On October 17th, the International House Global Voices Lecture Series, the Seminary Co-Op, and The Baffler co-sponsored a panel on Chicago politics entitled “Their City and Ours.” One of the speakers, acclaimed journalist and historian Rick Perlstein (A.B. ‘96), has written multiple books about the American presidency in the 1960s and ‘70s. His recent Baffler essay “There Goes the Neighborhood” details the controversy surrounding the planned Obama Presidential Center. Another guest, Jitu Brown, is currently Education Organizer for the Kenwood Oakland Community Organization (KOCO). This past September, he and eleven other activists made headlines by going on a 34-day hunger strike to secure the re-opening of Dyett High School.
Before and after the event, Co-Editor-in-Chief Patrick Reilly interviewed Perlstein and Brown about their experiences. This interview was made possible by International House’s Global Voices Lecture Series, and can also be found on the I-House website.
Rick Perlstein: “It’s almost an allegory for both the hope he represents and the compromises he’s had to make”
The Gate: What was the hardest part of writing your recent Baffler article about the Obama Presidential Library?
Perlstein: Well, I think it was pulling all the various elements together into a coherent narrative. My style of history writing and journalism is to make very broad connections. I’m ranging from the history of presidential libraries going back to FDR and to Chicago power politics, which obviously goes back to the first Mayor Daley. I’m talking about the Black Power structure in Chicago, people around the Obamas, the University’s history of relations with the neighborhood, and just doing the very specific reporting on this project. So I had a lot of balls to juggle in the air. The challenge for me is just to touch all those bases in a way that pulls the reader along in an engaging and coherent way.
Gate: One of the moments in your article that really jumped out at me was when you quoted an African American woman here who said she was a community organizer trained by President Obama. But in relation to the Obama Library and everything the University is doing, she said, “Looks like we gonna be gone.” As someone who has studied so many presidents, what do think is President Obama’s view on the way Chicagoans are torn apart over his legacy?
Perlstein: That’s a really complicated question. It’s almost a question more for a shrink than a historian. I mean, here’s a guy whose connection to Chicago was so glancing when he came here that he didn’t even know how snow worked.* He basically just answered a want ad in an activist publication to take his first job here. But then he marries into this very solid South Side African American family. His famous story is that the congressman and now Federal Judge Ab Mikva said to him, “You want to be a politician, you gotta learn to speak, and you gotta hang out with black ministers.” So he had to be taught how to be black by this Jewish guy.
*In his memoir Dreams from My Father, Obama recalls his amazement at Chicago’s winters upon first moving to the city.
But at the same time, he represents so much excitement for African Americans on the South Side. So we’re talking about a very complicated matrix of factors. He obviously has a place in his heart [for Hyde Park] and knows that something like this can mean a lot for the development of the neighborhood. But he’s smart enough to know that the power politics involved might cause some displacement. So it’s almost an allegory for both the hope he represents and the compromises he’s had to make to reach the levels of power that he has. These are the kinds of things that make you want to get a couple of drinks with him, look him in the eye, and say, “What do you think of the seventy-year-old grandmother who won’t be able to afford her rent once they start building artisanal cheese shops across the street on 55th and Martin Luther King?”
Gate: Speaking of power politics, I can’t help but see some similarities between the Obama Library today and what Mayor Daley did with Meigs Field twelve years ago. [With both the library and Meigs Field], you have a power-hungry mayor who is expropriating public land for a pet project. Do you think anything’s really changed in Chicago since Daley?
Perlstein: Well, I think it’s gotten a lot smoother. It’s one thing to get together a bunch of bulldozers and tear up concrete. It’s another to put together a very sophisticated public relations campaign involving web videos and grassroots politics and a theme song. You know, it’s like the difference between bringing in Pinkertons to break a strike and using labor-relations consultants to persuade workers that unions aren’t in their best interests. It’s more of a velvet glove and less of a veiled fist.
Gate: Switching over to your work as a historian. In your latest book, you put all of your endnotes online. Have any academic historians approached you about this?
Perlstein: Academic historians all like it. Some common readers don’t get it. My biggest supporters for these kinds of things have been academics. These are folks who are used to looking things up on their phone all the time. So I’ve had nothing but support from academic historians.
Gate: Your scholarship focuses on a point in American history when print and radio are starting to lose their monopoly on media, and television is coming to the fore. Does that factor very much into your research?
Perlstein: Very much so. I use video sources wherever possible, because that’s how people process reality. If I had my druthers, I’d spend all my time in Nashville, Tennessee, where they have the Vanderbilt News Archive. That’s an amazing resource where you can watch all three network newscasts fully indexed going back to 1968. It’s not always practical, but wherever I can, I watch the speeches I’m writing about on YouTube. I also have a friend named Gordon Skane, who has an audio archive. He helps me with that. I try to have my work reflect how people experienced reality at the time, which was through television and radio.
Gate: I remember reading in your article that the Reagan Library wouldn’t give you access to a series of TV shows that he did in the fifties. Do you worry that now that so much of our information is on video, we’re missing out on more? Or do you think it’s easier to find information?
Perlstein: I think that’s a very complicated question and it involves a lot of trade-offs. On the one hand, we do have the Vanderbilt News Archives, and obviously any historian twenty years from now is going to have colossal video resources. But on the other hand, lots of electronic media have had obsolescence problems. There’s amazing work being done at the Internet Archive. You can read an article by Jill LePore in The New Yorker about that. They’ve just done amazing things with things like the Wayback Machine to make sure that this stuff doesn’t get lost. But then you have politicians erasing their emails. But, you know, it’s not like politicians didn’t burn their letters.
Gate: One of my professors jokes that it’s a good thing for historians that we have the NSA recording all of our emails.
Perlstein: Well, it’s a good thing we have the National Security Agency. But we also have the National Security Archive made by people who have worked with the crisis of declassification. So maybe someday, those servers in the desert in Utah will be opened to us.
Jitu Brown: “We’re gonna undress this mayor.”
Gate: When did you and the other members of Kenwood Oakland Community Organization first consider a hunger strike?
Brown: That’s a good question. To be clear, we’ve been working on the issue of improving Dyett High School since 2009. In 2012, I brought [a hunger strike] up, and they asked me what kinds of drugs I was smoking. In community organizing, it’s very important to meet people where they are, not where you want them to be. We began talking about it seriously in June of 2014. We began discussing it as, “They’re not gonna listen to us. We might need to be prepared to do something a little more drastic.” So I would say that June of 2014 was when we began to plan it seriously.
Gate: Do you think something that drastic will be necessary again to implement the kind of changes your group is hoping for?
Brown: I wouldn’t be surprised if it was. That’s why we’re fighting so hard to change the elected leadership in the area. Then also, we’re looking to get an elected school board. We’re close. We have a bill with fifty-one co-sponsors. We’ve never even been getting around that before. So I think that if we get the elected school board, and if we’re able to change the political leadership, then at least in our community, we won’t [need to do something drastic again]. But I think systemwide, we’re still gonna have to deal with that. That’s why I think the school board is so important.
Gate: On the topic of the elected school board: Across the country, money in politics is a huge issue, and Chicago is no exception. At the beginning of the year, when I spoke with former mayoral candidate Chuy Garcia, he mentioned that topic as a potential risk for an elected school board. Is that something that concerns you at all?
Brown: Well, of course it’s a possibility. But the question I would raise is, “How could it be more political than it is now?” Right now...there are no checks and balances. There’s no opportunity. But consider what would happen if you put things in place like public financing. In the New York City Council races, they have public financing, and it allows regular people to be competitive against big interests. We ran a state race two years ago, and with a little more help, we would have won. We beat our opponent in all of the African American wards. We lost in the South Loop. So at the very least, the fight for schools will be competitive. Candidates will have to think, “I could be voted out if I don’t do this.” Right now, they couldn’t care less what we think.
Gate: You started at KOCO back in 1991. At the time, what were the key issues that the organization was facing?
Brown: The community during that time was facing issues like massive disinvestment from private and municipal institutions. We had schools that were woefully underfunded. So we had many of the same issues that we’re experiencing today. Gentrification was not where it is right now. The question was about how the community would be developing. One of the initiatives we participated in was the Empowerment Zone. This was a program where, in different American cities, [the federal government] was going to invest 100 million dollars to address the issue of poverty. Many of us, as young organizers, participated in the process. I was involved in developing what would eventually become the Chicago Youth Nets, which were youth centers inside of park districts in different wards throughout the city. The problem was, instead of [the Empowerment Zone] being a community-driven initiative around housing, or around employment, the City of Chicago basically stole the money. Instead of developing what the community had developed, it became really a mutation of that. That was one of the main issues then.
Violence was also a major issue. The crack epidemic had just exploded during that time. Communities were more violent than they are now. The difference is that now, with regards to street gangs, you don’t have centralized organizations with some kind of rules. The leadership is fifteen to eighteen years old. They have these little cliques on different blocks. I would say many of the same issues were present. The biggest difference was that the question of how the community would develop was at a much earlier stage. Now, we’re fighting to maintain our space.
Gate: Can you tell me a little bit more about these Empowerment Zones? Were you ever able to get the city to return or re-appropriate some of that money?
Brown: They appropriated it, but it was supposed to be spent on community-run institutions. So imagine a community organization being formed in the area and being run by community groups that determined how those institutions would be shaped, issues they would deal with, etc. What the city did instead was give that power to the aldermen. The aldermen formed these little pseudo-community organizations, but these were really in line with the mayor’s agenda. So in this community, it was called the Quad Cities Development Corporation. They invested, but they invested on their terms. It was no longer a community-driven process.
For example, one of the things that we did to address violence—this was outside of the Empowerment Zone, but just to give you a sense of how the city did not really speak to the issues that the community was raising—we started something called Youth CAPS, Community Alternative Policing Strategy, where the young people would meet with the police once a month. So instead of having adults meet with police, we had a structure where youth leaders would meet with the police and say, “These are the issues,” and collectively develop some solutions to those issues. For example one of the biggest issues in Bronzeville is lack of resources for young people ages 14 to 21. No teen centers. You have park districts that serve younger children, but there aren’t any teen centers, college and career centers, or athletic facilities that young people can use. So our young people developed an idea of a lock-in, where they would actually work with the police and do community festivals and lock-ins at park districts monthly. The Empowerment Zones should have supported initiatives like that, and they never did.
Gate: One of the big developments since then has been the rise of social media. But one frequent criticism is that, with Facebook and Twitter, people can like or share something and feel like they’ve contributed, without actually doing anything substantive. In your experience as a community organizer, has that been the case?
Brown: I think social media is an excellent tool to bring awareness to issues. During the Fight for Dyett campaign, we trended number one on Twitter five times. That was amazing. I had never experienced that. It did a lot to raise public consciousness. But I think nothing beats good old-fashioned human-to-human contact. Because, in organizing, the most important things are relationships. And I can’t build a relationship with somebody in 140 characters.
Gate: About two months ago, This American Life did a two-part series on school integration. Does your group consider integrating schools to be a high priority? Or do you think it’s possible to improve schools that have, say, all-black students as they are?
Brown: The great community organizer Ella Baker had a song, “We Who Believe in Freedom Will Not Rest Until it Comes.” And one of the lines in the song says, “Until the killing of black mothers’ sons is as important as the killing of white mothers’ sons, we who believe in freedom will not rest.” I translate that to education. There will never be integration as long as there’s no political will to make sure that black and brown children have the same resources as their white counterparts. And by resources, I don’t mean just money. I’m talking about expectations. Because there’s plenty of money in public education. But what happens now is that so much of that money is being devoted to privatization, to punitive education policy.
So I think that, before you have integration, you have to have equity. We should have the choice to go to school together. I think it’s important that children should experience each other. I think cultures should experience each other. But what’s not being dealt with is a values problem. Historically, there’s been a hatred towards black people, that has made U.S. presidents not sign anti-lynching bills. There’s just a long and consistent history that we have not confronted as a society. And since we haven’t confronted it, there’s never been any real transformation. We’ve had policies. We passed the Civil Rights Act. White people and black people stood together for that. But we haven’t forced or raised the question of America’s hatred of its former slaves. That hatred is demonstrated daily. Our group is just giving it a different lens and saying, “What you see is hatred. What you’re seeing is not good people making bad policies in cities.” The reason I’m saying that is because integration is important, but integration without equity just means that if I go to school with you, I have to act like you. That’s not acceptable. You shouldn’t go to my school and have to act like me. You should be able to be who God made you. Then people can come to the table, share their differences, and share their different cultures. That’s not what we have right now.
Gate: About a year ago, International House hosted Ta-Nehisi Coates to discuss his Atlantic article “The Case for Reparations.” What’s your take on that? Do you think that exploring reparations would help to resolve some of this hatred?
Brown: I’ll be honest with you. I think that reparations would be a step. Reparations are deserved, but I think it’s just a step. When I see young people in street organizations, I say to myself, “There was a time when that boy was in third grade, and anything was possible.” My son was playing with some of the kids in the park this morning, and they were all like six, seven, eight, and they played together fine, and I was just saying to myself, “Every young person, at one point in life, is right there.” I don’t care how impoverished they are, or what their conditions are. The question is, what happens to that child? Between the time they’re in third grade and—how old are you, if I may ask?
Brown: —and twenty years old. What happens? What is their lived experience that shapes who they become? The biggest load of bullcrap I’ve ever heard is that it starts in the home. It doesn’t start in the home. It starts in the community. I didn’t learn to talk to girls from my father. I learned to talk to girls from the older guys in my neighborhood. I didn’t learn to be safe from my dad. I learned a lot from my dad, but [I also learned a lot from] the men in the neighborhood. That’s why they had block clubs and things like that. That’s why they had parties and barbecues. These are primary socializing mechanisms.
I think reparations are a part of that. But there has to be a rebuilding of community that yields a restoration of culture. So there’s a lot of work to be done. For example, I come from old-school hip-hop. I was the first rap artist in the city to sign a major record deal. This is a time when hip-hop music was providing an alternative education for us. It was teaching you things that you didn’t learn in school. It was instilling us with pride, which is why it was changed. I believe that with all my heart. I remember [that there was a moment] when socially conscious artists could no longer get record deals. Now, we have music, we have imagery on video and television, we have commercials, we have movies, and the message that’s given is, “There’s nothing you can do.” That it’s hopeless, that in order to be accepted, you have to be one black person in a group of four white kids, and then you’ll be okay, but otherwise there’s nothing you can do. And that’s real, and so that has to be addressed. When you’re talking about reparations, and how to build community and things of that nature, we have to deal with the fact that our humanity has been assaulted. I think reparations is a component of it, but I don’t think it’s the only answer.
But I do think if we make the decision [and move in the right direction], we can transform society. We’ve made the decision that we’re gonna undress this mayor, which is why one hundred fifty of us—[and] we didn’t want to—ran him off the stage [at the South Shore cultural center]. He rules by this aura of fear and corporate shields. He’s not the type of elected official that you go to in a town hall meeting, and [have him] asking you questions. You just don’t have that type of access. He does whatever he wants with your community. You bear the brunt of it, and there’s no accountability. So we made the decision that, whatever it means—whether it’s funding being cut or whether it’s being investigated, which we are—that we are gonna confront him in a righteous fight for the people. We have to make the decision. And if we make the decision, then anything’s possible.
The image featured in this article was taken by Antonio Vernon. The original image can be found here.