From Where I Sit “Riots are the Language of the Unheard”
A reflection from Richard Townsell, Executive Director of the Lawndale Christian Development Corporation and an active leader with United Power for Action and Justice.
Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. has been quoted a lot this week. One quote that has gotten a lot of traction is from an interview with CBS News’ Mike Wallace in 1966 where he said: “I think that we’ve got to see that a riot is the language of the unheard. And, what is it that America has failed to hear? It has failed to hear that the economic plight of the Negro poor has worsened over the last few years.” This was as true today as it was then. The young adults in my house and the young staff on our team are very angry and some have joined peaceful protests over the death of brother George Floyd. His death represents the latest in a long line of public lynchings at the hands of primarily white law enforcement officials. We wait in anticipation for what happens in this case because we have seen slaps on the wrist before after the heat dies down. As of my writing, the other officers have not been charged. The young people make me wonder if I am too old because I don’t want to join protests or marches. They probably think that us baby boomer types just don’t get it. Are we too comfortable, too scared or too accommodating with this system that we can’t bring ourselves to hit the streets? Or is it something else?
I lived through the riots of 1968 when Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated. I was not quite four years old but I remember my mother and older brother talking about it in hushed tones. How afraid they were as they heard ambulances and fire trucks all night. The anger was palpable in North Lawndale. Last night was like that. Stores along Roosevelt Road, Ogden and Pulaski and others were looted and burned.
It has been over 60 years since that happened and the community has yet to recover. There have been some heroic efforts in our community and communities like it around the country to rebuild in the aftermath of Dr. King’s death. In 2011, LCDC and our partners the Westside Federation and Safeway Construction built the $17MM, 45-unit apartment building called the MLK Legacy Apartments, primarily because of Dr. King’s presence in North Lawndale in 1966. He came to protest slum housing. After he was murdered, the building that he and his family lived in for those months in 1966 was torn down. There would be no memory that he ever lived here. Back in the 1990’s, our church wanted to build a park in his memory. I thought that we should build a building that he would have been proud to live in instead on the site. Despite this and other noble efforts, the amount of resources allocated to rebuild North Lawndale has not come close to matching the devastation since 1968. I won’t quote any statistics because they are so readily available (and because our community has been studied to death by academics the world over), but suffice to say that if COVID 19 has wrought devastation to America in every socioeconomic statistic available then imagine Black folks have experienced 70 years of COVID in North Lawndale from health disparities, unemployment, blatantly racist housing discrimination and redlining, mass incarceration, vacant lots, poorly funded and maintained schools and the list of problems goes on and on. Problems, not issues. I’ll get back to that later.
That being said, I am firmly against rioting and looting. The primary reason is that for the past 62 years since the riots of 1968, not much of scale has been accomplished. Additionally, a lot of the folks instigating and provoking the theft and vandalism are white paid provocateurs, anarchists and professional looters who are opportunistically taking advantage of black grief and rage to cause mayhem at our expense. Why are they driving from the suburbs to tear up our neighborhoods? Fortunately, young black activists with camera phones are catching them in they act and stopping them from gentrifying and hijacking our legitimate and peaceful protests.
So, what do we do? I will tell you what is not the answer from my experience in community development and organizing over the past almost two decades of work and then what we can do.
Voting. Ed Chambers, who took over the Industrial Areas Foundation (IAF) after Saul Alinsky’s death, taught me in one of our organizing sessions a truth that I’ll never forget. Voting is the lowest form of democracy. It essentially means that if your work to influence what happens in your life and in the lives that people you care about is reduced to pulling a lever or filling in a bubble every couple of years, then you’ve already lost. The elite power players on both sides of the political aisle (some would argue that there is only one party: the money party that controls both sides) is relentless and generational and working every single day to advance their economic interests. If the beginning and end of your civic duty is to elect someone who you think will represent your interests then you are in for a world of pain and disappointment. The system is run by the robber barons, lobbyists, special interests and that crowd. No matter how progressive or inspiring you think your dream candidate is they will run straight into this stark reality. You should vote, but more people voting will not change the intractable problems that our country faces.
Protests and Marches. These are usually reactions to something bad that has happened. Folks get agitated by a major injustice such as a killing, an unjust verdict or an environmental situation. People are upset and rightly so. They feel the need to do something immediately. Their desire for swift action sometimes comes from a sense of hopelessness and a desire to take control of a situation or a problem. The difficulty with this approach is not only the reactive nature of it but it is also not sustainable. People can’t protest indefinitely. Also, this kind of organizing often leaves people unclear about the issue(s) and even worse there are some opportunistic leaders that emerge that are more interested in the spotlight or have another agenda than the original reason that folks came together. There is no accountability, organizational structure, research or planning that happens. While I know this is a broad brush that I’m painting with, I’ve been to enough of these to see common themes and to know that I won’t waste my time doing it anymore.
Prayers and guilt driven service projects. I am a Christian and definitely believe in the redemptive and life changing effects of prayer. Prayer has brought our family and community through some trying times. I like the story of Nehemiah. After the description of all of the tribes that were working shoulder to shoulder to rebuild, opposition started coming to threaten their work. In chapter 4 verse 9 it reads: “But we prayed to our God AND we posted a guard day and night to meet this treat.” Not just prayer alone, but action to deal with the ongoing threat. Today, I had a discussion with my wife about our white brethren that we see on social media posting things and how many of them have been here for years. All they can offer are prayers and clean-up efforts after the looting and destruction. They were all very frustrated by the looting and worried about property damage. Black folks were not crazy about the looting either, but we understand that social and economic conditions that have been looting poor communities like ours for decades. They believe like others that if we just worked harder, had different priorities/values or the right education that we can escape poverty. They don’t understand their privilege or how nefarious this system has been to black folks. We understand very early in life how we fit into this experiment called America. So instead of just wanting to clean up after the mess or plant flowers to beautify the mess, perhaps it’s time to join and work alongside our organizations who are on the ground every day doing great work. Instead of creating and implementing your own solutions to what you see as a problem, can you work under the leadership of black people in their neighborhoods? To think that there are no solutions or that you didn’t know what local leaders were proposing underlies the real issue of connecting to and submitting to black leadership in this moment.
In depth research; careful planning; leadership development and persistent and targeted action that is built on relational powerThis is what we will do. This is hard, calculated and long range. We don’t work on problems like racism or housing or police misconduct. We do the work to hone problems into concrete issues that we are winnable and will build our leaders’ confidence and appetite to take on bigger issues. This kind of work has been tried and is battle tested in church, synagogue and mosque basements and union meeting halls all over the country. Our kind of organizing starts with building relationships one to one and face to face. It starts with the individual stories and lived experiences of real people, not polls or think tanks. It is not ideological or partisan, but very political in the non-electoral politics sense of the word. It has helped me to understand and work with people from different parts of our state that we might label as Republicans or different religions or no religious affiliation. The common theme is that they want to work together to build the common good despite our differences.
They are volunteers, like me, that care about our families and communities and know that this system is built to divide and conquer through stereotypes and sensational media narratives about “the other”. We are aware of our self-interests but also concerned beyond our narrow self-interests to enlightened self-interests.
Through our one to one meetings, patterns begin to emerge and collectively we decide to do research on a problem so that we can see if we can craft it into an issue. In North Lawndale, a local library named after Frederick Douglas, was in shambles. Our team of leaders in the North Lawndale Home Owner’s Association said that they never went to that library anymore. It was decrepit and drugs were sold right outside the library. We decided to do what we call a power analysis of the Chicago Public Library system. We understood who was on the board, when they met, what their sources of revenue were, how many other libraries around us were going through renovations and other pertinent information about the library. We decided to go and do a research action and took a team of regular people to inspect the library. What we found was appalling: Rat boxes in the Children’s Reading area, mold and peeling paint in offices and meeting rooms, radiators hot to the touch, elevators and fire extinguishers that hadn’t been inspected in years. Our team took copious notes and pictures and put our research into folders and went to the Harold Washington Library in February of 2018 to the Chicago Public Library Board meeting. Our team saw them discussing a new beautiful library that was designed by award winning architects, Perkins & Will, for a North side community. When it was our turn to speak, our Chair, Rochelle Campbell walked them through our inspection report with the precision of a trial lawyer. A few months later, we got a $2.5 MM commitment from Mayor Rahm Emanuel along with 24th Ward Alderman Michael Scott, Jr. to rebuild Douglas Library and make it open 7 days a week and with all of the programming that they have at other branches. Our leaders spoke at the grand opening and will make sure that it stays excellent.
This action was specific, not vague. It took relentless follow up and accountability sessions with the City bureaucracies over six months to win and another year to complete the renovation. It is a story owned by the leaders that did the work, not celebrity “activists”. We learned this practice from the best organizers in the world. God hasn’t let 400 years of COVID stop us. Our goal is to rebuild Lawndale with homes that working people can afford; to rebuild the public square with local leaders that care about the issues that affect us and to not give in to fear or the market driven ideology that has taken over our country’s polity. We are just getting started.
By God’s grace,
Richard E Townsell