Column: The Ongoing Battle for 38th & Chicago

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Photo by Marjaan Sirdar.

By Marjaan Sirdar, Freelance Writer & Columnist

The UpTake is not responsible for the contents of this column.

Today our beloved South Central community is gridlocked on the reopening of the 38th & Chicago intersection; the site where George Floyd was murdered by the MPD on Memorial Day. On June 25th, Councilmember Andrea Jenkins hosted a virtual “Community Call regarding the George Floyd Memorial.” Jenkins is leading the effort to reopen the intersection as she stated in her Ward 8 email update from June 19: “I will be working with all of the powers that be, to begin the process of peacefully re-opening the intersection while preserving a sacred memorial.” She reiterated this as her goal on the call.

Several community members challenged Jenkins on the call. To some in this community, Jenkins’ push to reopen the intersection is evidence that our politicians are entrenched with special interests, including the MPD and problematic business owners such as Cup Foods. Many in the community are calling for a permanent closure: that having cars drive on the site where George Floyd begged for mercy before being executed is the ultimate line that shall not be crossed! Others in this community are demanding Cup Foods leave the hood. And there are even some calls to “burn the store to the ground” on social media. One thing is clear: if Cup remains in our community while grieving community members want it destroyed, it puts all of us in jeopardy.

In order to persuade our community to reopen the intersection, the powers that be are working hard to make us think the street closure creates danger. CM Jenkins said in her update: 

“After dark…the site has become something different. There are reports of gunshots, drug use, illegal alcohol service to minors and numerous mental health concerns. In short, the activities are becoming a public health and community safety issue. It will require all of us to come together and restore our neighborhood livability while honoring the memory, history and the humanity of George Floyd.”

Photo by Marjaan Sirdar.

Violence in our community is indeed a problem and contributes to our unsafety. However, Jenkins did not paint our community as dangerous when Derek Chauvin murdered George Floyd in broad daylight. When Black people are murdered by the same people who we pay to protect us, does that not make our community unsafe? Unsafe for who? 

The narrative that the Sacred Memorial Site and street closure creates danger conveniently plays into the need to reopen the street and keep paying police to terrorize Black communities. This comes at a time when neighbors have been expressing how much more safer and united this community feels during the daytime. Crossing 38th street is safer than ever because of the closure. People at the memorial are caring for one another in ways that didn’t exist prior to the tragedy and closing of the streets. 

We know that most of the crime we experience in this community is due to the underground economy Black people were forced into. By offering new economic opportunities to this community, we can resolve most of our issues around safety. As a community, we have to offer our youth something better than what the Bloods can offer. The same logic applies to Latino youth. And white youth too: if we don’t engage them, the white supremacists will! 

The way our community sprang into action after the murder of George Floyd is a great model for our future. Our neighbors immediately established a memorial to honor our brother George Floyd, mutual aid centers to feed families in the community, free breakfast and lunch at the memorial site for anyone who wants it, and most importantly a space to grieve and fellowship with one another and build back the sense of community that has been missing for decades. Community leaders should be putting all of their time and energy into building infrastructure around this organic community response so we can protect what has been built. 

Some in this community, including myself, believe that once the intersection reopens, it will return to business as usual with the gentrifying voices leading. It was clear from the way Jenkins began her call on the 25th. Jenkins did not frame George Floyd’s murder in the context of the ongoing battle for 38th & Chicago, with Chicago being a historic racial boundary. This is an old battle for land that goes back 400 years on this soil. This important context demonstrates a deeper injustice suffered by the Black community of E. 38th street. 

Since 2013, I have organized with neighbors in this community centering the basic principle of listening to Black people who have pioneered this community. I have worked in collaboration with grassroots organizers as well as the Bryant & Central neighborhood organizations. People like Sandra Richardson (People’s Institute North), who was born and raised in Bryant, have been doing this work much longer than I have. By listening to Black people we have heard some common themes: 

  • Black folks are still grieving the community that once was; that was dismantled with the bulldozing of community schools such as Central High, approximately 15 years after Interstate 35W systematically divided the historic “Black Southside”;
  • This form of systemic violence is often written out of history and there is a need to lift these narratives up for everyone to interrogate;
  • Black neighbors routinely spoke, and still speak, of the lost sense of belonging and mutual aid in the community, dating back to the 1960s;
  • These experiences have vanished with aggressive gentrification following high gang activities in the ‘90s and the 2008 recession that displaced many pioneering Black families in Bryant & Central;
  • Black people in this community have long wanted a Black controlled economic and cultural corridor along E. 38th street so Black folks don’t have to send their dollars and labor out of this community.

These listening sessions helped inform us of how to visualize the future of this community. The Bryant Neighborhood Organization (BNO) is in the process of taking these stories and creating a community mural that will go on the Southside Village Boys & Girls Club at Phelps Park, located one block from the Sacred Memorial Site. This mural will include this rich history as well as visions of what a vibrant Black future can look like along E. 38th street. 

BNO is holding weekly community assemblies every Saturday morning (11-1 pm) at Phelps Park to share our community analysis from the work we have been doing before the murder of George Floyd. I have been hired to co-facilitate these gatherings along with Sandra Richardson of the People Institute North. Our discussions center racial justice, because we know a genuine peace can never be achieved until everyone in our community is safe from racial terrorism and cycles of racial poverty, especially Black people. 

Councilmember Jenkins attended the Phelps Park assembly on June 27, following her contentious virtual community meeting on the reopening of 38th & Chicago. Jenkins was vocally displeased that I publicly challenged her narrative around the reopening of the site. Now more than ever, this work requires speaking truth to power and being able to depersonalize it. I made it clear to CM Jenkins that politicians do not have a platform at our community assemblies and she could participate just like everyone else by listening and contributing during breakout group discussions. Jenkins accused me of making it personal and walked out of the park, refusing to sit with the community and be held accountable. The video shows a politician who failed to give the community an acceptable answer for why she wanted to reopen 38th & Chicago.  

If the powers that be force the reopening of 38th & George Floyd Place (Chicago Ave), and continue to ignore Black voices in our community, including poor Black people who disagree with the powers that be, we will continue to live in a polarized community. The murder of George Floyd and the destruction of our city does not have to be in vain. However, our leaders seem resolved to return to “normalcy” despite the evidence that suggests we will end up right back where we were after Floyd’s murder. More grave injustices will come. The fire next time may not be as easily extinguished. 


 

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