The air has turned brisk here in Chicago, symbolic like a peace offering after what was a sweltering summer, literally and figuratively. While navigating the global health pandemic of COVID-19, Chicago saw burgeoning social unrest and calls to defund the police, sparked by the deaths of Breonna Taylor in Louisville and George Floyd in Minneapolis, the shootings of Latrell Allen in Englewood and Jacob Blake in Kenosha, and countless instances of police violence against Black people nationwide.
But who are the organizers who took to the streets? What activates the activists? What drives them to continue to fight for liberation and against state-sanctioned violence?
Alycia Kamille and Hijo Legba of GoodKids MadCity; Damon Williams and Jennifer Pagan of the #LetUsBreathe Collective; Thought Poet of Black Youth Project 100; and Ariel Atkins of the Black Abolitionist Network joined the Weekly on a recent afternoon to discuss the side of protesting that most people don’t know. Mohawk Johnson, a hip-hop artist accused of assaulting a CPD cop with his skateboard during a protest, joined briefly by phone while on house arrest.
What is your unique form of activism? Why did you choose it? Or rather, why do you think it chose you?
Thought Poet: I would say photography or any form documenting of culture is my form of organizing. Because I started with Black Youth Project 100 and now I do a lot of stuff with #LetUsBreathe Collective, not only have I learned about organizing but I’ve also learned why we have the perspectives that we have about abolishing the police, and learning and unlearning about gender politics (like learning how not to be toxic as a cis-hetero person), in documenting all of that is what’s helped me become more grounded and led me to organize.
Damon Williams: It takes many forms, but most of my forms I approach as an educator and facilitator. Within that, I do rap, performance, hosting, lecturing, but it’s all for the work of building a movement, and I think that movement is to transform society.
Jennifer Pagan: A lot of my movement building has come through teaching. I was a classroom teacher for the past two years and a lot of that work for me is organizing. A lot of the work we did in class was empowering students to build community around a problem or an issue and use whatever capacities they had to center their voice to think new things. I really consider myself a cultural worker, so all the work that I do creates, builds, and sustains culture. Teaching has really helped me stand in my power and see myself as a creative being.
Ariel Atkins: I help people recognize how powerful they are. A lot of people see activism and organizing and people on the front lines and say, “I can’t do that!” and I help people realize that there are so many other ways that you can be involved. I’m also just really loud and really honest and believe in so much of what I’m doing that it’s really great when you can inspire people to believe in it with you.
Hijo Legba: Black Liberation is a global struggle. Decolonizing as a practice, as a life, as a Black indigenous person, comes through community building, opening up lines of communication across the city, across the world. We don’t always see it that way, but we are all pitted against in the diaspora.
Mohawk Johnson: My music, my painting, my art… I don’t think I chose it, I think it always chose me. I was always angry growing up, and my mom was always giving me stuff to do so I could be less angry. I never stopped being angry, so I used those things as outlets. Through those outlets, I found the language that helped me articulate what I was feeling and a lot of it was systemic.
At what moment in your lives do you think you became radicalized? How did that moment shape you?
TP: There was always rumors on the block that my homie wasn’t killed by the Stones. The GD’s at the time were into it with the Stones, which kept us fighting with each other on 95th, but actually it was a cop that shot him under a viaduct. It took us until last year to find that shit out. It was just funny because at my school everyone learned at that moment what it meant to take care of each other.
MJ: The moment that radicalized me was me being accused of breaking into my own house with my own keys in my hand. I was a junior at Columbia College, just got home, and the cops accused me of breaking in.
DW: Radicalization is a process that is activated through time. I was activated by the Ferguson uprising not only because it was historically significant but also because it was the modernization of rebellion and uprising. We hadn’t seen one in about twenty years, so seeing that in real time is what activated me and not just thinking it and saying and trying to have cool tweets. The moment that provoked my consciousness was when I was seventeen, I was assigned an Angela Davis speech and within the first few minutes she said very plainly, “You can’t be anti-racist without being feminist”. It’s something about the way she said it—as somebody who had grown up with a very pro-Black consciousness, I saw myself as a young child wanting to be a changemaker.
JP: It’s been a series of awakenings over these past six years or so. When Ferguson first popped off, I was a senior in college at a school two hours south of Ferguson in Columbia. Once we heard about a Black boy being shot and killed in the street and his body laying there for hours, we decided to do something. That meant me like planning rallies, planning marches, planning die-ins, and all this shit. My second wave of awakening came from teaching, because if you’re doing it right, it impacts you in a way that I can’t even explain.
The third moment came a couple of months ago when I got my ass beat by CPD. Part of me cannot remember that moment. Part of me can’t remember what my body was doing. But I think right now is a moment of cosmic righteousness, and I really think our ancestors are making space for us to receive what is rightfully and truthfully ours. That moment propelled me in ways I couldn’t have imagined. I didn’t know that I held strength until I felt that baton in my hand and was able to throw it. You feel 2,000 years in your bones when you experience something like that. It fucking sucks to get your ass beat and it sucks to experience that trauma and to experience that violence when you’re only trying to build a world that is centered on life and love. But it is something that transforms you forever and really makes you want to work towards a world where that type of shit does not exist.
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AA: I think Trayvon Martin woke me up a little bit. But being southern and Black and being six [years old] and seeing your father being put over [the police car] because they think he stole a car because it just couldn’t be his.… Another example, when I was in middle school my mom couldn’t afford to drive me across town, so instead we moved to this suburb called Collierville, which is incredibly white. And we were living in this apartment complex which is surrounded by mansions. I had nightmares every night that the KKK was going to kill us. A month into us living there, some kid set my dad’s car on fire. The flames were so bad that you could see it from the street. My dad came out the next morning and had to be super calm because it’s all white police officers and he can’t be angry because he knows that if he shows any anger, they’re gonna attack him. They still treated him as if he did it because he was “too calm” even though his family was put in danger.
What activated me though was in 2016, PBS dropped this documentary called Vanguard of The Revolution which was about the Black Panther Party, which isn’t that radical now but at that moment it was super radical for me. They get to the part about Fred Hampton and what he did in Chicago with the clinics and the Rainbow Coalition. I remember being six years old and telling my parents that I wanted to start a center that had free food for everybody, not pay rent, people would have job training, people would have free clothes, and open to everybody. Everybody told me that it could not be done and you would have to have a lot of money to make that happen. So watching that documentary, I saw that it already had been done. I cried for hours and I knew that was what I wanted to get back to.
Alycia Kamille: I think it was quite literally living in a juxtaposition of wellness and life. I was able to be in programs like Gallery 37 and then going home to like 63rd and Cottage and I’m seeing no grocery stores. I was coming from downtown to where I live, where it was a drastic difference between resources. It’s like existing is a threat on its own. Recently, seeing the amount of Black death so close to my age too… and it’s like damn, that could’ve been me too. And then being arrested and beaten by CPD even when we were leaving the space and still being attacked. And then understanding the drastic differences of resources between downtown, my high school of Kenwood, and then my home, seeing and living on one side of privilege and one side of oppression. Seeing that if money’s put here, this will happen, and if love and empathy is put here, this will happen. It’s possible—the money’s there, the resources are there, it’s just not being given. That wakes you up a lot.
HL: I’m not fully radicalized yet. I’ve always held a lot of trauma that is and is not mine. Both of my grandparents overdosed on heroin. But also, my grandfather was the leader of one of the biggest Puerto Rican gangs in Chicago. I know a lot about how this street shit and how this bad life goes, but I’ve also been able to vicariously live through it. Every day, it’s some radical shit in Chicago. Every day waking up and going to school is some radical shit, for Black and brown kids, but for Black kids specifically. It’s not on some you can save everybody shit, but we all can save each other.
What have been your experiences getting arrested? What emotions come up for you?
AK: I think that the whole [August 15th] action was just a lot to take in. I haven’t really processed it, just because our intentions of even going to that action was not even the way it ended. So even just going to someplace to demand justice, like supporting and planning on leaving and then, like, we ended up having to quickly take over the action and do last-minute organizing—it was just a lot of stuff, anxiety wise. And I think the part where our group was separated and the kettling started to happen was also just something that I don’t think I’ve even processed what that even felt like at the moment to literally see as my friends get separated.
I was walking out and they were searching you for, I guess like if you had something on you, a weapon…. They didn’t even say, or specify what they were doing a search for. They were just searching people. And I was walking past and the officer grabbed me to search me again. And I told him to back off. And then he started cursing me out. And then I just heard, like, “You’re under arrest.” And like, six officers grabbed me. Hijo Legba ended up getting arrested because he got on top to just make sure I wasn’t beaten up, even though we both still were… I was brought over to the line where they take you in and they kept calling us prisoners.
They put us [with] like eighteen people in one cell, so you couldn’t social distance even if you wanted to. I didn’t talk to a lawyer until ten hours later. And even then when they first brought me in to talk to somebody, I waited in the room for like thirty minutes. And then they’re like, oh, yeah, he left. He’ll be back shortly. It was a lot… Actually going through it is definitely something different than just thinking, oh yeah, I can go into an action and possibly get arrested. Actually getting arrested and especially how aggressive it was was just something like… you can’t even prepare yourself to experience that.
AA: I was arrested at the [July] 17th action, which is the Columbus statue, Black and Indigenous Solidarity action. And just that whole day, just the brutality was—the level of it was unexpected. The brutality itself wasn’t, but the level of it was totally unexpected.
We were still there trying to get somebody’s things. And the cops were super angry because my way of making sure that people can get out is like it’s like, “All right, y’all pay attention to me so that people can get shit. I’m just gonna talk about how ugly your shoes look and how you look stupid as fuck in this uniform. And you could quit your job and you would not be here dealing with all this shit.” We’re getting ready to get people like the last group of people to leave and the cops … I don’t know. I guess they got angry. One of them knocked my megaphone out of my hands. And then somebody grabbed it for me. And a cop comes out. He’s like “If they don’t leave in the next few minutes, everybody here gets arrested.” So I’m getting ready to tell everybody. Oh, let’s get out. Let’s go. Like, whatever it is, it doesn’t matter anymore.” And as I’m getting ready to say that this cop goes fucking arrest her, and there are are cops, there are bikes in front of me. And they reached over and snatched me over the bikes.
And I just remember [being like], “Well, this is it. I’m being slammed to the ground.” [We were] walked to a truck and put in a truck with other people. And there’s a girl who’s saying, like, “I have seizures when I’m stressed out. You guys took my bag.” She was a medic and she just got out of the action. She was trying to help somebody and they took her bag. And she’s like, “My shit is in my bag. Like, I’m afraid I’m gonna have a seizure. I really, really want my medicines if anything happens.”
It just made me more angry and reminded me why we are doing this work. Like, If I’m getting arrested for fighting for rights, knowing that there are people that are being thrown in just for being Black, just for being angry, just for being hungry… like even being in there in a cell [at 51st and Wentworth] next to someone who is obviously going through withdrawal and is like crying and screaming, and they’re just not even paying attention to her.
JP: My first experience of police abuse was at a protest for Laquan McDonald somewhere downtown. I can’t remember where I was, but me and Damon ended up getting pinned under some bikes, and we were beaten pretty badly by these cops with bikes who were using their bikes as weapons. And I think the craziest part of that experience with police abuse is that we were at the fucking 7-Eleven after we experienced all of that, and the same officer who had us pinned under his bike and was using his bike as a weapon, walked in and smiled at us. So, you know, it was just a complete… disregard for, like, the impact and the violence on people’s bodies. The fact that he was able to smile after all of that and enter a space in that way without even recognizing us was really jolting for me.
TP: I’ve always been the photographer in the movement. So to go from that to organizing to getting arrested and have my face pushed in the cement [on May 31] to sitting in a cell with Damon to us seeing each other’s experiences… and we’re still here, trying to push this shit. That moment changed me into something I was not before. Before, I was afraid to take up space. Now I’m not anymore.
Thinking locally first, what does an ideal Chicago look like for you? Thinking globally, what does an ideal world look like to you?
TP: We truly are coming from all different sides of Chicago, coming from different experiences, different everything. But it’s like everything in one space is creating something brilliant. All of this shit that’s happening right now is brilliant. But when you ask what’s my ideal Chicago? Clearly no police. Clearly putting those $2 billion [from the police budget] into the park districts, into the afterschool programs. Like you put that money into Chicago, all the positive shit, that footwork, like the art—if that money is taken from the police department and put into the city itself, which means that would happen with the rest of the world, which means that the police wouldn’t exist no more. So when you say what’s an ideal world, ideal city—no police.
AA: What Chicago is doing right now. I think a lot about the night of the 31st when Lightfoot and CPS were like “no more food for the kids!” and the city stepped up. Everybody was just like “fuck you, we’ll feed the kids!” and more tables were popping up. More people were figuring out how to help others grow their own food, how to help people eat, putting up testing sites for COVID, offering rides to one another.
And I think we showed that we do take care of each other. We take care of us. And we’ve shown more and more that these police and these politicians—we don’t really need them and that they’re here for nothing. I have not stopped thinking about the little girl that was killed this week [Ed. Dajore Wilson, age eight, who was killed September 7 in a drive-by shooting] and how the police show up afterward and they do this press conference saying, “We’re looking for…this truck and blah blah blah.” And it’s like, you have no purpose. You couldn’t even stop it from happening. In fact, what you do is you take all of the money that is needed to help communities and to heal our trauma and to deal with this shit. And you just hoard it and then you blame us for what we’re doing to each other. Well actually, what the system is doing to us. I believe that an ideal Chicago would be just us taking care of each other and figuring it out.
I’m from the South and my big momma, everybody talks about her, how she fed everybody on the street, everybody. If there was something that was going on in somebody’s house, they would go to that person’s house. If Man-Man was beating on his wife, everybody would show up and be like, “Look, you beat her. Either you gonna leave or you’re gonna stop beating her. And like, we’re gonna figure this out and we’re gonna take care of her. You got to go.” But it would end. It would stop. There was no violence. It was all love. It was everybody taking care of each other and figuring things out without police, without the state. The ideal world that we want exists. It exists in all kinds of communities. And we’re just told constantly that it can’t exist, that it’s not possible, but it is fully possible. We just have to believe in that and we have to believe in the power that we have to make it happen and believe that we are strong enough.
DW: My ideal Chicago, an ideal world, is first a world where we collectively take the responsibility to make sure all life has what it needs to survive and then develop it. We talk about human beings, develop our humanity. So when I say survive, every human being requires shelter, requires nutrition, requires medical care to be able to sustain life. And we live in a system where every day people make the choice to ensure that folks don’t have that. I believe this is true about Chicago, but I know this truth that the United States of America is not a problem of scarcity. There are more vacant and abandoned and unused units of housing than there are homeless people. We throw away more food than it will require to end hunger. Money is not real, but we produce and generate enough money for everyone to have enough to be able to purchase if purchasing is the way that we need to acquire goods for survival…. And so, you know, [in Chicago] and then everywhere that the world I envision my abolitionist future, no matter where I’m living or calling home, I am always within walking distance of the institutions I need to provide my needs.
So if I need shelter, there is a place within walking distance that ensures that everyone in that community [has shelter], and within that, we can address harm. So if you’re in an abusive dynamic, either the person who is committing harm or the person who is being harmed has someone to go to make sure that at least you have somewhere to sleep, and then we can resolve the conflict. So much of the violence we see is because people’s living situation is precarious, right? Everybody should be within walking distance of a source of free food. So whether that’s a garden or that’s food distribution, whether that’s mutual aid, it’s healthy, not processed food that sustains the body. And then everybody should also be within walking distance of a medical facility.
Generally, we think every kid should be within walking distance of a school. Every kid should be within walking distance of a library. Every kid should be walking distance of a park. I think expanding that notion.
When I see police, I see 100 other jobs smashed into one thing with a gun. So we need somebody that monitors traffic. We need someone that responds to domestic assault. We need someone who responds if there’s a dispute in a store or someone’s taken things. We need something if there’s a party that’s too loud. But those are 100 different things. And so the world that I see is investing in all of those things instead of trying to shrink it into a budget item and make it what’s most cost-effective because violence has been proven to be the greatest seed capital for investment.
So that’s my world, where we have everything we need within walking distance. We don’t have borders and we don’t force our politics into a gun. We force it into cultural, social relationships rooted in love and rooted in abundance.
Kia Smith is a writer by purpose and author by passion, who asks the hard questions while creating safe spaces for people to be vulnerable. She writes for the Chicago Defender. This is her first piece for the Weekly.