Photo by Alex Arriaga, City Bureau

Nourishing the Revolution

As tensions rise across the city, Black and brown solidarity keeps mouths fed

This story was originally published by City Bureau on June 4, 2020.

In the first few days of June, downtown was closed off and Black and Latinx Chicago neighborhoods, already heavily hit by the COVID-19 pandemic, have had to react to the destruction and violence that entered their neighborhoods as well as heightened food insecurity.

In Pilsen, a lead volunteer at the Pilsen Food Pantry said they have a surplus this week—she worries that fear has kept some people from stopping by for meals. Some volunteers with vehicles do deliveries. In Little Village, shops were advised to close early in the afternoon on Tuesday, June 2, with little notice to residents.

In Back of the Yards, grocery stores have been boarded up. Some residents had to drive out to the suburbs to get needed supplies while others searched for food on foot around the neighborhood often to no avail.

So when word spread of a pop-up Black and Brown Unity Food Pantry in a closed Walgreens parking lot organized by Increase the Peace for that Tuesday, the line extended around the block on 47th and Ashland. As the line grew, attendees called others on the phone to spread the word of fresh produce, milk, eggs, meat, and groceries. Pastor Donna Arnold at the CTC Glory of the Latter House Ministries, a partner in organizing the parking lot pop-up, said people in the neighborhood are hungry. She’s seen a larger crowd than usual at the beginning of the month distribution which was held in her storefront church in unison with the  pop-up. 

The food pantry started at 11am and continued until 7pm. Edgar Flores, an organizer with Increase the Peace, said he estimates the drive fed more than 2,000 families. In line, many of the attendees were Latinx and only spoke Spanish. When reporters reached out to them, people shared they needed information on where to find housing, food and money for bills and utilities. A woman who is homeless said that she had witnessed and experienced some of the harassment by street gangs in the area, a couple who has been homeless for the last month and a half shared that some gang members they knew offered them shelter for some time, though they currently take refuge in their vehicle.

Back of the Yards is a meeting point for Black and brown Chicago. “I call it myself the mutt community, because we’re on the edge of so much,” Pastor Donna Arnold shared, walking the block outside her predominantly Black ministry which has been there for thirty-nine years. “You go a little bit that way you’re in New City, you’re Back of the Yards if you kind of go this little way, then you’re in Englewood when you go this way.” 

Arnold said when it comes to divisions between various gang associations, she mostly picks up on things from the youth in her community. She has heard from some community members that they want to come to her Bible study or evening worship events but they worry about crossing into the wrong areas or whose parents won’t let them out. She wants everyone in the neighborhood to know her church is a sanctuary for all. 

“I want a multicultural church, and God is doing that, you know I’m learning Spanish every Wednesday,” Arnold said. “Yes, we do need to be united, because you know ICE was here six or seven months ago and I had a big group of Hispanics, Mexicans, that stopped coming to the pantry because they were fearful.”

The history of tension between Mexican and Black residents in the area is why Increase the Peace chose this location for food distribution, said organizer Julia Ramirez. “You know, we deal with several gangs, there’s a lot of different boundaries. And right here on 47th, Ashland is one of those,” Ramirez said. 

On May 31, there were reports of some people throwing objects at Black Chicagoans. On June 2, 15th Ward Ald. Ray Lopez shared that there were members of the Latin Saints “engaging and chasing looters” and an instance of a young gang member shooting a Black man after asking “what are you doing here?” reported the Sun-Times.

In response to the violence, marches for Black and brown unity in Pilsen and Little Village spanned blocks this week. Latino organizers called on attendees to speak to their family members about anti-Blackness, and urged Latinx educators to stand up for their Black students. On June 3, art popped up on 18th Street from volunteer artists in support of Black Lives Matter. 

Ramirez reflected on food distribution as another form of resistance outside of marching and protests. “We’re not just going to close down streets and we’re not just going to yell,” Ramirez said. “Sometimes we do need that, and sometimes we need to just give from our hearts…feeding people and feeding the soul.”

Many of the victories that have pushed forward the livelihoods of Mexicans in America, from labor movements to immigrant rights,  have been won alongside the leadership of Black movements. The Black Panther Party inspired Chicano and Puerto Rican organizations the Brown Berets and the Young Lords. In Chicago, multi-racial movement building brought forward the city’s first Black mayor and City Council’s first Latinx representation. Before the shock of recent incidents, Black-brown coalitions of community members have been fighting neighborhood violence. 

The Black Panther Party is also to thank for the city’s free school meals. When it started the Free for Children Breakfast program out of a church in Oakland, it quickly gained popularity—soon the program was feeding thousands of children across the country. In an effort to undermine the Black Panthers, then FBI head J. Edgar Hoover dismantled the program and implemented the USDA free breakfasts.

Among the organizers of the food pantry, there were similar sentiments lamenting the lack of local leadership. Edgar Flores, another Increase the Peace organizer, said he feels the neighborhood was abandoned by the city. 

“That’s something that is not only upsetting, but difficult to understand,” Flores said, who previously ran for committeeman against Lopez. “We’re out here cleaning up the community and distributing food and nowhere have we seen any elected officials show up.”

Some aldermen of Latinx neighborhoods marched with Black Lives Matter movements, and a cohort of them released a statement against anti-Blackness. 

“We can only dismantle white supremacy through unity and solidarity. We stand with all Chicagoans peacefully protesting for justice for George Floyd and an end to racist policing across the United States,” said the statement from ten aldermen including Ald. Mike Rodriguez and Ald. Byron Sigcho-Lopez from Little Village and Pilsen. 

Lopez said his office is working with organizations to help residents experiencing food insecurity in the neighborhoods he represents—West Englewood, Gage Park, Brighton Park, and Back of the Yards.

“The last thing I want is for my residents, already struggling from both COVID-19 and the orchestrated attack on communities, to be victimized again by lack of food or medicine,” Lopez said.

In 2019, seventy-six percent of the students in Chicago Public Schools were low income. After looting and rioting hit the neighborhoods on the last night of May, Chicago Public Schools suspended its grab-and-go free meal program. Families woke up to a new month in a pandemic, widespread joblessness, a new sense of fear in their neighborhoods, all the while children were asked to continue remote learning on an empty stomach. 

In response, community members organized food distribution, some local restaurants stepped in to fill the void and activists put the pressure on the city to bring back meals immediately. Some of those same organizers calling for defunding police were seen in the neighborhoods, handing out meals. The Chicago Public Schools meals were back on June 2. However, organizers say there is still great need for food. 

Chicago’s Black and Latinx communities are hurting—grieving the loss of lives taken by illness and racism. In some cases, they have hurt one another. In other cases, they have reached out and offered solidarity, held hands at marches, and when no one else will, fed each other.

This story was produced by City Bureau, a civic journalism lab based in Chicago. Learn more and get involved at citybureau.org

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Alex Arriaga is a journalist based in Pilsen, a neighborhood where much of her Mexican immigrant family lives. Her reporting focuses on how people engage and participate in democracy and how community reporting can empower that participation in different ways. She covers the “How immigrant communities build power and participate in democracy in Chicago” news beat for City Bureau.

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