Inheriting the grid #3

[This text was originally published in AREA Chicago #3 in September 2006]

Stepping Back: when we say we?, ,

This issue of AREA was inspired by an absolute mess of different sources and recent events committed to critically exploring the very basic political question of solidarity 1. This theme provided a departure from the issue-oriented themes of our first two publications (privatization/service-cuts and food-related activism). It brings an even wider range of practices into the same pages, and sheds light on common objectives, language, inconsistencies and challenges. Groups from different time periods and different neighborhoods face similar organizational challenges with sustainability, longevity, leadership, and finding long-term alliances that work 2.

Deeply digging (or seriously scratching) into a complex concept like solidarity inspires greater consideration of the role of history and its changing definition over time. In her “Thoughts on Solidarity”, Mary Patten finds solidarity throughout the vocabulary of movements in many eras. Historically socialistleaning actors have emphasized class identification as the basis for solidarity (think Marx’s “Dictatorship of the Proletariat”)3, whereas more contemporary groups often privilege the invocation of a common enemy as the basis for solidarity across class, race and geographic lines. In this issue, we have placed greater emphasis on highlighting local histories to make sense of the lineages and legacies that we are connected to and have inherited. The examples of coalition building (and breaking) in this issue include the Illinois Black Panther Party, waste, act up/Chicago and the Who Are We Now? exhibition. They are exactly the kinds of stories that can inform the stakes of our solidarity today 4.

Simple social solidarities are at the root of human relations throughout the history of human beings—they are the construction and maintenance of simple affinity relations. Looking more specifically at solidarity as an outgrowth of Human Rights work, the sociologist Florence Passy is concerned with addressing the difficulty of defining the concept of “political altruism”. According to Passy, the Christian cosmology “provides the movement with the idea of helping your neighbor, giving her/him life, assistance, protection and care. From the humanist component of the Enlightenment, the solidarity movement draws a coherent discourse on the respect for human rights and individual freedom. Finally, the early socialist movement put forth the ideal of a more just and egalitarian society” 5.

Whether or not this combination of cultural and symbolic resources coming from three disparate traditions is an accurate depiction of today’s self-identified solidarity groups, what is useful from this example is the attempt to locate roots and influences (conscious or not) that orient our thinking and actions towards particular objectives. Some groups privilege the role of historical social movements in influencing their current practices, while others place greater emphasis on philosophical traditions or cultural expressions. Even in Chicago we can break down our local social movements into dozens of different categories and camps based on geography, sub-cultural affiliations, identity or sectarian politics and shared history.

Moving Forward: we want more.

There is a tendency to look at the current context as being dire, and it is. This city is a challenging place to live, work and play— consider the reality depicted in Jason Reblando’s stark photo essay of a “speculative landscape” in which the city is for sale to the richest bidder. We cannot ignore the immense corruption and police abuse that characterizes the official policies that organize much of this city, or how corporate welfare recipients such as Boeing and Trump are prioritized through land use, taxing and zoning regulations 6. All this to say (especially with ’07 being a mayoral election year) that there is a lot to fight about in this Contested Chicago.

Luckily we also have examples of social and political practices that challenge who has the right to the city and who will define its use, meaning, integrity and viability. We can look to the massive immigrant rights marches that took over the streets of Chicago last spring. They were some of the biggest in the country— finally reclaiming May 1 as a significant date in this country’s history (the fire department estimated there were 600,000 on the streets of Chicago, with 500,000 in Los Angles and possibly as many in New York City). Most recently, this struggle has been highlighted and exemplified through the lens of the dignified and defiant Elvira Arellano, the founder of La Familia Latina Unida, who has sought sanctuary in the face of deportation in Humboldt Park’s Adalberto United Methodist Church with the help and solidarity of Rev. Walter “Slim” Coleman, Centro Sin Fronteras (Center Without Borders), Mexico Solidarity Network and so many others in Chicago activist communities 7.

The examples presented in this issue—Contested Chicago, the two Freedom School initiatives, and Chicago Couriers Union— help propose other ways for academics, housing activists, youth and bike messengers to relate to the conditions of the city. They stand in for the countless practices, projects and efforts which have been missed by this issue of Area, and compliment initiatives such as the Logan Square Starbucks Union just started in August, the ongoing work of the Coalition of African, Asian, European, and Latino Immigrants of Illinois (, the impressive struggles around the Big Box Living Wage ordinance passed in City Council this summer (then taken away from us by Mayor Daley’s veto in September—let’s all support the effort to reintroduce this bill in the future), and most recently on September 12, 2006 the huge success of the Hotel workers union unite here (Local 1) at reaching an agreement to improve working conditions with most of the major hotel corporations in the city. There is enough resistance, intelligence and know-how to chart new courses for the experience and definition of this place—yet it is the coordination of those many facets that will determine their success in actually changing social relations in a consistent, thorough and critical manner that will allow our successes in Chicago to translate onto other scales and contexts.

On a cultural front, the emergence of resource sharing networks like West Town Gallery Network, and Pilsen Open Studios continue the tradition of the “Uncomfortable Spaces” gallery network of the ’90s, and point towards models of cooperation and coordination that other initiatives can learn from. These groups produce shared promotional calendars, share webspace and equipment, attend each other’s events and produce coordinated events. Imagine if more cultural and political groups across the city successfully coordinated their efforts regularly, as opposed to hardly speaking or competing for the same audiences as if the logic of the free-market is what taught us about community building. It is most certainly a political choice to have redundant groups, efforts and events going on in the same city at the same time. The decision to initiate yet another youth organizing/media group, discussion group, independent media initiative, cultural space or magazine (yes, this applies to Area as well!) without first considering how to cooperate with, improve or even hijack existing structures leads to further splintering, competition for resources, and marginalization. Imagine if even our currently existing groups and efforts (and even those new ones, which will inevitably and sometimes very necessarily begin in the future—filling gaps, making improvements, taking things further) were better networked for citywide cooperation 8. Our efforts would be stronger, and might have the capacity for thinking about more than fundraising and self-sustenance 9.

The truth is, we haven’t come close to exhausting the angles and perspectives that could be used to interrogate this important and very basic political concept. In the name of input, collaboration, movement building and solidarity, we find gestures such as tokenism (making the minimum effort at outreach, cooperation or collaboration that confuse consulting business leaders/CEOs as representatives of the community or crowding names on event flyers/emails as if their sponsorship is meaningful and the ideas/work was really distributed across the named groups). These gestures can’t be it—I want more, you want more, and I suspect that we all need more. They can’t make up or define our desires for togetherness, community or our need of coalitions and movements. As Bobby Lee reflects on his work coalition building in the late ’60s, our solidarity, and the terms and actions that define it, must embody our politics and our desires— and that takes a ton of work.

Questions for AREA

Looking back on the call for submissions that we circulated last spring 2006 for the issue of AREA that you are holding in your hands, I wonder how close we got to answering our initial questions:

Why is local networking useful?

What do inter-city neighborhood alliances look like?

What are your creative proposals for connecting Chicago’s disconnected communities? How are community connections impacted by geography, instruments of social control, the media, the Internet, etc.?

What historical practices inform our solidarity?

What issues/forces determine our current alliances that we don’t talk about? What are criteria for participating in one another’s struggles? What is it about one another’s practice that alienates us? How can we keep building across divisions of race, class, gender, ethnicity, neighborhood, culture, style, speech, music, and identity?

How do we practice and politicize our interconnectedness? What does it mean to struggle ‘on behalf’ of others? How are/ aren’t resources being shared? Who governs these resources?

What is the emotional content of solidarity? How does it feel to be connected?

What does “community” mean and how does the term’s ambiguity shape our organizing initiatives?

What does it look like when solidarity goes bad or when alliances fail?

AREA as a project must take up the challenge of remembering, celebrating and critiquing our current practices as well as the rich tradition of radical movements in the city’s past. In future issues we will attempt to put greater emphasis on helping to write and share the stories of social movements from Chicago’s past. One such effort is exemplified in the beautifully designed map by Dave Pabellon that provides an in-depth but intentionally and inevitably incomplete map of Chicago. The map is essentially a call for participation—a call for further writing to appear in future issues of Area, a call to remember and to research. It is also a call to create issue/group/time specific maps for the inclusion in our ongoing project The People’s Atlas of Chicago: Sites of Relevance which will eventually result in a book and has already resulted in exhibitions, workshops and presentations. In addition, we would like to initiate a reading group on the theme of remembering the legacy of 1968, its international and local facets, and what that history has done to our current political and cultural practices. This is a group project still in formation, if you are interested in participating in the reading group that will take place over the course of 2007, and result in a myriad of events, publications and historical re-enactments in 2008, please get in touch.

AREA is moving forward, developing a lens for looking at the world through the practices and resources of the local context of Chicago in the early part of the 21st Century. It may be a good time for you to contribute your take, your vision, and to help this project continue. In the coming pages there are some suggestions of ways to contribute to Area, either as a sponsor of resources to keep the project afloat or as a contributor of ideas to enhance the quality and criticality of the publication and related projects. Consider stepping out, and helping this project move forward (ever so slowly, carefully, effectively, pleasurably, and thoughtfully).


1 They include: Common Ground Collective of New Orleans’ “Solidarity Not Charity” , and the many texts listed in the Bibliography for this issue.

2 This observation directly informs the AREA “Infrastructure” lecture series that explores self-organized infrastructures. Get on our e-mail list to receive updates about these events.

3 1875 Critique of the Gotha Program

4 Equally inspiring, but missing from the pages of this issue are the recent series of events throughout Chicago looking back to the 1966 Chicago Freedom Summer events which provide an important marker in Civil Rights history, one that the current Immigrant Rights movement has been smart to look back to as that struggle intensifies.

5 “Political altruism and the solidarity movement” appears in the collection Political Altruism? Marco Giungi and Florence Passy, ed., Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, Inc. 2001

6 For a very in-depth breakdown of Tax Increment Financing and its impact on the city, see Ben Joravsky’s excellent series in the Chicago Reader.

7 The church is at 2716 W. Division, Chicago IL 60622.

8 The most inspiring example of something like this is the Croatian network “Zagreb Cultural Kapital 3000” who do an amazing job at sharing resources and developing their local capacity with a cooperative spirit

9 Today more than ever, social justice and cultural workers are forced into the same normalized legal/financial structure of the Non-Profit Organization. This means that there are greater similarities between struggles, not on the basis of their desired end-goals, class analysis or political ideology, but in the organizational structure of the committed groups. Normalizing the structure of social-change agents across the board makes competition and infighting over resources like foundation money, grants, good press and public relations (to perpetuate your own existence) a consistent feature of groups with potentially radical agendas. It is this tension, between the seeming necessity to engage with the non-profit industrial complex to sustain a practice, and the recognition and celebration of self-organized ways of working that privilege flexibility and political affinity, that will continue to challenge the editorial process of AREA.


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