Volunteers smile for the camera during Wooden's South Side Cleanup Initiative on Wednesday, June 3. Photo by Grace Asiegbu

In the wake of looting during the massive demonstrations following George Floyd’s murder, Chicago community members are banding together to repair and restore their neighborhoods while also repairing and restoring each other. 

“After protesting on Saturday and seeing what happened on Sunday, it made me really sad. I didn’t want what happened to hit our neighborhoods. At the end of the day, these are resources for us,” Kierra Wooden said.

Wooden, a twenty-two-year-old resident of South Shore, said she understood the anger people felt.

“We’re hearing a lot of negativity about what’s going on. This isn’t the first time riots have happened. I wanted to do something for my neighborhood. We care about it.” 

By Sunday evening, May 31, Wooden had already begun organizing her friends and family members, posting flyers all over social media and creating a PayPal account for people to send donations for supplies and food if they can’t donate their time or are afraid to amidst the COVID-19 pandemic. She’d never organized a demonstration or community event before. 

“It’s terrifying, honestly,” she said. “As an organizer, you’re in a position to be a leader, and with leadership comes great responsibility. People trust me with this because I just came up with the idea. Once I got through feeling my feelings on Sunday, I made the flyer, asked for some advice….I have a really great support system from friends and co-workers and social media.” 

Wooden’s planned clean-up and supply distribution initiative targeted some of the South Side’s hardest hit areas: Halsted Street in Roseland, the 95th Street-Stony Island strip, the Jewel-Osco parking lot on 87th and State Streets, 79th Street and Cottage Grove Avenue, the Walmart at 47th Street and Cottage Grove Avenue, and the 35th Street Lake Meadows shopping center. 

By the time Wooden officially launched the cleanup on June 3, many of the places listed on the flyer had been cleaned and boarded up. But Kyra Felton, a twenty-year-old volunteer, said plans were still in place to distribute cleaning and food supplies to people in need. 

“You have main streets that were looted, but you have small local businesses by people’s actual residences that have been looted too,” she said. They distributed supplies such as gloves, masks, cleaning products, and food—“anything that they can’t get, because these are areas that people don’t have those resources at all.” 

According to the organizers’ estimates, over 600 people from Evanston to Hammond, Indiana, came out to help clean and distribute roughly $1,000 worth of supplies and food to those who needed it most.

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Felton’s motive for cleaning up her neighborhood is clear: helping those around her see an issue from a different perspective through community engagement.

“It’s really easy to criticize people for action that you may or may not partake in, especially if it’s criminal or immoral,” she said. “There are a lot of people who are not socially aware and my goal is to continue indirectly educating them.”

Illi Dalton, thirty-one, a long-time resident and community organizer born in South Shore and currently residing in Canaryville, said Mayor Lori Lightfoot is partially to blame for the unrest in the South and West Sides of the city. 

“It was all part of the plan for Lori to lock off downtown, giving these alerts thirty minutes before [curfew] just to jam people up,” he said.

Lightfoot came under fire for 9pm curfews instituted on both days over the weekend of May 30–31, with notifications sometimes reaching Chicagoans’ phones after the curfew took effect. There were also harsh criticisms of the CTA and Metra suspensions that followed the curfew sanctions. 

“It was a tactic to cut off access,” twenty-four-year-old Latinx community organizer Ashley De la Torre said. “I think someone quoted it very nicely on Twitter. ‘The people in their castles lifted their bridges so people wouldn’t destroy their pretty downtown businesses.’”  

While she said she doesn’t condone looting, like most of the volunteers, De la Torre understands what took place was of necessity and not solely to cause chaos and destruction. De la Torre said the South and West Sides haven’t had access to necessary resources “for a very long time, longer than just this past week.”

 “It was a very cathartic thing we’re seeing because it’s just years but also weeks of these overlapping racial inequities, economic inequities.”

According to Dalton, in part because the curfew and transit suspensions trapped people within their neighborhoods, they focused their rage on the places around them. While he understands the frustrations, he feels the looting and destruction on the South and West Sides was counterproductive. 

“What’s going on right now is justified in a sense,” he said. “My whole thing is, looting the grocery stores and other stores we frequent every day didn’t make sense. We’re fighting a war and we’re depleting our own resources.”

The different sites for the South Side cleanup had volunteer representatives coordinating people at each respective location. Dalton is the point of contact for the 47th Street meetup group. He said that while it’s unfortunate South Siders have to clean up messes created by some of their own neighbors, these cleanup initiatives can be a starting point towards rebuilding stronger community bonds.

“There are a lot of people who’ve lived next door to each other for years and they’ve never talked to each other,” he said. “Maybe this is the destruction we needed to happen to build, or it could be the very demise of what we had going for us in the first place.” 

A young and fresh-faced Wooden has similar aspirations for the impact of the South Side cleanup initiative she spearheaded: long-term community empowerment. 

“I am still learning… but I want us to have control over our communities,” she said. “I want us to care for, support and uplift each other.”

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Grace Asiegbu is a master’s student at Northwestern’s Medill School of Journalism, Media, and Integrated Marketing Communications. She specializes in social justice and investigative reporting. In her spare time, she loves to sing, ask questions, and stan Beyoncé. Her Twitter is @_uzunma.

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