Chicago Rising: This Year in Struggle

I wanted to write a piece about the most powerful moments in Chicago activism this year, but as I reviewed my photos and thought through what I saw and experienced in 2014, I realized that I can’t quite qualify things in those terms. As an organizer, I have a number of biases that are both undeniable and unavoidable, so I’m going to go ahead and clarify from the start that this is simply a look back at actions that moved me, changed me, or burned themselves into my memory – and in some cases, all three.

National Moment of Silence

Photo: Kelly Hayes
Photo: Kelly Hayes

Chicago’s installment of the National Moment of Silence was an all hands on deck moment for the radical community in Chicago. Young people from BYP 100 took center stage with a heartbreaking and beautifully creative program, while activists from around the city rallied behind them. The profound show of love and solidarity that our community put forth that day produced one of the most powerful events I’ve attended in recent years, and I was grateful to be a part of it.

Photo: Kelly Hayes
Photo: Kelly Hayes

Who Polices Cops

Photo: Kelly Hayes
Photo: Kelly Hayes

“Who Polices Cops” was a small action, but to those present, and to me personally, a very important one. The action was put together by The Chicago Light Brigade and a group of young people who wanted to stage a show of solidarity with protestors in Ferguson. At that time, the Ferguson protestors were in their first month of rallies, marches, and actions following the death of Mike Brown. The message above was displayed from two elevated train platforms that night, one of which overlooked the popular Glenwood Avenue Arts Festival.

Chicago Stands with Gaza – Mass Protest and March

Photo: Sarah Jane Rhee
Photo: Sarah Jane Rhee

It is impossible to encapsulate the power of last summer’s protests in support of the Palestinian people in a single post, let alone a single image, but given that this show of resistance must be honored, remembered, and carried forward, I’ve chosen this photo from the July 7th mass protest and march that drew thousands into the streets to protest Israel’s brutal collective punishment of the Palestinian people in Gaza and the West Bank. This snapshot of a wave of resistance in progress captures much of what was in the air during that time.

National Day of Action Against Police Brutality

Photo: Kelly Hayes
Photo: Kelly Hayes

This effort, led by organizers from We Charge Genocide, Project NIA, and other local organizations was originally conceived of as a silent protest. While the event did include a powerful moment of silence, it also led to a moment of uproarious chanting when protestors charged past a police barricade. Upon reaching a second barricade, protestors confronted a row of police officers with words and imagery that challenged the violence of the state, and lifted up the names of those who fell to police violence this year.

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Photo: Kelly Hayes

Sit-in to Save Dyett High School

Photo: Kelly Hayes
Photo: Kelly Hayes

Protestors taking a stand against Chicago’s unelected school board’s efforts to starve and shut down Dyett High School took radical action on September 23rd of this year. Dyett supporters not only sat in at City Hall, but also took the unusual step of chaining themselves around a statue that sits outside the mayor’s office. The protest, which resulted in numerous arrests, also led to a number of the protestors’ demands being met, proving once again that direct action gets the goods.

Emergency Response to the Non Indictment of Darren Wilson

Photo: Kelly Hayes
Photo: Kelly Hayes

This event was planned on a rolling basis, with props built and community members ready to mobilize on a moment’s notice for weeks. Quite unexpectedly, Marissa Alexander – a black woman who faced prosecution for firing a warning shot in defense of her own life – was forced to take a plea the same day that the grand jury returned it’s non indictment decision in the Darren Wilson case. News of Marissa’s plea expanded the subject matter of the protest, providing all those who bore witness yet another example of the state sanctioned disposability of black lives in the United States.

Mariame Kaba, one of the organizers of this event, wrote a brilliant description of the action that I consider a must read for anyone who wants to understand what happened that night.

After the speakers outside police headquarters concluded their program, the crowd initiated a march that ultimately shut down Lake Shore Drive before winding its way into the heart of downtown Chicago.

For Our Fallen

Photo: Sarah Jane Rhee
Photo: Sarah Jane Rhee

This action, which I’ve written about previously, required the creation of over four hundred origami lilies which were lit from within by LED lights as a representation of each person lost to violence in Chicago this year, and the creation of 16 paper lanterns to represent Chicagoans killed by police in 2014. When the crowd lifted up the lights and flowers as a physical representation of their efforts to lift up the memories of those we had lost, I experienced a swell of emotions that I have no doubt will stay with me for years to come.

Slut Walk Chicago 2014

The 2014 installment of Slut Walk Chicago, organized by the feminist organization F.U.R.I.E., was a refreshing change of pace from the events of years past. Slut Walk marches have often been criticized for failing to honor the struggles of women of color and other marginalized communities. This year’s organizers made great progress in counteracting that legacy by staging a surprisingly militant, radically inclusive event that challenged the sexist, racist, and transphobic assumptions of our society. The march included a memorable stand off with police that is documented at 7:07 in the video above. That moment is a great reflection of the event’s character, and very much worth viewing.

Some other moments worth remembering…

Dyke March 2014

Dyke March 2014
Photo: Sarah Jane Rhee

BYP 100’s #BlackLivesMatter Sit-in at City Hall

Photo: Kelly Hayes
Photo: Kelly Hayes

Trauma Center Now – Fearless Leading by the Youth

Photo: Sarah Jane Rhee
Photo: Sarah Jane Rhee

Vigil for 43 Disappeared #Ayotzinapa Students

Photo: Sarah Jane Rhee
Photo: Sarah Jane Rhee

Free the #NATO3

Photo: Kelly Hayes
Photo: Justin Bianchi

#BlackLivesMatter Die-in at Union Station

Photo: Kelly Hayes
Photo: Kelly Hayes

Mutual Aid in Action At Gale Elementary School

Photo: Kelly Hayes
Photo: Kelly Hayes

I’m closing with this image from one of our mutual aid events at Gale Elementary because I think it’s important to remember that, depending on the context, acts of mutual aid can be a form of protest. In a society that denies our children safe learning conditions, challenging the policies that put our young people at risk by publicly working against those conditions is a form direct action, just as feeding the hungry to call attention to unchecked poverty is a form of direct action.

As activists and organizers, we live in opposition to that which is an affront to our humanity and our beliefs, and we do so while building both community and resistance. The event pictured above was part of a successful campaign to force the Chicago public school system to correct hazardous conditions at Gale. That victory should remind us all that our duty to fight cannot be separated from our duty to love and protect one another, and that together, we can win.

Gifts That Tear Down Walls

Artistic expression has always played a pivotal role in the creation of liberation spaces. Movement artwork takes many forms, from signage and photography to songs of freedom. Art that transforms sparks empathy and connectedness between those who comprehend struggle, those who would like to, and even those who would rather not. It breeds change where it must begin – behind the walls we build around ourselves to stay sane in a harsh world. That’s why, on this day that holds meaning for many, I want to share with you several pieces from young resistors in Chicago that have been released this week. I believe they are both fine works of art, and important tools for transformation. Each of these young people is both an artist and an activist that I have stood with this year, and I ask, with love, that you join me in lifting up their voices today.

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Photo: Sarah Jane Rhee

For Being Black – David Ellis (Wes)

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Photo: Sarah Jane Rhee

How Many More – Ethos

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Photo: Kelly Hayes

If I Was White – Ric Wilson

Photo: Kelly Hayes
Photo: Kelly Hayes

Can You Imagine? – Ash Frost

Whatever you believe, and where ever this holiday finds you, I wish you joy and love today, and peace in the new year. And if you pray with your feet, raise your voice for change, or lift up the struggles and voices of others, I thank you, and look forward to standing with you in 2015.

Digging In and Throwing Down: Direct Action at Union Station

Photo: Kelly Hayes
Photo: Kelly Hayes

Yesterday, I joined a group of around 150 protestors at a #BlackLivesMatter event at Union Station in Chicago. It was the first protest I had attended since the president of the New York Patrolmen’s Benevolent Association, Patrick Lynch, blamed the deaths of two police officers in Brooklyn on “those that incited violence on the street under the guise of protest.” Rather than fault the dead man who apparently shot the two officers, Lynch predictably and opportunistically focused his rage on those whose politics displeased him, including New York City’s current mayor. All of this, of course, was aimed at quieting the voices of demonstrators who, for months, have filled the streets to protest the norms of a system that has deemed them disposable.

I never believed that the young organizers in Chicago would be cowed by the theatrical blame game that’s been staged by men like Lynch over the past few days, but it was still heartening to see them up close, standing strong.

Around 4:30pm, a large, diverse crowd gathered in the main hall of Union Station to, in the words of organizers, “protest every case that mirrors that of Trayvon Martin, Michael Brown, and Eric Garner.” Attendees stood in a circle between a police line and a festive holiday display, and for a time, transformed that space into a stage from which black voices, and the voices of their allies, could be heard. After a speak out on some of the current struggles in Chicago, and a series of powerful chants (such as, “We know why you’re attacking! Your system is collapsing!), the protestors staged a die-in.

Photo: Kelly Hayes
Photo: Kelly Hayes

This event held a great deal of meaning at this juncture, not simply because it was a powerful action, but because it was a statement affirming that these protestors are prepared to hold fast in the face of vilification and threats of “war.” Police agencies in the US have long demonstrated that they are capable of waging war on the black community, treating black men, women, and children as either enemy combatants or acceptable collateral damage. They have occupied communities of color and violently enforced the norms of a structural system of oppression.

And let me stress: It’s very important to remember, at this critical time, that police do not enforce laws. They enforce the norms of a system that serves the privileged. When those who are marginalized on the basis of race, gender identity, or ability disrupt the norms that ensure the comfort, safety, and profit of those with more power than themselves, they are taken out like trash.

In practice, that’s what police officers are: maintenance workers tasked with the violent upkeep of an unequal society.

This has nothing to do with safety, and little to do with the law. The “rules” change from moment to moment, at the discretion of the gang in blue, because they have the guns, power, and authority to force the oppressed into submission.

One of the most compelling moments in yesterday’s event came when a young black woman called out, “All lives matter? Yeah, that should be true, but take a look at the scorecard!”

Photo: Kelly Hayes
Photo: Kelly Hayes

These young people are forcing the world to look at the score card, and face the realities of our system, and they will not stop until they get free.

Photo: Kelly Hayes
Photo: Kelly Hayes

Dear White Allies…

Photo: Kelly Hayes

I wasn’t going to write anything about the flood of vilifying propaganda that’s been unleashed against protestors since Saturday, but the story of two fallen police officers in New York is currently front and center in the lives of all resistors, so I felt I had to say a few words.

I’ll begin by saying that I’m not going to go around trying to get through to people with racist leanings right now (not my job), but for white people who want to try to reach out to other white people (and good on you if you do), please remind them that, historically, this is what total oppression looks like – the crimes of those with power are minimized, excused, and ignored, while crimes committed against them mean war.

And, should you choose to engage these conversations, please remind folks that crimes committed against the oppressive class can be wholly fictional, and punished all the same. I’m not saying this person wasn’t guilty. He seemingly was, and is now dead. That means anyone punished for his crimes (which include the shooting of a woman who has been reduced to a news story footnote) is wholly innocent. Thus, any narrative attaching these crimes to anyone else – any protestor, any random person of color, and for that matter, anyone who has actually committed a crime against a police officer or anyone else – is a work of fiction. But this kind of collective blaming, shaming and persecution should not surprise us, because it is happening in the context of a society that (at least) once more or less lynched a whole town of black folks to avenge one crime that was allegedly committed against a white woman. As it happens, that accusation was seemingly fabricated to cover up a case of domestic violence, which is an issue that is also being swept under the rug in this case.

Don’t let your friends forget that the anniversary of the Rosewood massacre is just around the corner, or that the legacy of that crime still holds. Don’t let them tell you that this is 2014, not 1914, because the past only stays dead and gone when cycles are broken. In the US, crimes against black people have simply been reinvented, repackaged, and continuously re-commodified. As Boots Riley tells black folks in one of his group’s tunes, “All y’alls gold mines. They want to deplete you.”

I don’t have the strength to explain to white people with racist tendencies that policing doesn’t even rank in the top ten most dangerous jobs in America, or that all the wink-wink, nudge-nudge, ‘they keep us safe’ apologism in the world will not erase the fact that we are, as Mariame Kaba has said, living in the new Reconstruction. I don’t have the mental wherewithal to chip away at the cop culture mythology some of your friends have bought into, even though it needs to be dismantled. But, if you can stomach the fight, don’t  let them rewrite this moment in history. Because if the narrative holds, the story remains the same.

I am not appealing to you to fight these battles. Spectra wrote that appeal more eloquently than I ever could, and I imagine that you already know if you can handle this work or not, but if you are going to fight the good fight, please remember what I’ve said here. I would help you, but I’m too tired, and they wouldn’t listen to me anyway.

The Chicago Light Brigade’s 2014 Winter Update

I’m sharing my group’s winter newsletter here because I would like for more of you to hear about what we’ve done in 2014, and understand why your support is so important.

Season’s greetings to you all!

We would like to thank you for supporting us in what has turned out to be a powerful year for social justice movements in our city. Our biggest success of the year was undoubtedly our campaign to force CPS to repair hazardous conditions at Gale Elementary School in Rogers Park. After a hidden camera investigation, a series of direct actions, and a successful media blitz, we were able to force CPS to spend hundreds of thousands of dollars to repair a school that they were clearly attempting to starve into privatization. Thanks to your support, the school’s fire alarms are now fully functional, and lead paint chips will not rain down on Gale’s classrooms in 2015.

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Photo: Kelly Hayes

We also hosted our second annual youth nonviolent direct action training, which gave students an overview of the history of artful direct action and a chance to develop their prop making skills. The event also included talks from teenage activists about the work they are doing in our city.

Photo: Kelly Hayes
Photo: Kelly Hayes

A number of our actions this year involved working in concert with groups like Project NIA, Circles and Ciphers, and We Charge Genocide. Here’s a look at some of that work:

Photo: Justin Bianchi
Photo: Justin Bianchi

An action in support of reproductive choice on the eve of the Supreme Court’s Hobby Lobby decision.

Photo: Kelly Hayes
Photo: Kelly Hayes

An action planned with local youth demanding greater police accountability.

Photo: Kelly Hayes
Photo: Kelly Hayes

A projection on the side of a school shuttered by Rahm Emanuel’s austerity policies.

Photo: Justin Bianchi
Photo: Justin Bianchi

An action organized with UIC faculty during their strike for a fair contract.

Photo: Sarah Jane Rhee
Photo: Sarah Jane Rhee

An action in memory of those Chicago lost to violence this year, with one lighted origami lily per victim (432 in total).

We could not do this work without your assistance, so again, we thank you for supporting our efforts and those of our allies. We believe that the fight for a better world is, in the end, one struggle and one fight.

In 2015, we hope to repair weather worn equipment, invest in new light action techniques and tools, and make a short film with local high school students who are doing mathematical research around the school to prison pipeline. We hope to document their efforts, and help them develop light actions around their findings. The resulting video would be screened next fall as part of the National Week Against High School Push Out. They are eager to get started, and once funding is in place, we can begin this work.

We know not everyone can stand in the streets, but ensuring that the work can be done is part of organizing for change, and we are grateful for any and all financial contributions our community can make. We hope you’ll check out our fundraising page and consider lending some support. The page also includes our year in review video, which we hope you will enjoy.

To stay current with our work, you can follow us on twitter at @chilightbrigade or check in on our Facebook page.

Happy holidays to you and yours. As our ally Mariame Kaba would say, may the new year bring us both justice and peace.

In solidarity,
The Chicago Light Brigade

Photo credits: Sarah Jane Rhee, Justin Bianchi, Kelly Hayes

#TrainTakeover

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Actions unfolded across the country today as part of the ongoing wave of protests that have continued to electrify our streets since Mike Brown’s death in August. Here in Chicago, we saw a lively protest play out in an usual venue. Just before rush hour, over 100 people boarded a northbound Red Line train at Jackson and State and began a series of performances, chants, and speak outs about racism and policing.

Protests on the Chicago transit system aren’t unheard of, but they’re not at all the norm. This one generated the hashtag #TrainTakeover, which was trending on Twitter by the time I caught up with the train. I’d been at home, relaxing with my partner when I saw the tweets. One indicated that the train had been stopped at the Granville station in Edgewater, and that police were en route. I live about ten minutes away from that train station, so I raced over.

The train had moved north by then, and I learned from Twitter that the protestors had switched to the southbound track, so I waited.

When I boarded the train, I was greeted with music and some familiar faces. I was immediately impressed with the energy they had created on that moving stage. They had thoughtfully transformed a space in order to discuss modern day lynchings committed by police, transformative justice practices, and the idea of building safety through community connectedness. I watched as a number of people reacted very positively to their words and songs.

Breathing all of that in was more inspiring than I can say.

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I snapped pictures and tweeted, as I usually do at events where I don’t play any organizing role, mostly because I don’t know how else to make myself useful.

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During one particularly inspiring moment, a young white woman called out, “I am addressing all of the white people on this train. We need to stop calling the police. We need to do better!” She went on to talk about how white people often don’t understand the mechanics of how police interact with people of color, and that regardless of intent, calling the police puts marginalized people at great risk. Hearing these abolitionist words in such a powerful, transformative setting was deeply moving.

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I’m grateful that this crowd was so creative, warm, and welcoming, and that social media allowed me to find and join them. It was also great to see an effort like this play out without any arrests. While I understand the value of civil disobedience, I believe that arrests are a resource that should be spent as cautiously as possible. Sometimes, getting arrested is an unavoidable side effect of doing a thing that we feel needs to be done. In those moments, pending court cases can compromise our ability to move freely. While we don’t always get to make those decisions, as police are both violent and unpredictable, it’s good to see young people making calculated decisions and looking out for one another. We have had too many of our brightest young activists and organizers swept up by the police lately, and no matter how many times you see that happen, watching good people being deprived of their liberty is downright painful.

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In my experience, it’s much easier to get arrested than to experience the sense of helplessness that accompanies seeing a friend or ally being taken into state custody. I’m so grateful that, on this particular day, these young people were able to take their message to the elevated train without anyone being taken from them. They were certainly taking some amount of risk, but it was measured risk, and their tactics allowed them to express themselves, and then walk away in peace.

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On the Cusp of Change

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Photo: Sarah Jane Rhee

As an organizer in Chicago, I spend a great deal of my time listening. People who live in struggle are used to having their stories go unheard. Some cry out relentlessly for justice, and others have grown accustomed to being ignored. For many, trust begins with the simple act of listening. But listening, and allowing ourselves to feel what others turn away from takes a toll, which is why we must make space to honor one another’s loss and grief, and take comfort in one another.

As activists and organizers, we challenge ourselves to see the world as it is, and speak of it in honest terms, because transformation cannot come without recognition of injustice. Often, our voices seem to get lost in the wind, but in recent months, the words of the affected have seemed to carry a bit further. I do not wish to romanticize our struggles, or those who labor behind them, but there has been an undeniable sense of possibility in the streets that many of us haven’t experienced in some time, and that some have never experienced at all, until this moment.

The movement building that we have witnessed in recent months has been nothing short of electric. The fire that authorities no doubt hoped would die out by now has spread, and it is burning in our city streets, on our courthouse lawns, and in the hearts of young people who aren’t simply calling for the head of one killer cop – they are calling for the fall of a system that was designed in opposition to their liberty.

They are calling for transformation.

Last night, The Chicago Light Brigade held its annual vigil for victims of violence in the city of Chicago. While we have always tried to connect that event to systemic issues and alternatives to policing, we decided to take things a step further this year, and state outright that the event was both a vigil for our fallen and a protest against police brutality. Speakers from BYP 100, We Charge Genocide, SWOP-Chicago, and The Transformative Justice Law Project were joined by the mothers of children slain by police as we joined to bear witness to loss, and to state without equivocation that police are not our protectors. The violent enforcers of a racist, sexist, transphobic, ablest state are not agents of safety in our communities – they are the guarantors of violence.

For over a week, community members and supporters from as far away as Washington state folded origami lilies to represent each person Chicago lost to violence this year. Each lily was then lit with a white LED light, in strands that represented the connectivity of those losses.

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Photo: Sarah Jane Rhee

Paper lanterns were crafted to represent our losses at the hands of police.

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Photo: Sarah Jane Rhee

Before the night was over, we held a moment of silence, wherein we lifted up all 432 lighted lilies for four and a half minutes, to represent the four and a half hours that police left Mike Brown’s body to lay in the street in Ferguson. While this moment was somber, it filled my heart with so much hope. And today, I live in that hope, because it is sorely needed.

While I choose awareness over allowing myself to become oblivious or numb, I am no more equipped to carry the weight of that awareness than anyone else. In some ways, much less so. But I wake up each day and put one foot in front of the other because of the potential I see in people who come together to lift up the voices and memories of those who live and die in struggle, and to name the demands that many would dismiss as pipe dreams. Because the struggle for freedom and transformation is not a dream. It’s a fire that’s burning in real time. And the blaze is spreading.

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Photo: Sarah Jane Rhee