A Resounding Vow To ‘Take Back Chicago’ From Its Mayor

Kari Lydersen October 16, 2013

Over one thousand Chicagoans gathered on Tuesday for the kickoff of Take Back Chicago—a campaign centered around tax fairness, education funding, affordable housing and a living wage. (Lydersen)

About 1,500 Chicagoans and a line­up of city and state elect­ed offi­cials con­vened Tues­day night to announce their inten­tion to take back Chica­go” from a city admin­is­tra­tion they describe as reward­ing cor­po­ra­tions while pun­ish­ing work­ing people. 

A wave of recent cuts has left almost 50 Chica­go pub­lic schools shut­tered, six men­tal-health clin­ics closed and thou­sands of pub­lic work­ers with­out jobs. Accord­ing to a report released last week, these cuts have pri­mar­i­ly hit Black and Lati­no neigh­bor­hoods, even as major­i­ty white and down­town neigh­bor­hoods have pros­pered — thanks in part to the city’s Tax Incre­ment Financ­ing, or TIF, pro­gram. TIFs are meant to revive blight­ed areas by fun­nel­ing prop­er­ty tax dol­lars to devel­op­ment projects, but crit­ics see the pro­gram as a cor­po­rate give­away, divert­ing dol­lars from pub­lic cof­fers to pri­vate corporations. 

Tues­day’s event marked the offi­cial launch of a cam­paign by the Grass­roots Col­lab­o­ra­tive, the alliance of 11 neigh­bor­hood, hous­ing and labor groups that com­mis­sioned the report, to cor­rect these inequities through a host of mea­sures such as fair­er tax allo­ca­tion, increased resources for edu­ca­tion, liv­ing wage jobs and afford­able housing.

The forum opened with a slate of com­mu­ni­ty mem­bers tes­ti­fy­ing about how the cuts have exac­er­bat­ed long-stand­ing city prob­lems such as low wages, sparse afford­able hous­ing and lack of ser­vices. South­side Togeth­er Orga­niz­ing for Pow­er activist N’Dana Carter said that since the clin­ic clo­sures, the city’s remain­ing six men­tal health clin­ics are so under­staffed that peo­ple can only see their psy­chi­a­trist two or three times a year” and each psy­chi­a­trist has a case­load of 3,000 to 4,000 patients. The city is destroy­ing its safe­ty net along with many people’s lives,” she said.

Chica­go Teach­ers Union orga­niz­er Bran­don John­son asked peo­ple to wave red cards if they used city men­tal health clin­ics, then yel­low cards if they had seen a library in their com­mu­ni­ty cut its hours and green cards if their com­mu­ni­ty lacks ade­quate parks. Cards of each col­or rip­pled through­out the audi­ence, with many peo­ple wav­ing all three col­ors. Atten­dees were also asked to par­tic­i­pate via text mes­sage in a real-time poll about the ser­vices avail­able in their com­mu­ni­ty. About 70 per­cent of tex­ters said they did not have a pub­lic men­tal health clin­ic in their com­mu­ni­ty, 10 per­cent had seen library cuts and 17 per­cent said they lacked parks.

Francine Rico, a home health­care work­er, gave a rous­ing speech about how things like city tax pol­i­cy make low-income fam­i­lies like hers feel betrayed by the city they love. I was born in the ghet­to on Mar­tin Luther King Dri­ve 45 years ago, I’ve lived in the city of Chica­go my whole life,” said Rico. I raised my son here and I still care for my 82-year-old moth­er who lives down the street from me…the city lives in my bones.” Even while she spends her days pro­vid­ing home care, she won­ders if her elder­ly moth­er will be able to afford home care when she needs it. She demand­ed that the rich and the major cor­po­ra­tions pay their fair share” of tax­es to help bol­ster the pub­lic sec­tor, includ­ing with a grad­u­at­ed state income tax.

As I see it, there’s one issue under­ly­ing all the prob­lems in Chica­go, an issue no politi­cian wants to face,” Chica­go Pub­lic Schools stu­dent Mina Waight told the crowd. That’s poverty.” 

Waight said her moth­er makes $10 an hour work­ing at Mar­shalls and relies on sub­si­dized hous­ing to sur­vive. It’s not my mom’s fault,” Waight said. It’s wrong that hard­work­ing peo­ple with jobs can’t make a decent liv­ing wage.” She called for all busi­ness­es with rev­enue over $50 mil­lion to pay $15 an hour. 

Eleven alder­men and a num­ber of state rep­re­sen­ta­tives on the stage at the Uni­ver­si­ty of Illi­nois at Chica­go audi­to­ri­um were asked in turn whether they would sup­port dif­fer­ent poli­cies, includ­ing an ordi­nance that would redis­trib­ute sur­plus TIF funds to schools, a pro­pos­al for a $15 city­wide min­i­mum wage and the long-stand­ing call for an elect­ed school board.

The elect­ed offi­cials hearti­ly agreed to sup­port each pol­i­cy, often not­ing that they were cospon­sors of the ordi­nances. Alder­man Toni Foulkes said, What piss­es you off piss­es me off…and I’m about this close to unleash­ing the bitch in me.” Alder­man John Are­na promised to stop pri­va­ti­za­tion deals and to work for an elect­ed school board. Alder­man Ricar­do Muñoz said the town hall is what democ­ra­cy looks like.” Alder­man Bob Fioret­ti brought the crowd to its feet with fists pump­ing. The winds of change are blow­ing in Chica­go,” he said. 

Gov. Pat Quinn spoke at the end of the event, tout­ing pow­er that bub­bles up from grass­roots com­mu­ni­ty lead­ers” and the impor­tance of invest­ment in edu­ca­tion and afford­able healthcare. 

Many in atten­dance said they appre­ci­at­ed the elect­ed offi­cials’ promis­es, but it remains to be seen if those words trans­late to action. 

Now we’ll be in a posi­tion to hold their feet to the fire,” north side res­i­dent Sarah Sim­mons told Work­ing In These Times. Her daugh­ter, Rachel Dick­son, is work­ing on doc­u­men­taries about the school clos­ings and the 1963 pub­lic schools boycott.

Michelle Young is pres­i­dent of Action Now, a city­wide mul­ti-issue com­mu­ni­ty group. She told Work­ing In These Times the event was a wake­up call to politi­cians of Chica­go — we’ve got to hold them account­able, we won’t for­get what they said today.”

She was among those call­ing for the ouster of May­or Rahm Emanuel, whom she called a may­or who stays in hid­ing.” At least two of the alder­men at the forum — Fioret­ti and Wagues­pack — are con­sid­er­ing run­ning against Emanuel in the 2015 may­oral elec­tion.

He came in on a hand­shake, we’re going to throw him out on a boot,” Young said of Emanuel. 

The rally’s last speak­er was diminu­tive ele­men­tary school stu­dent Asean John­son, who’s become some­thing of a celebri­ty speak­ing out about the school clos­ings and bud­get cuts, includ­ing at the 50th anniver­sary of the March on Wash­ing­ton. With Gov. Quinn and sev­er­al alder­men stand­ing close behind him, and admir­ers clus­tered around tak­ing video, John­son led the crowd in a chant. Some have called for the stu­dent to run against Emanuel in the election. 

May­or Emanuel said he was going to love the chil­dren and take care of them,” John­son said. But you didn’t do that, did you?” 

Kari Lyder­sen is a Chica­go-based reporter, author and jour­nal­ism instruc­tor, lead­ing the Social Jus­tice & Inves­tiga­tive spe­cial­iza­tion in the grad­u­ate pro­gram at North­west­ern Uni­ver­si­ty. She is the author of May­or 1%: Rahm Emanuel and the Rise of Chicago’s 99%.
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