Asiaha Butler, right, with Orrin Williams, executive director of the Center for Urban Transformation, at the Go Green Fresh Market groundbreaking ceremony on February 27, 2020. Photo by Martha Bayne

“There’s no words to describe how most of us are feeling”

The Weekly interviews Englewood activist Asiaha Butler

Asiaha Butler is the president of R.A.G.E., the Resident Association of Greater Englewood. The lifelong Englewood native has been working to effect change in the neighborhood for the last ten years by activating public spaces, fostering positive dialogue between young people and old, and encouraging creative community development initiatives. The most recent project, Go Green on Racine, developed in partnership with the Inner-City Muslim Action Network, Teamwork Englewood, and E.G. Woode, aims to bring new investment to the commercial corridor at 63rd and Racine, and is one of several South Side projects in competition for the $10 million Chicago Prize, a place-based community development grant funded by the Pritzker Traubert Foundation (other prize finalists are projects in South Chicago, Auburn-Gresham, and Little Village, as well as Austin and North Lawndale). The coalition held a groundbreaking for the new Go Green Fresh Market, an independent grocery store at 1207 West 63rd Street intended to be an anchor of the Go Green on Racine development, on February 27. Three weeks later the city shut down in the face of the COVID-19 pandemic; to date fifty-four people from Englewood and West Englewood are recorded as having died from the disease. On Sunday, May 31, in the aftermath of protests against police brutality in the wake of the death of George Floyd, Englewood was one of many South Side neighborhoods severely damaged by looting. The Weekly spoke with Butler on June 3; this conversation has been edited for clarity.

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I probably have to give two different perspectives, because it’s one perspective as the R.A.G.E. president, you know, working on revitalization and all that work. And then it’s my perspective as a resident who had to witness the looting from my porch for the last forty-eight hours. It’s kind of hard a little bit, so just bear with me. 

From a community revitalization standpoint, we knew our communities lack economic vitality. We know that at least thirty percent of the people in Englewood are living below the poverty line. We have the highest unemployment. We kind of know those facts already exist in Englewood, and when opportunity comes up for some of those people to take advantage of a store that has taken advantage of them or businesses that are not clean, that disrespect the very people that solicit those and consume those stores… When that uprising happened, I wouldn’t say it was justified but I would just say that we didn’t have much anyway, right?

You’re talking about a group of folks who have been through the system of racism that bred such destructive behavior. And I don’t know what other ways that they’ve been able to express themselves, but I know for me that was the first time…that I have seen an intense level of desperation, and an intense level of destruction. I have never witnessed something like that before. Was that energy probably already boiling over? Sure. It’s been 400 years like this. It is not a secret that we are all oppressed.

And now [with COVID] … to have been slowly and steadily trying to turn that curve, and to kind of like slowly but steadily turn that curve and then to be knocked down so quickly, in a matter of twenty-four hours…

There’s no words to describe how most of us are feeling.

We only have three banks in our community—all three banks are all closed. Most folks in our community actually depend on the currency exchange. Many of our seniors depend on the currency exchange. And those are all looted and vandalized.

We know that most people need prescription medicine and there is not a place here that you can get that. We’re not the North Side, so we don’t have local drugstores; we depend on Walgreens and CVS. We know we are a food desert. We don’t have many options for groceries here. And now we have none. So it’s a lot to take on and I’m really at this point… if it’s not really reparations and a whole, like BET is saying, trillion-dollar investment, I don’t know how we will bounce back. 

We were already doing food giveaways for COVID, because people have issues getting food.  I don’t know where they’re getting food now. I used to go to Aldi, but Aldi is closed. Yesterday I tried to go to the bank; my bank is boarded up. The ATM is gone. We was looking for water and there was nowhere to get a case of water. All the gas stations are extremely crowded, because [there are only a few left open]. I’m getting calls about my people needing diapers and wipes and essential things… we thought we needed essential things before, but this is, like, dire. This is devastating.

So we’re pausing a little bit about thinking about what is the best way for us to move forward to truly rebuild Englewood, because…  over here next to the R.A.G.E. office in my home [at 66th and Union], it’s a vacant lot that’s three acres that everybody was able to pull up on in the back of the liquor store, in the back of the Family Dollar. But they didn’t cause the vacant lot. I’m looking at a system that allows folks to have a hundred cars on a vacant lot. I saw the folks doing efforts to clean up—I have contacted my alderman about the weeds in our community for the last two weeks! It was never clean. All these things were already devastated. And now you just added more devastation, more destruction.

Some of the institutions that are here, who took a risk, may not come back. Some of the small Black-owned businesses that are struggling with capital and insurance and high prices and being in Englewood who got looted, they’re not coming back.

I mean unless we really really think about a long-term incentivized strategy and protection for our community. And those are the things that I’m pondering about and reflecting about, more so than kind of just jumping out and trying to clean up, you know, a liquor store.

66th and Union sits behind Halsted, so today I woke up to a fire at City Sports. Some people is calm and they were able to drive around to see the mayhem, whereas me and my brother, my husband, and my close friend has to move our cars, we had to try to secure our place because we didn’t know how far the desperation will go or the destruction will go. It scared a lot of our tenants. And so it hits different. 

So, I don’t know what to say. I mean of course we want justice in America more than probably any other race in this country. Was that the way to get it? Probably not. 

Did it probably wake up some people’s eyes and make people think differently and ponder on how we move forward? I hope so.

I think a few of us are in agreement around true reflection, and around true demands for what would it take to really rebuild this. And thank God we are a part of the Go Green on Racine project… because a corridor that was so dormant is the most lively corridor. Most of those stores on 63rd and Racine did not get touched. I mean it’s ironic because everybody was at 63rd and Halsted, and everybody was over on Ashland. You go down 63rd, there’s nothing there. The liquor stores, the Whole Foods is boarded up. Our PNC is boarded up. AT&T is boarded up, Oak Street Health is not operable, where the seniors go for health services.

But you go to 63rd and Racine and the gas station is still open, the liquor store’s still open, and the Brothers [fast food] restaurant is still open. I know I don’t know if that’s a good thing or bad.

You know to see a whole entire retail corridor—these are not anything like the North Side. Our retail corridor is a fish place and cell phone place and Dunkin Donuts and Subway. Even still, to see that those things have been completely destroyed, it’s hurtful. I don’t think I’ve never felt anything like this before in my life. I wasn’t here in ‘68, so I don’t know what happened in ‘68. But I just keep hearing from other leaders like hey, ‘68—the West Side never came back. And that’s scary and daunting to hear.  

I do long-term systemic work. This is not a quick fix. I don’t need shovels. I don’t need gloves. We need capital. We need access to capital to rebuild these spaces. We need a corridor that we shouldn’t have to question if it was looted or not because the buildings are already boarded up. This devastation existed before this, but no one was willing to help then. So I don’t have a “help” solution for folks. I would say pray for us. Organize some banks who are for real about lending to not only give to businesses but to other folks to get mortgages so they can own. Because that’s also an issue. If you don’t own in a community you really don’t mind tearing up that community. You know, owners are not going to tear up their property. We don’t do that.

We’ve been doing work that’s more long-term. When we talk about repurposing vacant schools or TIF reform, those are long-term systemic policy changes. The looting? Yeah, you can go out quickly and clean, but where are the jobs? Where is the training? Where is the capital? Why do our corridors look the way they look, anyway? That’s the real hope.

So you know how you get millions of dollars in a community development improvement fund? Those are the things I’m thinking about, and those are the conversations we were having before.

I mean, people are donating to R.A.G.E. and asking about clean-up, and we are responding. But if you don’t live here and you just work here, like a nonprofit, and you didn’t see what we saw, that sickened our stomachs—that made me, my husband, and my brother not be able to eat, not be able to sleep? I think the best you can do is not ask us what we need for help right now. I think the best thing that people can do is to just pause for a second.

I mean, we’ve been working on trying to make the community better. I’m not an emotional organizer, so I’m not jumping off emotions. I need to sit with my emotions. I need to process it. I need to see what I glean, what I learn from this.

I was not emotional over a liquor store burning down. Yeah, no. I was emotional over the energy and activity I witnessed.

I know some leaders feel the need to jump into action, but R.A.G.E. doesn’t really work that way. The only action that we have taken in the last twenty-four to forty-eight hours is the people who know us who still need things. These are folks who need diapers and folks who need wipes. It is still folks who need food. It is folks who are still battling with COVID. It is Black businesses that still need support. That’s the approach that R.A.G.E. is taking right now, until we can all kind of regroup and think about how we continue to rebuild.

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Martha Bayne is a managing editor of the Weekly. She last wrote about how food pantries are adapting during the COVID-19 pandemic.

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