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Bernie In Chicago: From Civil Rights Era Activism To Present-Day Struggles Against Racism

Appearing on “The Breakfast Club” radio show in New York, Senator Bernie Sanders said his 2016 presidential campaign was “criticized for being too male. That was a correct criticism. Too white. That was a correct criticism.”

Sanders promised his 2020 campaign will be different. “We’ll have a much more diverse campaign.”

It was a direct response to how poorly his previous campaign performed with African Americans, particularly those older than 35 years-old.

On March 3, the Sanders campaign came to Navy Pier in Chicago to hold one of two kickoff rallies organized during the weekend. The other was held in Brooklyn.

Sanders delivered a speech confronting systemic racism, as well as racial aspects of economic inequality. He explicitly pledged to fight mass incarceration, the war on drugs, and gentrification, and advocated for criminal justice reform, affordable housing, and an end to cash bail.

He also briefly recounted his history of activism with the Congress on Racial Equality (CORE) when he was a student at the University of Chicago. In the 1960s, he joined with black and white students to force an end to segregation in housing units that the university owned.

Two grassroots activists in Chicago—young women of color—were offered a platform by the campaign to share their stories with thousands of supporters. Their presence suggested when the campaign speaks of diversity it will apply to the range of grassroots voices the campaign elevates this time around.

“I am a black, queer, low-income, artist, poet, woman, resister from the west side of Chicago,” Destiny Harris, an activist with the No Cop Academy campaign, declared. “And despite how young I might look in comparison to everyone else here, including Bernie, I am in fact 18 years-old and of voting age.”

Harris described how she became involved in the No Cop Academy campaign against Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s $95 million police training facility that will currently be built in a “Chicago neighborhood with the lowest per capita income.”

“This is the neighborhood that I live in. This proposed police training academy comes years after the closing down of 50-plus schools under the claims of the city not having enough money to invest in dilapidated, discarded schools,” Harris added.

Harris noted the academy is a response to the shooting death of Laquan McDonald, who was murdered by Chicago police officer Jason Van Dyke, because the city contends Chicago police need better training. “Let’s remember a building is not the same thing as curriculum.”

The city of Chicago also “claims this building will bring economic development to the west side of Chicago,” Harris shared. “I did not know economic development looked like more investment in jails, policing, and mass incarceration.”

Harris made it clear her work goes beyond fighting a “shiny new building.” It includes fighting for investments in public schools, mental health clinics, and the city’s youth.

“Real community safety is about recognizing that the police, with however much training or reform they get, will not free black and brown people. It means acknowledging the fight against the cop academy is a fight against many issues plaguing America.”

“It looks like highlighting and calling out the great economic inequalities that exist in communities of color around the country and acknowledging the overlap between classism and racism, being black and poor, and how the government institutions contribute to the racial wealth gap,” Harris concluded.

“It means realizing the fight against the police academy is also a fight against the eventual displacement of residents, the rising prices of rents, the removal of affordable housing, and resistance against housing discrimination.”

Only one member of the Chicago City Council, Alderman Carlos Ramirez-Rosa, a democratic socialist, voted against the police training academy. When activists spoke out during a City Council in May 2018, two days after successfully delaying a vote on the academy, council members lashed out at activists.

Alderman Emma Mitts, a black representative from the West Garfield Park area where the academy will be built, said, “If anyone want to get media attention for themselves or make a political point over this public safety training academy, that’s your god given right. But frankly, and I’m being honest here, a lot of these folks have no idea what they’re talking about. Their heart might be in the right place, but they’re following an empty hashtag.”

Yet, the Sanders campaign recognized the importance of showing solidarity with activists, particularly black youth, who are on the front lines of demanding the city of Chicago invest in schools, clinics, and other services in black and brown neighborhoods in disrepair rather than a multi-million dollar police compound that will fuel the hyper-criminalization of people of color, especially in this part of the city.

Ashley Galvan-Ramos, a youth representative on the board of Logan Square Neighborhood Association (LSNA), also spoke at the rally. She lived her whole life in Logan Square. It was the only place she knew.

“A year ago, my family and I found out our landlord was selling our building where we were living to our neighbors,” Galvan-Ramos shared. “They came up to us and asked if we knew if the building was sold. We looked at each other confused but mainly scared. Our landlord came to visit us that day and introduced to us the new owner of the building.”

“We tried to see if we could get at least a month to pack and find a place. The new owner agreed but were we to stay longer than that we would have to pay $1,500 for the rent, where we would pay $800 for the exact same apartment.”

Galvan-Ramos’ family were forced to move. They were homeless for a few weeks and later lived in the basement of a family friend. She “gave up on school,” and her mom still works in Logan Square.

LSNA provided her with connections that made it possible for her parents to become homeowners. Her family was displaced, but they eventually persevered through hardship brought about by gentrification.

Once again, there is minimal political support in the city for activists, who protest displacement or gentrification of their neighborhoods. There currently is a $5 billion megaproject that Sterling Bay, a private developer, has planned for Chicago’s Lincoln Park neighborhood. Part of the land slated for development was sold by the city to pay for the police training academy.  The city council is fast tracking the approval of funds. However, the Sanders campaign recognized the importance of the issue and gave Galvan-Ramos a platform.

Both Harris and Galvan-Ramos connected with Sanders’ involvement in civil rights activism in the 1960s, and he spoke about his time in Chicago, when he was 20 years-old.

“My four years here in Chicago was an extraordinary moment in my life and very much shaped my worldview and what I wanted to do,” Sanders shared. “I should also say while the University of Chicago was, and is, an excellent school, the truth is that I learned a lot more off campus than in my classrooms. Now, that doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t go to your classes.”

“As someone who came from a working class family that didn’t have a lot of money, Chicago provided me for the first time in my life the opportunity to put two-and-two together in understanding how the real world worked, to understand what power was about in this country and who the people were who had that power,” Sanders added.

“Those years enabled me to understand a little bit about how wars get started, to learn about racism and poverty and other social ills. My years here in Chicago gave me the opportunity to become involved in the civil rights movement, in the labor movement, in the peace movement, and in electoral politics.”

“Being audacious young people, black and white, our chapter of CORE wanted to expose the racist housing system run by the university,” Sanders recalled. “So, our CORE chapter did something pretty interesting. We sent white couples and black couples into the university housing to pretend that they were looking for an apartment.”

“When the black couples showed up, there were just no apartments available. ‘Sorry about that. There’s nothing available to you.’ But a few hours later, when one of our white couples went in to look for an apartment, somehow, mysteriously, they found a choice of apartments. After documenting that clear pattern of racial discrimination, the students in CORE demanded that the university desegregate its housing. When they refused, we staged one of the first-ever civil rights sit-ins in the north.”

Reluctant to over-sell the risks he took in the northern United States, Sanders maintained what activists did in Chicago “came nowhere close to what young people our age were doing in the south in groups like SNCC, the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee. We were protesting. They were putting their lives on the line, and some, in fact, were murdered.”

Sanders traveled to Washington, DC, for the “March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom.” Inspired by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have A Dream” speech, he returned to Chicago and engaged in activism against segregation in Chicago public schools.

It was nine years after the Brown v. Board of Education decision by the Supreme Court, which was supposed to desegregate schools. However, school officials were unwilling to “meaningfully desegregate the city’s public schools.”

“Black schools were overcrowded and underfunded with many students forced to share chairs and desks,” Sanders recalled. “Meanwhile, a report at that time found over 380 white classrooms were completely empty, but instead of putting black children in those empty classrooms, the school officials decided to put old trailers—You know what old trailers look like? Put old trailers on the black school grounds. And those trailers were called ‘Willis Wagons’ after the Chicago Schools superintendent of that time, Mr. Benjamin Willis.”

Sanders continued, “Those trailers were a monstrosity. Students would boil in the heat and freeze in the cold. They were infested with rats. They were an insult and a disgrace, and the community fought back.”

“One day, many of us went to the spot where they were planning to put the trailers. We were corralled by the police and told not to cross a line. Well, some of us did cross that line. And, of course, we were arrested, and we spent that night in jail until we were bailed out in the morning by the NAACP.”

As the Chicago Tribune highlighted, “One of the most publicized protests [against ‘Willis wagons’] was held in August 1963, when activists blocked the installation of wagons in a vacant lot adjacent to the railroad tracks at 73rd Street and Lowe Avenue. That’s where Sanders was hauled off to jail.”

The problems civil rights activists protested in the 1960s bear unfortunate similarities to the activism that organizers engage in now against institutional racism. In fact, Harris mentioned her school was one of the 50-plus schools that Emanuel shut down.

“At the age of 12, in 2013, I saw Francis Scott Key elementary, my severely underfunded predominantly black elementary school located on the west side of Chicago, get shut down at the end of my 6th grade year. I saw the school my friends attended a few blocks down get closed too,” Harris shared.

Sanders told supporters he learned a “very important lesson” while engaged in activism in Chicago.

“Whether it is the struggle against corporate greed, against racism, sexism, homophobia, environmental devastation, or war and militarism, real change never takes place from the top on down. It always takes place from the bottom on up,” Sanders declared.

That belief was reflected in a back-and-forth that occurred between Sanders and the crowd.

“We’re not only going to defeat Trump. We’re going to transform the United States of America,” Sanders proclaimed.

“Bernie! Bernie! Bernie! Bernie! Bernie!” the crowd chanted.

“Nope, nope, nope, no. It ain’t Bernie. It is you. It must be you. And the whole point of the political revolution is that nobody, not Bernie or anybody else, can do it alone. We have got to do it together by the millions,” Sanders replied.

Some in the crowd immediately understood. “Not me, us. Not me, us. Not me, us,” they chanted, which appears on the Sanders campaign website.

“Now, we’re talking. That’s right. Together. Not me, but together,” Sanders insisted.

In addition to Sanders, Harris articulated this grassroots understanding of how transformative change is made quite well.

“I’ve learned that a campaign can speak to a multitude of social justice issues, such as the demilitarization of the police, criminal justice reform, ending mass incarceration, investing in schools, and ending displacement all at the same time,” Harris declared. “I’ve learned that when we build movements that make bold and visionary calls there are politicians, such as Bernie, who will be willing to stand on the side of justice when it comes to addressing each issue no matter the cause.”

Young activists, like Harris and Galvan-Ramos, appeared to recognize the utility of the Sanders campaign, that not only will it be focused on winning an election but it will also wield influence by showing solidarity with struggles for equality and justice. It will defy establishment politics and lift up the next generation of radical organizers, who are learning lessons about power similar to what Sanders learned in the 1960s. And it will lay a foundation for growing support for a transformative agenda that will go forward regardless of who ultimately wins the Democratic primary several months from now.

Kevin Gosztola

Kevin Gosztola

Kevin Gosztola is managing editor of Shadowproof. He also produces and co-hosts the weekly podcast, "Unauthorized Disclosure."