Affordable Power to the People

[This text was originally published in AREA Chicago #4 in February 2007]

A group in Bridgeport addresses people’s inability to pay rising utility prices using direct action, direct service and popular education.

“Why Children Stink, Why People Die”
“How do you like your Elders—baked, boiled, or fried?”
“It’s murder by fire in Chicago. It’s utility roulette.”
“Mayor Daley: Bad Gas.”

These quirky slogans are the titles of leaflets put out by Affordable Power to the People, a grassroots campaign based out of the Bridgeport Volunteer Center to fight gas and electricity shut-offs that have left about 25,000 households without heat and/or light this winter. There is a moratorium on utility shut-offs during the winter months, but if you are already shut off you’re out in the cold.

Campaign volunteers help residents fill out the complicated applications for a government energy assistance program. They protest against politicians and power companies who they blame for high energy bills and household shut-offs. They trek to Springfield and City Hall to lobby against utility rate increases and to demand more government energy assistance. They aren’t your typical activists. Along with some young anarchists and community organizers, the campaign is mostly made up of seniors.

“Baked, boiled or fried” is a morbid but striking reference to the hundreds of seniors who have died during hot Chicago summers because they couldn’t afford to run air conditioners. “Why children stink, why people die”—the title of a recent leaflet—refers to both the day-to-day humiliations and all-too-frequent tragedies that poverty and its accessories, like utility shut-offs, wreak on the lives of human beings.

“Because if your water is shut off, or your gas, and it’s cold out, you can’t take a bath,” says Curly Cohen, one of the founders of Affordable Power to the People. “We don’t want to skirt the issue that one out of every four or five school age children in Chicago is living in a home where one utility is shut off. You go to the first day of school smelling good, pressed, looking sharp. Then later on you don’t have the right to bathe?”

“Why people die?”

Six children in the Ramirez family perished in a Rogers Park apartment fire on Labor Day. The fire was caused by candles they were using for light, since their electricity was shut off.

And 80-year-old Ray Strow died in a fire started by a space heater on Thanksgiving Day, 2006.

Cohen sees chilling parallels between Strow and his friend Mr. Dirks, an 80-year-old man without power who was demonstrating at the state capitol on Thanksgiving morning, when Strow died. Cohen thinks if the powers that be don’t change their ways, Mr. Dirks or others like him will be next.

“It’s a tragedy but it’s not an accident,” says Cohen, who has a long history of multi-racial community organizing in Chicago, including during the famous Harold Washington mayoral campaign. “That’s why we call it murder. We don’t know which house will have the tragedy or where the murder will take place; but we know the pool of houses. Only the gas and electric company know where people are shut off. They don’t have to report to the health department or the fire department.”

Maria Majic, a Mexican immigrant who volunteers with the group several days a week, working with Spanish speakers, says she feels very sad hearing the stories of families whose utilities have been shut off.

“There are single mothers, sick children, people with asthma,” she said. “Last year there was a woman who didn’t have gas so she heated water in the microwave to bathe her kids. People should have the right to gas and light paid out of their taxes. People who make more should pay more, and people who make less should be taken care of. It’s getting more and more expensive and there is so much need.”

From September through the winter, Affordable Power to the People volunteers to help residents fill out applications for funds from the federal Low Income Heat Energy Assistance Program (liheap)—or, as Cohen calls it, the “Lie-Hate” program. That’s because there is never enough money in liheap. And the application process seems designed to make it as difficult as possible.

“They’re giving people the run-around, giving them trouble with little things when they need this assistance so badly,” said Carol Moore, who works assisting applicants at two Bridgeport locations. “Like mothers who get child support through a kind of credit card, so they don’t have a receipt, then they’ll get denied liheap because they don’t have a receipt for their income. Or they’ll say you can use old tax returns as proof of social security, but then when you do that, they’ll deny it. And the grants have gotten smaller. People need so much more.”

Cohen describes Mr. Dirks’ experience with liheap: “If it wasn’t horrible, it would be the funniest thing in the world. He files an application for the liheap program. He’s approved, but in order to be turned on he has to pay $1,604 of his money to get $1,100 of liheap money. And Mr. Dirk gets $534 a month on Social Security.”

Cohen sees it as all part of the larger picture of inequality, subtle hatred and violence in a city where everything from a gas shut-off to a parking ticket carries extra symbolism. (See inset, “Nightmare Before Christmas.”) “It’s not that we won’t pay, we can’t pay,” he elaborates. “We can’t pay rent, gas, electricity, meds and food on that income. Do they just say fuck you, die, catch on fire? It appears we’re in this losing battle for an affordable Chicago.”

In a system that seems to always pass the buck, Affordable Power activists hold people personally responsible. Mayor Daley. Governor Blagojevich. The official at the gas company who told Mr. Dirk he would have to move out of his childhood home if he wanted to re-establish gas service. Elected officials who didn’t vote for extending a freeze on electricity rate hikes, allowing Com-Ed to raise energy rates about 22 percent in 2007.

“I think people are pissed off,” Cohen says. “What if 10,000 people surrounded the state of Illinois building and said ‘This has got to stop.’ Do you think maybe the governor would run out and say ‘Man, I had this money way down in the bottom of my pants and I forgot about it. Here it is for affordable energy.’”

So is there hope?

“There’s always hope,” Cohen says. “That’s the only thing we’ve got. Bad cars and hope.”

Contact Affordable Power to the People at (773) 523-1399.

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