My ideas, my vision of what a real grassroots coalition looks like has changed and grown drastically. I've realized that without a significant mixture of inside and outside players, moving together in parts (often in secret for the inside members); real change does not happen. Allies matter. Accomplices matter. Motivated bystanders matter. Active spies matter. And I say that last part about spies, not in a nefarious way, but in knowing that often these are most vulnerable members, their families livlihood might depend on that inside job. I would never sacrifice anyone's family for this work I do. We can find a way to activate AND protect everyone.
Here is an example - I have tried to stay in touch with many of my colleagues in Chicago. Chicago is still my root, in many ways it is still my home, where I was formed. My whole world view is shaped by a Chicago lens. But it is interesting and melancholy to be apart from that. I love the decisions we’ve made as a family, and this is absolutely the best place for us. However I miss my Chicago all the time. I miss the culture that makes the artists. I miss the old wisdom, the stories under my feet. So I try to reach back as much as I can (do not visit often enough). Anyway, I’ve been involved, trying to give aid and assistance where I can. A few months ago, a group of artist was loosely forming together, organizing to respond and disrupt and engage and build, the call of the day and of this time. One of the small groups, we started working on a push back to the city of Chicago. We received word that the City of Chicago was considering selling off some of its public art, particularly the lessor known assets that had appreciated the most. This was a painful lesson notion to hear, a reminder of how we exist as commodity. There was one piece that we knew we had to push back on, one particular piece so meaningful to all of us, one artist that we had bet our whole everything on, the art was that of Kerry James Marshall. I don’t have the honor and pleasure of knowing Kerry personally, but some in our group do; we are all invested in Mr. Marshall, he is mentor and symbol and avatar and Chicago to us. The City of Chicago had devised a plan to sell Marshall’s library mural, Knowledge and Wonder (1995) because they knew the appreciated value of a commission where Marshall was paid $10K. They had not yet announced the sell, but we were provided with some inside information and the plan to announce as an upgrade the branch where it has long been on display, the Legler Library, and turn it back into a regional library. Their goal was not the upgrade, but the sell of the asset.
Marshall was not even in Chicago at the time of the announcement. He was in London.
The reason I share this story is because of the response, the result. This small group of artists, arts lovers, administrators (who needed to remain anonymous), community members organized a inside/outside push back strategy that I will study and learn from until I cease to organize. They went about a methodical plan of messaging the story through local and national media, changing the frame presented by the city, elevating Marshall and political maneuvering that ended in the City of Chicago rescinding its decision to sell the mural, while knowing they would have extracted a $10 million to $15 million price for it. The campaign was extraordinary. I’ve never witnessed the City of Chicago turn down money like that, never witnessed a grassroots movement activate so quickly, so effectively. The mural stays in Chicago. We have a small but important victory. One of the tactics was to get Marshall interviewed on the subject as much as possible, even if he was not physically in Chicago. Get him as the voice of record, the artist as policy maker. Marshall conducted an interview where he said “I am certain they could get more money if they sold the Picasso sculpture in Daley Plaza,” Marshall said. “Considering that only last year Mayor [Rahm] Emanuel and Commissioner [of the Department of Cultural Affairs Mark] Kelly dedicated another mural I designed downtown for which I was asked to accept one dollar, you could say the City of Big Shoulders has wrung every bit of value they could from the fruits of my labor.” (That other mural of Marshall’s is a large work, measuring 132 by 100 feet, now on the facade of the Chicago Cultural Center.) Grassroots organizing is always intricate alchemy; timing, whose voice, audience ears, tenor, inside leverage being pushed simultaneously, et all – difficult to apply direct lessons, but I think we can analyze the structures and how they perform under stress test. I’ve learned, I keep learning.
I've also started thinking more about the word accountability. What does accountability mean? What does it mean especially in systems, where some folks are forced to be accountable for every small decisions, and some folks live oblivious to accountability because of station and status.
Elections matter. They are not everything but they do matter. We tend to look toward elections for accountability.
I’ve been engaged in some electoral political organizing in October and November.
Politics is this weird tricknology where one is allowed to do harm to folks as long as you keep it in the abstract enough for it somehow to not affect who you promote yourself to be in the “real world.” Thus we have so-called “perfectly fine people” who could cast a vote for Stanek or Freeman or Trump, and be totally divorced from the impact and harm their vote creates for others. Money is insidious throughout and moves in influential ways that we like to ignore, frankly because we want to stay ignorant.
Below is a particularly heinous piece of politick. The video conflates protestors and immigrants and vague Brown people imagery with danger and lawlessness and anarchy. This propaganda was paid for by a group called Freedom Club. The Freedom Club is mostly financed and supported by Louis Hill, yes Louis Hill progeny of railroad magnate and entrepreneur
JJ Hill – progenitor of the Northwest Area Foundation, currently of the Grotto Foundation, sitter of numerous boards of too many stalwart institutions to count.
So, what happens when our key partners in philanthropy are financing some of the worst parts of our politics? What happens when we can not ignore the shady intersections any longer?
Freedom Club, and by extension Louis Hill, is promoting fear, straight to the lizard brain of Minnesota, trying to sow enough discord for you to vote his economic interest. They know what they are selling, they know a small but impactful percentage of that population could rationalize and weaponized that irrational fear and do real material damage. They have made a calculation that those costs are acceptable. These tactics have always resulted in real world fear based policy, abuse and oppression of folks with little to no political power. We are now just seeing the empire has no clothes, because the emperor is crass, dumb and impolite. It reveals quite a bit more about us because we were willing to accept this politics as long as the mask stayed intact.
When are we going to hold people who we respect and admire, who have been elevated to those positions (mostly because of money), when are we going to ask them to be accountable to the harm they do? Top of the food chain capitalist like Hill need to engage in restorative practices, just like that young brother who shot up that other young brother on the corner. Being board chair on some philanthropic organization, large endowments of philanthropic dollars does not mitigate the harm.
Does it absolve the harm if it is done in the name of politics, does that decouple the accountability?
"Big philanthropy is an exercise of power, and in a democracy, any form of concentrated power deserves scrutiny, not gratitude.” That's Rob Reich, political scientist to Alex Madrigal in The Atlantic.