[This text was originally published in AREA Chicago #9 in November 2009]
On July 31, 2009, a group gathered at Anthony Rayson’s home in Monee, IL, to discuss their work as activists in the South Suburbs. What follows is an edited version of selections from the interview. Comments by Marimonica Murray, George Ochsenfeld, Jessie Cunningham, Anthony Rayson, Eraina Dunn, and Mike Plotski, gathered by Rebecca Zorach. The complete transcript will be available on AREA’s website (http://www.areachicago.org) following print publication of AREA #9. It will also include the comments of two other participants in the discussion: Natassja Noctis and Migs. Many thanks to volunteer transcribers Joe Baldwin, Natalie Barrera, Matt Didier, Tanuja Jagernauth, and Dave Rader.
Marimonica Murray (Generations for Peace): I’m a founding member of Generations For Peace (http://www.generations4peace.org/), in the Homewood area. It started two years ago, when Jody Libretti put this heartfelt letter out there amongst a few friends, and people forwarded it. Basically the group is to promote peaceful conflict resolution, be it the Iraq war, Afghanistan, or concerns that are building with Iran. We perform a vigil at the corner of Halsted and Ridge Road in Homewood. Last year I think it was every Friday from 4:30 until 6; now we do it once a month. We did try twice, for two years running, to get a space at the Homewood Days Festival, which is put on by the Chamber of Commerce in Homewood, and they denied us twice in a row saying that we are not a proper entity. We have linked up with Southsiders for Peace and Code Pink-Northwest Indianaand a lot of other groups in the southern regions of Chicago. What our hope is, is that taking a small group and then linking it up with other small groups, we have a larger voice.
George Ochsenfeld (STAND, Green Party): I got politicized in the 1960s, with the Vietnam War and also, you know, growing up in the 1950s I thought the whole system sucked then! The regimentation, the materialism, the rules and all that stuff, I didn’t like it. In the 60s of course I was against the war, I went to demonstrations, but I wasn’t heavily involved. Eventually, I got involved more politically in the nuclear freeze movement.
I always wanted to live out in the country, like Henry David Thoreau. I was able to buy a piece of land in the country 24 years ago. On the day I signed the papers there was a little bitty article in the Star newspaper. It says, “State Senator Aldo DeAngelis plans to bring an airport to the south suburban area,” and I thought, nah, that couldn’t affect me. Well, you know, they’ve been pushing this airport since then. Eventually, I met Anthony and we were doing various things, organizing demonstrations, fighting the airport with a group that eventually evolved into STAND (Shut This Airport Nightmare Down). They thought that they could build an airport out here three and a half times the size of O’Hare, to replace O’Hare. With all this prime farmland. And somehow, Mayor Daley and the City of Chicago are just going to roll over and say “okay, take the biggest economic engine in the Midwest.” This project has staggered forward on three legs: stupidity, greed, and corruption.
I’m giving consideration to running for State Rep on the Green Party ticket. We need Green jobs. We need to hire carpenters and electricians to winterize all these houses and other building stock, to make them energy efficient. We need windmill farms. We need, you know, a whole host of Green businesses. Because this is the thing: we’re in a depression. We have a crisis right now, economic depression and an ecological crisis, and we need to mobilize people now. I think there’s an emergent progressive Green movement, the crisis is motivating our Green movement, and will help Green candidates and other progressive causes move forward.
Anthony Rayson (STAND, ABC South Chicago Zine Distro): Basically I’m a polemicist, and free school educator. I involve myself in various grassroots groups, help with actions, work on them, build them up. I organize and network with all kinds of different groups. Mainly I’m interested in writing, looking for the serious truth and making it available to indigent prisoners. I like working with brilliant writers and artists, help publish their work and get it distributed. I like to help build various affinity groups and collectives and study groups. I have hundreds of publications available through my distro. I’m always working on new projects. I see myself as a switchman on the underground information railroad.
I spend most of my time creating, editing, publishing, writing, and distributing hundreds of publications that are of unique interest to prisoners. Whether it’s politics, history, or psychology, whether it’s information, contacts, and resources they need to fight in court. All these, plus supporting them when they come out, trying to help them get established and basically help them become activists themselves, is what I’m interested in doing. I want to radicalize people and make them realize the real enemy is the government. I don’t feel any patriotism to the U.S. government.
Jessie Cunningham (Generations for Peace): My son scored 100 on all of the military tests when he was high school. The recruiters beat our door down, there was no peace. And he signed and went into the reserves, and he was fine with that, but in the middle of his junior year of college, Desert Storm broke out. My son was taken out of school and he went over there, and he came back with a lot of the ailments that those soldiers came back with. We could not get treatment for him in military hospitals, they turned him down, they said there was no problem or anything. My son committed suicide when he was 37 years old.
I have had a real problem with the military since then, with the recruiters. I remember the things they promised him. I remember this lieutenant who called and said “we need your son in five days,” and I said, “my son is in school,” and he said, “No, your son is in the Navy.” And you will have him here in five days. So I think that we really need to look at what the recruiters do, how the whole military complex is set up in this country, and the things we do to our children in the name of war. I mean, if they decided to recruit the entire Senate and the House of Representatives and send them to do community service in Iran, or Afghanistan, I think our wars would end. We’d learn “conflict resolution” very quickly.
Eraina Dunn (HACO): I’m the Executive Director of the Human Action Community Organization(16028 Halsted Street, Harvey, IL 60426). We’ve been involved in social and environmental justice issues since 1970. Back in the early 90s there were many proposed incinerators and polluting industries pressing in on poor communities. They always held up a carrot saying “it’ll create jobs.” They never talked about the health risks. We had two incinerators proposed in Harvey. We got involved in some environmental groups including, close by, People for Community Recovery—with Hazel Johnson, who’s considered the mother of the environmental justice movement. We found out quickly that they are very unhealthy, they rarely produce enough income to make a difference, or the jobs never happen. So we defeated it, but it took about six years. There were local residents, many activists throughout the region and nationally who helped in the fight. Attorney Keith Harley, Dr. Robert Bullard, Jeff Tangle, the Kemps, Leon Norwood, to name a few. And groups—Greenpeace, Citizens for a Better Environment, Illinois Environmental Council, the Sierra Club and State elected officials. We were networking all over the country to bring attention to what was going on in the poor minority communities. Hazel and I were delegates at The First National People of Color Environmental Leadership Summit that was held in Washington, DC in 1991. It brought activists from all over the country and was a driving force in developing the “Principles of Environmental Justice” and Call to Action to address these issues at a national and international level. I had never seen such a gathering and so many of the persons that I met were a great help to us in our local fight. Since then we’ve gotten involved in other social justice issues, crime, gangs, drugs, housing, child abuse, senior abuse—the disproportionate way the system works against people of color.
In the late 90s I started working for the City of Harvey. I tried politics on the other side because I was frustrated, going broke, and my son had been killed in a gang-related accident. I tried everything to keep him away from the gangs, but unfortunately, when you’re in an environment where all of your friends are in gangs, it’s just catching. And now I look back and mostly all his friends are dead or in jail. Little kids that I knew when they were in kindergarten, they didn’t even make it. He was only fifteen, so he never had a life, really. I thought, well maybe I can make a difference if I’m on the inside.
Well, that was the most corrupt and horrible experience I ever had, working for the city of Harvey. I didn’t agree with some of the policies that affected the poorer citizens and I felt that I was just being used. I never felt like I could make a real difference. So I left and went back to HACO, without a job. Then I got a call from the Center for Neighborhood Technology. They needed an organizer to work with some farmers out in Peotone. And I’m like, “what?” Oh yeah, they’re fighting an airport. So I say, “okay,” and that was a wonderful experience. Coming out here it’s like coming back home. I got to know George and Anthony and many others.
Now I’m working to provide free training to individuals who want to be certified in mold and mildew remediation, lead remediation, CPR, and first aid, because we have such a high rate of asthma and respiratory conditions, everybody needs to know how to save somebody’s life. And I worked with the University of Illinois forming a clean environment coalition, made up of the business community, organizations, health care facilities, Ingalls Hospital, and the Department of Public Health. There are other issues—I’m dealing with the fallout from predatory lenders. So many displaced families that have lost their property through foreclosure. My organization’s inundated with those kinds of clients. And I have a free clothing outreach, household items.
Being an activist, you’re always feared, or viewed as some lunatic, you know, not in the mainstream. They resent you because you volunteer! But it wears you out. There’s things you need. I look at my friends who are my age who are retiring now and I’m like, that could have been me, I had a good job once, I had benefits once. But it’s just a calling. Somebody had to do it.
Mike Plotski (Generations for Peace): I graduated high school in ’76, worked in the steel mills on the South Side of Chicago for a few years after that, where my father and uncles all labored. In 1978, I went on a trip to Rocky Mountain National Park, and to Berkeley, California, and was exposed to alternative thinking. I became a vegan almost overnight, and an animal rights activist, ecology activist. I used to join the group on Michigan Avenue at the Water Tower, with graphic signs of animals in leghold traps and say “this is the price of a fur coat, is your vanity really worth that much?”
I’ve worked with Tony five years now, and all these zines and pamphlets on the shelves, I’ve probably folded and stapled 80% of them. The letters of profuse and profound thanks that we get from prisoners are so heart-touching, I spend a lot of my time doing that now. There’s an archipelago of penal institution study groups all over the country because of us. People are learning about black history, exploitation, slavery and wage slavery, about Black August, about comrade revolutionaries from the 60s like George Jackson and Malcolm X. We get a lot of letters from prisoners saying “although my body may be incarcerated, thank you guys for freeing my mind.” And that to me is so heart-touching I cannot help but devote two or three hours a day into this cause.
I consider myself a Luddite. I’ve never shaved in my life, I’ve never used a drycleaner, never used a blowdryer. Anthony came up with a good adjective about what they want to do out here with the airport. He’s calling it “Napervillize.” I mean, turning these pristine farmlands into cement and blacktop. Naperville was something like the fourth largest growing community in America during the 1990s, and we don’t want to see that kind of sprawl out here. ◊