This piece was originally published by the Chicago News Cooperative on November 3.
As more than 1,500 supporters of the Occupy Chicago movement prepared to march through the Loop recently, Willie J.R. Fleming, a neighborhood organizer from the South Side, grabbed a bullhorn and wedged his way to the head of the mostly white crowd.
Fleming, 38, was followed by a group of blacks and Latinos he said he had brought with him “from the hood.’’
Once at the front, Fleming raised the bullhorn into the mild late-October night, threw his head back and shouted, “This is what Democracy looks like.’’
“I made sure we were up there, because I wanted the media to see that people of color were represented in the march and the movement,’’ he said. “I wanted to remove the tools of division.’’
For Fleming, co-founder of the Chicago Anti-Eviction Campaign, the Occupy movement is “heaven sent,’’ partly because it has done something he and many of his black, white, Asian and Latino colleagues in the city’s grassroots organizing community have long struggled to do over the years: Focus public attention on the issues of poverty and economic inequality.
“It has given us a platform,’’ Fleming said.
The Occupy movement has indeed caught fire. But for years, neighborhood organizers have chopped the wood. Groups with names and acronyms that have gone mostly unnoticed until now–from STOP to FLY to the Immigrant Youth Justice League to Blacks in Green–had worked the neighborhoods for years, and they are hoping to seize on the momentum that the Occupy movement is creating.
Chicago has a long history of community organizing, from Jane Addams to Saul Alinsky to Nancy Jefferson to Barack Obama. A major reason Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. chose Chicago to bring his Southern crusade for civil rights to the North in 1966 was because of that history and the efforts at the time of organizers like Al Raby fighting to improve inner-city schools on the South and West Sides.
“Any movement is preceded by people doing hard work for years,’’ said Will Tanzman, 29, co-executive director of SOUL – Southside Organized for Unity and Liberation – an interracial faith based group. “Given the situation in the country, something was bound to catch fire at some point.’’
While they applaud and support the Occupy movement and its daily protests at the doorstep of America’s financial centers, local organizers say they will continue to concentrate their efforts and resources in the neighborhoods.
“The neighborhood is where the impact of the economic crisis is most visible, most real, most painful,’’ said Elce Redmond of the South Austin Coalition. “But I see no riff at all between the neighborhoods and Occupy Chicago. We want to link up with Occupy Chicago–occupy the world as much as we possibly can because they are linking all of our issues together.
“This is a golden opportunity for us all to come together and go after the big banks and the corporations that have caused the crisis.’’
For more than a year, a group mostly of black teenagers known as FLY – Fearless Leading by the Youth – has led the fight for the University of Chicago Medical Center to reopen its level one trauma center. FLY is the youth wing of a community group called STOP – Southside Together Organizing for Power.*
The trauma center campaign started shortly after one of FLY’s founding members was shot in a drive-by shooting at 61st Street and Cottage Grove Avenue, a few blocks from the medical center. But instead of being taken to the university’s medical center, the teenager was transported 10 miles away to Northwestern Memorial Hospital because the South Side hospital had closed its trauma center due to budget considerations in 1988. The boy died at Northwestern.
FLY organized the protest on Monday – Halloween night — when teenagers dressed like zombies, residents from a nearby low-income housing development and a contingent of University of Chicago students marched through the school’s leaf-covered Hyde Park campus. The group of about 200 people loudly demanded the University Medical Center re-open its long closed level one trauma unit.
In the past only a handful of University of Chicago students have participated in the FLY demonstrations. But that was before the excitement surrounding Occupy Chicago, and before FLY organizers and U of C students spent weeks knocking on dorm room doors, seeking support, said Matt Ginsberg-Jaeckle, 29, an organizer for STOP.
“I must have knocked on 70 doors,’’ said Darius Lightfoot, 19, a teenage leader of FLY. “Some people said they would come out. Others just shut the door in my face. Organizing is hard work.’’
Local neighborhood organizers said that is why they are so excited about the coalition building possibilities they see with the advent of Occupy the Hood, an off-shoot of the Occupy movement, which, some observers contend, has so far lacked meaningful diversity.
“Chicago is a city of neighborhoods and that’s what we are going to organize, the neighborhoods,’’ said Brittney Gault, a representative for Occupy the Hood in Chicago. “But we’re also going to continue to work with and support Occupy Chicago. This is a crisis. Everybody has to fight back.’’
Gault, 25, said the goal of Occupy the Hood is to become a conduit and resource center for coalition building “to take neighborhood control away from the big banks and give it back to the people.’’
To that end, she spent much of Saturday at demonstrations on the South Side – Occupy Bronzeville – and then on the West Side – Occupy Austin – protesting bank foreclosure policies.
An interracial group of about 25 protesters gathered Saturday morning on the steps of Pat Hill’s greystone at South 38th Street and Cottage Grove Avenue. Hill, a retired police officer and executive director of the African American Police League, is fighting to keep her home, which is in foreclosure.
Rebecca Zorach, 42, associate professor of art history at the University of Chicago and a supporter of the Occupy Chicago movement, attended the Bronzeville protest.
“I’m out here today because I think that Occupy Chicago needs to have a presence in the neighborhoods,’’ Zorach said. “People are suffering on the South Side and the West Side and I think those are places that we need to be focusing efforts on to try to bring attention to all the damage that’s been done in this country by the financial system.’’
Five members of the media were also on hand.
“Just the fact that we could send out press releases that say there are neighborhood Occupy groups, we got all three local TV stations,’’ said Loren Taylor, 50, a supporter of Occupy the Hood. “I’m not sure if something like that would have happened to that degree without Occupy.’’
Taylor, a musician from South Shore, said he is a newcomer to social protest and activism. He said he was too young to get involved in the movements of the 1960’s and too old for hip-hop. Then along came Occupy Chicago and Occupy the Hood, and Taylor said he got off the couch and into the street.
“I got tired of yelling at the television,’’ he said. “I’ve been waiting for something like this for a long time.’’
Juan-Pablo Velez contributed reporting.