From my vantage point, I could see everything Horace was doing. I could see the glisten of his forehead and still feel the heat from his grin. He was a man who supported a movement with his voice. I saw Horace in front of me become a martyr in his own doing. He did not die from some heinous crime, but he gave his life to show that what he protested wasn’t as much about him and the many patients that he befriended and defended when the mayor of Chicago closed half of the mental hospitals. Horace stood there for something beyond tangible attainment, which was often tested and tried in the April Spring.
The movement had intensified by then. Occupy Chicago and a handful of non-violent grassroots action committees had joined together with the vision of bringing back Chicago. On a rainy afternoon, the sound of the heavy raindrops knocking down on every white and off-white surface of the city made the condition more hectic than usual. I could recall it being some of the heaviest rain Chicago had gotten in that April. I met up with a few other activists at Daley plaza, in the South Loop. Across the street, the three of us waited for our time to join the rest of our fellow activists for a planned sit in.
The Cook County building had the usual coming and going, with every suited person walking out with their umbrella above their heads. A crowd of young men and women — fellow activists, followed by patients and nurses from the local mental hospital encampment — approached the building, some holding some signs, others holding their mobile phones, ready to document what the whole world had prepared to witness.
One of the members I was with insisted I stay close and not get lost with the crowd. What we were going to be doing was another action to grab the attention of the mayor, major news outlets, and the city of Chicago. I had my camera, my mobile phone, and a poncho over my body and backpack, prepared to do my part in this demonstration. I wasn’t quite sure what else I needed, or if I was prepared for what would happened when we got there.
We gained access to the public building, and took the elevator a few floors up. When the elevator door opened, the crowds of protesters were all circling around the flooring, chanting their words in unison. They sat in front of the office of the Mayor. There were no signs of his presence; the only people who seemed to occupy the area were us and the authorities. They watched us, talking among themselves, and listening into to their two way radio for updates on our activities.
We sat there and shared our own personal stories about a moment we needed help and no one was there for us, or someone we knew in that situation. We shared our stories with each other, understanding our capacity to help and be involved with someone whom we cared about, and their mental illness. One protester had come with her mother, who was a patient at a particular clinic the Mayor wanted to close down; a part of budget cuts.
Horace stood in his walking chair, with a face that marked him. His black skin didn’t crack for his age, but the fault lines in his face were deep and filled with emotion. His eyes were shot red with fatigue and oppression. Horace told me how tired he was.
“I don’t understand. Hundreds of people used these clinics, on the South Side and the west side of Chicago, and the Mayor chooses to close those.” he said.
It wasn’t a coincidence that these divisions of Chicago were Black and Latino. Patients just like Horace, would be travelling away from their comfort zones into an area of Chicago that didn’t care for them and had no idea they existed.
Within a few hours a group of activists had turned into a crowd of supporters, spectators, and people who also wanted to speak out against the Mayor’s plan to close the clinics. Every news outlet in Chicago came. This would be a precursor to events that followed because folks like Horace had gathered to speak out. Many people did share their grievances: patients, nurses, and representatives of the people who were being pushed out. I was standing in the crowd of people looking at Horace from a distance. I could tell by the sweat of his chin, that he didn’t just come here to toss words.
A few people gathered in front of the line the police warned not to cross. Horace was one of them. Standing in front and being supported upright by fellow patients, Horace bellowed his cry for justice and his rights, along with the chants of everyone else who had seen history before their eyes. The flashes and snaps of cameras going off, busting in the air, like shots that rang out through the halls. Everyone including myself was ready for that moment.
Had the mayor actually came out; he would have been in an avalanche that he created. He would have saw Horace’s eyes and how Horace, who spoke gently in front of crowds and cameras. But he didn’t. The door stayed heavily guarded by stiff policemen. Horace knew what he had to do despite his handicap, he would have to grab the attention of everyone there, especially the mayor. If he could only get a chance to just speak to him, Horace would have contributed to fixing the problem. But the mayor didn’t come out. Everyone chanted and protested. Horace looked at us in the crowd, and then he saw me. He looked at me as if I needed to be here, like I didn’t need to be in class, failing at some assignment. He looked at me with a face of encouragement, to give me an example of what it means to stand up for what one believes in.
Horace whispered something the woman holding his arm. The mouthed words Hold my walker came to me. It was so quickly how my eyes and my camera fell with Horace. I moved when he did, and my camera followed him as he kneeled down, underneath the rope cutting us off.
We couldn’t see him underneath the battalion of policemen who had climbed over him. It was as if Horace hosted some kind of pheromone that police has sniffed out and apprehended. They held him up with zip ties tightened around his wrist. They read him his Miranda rights, and a batch of policemen lead him out of the building. One by one, the two women had followed Horace’s lead and were arrested on the spot. The crowd grew louder. They had just saw Horace being taken away by a group of men, for crossing a line. But the line had already been crossed, when they threatened to close the clinic. Horace defended what he believed to be the last place to go if anything was to happen to him.
The crowd was pushed out and back into the streets. Everyone there was morbidly shocked at what had just happened in front of them. People were given a small synopsis of what they felt during the peaceful demonstration. I decided not to stay long after, and caught the bus back home to develop the photo of Horace I had taken.
When I looked at the photo I saw what no one else was able to capture. For a brief moment time was frozen, Horace’s face was glossed in sweat, but his eyes were wide and straight, focusing on the very task he was determined to complete. He had become a face of a movement; I would never forget his face after the protests faded, after the Clinics were closed, and after the crowd had moved on.
It was only a year later that I had returned to Chicago on a different occasion. It was raining just as hard as it done before, and at night the city was just a wet and soggy than in the morning. As I stood there, still and reminded of the past, a bellowing voice had asked me for change. I looked over to see a body hung over, underneath the bridge where I waited for the train. I looked there and saw those eyes, bloodshot, and stained with glaucoma. He smelled like whiskey and trash, and worse of all, he had been left out. Horace. His face was still creased and folding near his cheeks. But he was drunk, and his eyes were not locked on to anything. He was without his walker. He had been drained of anything that could be positive, and he sat there, pinned between oppression and the wall.
If for a moment I could think of the biggest mistake that I have ever made, it would be that I did not have anything to give him. I wish I could have given him spare change. Above I wish I could have given him hope, knowing that he did not go out in vain, that he had not demonstrated for no reason and that I had taken his photo for no reason.
What I think about most after three years is Horace. I think about the many faces that were gone and out of focus, but Horace’s stays with me, imprinted like a photo that was kept and stored for years to come. I think about how the mayor never showed up for even a moment to talk, whether it had been an act of free will, or a case of unavailability, for benefit of the doubt. Thinking of Horace reminds me of the grim reality of 21st century politics and capitalism. Things become obsolete; either it has no competitive function, or it becomes obsolete beyond its own circumstances. But the rain still falls every now and then, and I look out my window waiting for a rainbow. Reminding me that next time, there will be no rain, but the heat of the sun.
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Marcus Demery is an activist, writer and photographer. Formerly a resident of Chicago, he is now located in Brooklyn, New York.