In two weeks, Chicago will have a new mayor. What will that change mean for progressive forces and under-resourced communities? The answer depends on us.
By “us” I mean those engaged in community organizations and grassroots campaigns, and labor and workers struggles. If we are able to sustain the growing culture of collaboration and coalition-building that has emerged in recent years, Chicago can be a model for a new “freedom city,” a place without the obscene disparities that now exist, where cops don’t shoot our kids in the street, our teachers are supported and affirmed, and our immigrant neighbors feel it is their city too. But this depends on a VOTE+ strategy. In other words, what happens the day after the upcoming election is as important as the election itself. This is true locally and nationally.
Last weekend I had the honor and pleasure to meet newly elected Congresswoman Rashida Tlaib in a small group setting. She was the antithesis of the stodgy and seasoned politician: open, candid, vulnerable, fierce, savvy, smart and principled. She would have answered Ella Baker’s perennial question — who are your people? — in a heartbeat. Coming from a low-income, majority Black district in Detroit, the eldest of 14 children born to Palestinian immigrants, Rashida knows who her people are. For some, her election to the U.S. Congress was an anomaly, much like the election of her predecessor by more than a generation, Shirley Chisholm, the first Black woman elected to Congress in 1968. Closely allied with Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Ilhan Omar, Rashida Tlaib and her sister-colleagues are under attack largely because they have not conformed to what the old guard has demanded of them. In other words, they have remembered who their people are. But are we fully prepared to defend them, and defend the people they represent, who are our people too?
In order to do so we need movements and coalitions that are solid, focused and unwavering. We talk a lot about holding politicians accountable, which is totally necessary, but what do we do when politicians do the right thing, speak the truth, stand up to the bullies on the other side, and act like they really do represent us? It doesn’t happen often enough, but when it does, we have to support them, as we organize toward the priorities that are important to our communities. And we cannot do that effectively as siloed communities and organizations. We have to function more as movements — movements that can close ranks and mobilize large numbers, movements that build unity through education and collective action, and forge consensuses that can be leveraged in the public discourse, shift public opinion and push political actors.
Nationally, we see this process taking root in the work of the Poor People’s campaign; It Takes Roots Alliance; Our Revolution; Indivisible; Working Families Party; and the people of color-led coalition launched by the Movement for Black Lives, The Majority. These organizations — imperfect as they may be — are all struggling to make connections across multiple issues and constituencies. This is how we grow a constellation of organizations from networks into movements.
Principled struggle has to be the foundation of this work, and the centering of those historically marginalized in our communities is key. We cannot have successful and sustainable coalitions that do not understand and prioritize Black, Latinx, Indigenous, women, immigrant, LGBTQ, disabled and working class leadership. Period. We cannot link arms and pretend we are all in the same boat when some have life jackets and others do not. Dealing with our differences is key to building common ground.
Chicago’s Resist, Reimagine, Rebuild (R3) coalition, affiliated with The Majority, has attempted to do just that. In building a Freedom Cities campaign to support the work of member organizations and holding teach-ins and political education workshops, the all-volunteer organization has contributed to the growth of movement-building in the city. Coalition projects like the Campaign to End the Gang Database, #NoCopAcademy, and the Fight for 15 are similar and overlapping efforts, as is the work of the Grassroots Collaborative — all of them member organizations of R3.
On February 17, R3 will host a conversation with Movement for Black Lives activist Maurice “Moe” Mitchell, who is the new director of the national Working Families Party. Like R3, Mitchell argues for the importance of linking racial and economic justice, connecting electoral campaigns with grassroots movements, and rethinking the Left’s relationship to the Democratic Party.
Whatever happens in Chicago’s historic municipal elections on February 26, or in the possible runoff in April, we will have a reconfigured political landscape in a major American city, which will have national significance. Even if one of the more mainstream candidates wins City Hall, they will be forced to at least lean left, or pretend to, under pressure from a growing and unrelenting Chicago movement. Even the former top cop in the city, who is one of the many mayoral hopefuls, feigns opposition to a new police academy, a project the #NoCopAcademy coalition has been organizing around. In other words, the frame of debate is changing.
The challenge of the coming period is to build bigger and broader without losing our political and moral anchor. As the great Chicago poet Gwendolyn Brooks reminded us, “We are each other’s harvest; we are each other’s business; we are each other’s magnitude and bond.” There is much work to be done.
Note: Readers in the Chicago area who are interested in attending a conversation hosted by R3 with Maurice “Moe” Mitchell and a panel of local activists — a discussion that will touch on many of the ideas discussed in this article — are invited to the Chicago Teachers Union headquarters on Carroll Street on Sunday, February 17, at 4 p.m.