Here is a talk I gave on the Saturday before Rahm Emmanuel , Mayor 1%, got his whooping—he will spend millions in the run-off but the message is clear: Chicago belongs to the people!
Shortly before the last Mayoral Election I was invited to give a keynote speech to an International Anarchist Convention in Greece.
Are you sure you’re anarchists, I kidded the wildly pierced and painted Maria who was ferrying me to the squat we were occupying with her tribe in downtown Athens. Do anarchists have conventions?
“Don’t be fooled,” she said smiling. “This is all a front for chaos and confusion. You’re one of my many props!”
The meetings and the meals, the politics and the people were all great, but one moment stands out as utterly marvelous. I left the convention for a day and travelled to a far island to hang out with Manolis Glezos, the most respected (or reviled) man in all of Greece and well-known throughout Europe for a dazzling act of courage when he was just 19: in 1941 he climbed the Acropolis and tore down the Nazi flag which had flown over Athens since German forces occupied the city. Manolis was captured, thrown into prison and tortured. But now 90 years old and a veteran of seventy years of struggle for peace and justice—imprisoned by the German occupiers, the Italians, the Greek collaborators, and the Regime of the Colonels, he’d spent over a decade behind bars; sentenced to death multiple times; charged with espionage, treason, and sabotage; and escaped prison more than once.
I was interested in the years he served as elected President of the Community Council in Aperathu, an experiment in far-reaching participatory democracy. “We governed by consensus,” he said, “in a massive local assembly with forums like those of the Radical Democracy in ancient Greece.”
They abolished all privileges for elected officials and challenged the idea that “experts” or professional politicians and self-proclaimed leaders were better at running the town’s affairs than ordinary people—they annually drew names from a hat to determine who would act for a year as Commissioner of Parks or Chief of Sanitation.“Every cook can govern!” was theme and watchword.
“The biggest obstacle to revolution here—and in your country as well,” Manolis said, “is a serious and often unrecognized lack of confidence. We spend our lives in the presence of Mayors and Governors and Presidents and Chiefs of Police, and we lose our power of self-reliance—we doubt that we could live without these authorities, and we worship them even as we mock them; soon enough we embrace our own passivity, deny our own agency, and become enslaved to a culture of obedience. That’s a core of our weakness. That’s something you and I must challenge.”
Manolis has been arrested by riot police in front of the Parliament building each year since our meeting, still living the activist life, still battling the murderous system, still opening spaces for more participatory democracy, more peace, and more justice. And, wow! He’s now part of the recently-elected Syriza government.
I returned to Chicago and attended several candidate forums—ten or twelve unmemorable aspirants on a stage with one empty chair reserved for the absent Rahm Emmanuel—he was busy spending his millions, gifts from the banksters and their hedge-fund homies, to run a TV campaign, sparkling constructed images free of any actual interactions with the riffraff.
At each forum I rose with a question: Why do we need a Mayor?
I was regarded as if I were from mars—or Greece. “Don’t be silly.” “You sound like an anarchist.” Hmmm. Still, no one answered the question. Why do we need a mayor?
The One-Percenters have an eerie capacity to grant to themselves a sense of agency and history, values and taste, while writing off everyone else by our statistical profiles: age, income, occupation, ethnicity, place of residence. They have confidence in their big hearts and good intentions, their elite educations and their data-driven brains; their unique ability to quantify and monetize everything. They have little confidence that there is wisdom in every room, that a universe of possibilities resides in every human being. This is frankly inadmissible in a free society or a just world—it’s an affront to any dream of democracy.
[Short aside: In a CPS classroom last week the kids were discussing the merits of an elected versus an appointed school board, and one ten-year old girl said, “But if the Mayor decides by himself won’t he just pick his friends?” Yes, Virginia, there is a Santa Clause; Google Emmanuel’s friend Deborah Quazzo who’s reaped $2.9 million in contracts since taking her seat on the school board. It’s just one example of the new Chicago machine—glitzier perhaps, better dressed, more offensive certainly.]
JP Mitchel, the progressive “Boy Mayor” of New York elected a hundred years ago felt himself uniquely capable of transforming the lives of the downtrodden without bothering to consult the folks he was up-lifting. He never thought that serious participation could be a positive force in his grand plans, and appeared to believe that the dilemmas attending a democracy are best addressed through less, not more, democracy. He was driven from office after a single term—the poor and working class, the homeless and the unemployed had revolted against the consequences to themselves of an undemocratic “autocracy of experts.”
Keep that in mind.
In the 5,000 year history of states, only in the last two centuries has the possibility arisen that states might actually enlarge the realm of human freedom, and only when accompanied by massive extra-institutional energy from social movements. We spend way too much time staring at the sites of power we have no access to—the White House, City Hall—wondering whether the king will grant us what we need and desire, and too little time noticing (and mobilizing) the real power we have absolute access to—the community and the street, the work place, the school, and the hard-earned ballot box, precious but always menaced and fragile.
Note that LBJ passed the most far-reaching civil rights legislation since Reconstruction, but was never part of the Black Freedom Movement; FDR championed important social legislation but was not part of the Labor Movement; and Abraham Lincoln never joined an Abolitionist party, and yet he eventually signed the Emancipation Proclamation. These three are remembered for doing the right thing when it mattered, but always in the face of fire from below.
The brilliant poet Adrienne Rich describes three choices facing city-dwellers like us: The first she calls the “paranoiac”—to arm yourself with mace and triple-lock doors, to never look another citizen in the eye, to live out a vision of the city-as-mugger, depraved and unpredictable with, she notes, “the active collaboration of reality.”
The second she calls the “solipsistic,” to create, if you can, a small fantasy island “where the streets are kept clean and the…[needy and the homeless] invisible,” and to “deplore the state of the rest of the city,” filled with filth and felons, “but remain essentially aloof from its causes and effects.”
These two prototypes are painfully familiar— each of us knows someone crouching in suspicion and alarm, and we know as well those self-absorbed urbanites who say—“I love Chicago,” without a hint of irony as they rush from Uber to health club to carry out accompanied by a comfortable and convenient assumption: my tiny privileged experience is the only story worth knowing.
Adrienne Rich posits a third possibility, an alternative to these destructive and delusional choices, something she herself struggles to name—“a relationship…which I can only begin by calling love.” This is neither romantic nor blind love, but rather a love mixed “with horror and anger… more edged, more costly, more charged with knowledge… love as one knows it…when one is fighting for life, in oneself or someone else. Here was this damaged, self-destructive organism preying and preyed upon. The streets were [laden] with human possibility and vicious with human denial.”
In order to live fully in the city, she concluded, she must above all ally herself with human possibilities. She would embrace the unmapped, the complex, and the imaginable.
Those of us who insist on a decent future for Chicago, for Illinois, our country and the world, might develop relationships that we begin by calling love. We might develop that love—energy draining and energy replenishing—in a struggle for human possibility.
So who should you vote for?
That’s for you to decide.
But look far and be large.
Vote for an elected school board—Chicago’s the only city in the state without one.
Vote for an end to expanding government power to serve only the financially privileged while selling off the public space to the marketeers and the profiteers.
Vote for justice, radical police accountability, and reparations for the survivors of torture.
Vote for an independent inspector general.
Vote as if “we are each other’s business, we are each other’s harvest, we are each other’s magnitude and bond.”