On a rainy night, in the shadows of the Chicago Loop, approximately 2,000 community activists and unionists joined together at the UIC Forum on October 15 for an inspiring political mobilization that involved people from all over Chicago. The latest effort by the Grassroots Collaborative, an alliance of 11 membership-based organizations, demonstrated increasing political savvy and social breadth that is, at the least, encouraging in this time of Rahm and neo-liberal attacks on all things non-military in our society.
The theme of the night was struggling for economic and social justice in our city, and this reporter focused his attention on the crowd and the overall event, rather than what any particular speaker said.
Arriving before the rally began, this reporter saw several hundred people milling around outside of the Forum. There were people holding banners with community names on them, representing communities such as Chicago Lawn, Uptown, Albany Park, Hyde Park, Brighton Park, Morgan Park, Humbolt Park, Belmont Cragin. The crowd was very multiracial, although it looked predominantly African American, and all ages were represented, with a lot of high school and college-aged people, and not just the “Vietnam” generation. Additionally, a number of unions were represented, including SEIU (Service Employees International Union), AFSCME (American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees), and the National Nurses Union, as well as the Chicago Teachers Union.
Once inside, people were seated in different areas to physically represent the South, West and North sides of the city, and grouped by organization whenever possible. People streamed in. There were a number of organizations present, including Action Now, Metropolitan Tenants Organization, Fight for 15 (dollars an hour), Chicago Coalition of the Homeless, and Faith in Action, as well as the previously mentioned unions. Altogether, organizers said that over 30 organizations had mobilized, with busses bringing people from across the city.
To start off the meeting, organizers had people from the various organizations come and report during “roll call”—and various representatives announced their organizational presence and the number of members they had brought: Community Renewal Society came with 50; One Northside with 200; Southside Organizing for Power, 50; Chicago Coalition of the Homeless, 200; Pilsen Alliance, 100, O’Brien Park, 120; Chicago Teachers Union, 500; and the list went on and on. People truly had mobilized across the city.
The event was very high energy: there was a lot of emotional sharing. Many of the speakers knew how to rouse the crowd, and they got results!
The meeting started off with a short video on recent people’s victories in Chicago. Starting off, and widely applauded, was the CTU’s September 2012 strike. Other things, such as getting some TIF money returned from “deals” by the mayor were also mentioned.
Much of the meeting was hearing from community members. Much of the energy went into attacking the corporate agenda, and especially that of the mayor: school closings were denounced, while comprehensive immigration reform was pushed. Increasing the minimum wage was a demand verbalized by many, if not all, of the speakers. Anger at the fat cats doing well, while people in the neighborhoods were abandoned or betrayed, was palpable: memorable was a woman who is a survivor and activist in the mental health field, as well as a woman who had worked for over 15 years in a South Side nursing home. The mayor’s name was spoken in vain—numerous times. And although it wasn’t an obvious theme of the meeting, there were many shout-outs against the mayor, and the chant, “Hey, ho, Rahm Emanuel’s got to go,” emerged spontaneously from the crowd a number of times.
One of the interesting things noticed was how people responded to a young rapper, a poet whose name I didn’t get. He laid out a long rap, about the pride of being from Chicago, and he touched many, especially the young folks in the audience. People are proud of their City, and there seems to be a rising determination to “Take Back Chicago” from the fat cats and the politicians who betray regular folks.
The Grassroots Collaborative’s focus is to build grassroots electoral power to effect change in Chicago. There were many exhortations to the crowd, asking them to join organizers to go “door to door” and speak to your neighbors, with specific days already designated for this process city-wide.
Throughout the meeting, there were a number of politicians on the dais—including a number of State Representatives and Aldermen—but they spoke only when specifically asked. It was quite nice to listen to what “ordinary people” had to say instead of listening to politicians’ blather. Periodically, organizers would ask each politician if they would support the people’s efforts, and each one got up in front of the crowd and responded with a “yes.” Toward the end of the meeting, each politician was told they had “45 seconds” to speak to the meeting—and a couple were cut off when they got too far over the limit!
As the evening was winding down, two speakers brought things to a close. First was Governor Pat Quinn, who gave about a three-minute speech, recognizing and encouraging people to organize from the grassroots upward. Next was Asean Johnson, a fourth grader from Marcus Garvey Elementary, who spoke out eloquently as he’s done several times (including on MSNBC’s “The Ed Show”) of the importance of public education, and the need for small class sizes and adequate resources for all schools. We’re going to be hearing from Mr. Johnson for many years!
The organizers had drawn good media coverage of the event. Besides the corporate media (the Tribune’s report—unusually well done—is at http://www.chicagotribune.com/news/politics/clout/chi-emanuels-tenure-decried-at-prounion-rally-20131015,0,6309385.story), Larry Duncan of Labor Beat was there to live-stream the event over the CAN-TV cable network (see it at http://www.thegrassrootscollaborative.org), while Kari Lydersen covered it for In These Times (at http://inthesetimes.com/working/entry/15758/grassroots_collaborative_launch_campaign_to_take_back_chicago/).
Hopefully, other reports in Substance along with this one, as well as these other reports, convey the accomplishments achieved by this meeting: organizers in The Grassroots Collaborative have touched a nerve among people of Chicago, and it has resonated strongly enough to draw the attention of a number of politicians in the City, as well as the Governor. David Harvey’s 2012 book, Rebel Cities, might be on to something. While no one can foretell where this organizing project is going, or how far, it’s clear that we haven’t seen the end of political organization at the grassroots level in Chicago.