The following is a transcript of a speech given by Chicago alderman and DSA member Carlos Ramirez-Rosa at a Chicago DSA event on October 14, 2017. This speech has been edited for length and clarity.
For those of you that don’t know me, my name is Carlos Ramirez-Rosa and I’m the alderman of the 35th Ward. In that capacity, I’m proud to represent 55,000 working people on the northwest side of Chicago. I came into that role because I knocked a bunch of doors. I was up against a 12-year incumbent who had the backing of the mayor of the one percent, but what we had in our corner was people power.
I went out there, along with dozens of volunteers, every single day. I knocked doors religiously and I had conversations with real people about the issues they were facing.
When they would say, “Well, I want a new alderman because we need to fix this pothole,” we had a conversation about why the city was prioritizing corporate welfare instead of providing services to black and brown neighborhoods across our town. When people talked about how it took them two hours to get to their job, we talked about the need for affordable housing around public transportation. We talked about the need to expand public transportation and fund public infrastructure.
Those conversations politicize people. But they didn’t just politicize people, they helped me win with 67 percent of the vote on election day.
After we were elected—and I say “we” because it was a collective of people that said, “We’re going to seize power here in the 35th ward for working people”—we continued to knock doors.
When Donald Trump was elected, and he said, “I’m going to deport record millions of people,” more than the previous Deporter-in-Chief Barack Obama, we said, “We’re going to knock our neighbors’ doors and talk to them about their constitutional rights should law enforcement or ICE come and knock on their door.”
One of the problems we faced was that a lot of the volunteers didn’t speak Spanish. But when they would go to a Spanish speaker’s door and give them a piece of bilingual literature, even though they couldn’t have a conversation with them, they would look at that literature and they would say, “Thank you.” Because they understood that they were there to help them.
So just imagine if you went to someone’s door that you couldn’t have a conversation with but you handed them a piece of literature with a list of free healthcare clinics where they could go and get help. You think they’re going to be angry at you? No. They’re going to say thank you.
Those door-to-door conversations with people are how we break through the dominant narrative that’s fed to us through the corporate media every single day and build the political revolution that we so desperately need.
I’ve got another example for you. Affordable housing. Other aldermen were like, “You don’t want to build affordable housing in your ward. If you’re going to build affordable housing in your ward, you can only build it for seniors, you can only build it for veterans. Your voters or constituency will revolt if you come to them and say we want to build affordable housing for working people, for poor people.”
A private developer came to me. One of the things that you might not know about Chicago, or the U.S. in general, is that right now, we’re really not building public housing anymore. What we’re doing is we’re building “affordable housing” by giving public money to private developers. So the Chicago Housing Authority has hundreds of millions of dollars to build affordable housing, but they’re just giving it to private developers.
But, this private developer comes and says, “I want to build affordable housing in your ward.” And we thought about it, as a collective, and said, “Well, that’s fine, we’re going to be with it, even though it’s not the ideal way that we want it built.” Because once we win we’re going to make it public again. But we didn’t tell that to the developer, right? Because that’s a long-term goal.
But we said, “Alright. You’re going to build it.” And we said, well, “In order for you to get my support, we have to have a community assembly, where the community comes out and discusses this proposal and decides whether or not it’s in their best interest, because all development in my ward has to go before a community assembly.”
And the developer said, “Well, we don’t think that’s a good idea, because any time we have these public meetings they just turn out really, really bad.”
But what we did in my ward is we went out and we knocked doors. For the weeks leading up to that meeting, people went to their neighbors’ doors and talked about the need for affordable housing in their community, talked about why this project was so important, talked about the specifics, and invited people to come out to that community assembly and voice their support.
When we held that meeting in a packed room in a school theater, only one person spoke out against the proposal. And the criticisms of the project came from the left. People asked that developer, “What are you going to do to make sure that folks with a criminal record can apply to live in this house? What are you going to do to make sure that people that have undocumented family members can get a unit in this building?”
That is what’s possible when we go door to door and we build working-people power.
Sometimes I think about capitalism like a dam; it’s just kind of holding us all back. And we are all just these individual drops of water. When you’re outside and you feel a drop of water, you’re like, “Oh, I can ignore that,” right? But when all those little drops of water come together, that’s when we become a mighty river. That’s when we become a flowing force of water that can tear that dam down—that can tear down that corrupt capitalist system and nourish the earth. Are you all with me, sisters and brothers?