Speaking from the heart in the 29th Ward
“We do not go quietly into the night. We keep it on the forefront. We keep it on the burner. We march. We picket. We protest. Our voices will be heard.”— Adeline Bracey, Action Now.
It was a frigid evening for the February 5 “Taking Back the 29th Ward” forum sponsored by the Zerlina Smith Campaign and United Working Families (UWF). Held in the Power House Ministries storefront on the corner of Austin Blvd and North Ave, the sidewalks were icy and the parking was tough in the wake of a weekend blizzard.
But people still braved the elements to hear panelists Adeline Bracey of Action Now, Janae Bonsu of Black Youth Project 100, Brian Bean of the International Socialist Organization and 29th Ward aldermanic candidate Zerlina Smith. All of them spoke from the heart about the city they love, a city that has been so badly abused by the wealthy and powerful. From the closing of mental health clinics and neighborhood schools to the red light cameras and attacks on pensions, Mayor Emanuel has been relentless in his loyalty to the 1%.
Desmon Yancey led off with a brief introduction to United Working Families (UWF), a union-community alliance which is out to create a truly independent political force in Chicago, “We have been let down by the Democratic Party and the Republicans. So this organization has come together to fight this fight in a different way.”
UWF is supporting Zerlina Smith and other like-minded candidates as part of an electoral revolt that is sweeping across the city. After Yancey was finished, veteran Chicago activist Windy Pearson moderated the evening and introduced the panelists and their organizations.
Adeline Bracey of Action Now was the first to speak, describing Zerlina Smith, “…as the soon-to be 29th Ward alderperson who has been on the frontlines.” Bracey praised Smith, an Action Now member, for joining in protests against Walmart, McDonalds and other corporations who were “mistreating the people” and for going to Washington DC to forcefully object to the school closings.
Bracey then told of her childhood in 1960’s Mississippi where her grandfather was teaching people how to vote, prompting white racists to throw a Molotov cocktail into the church where they were meeting. She went on to say:
“When I go knocking on doors I remind people of the struggle, what we have gone through and what we have come from and where we are headed. So please, vote for our candidate, an Action Now member, Zerlina Smith”
Black Youth Project 100 is one of the organizations which have been leading the #BlackLivesMatter movement. Janae Bonsu is a leader the Chicago branch and co-author of the Agenda to Keep Us Safe . She talked about the role of Black youth in the resurgent freedom movement that grew out of protests against the numerous police killings of unarmed Black people. Chicago has experienced a number of these police murders.
She explained that BYP 100 is in a longterm struggle against criminalization, describing it as:
“The process by which a person is marked by the law or the media as a criminal whether or not they actually are… If you are a Black person in this city you are 15 times more likely to be arrested for misdemeanor or simple possession of marijuana even though across all races people use the drug at the same rate.”
Michelle Alexander in her book The New Jim Crow goes into great detail about how these types of arrest disparities have harmed Black America. Bonsu pointed out that the Austin community in the 29th Ward has one of highest rates of arrests for marijuana possession. Later Bonsu distributed copies the Agenda to Keep Us Safe, a detailed proposal on public safety which Zerlina Smith whole-heartedly supports.
The USA has a long tradition of socialist organizations who want a world free from economic exploitation and all forms of oppression. Brian Bean, a local socialist leader, began his remarks by discussing Stephon Watts. A 15 year old Black Calumet City resident with autism, he was murdered by the police after he brandished a butter knife during an emotional meltdown in his own home.
According to Bean it was the “twin miseries” of inadequate mental health facilities combined with an unaccountable police department that killed Stephon Watts. Both Calumet City and neighboring Chicago are dominated by the Democratic Party, supposedly the party of the working class.
But in Chicago and across the nation people are fighting against police brutality, school privatization, social service cuts, high unemployment and poverty wages in cities where the Democrats are in control. Bean had this to say:
“These policies are part of a nationwide struggle and I think Zerlina sees that, and that is why she is principled from the start. That we need something new. We need something that is ours. Something that is independent of the Democrats and of course independent of the Republicans.”
Zerlina Smith then took the podium and began by saying, “I came here to be real about what I am about. Organizing. Fighting for the people. Being with the people. When you look at Janae, Brian and Ms. Bracey, those ARE the people you can count on to be FOR the people.”
She then talked about the realities of life in her corner of the 29th Ward: police searching young men in the dead of winter and forcing them to remove clothing; not be able to walk up the street and go to a grocery store; enduring mass school closings including 6 in the 29th Ward alone and wondering what all of this means in a Black community.
These are the realities under Rahm Emanuel and the Democratic Machine. Deborah Graham, the 29th Ward incumbent and a loyal member of the Machine has voted with Rahm 100% of the time.
Across the city, other challengers are working to remove the “rubber stamp” alderpeople like Graham. Some believe they can reform the Democratic Party from within. Others like Zerlina Smith want a whole new electoral organization that will represent the city’s working class people.
United Working Families hopes to be that organization, but whatever the future holds, the struggle for justice will continue, both in the streets and in the electoral arena. You can count on that. You can also count on something else. Zerlina Smith will be there on the frontlines —- and speaking from the heart.
Special thanks to Pastor Martin L. Stoudemire and Evangelist Thenesia K. Stoudemire for allowing us to use their space for the forum.