We started in a church. At 9:30 in the morning, leadership teams assembled for Moral Monday Illinois’ mass mobilization action. There was excitement and nervous energy overflowing from rooms packed with marshalls, energy-team members, and organizers. And in the back, in a small chapel, those of us who volunteered for civil disobedience gathered. An hour later, around a thousand people would assemble at the Thompson Center in downtown Chicago to demand a just and compassionate tax system and state budget. After some practical preparations and prophetic sending remarks, we dispersed to our locations. Some rallied at the Thompson Center, others of us went in secret to action’s endpoint — The Chicago Board of Trade Building — and waited for the march to come to us.
Why would people do this? What is it about something as (seemingly) dry and wonky as a state budget that could inspire a thousand people to assemble and sixty people to risk arrest?
A budget, above all, is a moral document. It demonstrates, in real, tangible terms, what the state prioritizes. Through budgeting our collective resources, the state can choose to be on the side of the vulnerable and marginalized in society, ensuring access to social and economic services that amplify the dignity of all humans. Or it can actively increase vulnerability and marginalization, through the prioritization of corporate interests over human need. In their budgets, states get to choose whose side to be on.
Illinois is currently without a budget; lawmakers have not been able to make the choice. Gov. Bruce Rauner has made his position on the matter clear, however: deep, devastating cuts to crucial social services and the continuation of a tax system that is both regressive and oppressive.
In response, faith leaders have publically recalled that our primary obligation has to be to those considered the lowest and least among us. Scripture calls us to serve the orphan, the widow, the stranger. Those living in poverty, those facing deportation, and those fleeing abusive relationships are to be given the support and dignity denied them by unfettered capitalist market forces.
The current budget impasse and proposed cuts have created deep tension, anxiety, and conflict in the lower- and middle-classes of Illinois. The ability to work has been endangered for many parents because of proposed cuts to childcare subsidies. Crucial after-school programs are in jeopardy. Shelters for those fleeing domestic violence are at risk of closing. The wealthy and powerful largely get to ignore these conflicts. So on Monday we brought the conflict to their doorstep.
That’s how I ended up on a sidewalk outside the Chicago Board of Trade, nervous but confident in the cause. Hearing these stories, I couldn’t help but be moved, viscerally and literally, to action. The plan was to surround the building and physically block all entrances, shutting it down. The civil disobedience crew waited near their posts for the crowd to come down LaSalle from the Thompson Center. And while I never saw the full multitude, I sure heard them. From my vantage, there was first a soft, unified voice that steadily grew louder and louder until bystanders started looking up, unable to ignore it any longer. As those chants careened down the city canyon, I felt all nervousness fall away. I wasn’t alone in this; we were all of us here, unified in mission and purpose.
When portions of the crowd turned the corner, Erin, our group leader, gave the high sign and we quickly moved into position. As part of the “low risk” crew, I took my place as a protective front for the person actually blocking our door with her body. I held a placard and chanted and sang with the crowd for an hour, all of us lifting our voices joyfully and with courage. It was then that police started organizing and finally made their move; they blocked off the civil disobedience crews from the larger crowd by creating a line of bicycles between us. They then started down the line making arrests. Low risk folks walked out, escorted by police, while the high risk people went limp, forcing police to carry them out. I was toward the end of the line, and watched the police move closer. They got to me, and demanded that I move so they could get access to the high risk person at the door behind me.
This lead to the only moment from that day that was even remotely scary: I looked a uniformed Chicago Police Department sergeant in the eye and said “I’m not going to move” (if I were a better Lutheran I would have said “Here I stand; I can do no other,” but whatever. Next time!). He told the other officers to get me out of there, and I was escorted to the police van, cuffed, and placed in a locked transport. This was all disorienting and weird and is blurry in my memory, but what I remember vividly is the crowd, leaning in as I walked through them, shouting: WE GOT YOUR BACK. I felt instantly connected and supported and part of something larger than myself.
Because, in the end, none of this was about me. Very few of the photos of my arrest have my name attached to them; nothing about them identifies that person as Andrew Baumgartner. The most noticeable aspect in those photos is instead the clerical collar, my own identity sublimated into that old symbol of the church.
My hope is that in seeing faith leaders putting their bodies on the line, the poor, marginalized, and victimized might gain confidence that the church has not forgotten them. Our God is a God who stands with the oppressed, who became truly human to bring good news to the poor. In light of that good news, the very least I could do was stand in front of a door and raise my voice. I give thanks for that great cloud of witnesses, visible and invisible, who stood with me. This fight is not over; the body of Christ walks on, confident in our mission and in the one who sent us.