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Take Back Chicago Shows A Tale Of Two Cities

By aaroncynic in News on Oct 18, 2013 8:20PM

Nearly two thousand people - community activists, union members and organizers, neighborhood groups and more - gathered Tuesday evening for a town hall style forum at UIC to rally around a loose but connected agenda of reforming and revitalizing Chicago. Joined by state representatives, 11 aldermen and Gov. Quinn, groups and individuals rallied for more than two hours in an effort to “take back Chicago” from what they (and others see) as an elite group of wealthy well connected political forces.

“For too long, we have seen our safety net auctioned off piece by piece to greedy corporations,” said Brandon Johnson, a member of the Chicago Teacher’s Union. Johnson’s words set the tone for many of the speeches that evening. Between school closings, mental health clinic closures, a lack of fair housing options, a budget crisis and more, Chicagoans have plenty of problems to raise their fists in anger over. Turning populist outrage into a force for change is what organizers Grassroots Collaborative, who put on the event, seemed to have in mind.

As various speakers honed in on specific issues, the crowd was asked several times to hold up cards if their neighborhood lacked certain resources. Huge portions raised their hands to say their community lacked a mental health clinic, a library or had a school closed. At the end of each speech, aldermen and state legislators were asked if they would support certain initiatives. “Will you support an elected school board?” “Will you back an ordinance to raise the wage to $15 an hour for businesses that make more than $50 million in a year?” “Will you support a TIF surplus ordinance?” Over and over again the politicians sharing the stage with organizers answered “yes.”

Meanwhile, at the Cadillac Theater, Mayor Rahm Emanuel spoke to a crowd of 600 paying customers at an event scheduled as part of Chicago Ideas Week, which has a bevy of major corporate sponsors. The Chicago Tribune accurately pointed out the dichotomy, saying that the “two events offered a clear study in contrasts in Chicago politics.” While Emanuel’s guests were treated to a 30 minute discussion about his politics with David Gregory from Meet the Press, the Take Back Chicago event was sharing stories of hardship in their local neighborhoods. “Today in many parts of Chicago, the public mental health clinics are so understaffed that a patient can only see their psychiatrist two or three times a year,” said N’Dana Carter, a mental health advocate with Southside Together Organizing for Power. “There’s one issue underlying all of the problems in Chicago, one issue that no politician wants to face. That issue is poverty,” said Mina Waight, a CPS student. “Truth is, poverty is a result of a political and economic system that creates a lower class so the rich can get richer.”

Near the end of the evening the legislators, aldermen and Gov. Quinn were all time to speak. Each took a populist tone and many, like Alderman Bob Fioretti, spoke a public pledge to support the initiatives presented as a way to hold the lawmakers accountable. “Everybody up here better be voting for what we said, because if they don’t, we turn everyone out,” said Fioretti.

Organizers with the Grassroots Collaborative plan to go door-to-door and phone bank in the coming weeks to gain more support for their proposed plans. Additionally, it’s possible that the populist rhetoric on Tuesday might translate into organizing for 2015’s mayoral election. While taking on Mayor Emanuel’s $5 million and growing war chest will be difficult, it seems that Chicago’s progressive population knows the score and is willing to put the time and effort into building a movement.