CFL News
May 14, 2012

Preparing for battle in a war of ideas at protest central

A closer look at some union and community activists, including the group Stand Up Chicago!, and their commitment to building strong communities

Source: Chicago Tribune

By Rick Kogan

Inside a storefront space in Pilsen, Eugene Young was putting the finishing touches on a wild, colorful poster. Fourteen years old, he is a student at Chicago Tech Academy High School on the Near Southwest Side. He came here because his mother made him come here. But he was getting into it, carefully laying color on top of color, word beside word.

"I think this is the way my voice can get to be heard," he said.

As he spoke, surrounded by dozens of posters and placards, by people painting huge black letters — JOBS HOMES SCHOOLS — on strips of fabric so long they run the 75-foot length of the space, and by some massive puppet heads lying against a wall, it was impossible not to remember the nasty night of Aug. 28, 1968.

In front of the Conrad Hilton Hotel on Michigan Avenue, all was noise and chaos and blood. On this night members of the Chicago Police Department clashed with Vietnam War protesters. It lasted only 20 minutes, and as some of the protesters were being led or dragged away, a chant rose spontaneously from the crowd: "The whole world is watching. The whole world is watching."

"That was true, in a comparatively limited sense, in that network television cameras were there," says Toby Higbie, an associate professor of history at UCLA and a former Chicagoan. "But now, in any public protest, the whole world really is watching. Protests and the images associated with them spread through social media. It is now possible to create and circulate these images and messages in ways almost unimaginable decades ago."

Higbie is an expert on social history, labor and working class. He co-curated a remarkable exhibition at the Newberry Library in 2004-05, "Outspoken: Chicago's Free Speech Tradition," which traced in words and pictures the lengthy and essential role the city has played in the history of the protest movement.

"Chicagoans of the early 20th century were at the forefront of American movements for social, economic, and cultural reform and revolution," he wrote for the exhibition. "The conflict between advocates for change and defenders of the status quo would shape the possibilities for free speech and redefine the limits of government power over Americans' political debate and private behavior."

And so, here we are, at it again, a few days from the NATO summit and its attendant marches and protests. And you are worried, most of you. You do not know what to expect, and there is fear in the unknown. Some institutions have canceled scheduled performances and events. Museums will be closed. Streets and expressways will be clogged.

But no matter how you feel about the NATO confab — It's a great way to showcase Chicago or What a waste of money and resources — you will, even from afar, be reminded of the vibrant part that art plays in political protest.

For months now the storefront in Pilsen has been the place where politics meets art, where the messages of protest are being conceived and created.

"It has been a wonderfully collaborative thing," said Catherine Murrell, communications coordinator for Stand Up! Chicago and a longtime activist. "We gather various groups at big table meetings and discuss the ways we want to form messages and the ways to get them across.

"There is a need to focus messages precisely, but the more people get involved, the broader the message can become. Still, in the end, there has been very little vetting. It is important that people are allowed to express themselves in individual ways."

Murrell should know. Stand Up! Chicago describes itself as "a coalition of community and labor organizations and working families standing up together to demand good jobs and a strong investment in our community's schools and neighborhoods … committed to defending Chicago families against the wealthy banks and corporations that have taken our tax dollars through tax breaks, bailouts, and corporate welfare payments. By reclaiming these funds for meaningful job creation and investment in strong schools and communities, we can secure a brighter future for Chicago's working families."

The Pilsen space opened in September when members of Stand Up!, which had been using the basement of a union hall as an art-making and staging area, needed more room while preparing for a major march/protest in October and others that would follow.

So they took a year's lease on the Pilsen storefront, a bare, two-story-high room with a loft area toward the back (the exact location of which Stand Up! Chicago is reluctant to make public). "To make big art takes a big space," Murrell said.

The people who have availed themselves of this space come from all manner of unions and community groups. On any given Saturday, the day when the place has been most active, you could meet people from, among many organizations, the Albany Park Neighborhood Council, Arise Chicago, Brighton Park Neighborhood Council, SOUL (Southsiders Organized for Unity and Liberation), Action Now, Chicago Jobs With Justice, Chicago Coalition for the Homeless, Lakeview Action Committee, Illinois Hunger Coalition and Chicago Teachers Union.

"We have been surprised by the number of people who have shown up," Murrell said. "A lot of these people have two jobs to make ends meet, but they find the time to come here. And many of them bring family and friends."

Michelle Young is the mother of two teenagers, the aforementioned Eugene and 17-year-old Savannah, who also attends Chicago Tech. They both went to May Elementary Community Academy in the Austin neighborhood, where they live with their parents, who have been married for 30 years.

"I first got involved in politics during Harold Washington's run for mayor," said Michelle Young, one recent Saturday afternoon. She stayed involved and became more so after retiring from an insurance company a few years ago. Young is now president of the community group Action Now. She was making her first visit to the Pilsen workplace. "This is wonderful, so open. You can be yourself here but know you are part of a bigger effort. You don't need to be an artist — and I am not — to express yourself."

Young included photos of her children on the poster she made.

"There is great authenticity in people writing in their own hand," UCLA's Higbie said.

In other words, if every picture tells a story, so does every poster.

The acclaimed local artist (playwright/poet/actor) Tony Fitzpatrick is sympathetic to the mission and the messages of these NATO protesters.

"These people are protesting for what my parents used to refer to as the equitability of the American dream, the American promise," he said. "Go to school, work hard, get a good job and everything will work out. What happened?"

Only a small number of professional artists have been involved in making art in the Pilsen space, though many of them, as well as other individuals and businesses, have donated materials. The artists on-site help those making art, but only if asked. Most of the creations are born spontaneously and created with rudimentary skill, amateur artists acting on their own.

"When I see the art done for protests, what impresses me is the number of pieces," Fitzpatrick said. "It punctuates the idea that this movement is a growing body politic. It hardly matters whether any of the art is good or not good, and you have plenty of both. What is astonishing and hopeful is how many pieces are on display and who made them. This is a movement that is not monolithic.

"It isn't about kids or square pegs or fringe-dwellers. These people marching are people you know. It's your aunt, your brother, your neighbor. It's your teacher, your coach, the guy who picks up your garbage."

This was manifested a few weeks ago, late one afternoon in Federal Plaza. It was cold but sunny, and hundreds had gathered.

From a megaphone came a cry: "Show me what democracy looks like."

And the crowd responded: "This is what democracy looks like."

To be specific, it looked like dozens of handheld and handmade posters, with messages such as "Exelon You Owe Our Children $$$$." It looked like four 8-foot puppetlike representations of corporate CEOs.

"There really has been a resurgence in the visual culture of protests," Higbie said. "I don't like to say it, but you can compare the protest movement to advertising. It is all about branding the message effectively. Whether you're selling a product or promoting an idea, a picture really can be worth a thousand words. People everywhere have the tools to create, and instantly share with millions of people, their works of protest and dissent."

There will be millions watching when the NATO folks come to town, and they will see some of the posters and puppets and banners made in Pilsen. After NATO there will be more marches and protests. Two boys, 11 and 12 years old, were in the Pilsen art space a couple of weeks ago, working with their father on posters for an event later in the month, when they decided to take a break.

One of the boys looked at himself and said, "Sorry, Dad. I got myself all full of paint."

"That's OK," said his father, a longtime union activist, neglecting to add what his son was just beginning to learn: Democracy can be a colorful, messy business.

Rick Kogan hosts "Chicago Live!" 7 p.m. Thursdays at the UP Comedy Club, 230 W. North Ave. You can also listen to him on "The Sunday Papers With Rick Kogan" 6-9 a.m. on WGN-AM 720.