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