants were black, despite composing 12.6% of the national population (Captain 2011, Patton 2011). Plenty of those within the movement were aware of this problem, such as Hanqing Chen, a participant in the NYC protests, who said, “the faces of stark economic injustice are not downtown in Zuccotti Park, but uptown, stranded on Harlem's street corners," noting that it’s the lower half of the 99% that should be attended to (The Week 2011). OWS chapters that now have the greatest legacies are the ones that set up camp in majority black and Latino neighborhoods and got involved directly in the most important economic justice struggle of decade: anti-foreclosure and eviction campaigns (Occupy Our Homes n.d.).

It’s difficult to define a marker of “success” for this open-ended movement with such varied demands and a hesitancy to support single reforms and elected officials. The core value of grassroots community that can be traced through all chapters, however, and it’s continuity or lack thereof, can help at least discern the lasting influence of chapters (Berkowitz 2011). Considering that most Occupations were defunct by the one-year anniversary of the movement in September 2012, the few chapters that are at least still functioning as an organization in their city, or that created a new coalition of activist organizations birthed from Occupy, could be defined as the most successful (Levitin 2015). Occupy Detroit provides an example the best alternative to the mistakes Chicago made. After it began its Occupation on October 14, 2011, initially mirroring Occupy Wall Street in New York City by setting up a tent city in downtown Detroit’s Grand Circus Park, their actions quickly veered into new territory (Burns 2012). After spending the first four days establishing themselves, they marched to Bank of America’s downtown headquarters to issue a letter to the bank executives, which in part read, “Bank of America received $45 billion in federal TARP bailout funds... Bank of America and its affiliate Countrywide signed contracts to receive over $7 billion in additional taxpayer funds to modify loans under the Making Home Affordable Program, but continues to refuse to modify loans and keep families in their homes” (Greene 2011). They claimed they would march there everyday until the bank created solutions for Detroit’s foreclosure crisis.

Not only did they keep agitating, but in typical Occupy style, they didn’t wait for permission to act and started putting homeless families and victims of foreclosure back into the banks’ empty, abandoned homes. They quickly partnered up with This Hood of Ours, a nonprofit that had already been camping out Occupy-style since the summer before in blighted black neighborhoods across the city where they rehabbed abandoned homes and built block-by-block solutions for poor residents (Sands 2012). They moved their General Assembly to the neighborhood of Barton-McFarlane and were hosted by supportive local businesses there over the winter months. They went even further, working with groups like Housing Is a Human Right Coalition, to fight foreclosures and evictions in court, and occupied properties of foreclosed families to stop county sheriffs from forcibly removing families from their homes (Sands, 2012). Detroit showed chapters didn’t have to compromise their direct action and occupation praxis to be valued within oppressed neighborhoods.

Because of the strength of Detroit’s activism, the Occupy Midwest Conference was held in Detroit from August 23-26th 2012, which I attended in order to understand what allowed Occupy Detroit to thrive while the Chicago chapter waned. The conference took place at sites in black and Latino neighborhoods, never once stepping downtown. Participants were invited to the neighborhood block they held their base camp at, near the abandoned homes they either took illegally or bought as part of a land trust for families in need (Sand 2012). Between workshops on movement strategy, community projects across the city, and collaborations of Detroit organizations, the conference proved how established Occupy could become in a community, rather than ending up as a short-lived, media-driven spectacle. They finished their last day of the conference inviting the members to the backyard of a reclaimed home the organizations were rehabbing in Barton-McFarlane, where they wheeled ninety-eight year old Dr. Grace Lee Boggs, a local leader from the Civil Rights Movement, down the uneven, cracked sidewalk to speak to the crowd about reinventing community activism for the next American revolution.

Even the original OWS in New York City, with all its fame and trendsetting, wasn’t immune to this peripheral influence of neighborhood-level collaborations and addressing race. After all, it only took the first few weeks of the movement for activists Malik Rhaasan of New York City and Johari Uhuru of Detroit to work together to launch Occupy the Hood, a subset of Occupy adopted by numerous U.S. cities to address racial inequality and recruit people of color, which they claimed was missing in the movement (Strauss 2011). By October 19, 2011 a call was put out on social media for Occupy Harlem, specifically for African Americans and Latinos to occupy their communities against predatory banking, privatization of public housing, and other issues specific to their community that white occupiers were not affected to the same extent. (Sen 2011, Miller 2011).

Unlike the marginal status of Chicago’s Occupy Southside and el Barrio, these subgroups took a prominent role in their city’s Occupy and transformed the agenda towards the needs of black and brown neighborhoods (Arnold 2012, 68). After the final major eviction from Zuccotti Park on November 15, 2011 OWS struggled to remain physically present, and they alternately attended the black community’s priorities by putting their weight behind foreclosure resistance. (Earle 2012, 9). OWS teamed up with the preexisting group, Organizing for Occupation, which for several years had been organizing illegal squatting for the homeless across the city in empty homes repossessed by banks (Harkinson 2011). This grew into the Occupy Our Homes coalition in 2012, which many Zuccotti Park protesters transitioned into, and which ballooned into a national coalition of housing rights organizations against foreclosures and evictions that is still active today (Occupy Our Homes n.d.). These factions’ willingness to adapt and be present in communities most affected by financial crimes (especially with black and Latino neighborhood organizers who had already begun this work) shines the way forward (Campbell 2011, 47).

Today Occupy Chicago is not active. Its final General Assembly, the heart of Occupy Chicago’s actions, was held in July 2012, and the organizers who remained officially dissolved the chapter by the year’s close. Occupy Chicago has no affiliated organizations involved in any political action in Chicago. It built no community coalitions. It has no legacy, just the hindsight that the movement of the 99% failed to change wealth inequality, which it can not simply blame on outside factors like repression. There is inordinate emphasis given by writers to police brutality and FBI infiltration given for why the movement failed (Johnson and Wiesenthal 2011; Glenn et al. 2012). This shouldn’t be taken lightly, considering in Chicago, two FBI agents known as “Mo” and “Gloves” infiltrated the Chicago chapter, posing as occupiers and gaining trust over six months. They entrapped 5 young protesters, known as the “NATO 5,” on federal terrorism charges right before the major NATO protests in May 2012 in order to steer public support away from the tens of thousands of protesters (Hermes 2013). Despite this, the steady decrease in participants and popularity for Occupy Chicago’s General Assemblies both before and after the events of NATO reveal that the movement wasn’t killed, it committed suicide.

Occupy Chicago’s fatal mistake was that they naively thought symbolic freedom for participants, defined within the narrow confines of their Occupation process, was enough to transform society. They located their social experiment in a place most comfortable and accessible for white, and therefore more affluent, residents. In a way, they colluded with the 1% and police repression against their cause by favoring Chicago’s greatest white privilege: white land. Occupy Detroit, in contrast, proved how much more effective the movement was when it enmeshed itself amongst the real lives of the victims hit hardest by economic violence in the neighborhoods designated for poverty.

The next economic justice movement is inevitable. The Great Recession never halted — just disguised itself with government aid — and there are only more warning signs of worsening conditions and growing disparity between rich and poor. In 2018, U.S. income inequality became the greatest since the Census Bureau began recording it over 50 years ago, and the richest three billionaires now control more wealth than the bottom 50% of Americans (Creamer 2019; Collins 2019). Occupiers proved that protest is evolving because of new media technology and the shift in consciousness OWS developed by experimenting with how to change society. They established that participants in mass movements are capable of governing and empowering themselves instead of waiting for politicians grant rights. This self-agency means they have a responsibility to proactively address inequality within their own movement and surrounding community if they, as empowered citizens, want to stay true to their ideology. Despite its shortcomings and short-lived activity, OWS’s influence on changing human relations is still rippling through local communities it touched across the U.S. As commendable as their template for public politics and General Assemblies was, the entrenched historical problems and social context of every city must also be incorporated into the strategies of future movements, lest they be destroyed like Occupy Chicago because of their ahistorical approach to neighborhood segregation and property wealth. Future Chicago movements would be wise to study the development of racial disparities there as it is inextricable from wealth inequality, along with leaders such as Martin Luther King, Jr. who tried to change it. Also, those who study mass movements would be smart to keep up by reworking their methods as well as their standards of critique because the next movement is bound to be as unconventional as OWS. The ultimate lesson OWS can offer the U.S. is that, yes, another world is possible, but it will take nothing less than the full embodiment of America’s 99% to challenge the 1%.


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