A New Crowd: Reading and Making History in Red Chicago Photo: julie corsi via Flickr (Creative Commons)

A New Crowd: Reading and Making History in Red Chicago

I reactivated politically five years ago. A dormant New Leftist, I was reawakened by the incessant tide of setback in this country after spending 30 years distracted making a living. I joined Chicago DSA in 2018 through the electoral working group and was pleased to volunteer for Byron Sigcho-Lopez’s campaign for alderman, one of six socialist aldermen elected to Chicago City Council in 2019.

Having been out of touch with the Left it was good to re-engage through DSA where the energy and optimism of younger comrades challenged dated thinking on my part. To deepen my political understanding I enrolled in Chicago DSA’s Socialist Night School. This year I completed seven sessions with 30+ comrades per class, both learners and facilitators. The readings are well chosen and cover key topics to know and discuss: working class mobilization in Chicago, electoral politics, pandemic, gentrification, abolition of police. I found the facilitation and small group discussion valuable and recommend Socialist Night School to anyone looking to expand their thinking and to connect with a larger movement.

The SNS session that particularly struck me was “Socialist Movements and Chicago.” The two sources were Red Chicago: American Communism at its Grassroots 1928-1935 (Randi Storch, 2008) and Hillbilly Nationalists, Urban Race Rebels, and Black Power: Community Organizing in Radical Times (Amy Sonnie & James Tracy, 2011). These cover two periods of pitched social struggles in Chicago: the early 1930s and the late 1960s. I was around for 1960s anti-Vietnam War protests but was (somehow) unaware of the scope and depth of the 1930s struggles. I realized that, over a lifetime, I had unthinkingly accepted the erasure of these struggles and their victories from Chicago history. To read and discuss the two periods together opened new perspectives for me on the dead-end of the 1960s, the untold victories of the 1930s, and, most importantly, implications for today’s changing Uprising.

The Socialist Night School session showed me that mass, local, multiracial mobilizations achieve real results for working-class communities. On the other hand, the readings demonstrated that vanguard organizations whose leaders and members are, by definition, self-selecting and not organically rooted in communities find their efforts easily deflected and undone.

The 1930s Chicago mobilizations assembled 5K, 10K, 20K, 30K, 60K Black and white protesters for a single march. 1930s organizers could mobilize 5,000 protesters within a half hour to stop an eviction. These mobilizations included large numbers of people not previously involved in political movements. They came from unexpected quarters: the unemployed, African Americans, housewives, the homeless, and churches, and they rose to the occasion by embracing their own militant protest style. They did not rely on existing reformist organizations and were, indeed, seen as “a new crowd.”

By comparison the Black Panther Party at its height in 1970 numbered approximately 5,000 nationally. Equivalent to DSA membership prior to the Trump election, the Panthers in the 1960s and 1970s were highly visible but extremely vulnerable. The 1960s Rainbow Coalition in Chicago had a promising beginning under Chicago’s Black Panthers. However, when the charismatic leader of the white activists launched a national Patriot Party with “franchises” in new cities, its membership peaked at “dozens” only. The Patriot Party found a poor response in cities where they were newly arrived and unknown by potential supporters.

The 2020 Uprising in Chicago is similar to the 1930s because it includes large numbers of Chicago people new to political movements. In 2020, a young, multiracial group of protesters are providing leadership and finding resonance at the community level. Their independent, fresh, and militant style makes them a welcome “new crowd” for our time. Moreover, hard issues in the community are putting Chicago’s new movement to the test. Next steps and new directions are in the making.

The 2020 Uprising: Twelve Weeks of Real-Time Learning and Mobilization. “A New Crowd” Steps Up

The police murder of George Floyd on May 25 was the last straw for police abuse in the United States and a body blow to white supremacy in this country and the world. The past twelve weeks have witnessed multiracial class formation and multiracial insurgency unseen for half a century.

In Chicago on May 30, a multiracial group of protesters took to the streets defying curfew, marching all night, exhausting reporters and police who accompanied them, chanting “whose streets, our streets, no justice, no peace, who do you serve!, who do you protect!” Marchers realized, “I am more today than I was yesterday. This is not a moment, it is a movement, and I am part of this movement.” On June 6 the Chicago march surpassed 30,000. Then came Decolonize Zhigaagoong, July 17, when one thousand white and BIPOC marchers set their sights on the Columbus statue in Grant Park. In the clash they put their bodies on the line. The marshals sacrificed their bicycles, 76 of them. And the statue came down. Not one but three Columbus statues came down in Chicago that week. This is real-time multiracial class formation.

Chicago DSA early on endorsed Black and BIPOC organizations’ demands to #DefundCPD and enact the Civilian Police Accountability Council. Chicago DSA comrades have been present in force at each protest. Chicago DSA leadership said we will work through existing Black and BIPOC organizations recognizing their leaders as our leaders for #DefundCPD and #CPAC-Now. Such organizations include CAARPR, Black Lives Matter, Good Kids Mad City, United Working Families, Chi-Nations Youth Council, Assata’s Daughters, and BAN—Black Abolitionist Network.

On August 9 the police shooting of a 20-year-old Black man caused a significant disturbance in the Englewood neighborhood. In response to this, residents of other Black communities suddenly gathered by the hundreds in Chicago’s upscale shopping district 10 miles away where they vandalized and looted high-end stores. More than 100 people were arrested. This incident caused great dismay in some quarters and great anger in others. I could struggle to find or to reject some political justification for looting. Instead I will quote President George W. Bush’s Secretary of Defense on the occasion of massive looting of public buildings and private properties in Baghdad following the American invasion of that city in 2003:

”Freedom’s untidy, and free people are free to make mistakes and commit crimes and do bad things,” Sect. Donald Rumsfeld said. “They’re also free to live their lives and do wonderful things. And that’s what’s going to happen here…The pictures are pictures of people going into the symbols of the regime, into the palaces, into the boats and into the Baath Party headquarters…One can understand the pent-up feelings that may result from decades of repression and people who’ve had members of their family killed by that regime…Stuff happens.” (CNN.com, April 12, 2003)

I agree with Secretary Rumsfeld that the road to freedom is untidy. I believe we must struggle to make the best choices at each step and to correct mistakes as we are able. But, by all means, we must continue forward. We cannot allow setbacks to derail our movements. 1930s Chicago stayed the course. 1960s Chicago was tragically and decisively derailed. The verdict on 2020 Chicago is still open.

Talking about real-time learning in community struggles, I found that political education also happens real time. In unpacking the daily news I return to the article ‘Rethinking Socialism from Below in the Age of COVID-19 and Black Lives Matter’ by Benjamin Balthaser and Bill Mullen (New Politics, June 30, 2020). Ben Balthaser is a facilitator in Chicago Socialist Night School. Written just five weeks into the Uprising, the authors see the emerging Abolitionist movement giving shape and completion to two earlier uprisings: Occupy (2011) and Black Lives Matter-Ferguson (2014). Driven by Black feminists, the new uprising is decidedly not the work of bureaucratic elites or whites, particularly white men. Rather, the authors say the new movement’s politics of identity are as yet unknown. Week to week a new radicalized generation is re-making socialism in its own image.

In view of the country’s quickening pace of events I find I must continue to read and discuss in the company of comrades to maintain my footing and for this reason I will continue with Socialist Night School. I began by speaking about erasure of history. The fact is I only learned of the victories of 1930s Chicago from the SNS readings of several weeks ago. Historians tell us we must do the work to study and imagine and find our lost voice in a usable past. This is a task for all DSA members. More so for members of my generation who must begin to reclaim a vital identity which was denied by McCarthyism, from which we were separated by a long Cold War, and which was abandoned by the Popular Front. I didn’t realize what we had lost until it was rediscovered by this generation in the streets of Minneapolis, Chicago, and Portland. I reaffirm my commitment to reading and doing history with them.