Interviews

A Young Artist’s Voice from Occupy Chicago

A few pages from an artist book created by Wyl Villacres (photo courtesy the artist)

CHICAGO — Wyl Villacres is a writer and book artist who, in 2011, took a class that I taught at Columbia College Chicago. At the end of last year, Wyl became involved with Occupy Chicago, an off-shoot of the Occupy Wall Street movement that began in New York City in the fall of last year.

The aims and principles of OWS are applicable to everyone in the USA (and some would say the rest of the world), whether they are 8, 18 or 88 years old. But after learning about Wyl’s experience with Occupy Chicago, I thought it might be valuable to hear the voice of this 23 year old, for two reasons:  it’s interesting to hear how art and activism overlap; and because change is always most effective when it comes not from my older generation, but from young people like Wyl.

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Philip Hartigan: When and why did you become involved with Occupy Chicago?

Wyl Villacres (photo courtesy the author)

Wyl Villacres: From the first day of Occupy Chicago, I had watched from afar via Twitter and Livestream. One night, maybe the 30th or so of September, 2011, I was able to make it down to the General Assembly and was disillusioned by seeing a bunch of white kids in Nikes and North Faces hanging around talking about how awful the economy is. (NOTE: Wyl Villacres comes from a Puerto Rican family.) I went home and kind of forgot about them.

On the 15th of October, they tried to set up camp in Grant Park in downtown Chicago. I woke up the next day, jumped on the computer and saw that 175 people were arrested , and I was confused. There is a constitutional right to peaceable assembly and speech and petitioning your government for a redress of grievances, all things that they were doing while in the park.

I got mad, frantically asking a friend over Facebook if anyone was doing anything about it. She didn’t know, so I started an online petition that asked the mayor to allow them to stay in the park, posted it on my Facebook page and tweeted it at @occupychicago and figured I had done all I could. I figured I’d get maybe a hundred or so signatures, and ended up collecting about 10,000, which I delivered by hand to Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s office (he was out). That was the 21st.

On the 22nd, Occupy Chicago tried to take Grant Park again, and I figured I had to see my petition through to the end. I was arrested and spent 12 hours talking to the other arrestees on why they were there, what they were trying to accomplish and saw it as more than just some rich kids complaining.

PH: Describe your own experience with Chicago’s legal system.

WV: I was zip-tied and put into a sheriff’s bus for sitting in a park too late, so there’s my first grievance. Then, it took about two hours from when the arrests started until I actually got to jail, another four hours to get called up for finger printing and another six inside a jail cell, all then to spend months running in circles trying to find out if I’m even actually having charges brought.

Our motion to dismiss the charges made it all the way to a hearing, before both the city and our lawyers made paperwork errors and had to get extensions to re-file all of their papers. I just found out today that they waived the travel restrictions on my bond, so I can travel out of state legally (my parents live in a border town, so I’m used to crossing state lines to go to lunch). I’ve never been in trouble with the law before, so this has all been sort of strange and aggravating.

My first court date I had to go to criminal court where I got to sit next to some cool guys who were being charged with possession of a firearm, breaking and entering and assault, respectively. So, that was all really great.

PH:  How do your particular concerns as a student correspond with the general aims of the OWS movement?

WV:  I think that Occupy is brilliant in its lack of a clearly defined set of goals. Yes, there are the basics like campaign finance reform and the broad umbrella of “income disparity,” but they never excluded anyone from voicing an opinion on anything. So, when we at Columbia College Chicago start fighting back against academic prioritization, tuition hikes or other administrative slights and use things like protests or mic checks to get our voices heard, I think we fulfill the main component of Occupy in that we are standing up for ourselves.

If the occupations can come back, if the camps rise up again, it won’t signify a success, and if they never return it doesn’t mean it was a failure. The fact that people now believe that they have a voice, that they have the right to be heard, and that they try damn hard to make those voiced heard at any level, is proof enough that OWS meant something and created a positive change.

PH: How do manage to find your way back to your art and writing after all this?

WV: It was hard while I was still in the throes of it. I stopped writing fiction for a while, started freelancing and getting work published pretty regularly, stopped making art all together and got kind of lost in politics, talking about politics, etc. It took a couple months when I finally had the drive to get back to work.

But then I think the fire from Occupy Chicago rubbed off and got me back into writing. My fiction started getting a lot more political, from the totally apolitical writing it had been. I started up an online zine, called I Feel Pretty, pushed because I didn’t think that the publishing world remember why they publish, to get good work out to as many people without charging an arm and a leg.

I started making plans for another hand-pressed book about rebellion (god only knows when that will ever be finished,) and generally found a new passion and drive in any and everything I do.

PH: What do you think the OWS movement has: a) accomplished so far? b) will accomplish in the next year?

WV: I think they have accomplished something beyond any measurable goal. They may not have had any demands met, they may have been kicked out, violently or otherwise. But they did get a new spirit of dissent in America riled up. They got the youth to break free from the shackles of the disinterested 1990s and tech-addicted 2000s and start working for something again.

I’m always struck when I talk to someone about doing anything Occupy-related, as the vast majority of the time they seem totally on board and excited for someone to be standing up and doing something. And days or weeks later, talking to them again, they have gotten involved. It’s just been a chain reaction of people listening and it’s trickled up to the news media with the term “income disparity” becoming something to talk about, even up to the politicians, with student loan forgiveness acts being introduced into Congress. It has accomplished getting people connected at a human level again.

What will it accomplish? That depends. Will there be a giant uprising, peaceful of course, like there is when any nation starts ignoring the people and welcoming corruption? Who knows.

In Chicago, we have Chicago Spring planned out for April 7th, then big actions for May Day with Adbusters calling for people to come early for the (now just) NATO summit, which brings us to that. How will the rest of the country react? I think that will all depend on what happens here in May.

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