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accustomed to injustice: Chicago, violence and the Panthers

By Kehinde Andrews

If you dare to struggle, you dare to win. If you don’t dare to struggle, then Goddammit it you don’t deserve to win. Let me say peace to you, if you’re prepared to fight for it.

  • Fred Hampton

 

Fred Hampton was murdered by the Chicago policed department in December 1969, because he was one the most effective Black Panther leaders. As we plan to remember the 50th anniversary of the Panthers on the 15th October at BCU, the spirit and words of Fred Hampton ring as true now as they ever did.

 

I visited the city of Chicago where Fred Hampton organised over a year ago but have not looked at my notes from that trip until now. I was planning to write a piece on the difference between the affluent centre, where the conference I was attending was based, and the poorer, Blacker parts of the city. But seeing the contrasts in the city and how accustomed to it people were left me shaken and too troubled about the situation to write the piece.

 

It is over a year later, and I just travelled back to the States for a conference exploring Black Studies and scholar activism; which led to go back to the Chicago trip. With the emergence of Black Lives Matter and also continued presence of the movements like the UNIA, there is always hope as long as we continue to struggle.

 

Accustomed to Injustice

 

The conference I was attending was located near the Loop, in one of the grandest city centres I have ever seen. I was told that Chicago was spectacular but it is something else to see it up close. But it didn’t take long to feel uneasy in the space. On my first night I watched as two children took a selfie by a church, oblivious to the homeless man who was photo bombing them.

 

The next morning I noticed there were bunches of cops on every corner of the ‘magnificent mile’. According to the hotel bellboy the visible police presence was necessary because sometimes ‘they come down and make trouble’. It was not difficult to imagine who ‘they’ were.

I spent as little time in the centre as possible on the trip and wanted to explore the legendary South Side, where 93% of the three quarters of a million population are Black. I’ve been on public transport enough in the States to have experienced the racial apartheid of the US city. So it was no surprise that on the L to South Side, the melting pot of the carriage I got in at the centre, may as well have been a train in Nairobi as soon as we passed the White Sox stadium. The soundtrack to my introduction to the Southside was a young sister cussing on the phone about living in the area:

 

The South side… what a place to live, the ghetto. I bust my ass working through college to live in the South Side getting shot up. It’s like war zone out here. They don't care. They live in big condos and nice houses.

 

It’s not news that Chicago is a city with problems. The murder rate has risen this year with 487 people killed so far at the time of writing. That is more than New York and LA combined, but for some context from a British perspective, in the whole of England and Wales (pop. 57 million) there were only 574 murders in 2015.  

What I was unprepared for was the way that people have become used to levels of poverty and violence that should not exist anywhere, let alone the richest country in the world. The University of Chicago was perhaps the most personal example of this, as an academic. Located in the heart of the South Side, it could not stand out more than it does. It is one of the grandest campus I have visited, with huge, old looking buildings and plenty of green space. There was a feeling of complete disconnect from the surrounding neighbourhoods. Not only in the demographics (there were white people again), but in the complete ignorance to the city beyond its borders. There was little visible security and no physical borders to the neighbourhood bordering the campus, but there also seemed to be no fear about the proximity of the ghetto. The part of the South Side the university I located in, is by no means the worst neighbourhood, but a quick look at the map of murders will show they are dotted around the borders of campus. It felt like there was an invisible shield around the university, where everyone knew their place and played their roles accordingly.

I saw and felt the way that people get used to conditions they should not have to throughout my short stay in the windy city. It was always worse somewhere else: ‘I’m just glad I don’t live in the Westside’; ‘you have to go further South in the Southside for the real trouble’ or; ‘it’s all media exaggeration, there were less murders than last year’. I spent some time in an ‘up and coming’ area. Here, I visited an African American art gallery, where I saw my first ‘no guns’ sign. I was surprised when I got to the public gallery that the door was locked. When I knocked the door the lady’s tone only softened, and door opened, when I spoke with my English accent and explained I was the Dr Andrews who had emailed a few days before. They were quick to downplay the violence, though, ‘it’s all hype…the city of Al Capone’.

 

It was also in this neighbourhood that I spoke to a few people at a diner about the city. I mostly received glowing reports about how the area was developing and the media exaggerated the problems. The owner of the diner told me it was an ‘up and coming area. It's not that bad, it's safe to walk around… there are special people, doing special things in this city.  I love Chicago and wouldn't live nowhere else’. I later found out that even though he ran a diner that was next door to a hotel he closed up shop at 8pm, with no exceptions.

 

It was only after I had spent a couple of days in the area I looked at the murder map for the year. It is a disorienting feeling knowing that you have walked over multiple spots where people have been recently killed. It was certainly not the worst part of Chicago, but if the murder rate in this neighbourhood was replicated in Britain, there would be a state of national emergency.

 

I understand pride for your city. I come from Birmingham, a place everyone is quick to talk down. So as an outsider I get why people would put a shiny gloss on the city. But listening to stories of memorials for dead children becoming commonplace in some high school graduation ceremonies; and seeing how people have adjusted to meet those kinds of realities made me feel numb.

Beauty in the struggle

One of the parts of my visit to Chicago that was uplifting was my visit to the annual convention of the Universal Negro Improvement Association. I was very surprised to hear the movement was still going, let alone having conventions. It was only by sheer coincidence I was in the city at the same time, so I made it down to the final dinner. I was reminded again of the accommodations people made to the violence by the look on the host’s face when I told her I had caught the L and walked a few blocks to get to the venue. She quickly assured me that they would ‘get me a ride back up’. But the negative vibes I was feeling about my trip disappeared upon seeing all the people who have gathered for the convention and that the spirit of Garvey was kept alive.

 

There were representatives from around the country and I even recognised the picture of the UK Ambassador, as Brother Leader Mbandaka who does excellent work with the Alkebulan Revivalist Movement in London. The evening showed the beauty in the struggle, and the importance of keeping the spirit alive.

 

When I went to visit my daughter in Philadelphia, I took her to the national headquarters of the UNIA that are in a building that was purchased by the original Garvey movement, 1609-11 Cecil B Moore Ave. Seeing the space set up and the old pictures of Garvey, and hearing that they have meetings every Sunday afternoon was another example of the spark of liberation that lives on.

 

Looking back, I shouldn’t have buried my notes because no matter how dire the situation we find ourselves in, there is always resistance. But we need to be honest with ourselves. In her excellent book From #BlackLivesMatter to Black Liberation, Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor opens with a quote from Frederick Douglas

           

Find out just what any people will quietly submit to and you have found out the exact measure of the injustice and wrong which will be imposed upon them… The limits of tyrants are prescribed by the endurance of those who they oppress.

 

The need to survive the horror we face, has meant that we have accepted too much and allowed the oppression to shape us. The moment that shook me the most on Chicago trip was when we were having lunch in the four star hotel at the conference. The speaker was Father Michael Pfleger, a white man who has done a lot of work in the city against the violence. In these plush surroundings, with hundreds of Black academics listening in between the entrée and dessert course I finally heard the disgust and the passion at the conditions that I had been feeling. He ripped into the state, the government, the white population who ‘don’t identify with children killed on the South Side’. He summed it in one sentence: ‘the true reality is that there is Downtown and there is the South Side. Call America the disgrace that it is.’

 

The hollowness of this spectacle almost left me in tears. The white preacher telling the Black audience in the four star hotel the realities of the conditions in the ghetto. Too many times I heard from the Black people I spoke to that the solution was education, supporting people ‘to make it out the same way I have’. The truth is that collectively we have not done enough. Nowhere near enough. We have bought the hype that this system can offer us all freedom, because it offers the very few some of the benefits of equality. The battle for freedom does not end when we have Black lecturers, Black Studies or even a Black president. When our communities are blighted by poverty and violence across the globe then we have to be honest and say that we have failed.

 

The Chicago I will look back and remember, is the city of Fred Hampton and one of the most active Panther operations. This legacy of struggle still survives and the outbreak of Black Lives Matter across the world is testament to the fact that we are tired of just surviving. Join us on Saturday 15th October to discuss how we can reengaged with the vital legacy of the Black Panther Party for Self Defense: 50 years on.

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