Thursday, September 25, 2008

Chicago '68...De Ja Vu???

Time & Life Pictures/Getty Image
National Guardsmen standing in front of Chicago store during riots following murder of Martin Luther King Jr.

By Sis. Camille Landry

Lest anyone think that it can't happen to you, please allow me to share one of the defining moments of my life. I was a 17-year-old college student and part-time VISTA volunteer, assigned to a community service project on the west side of my hometown, Chicago.

It was April 1968 and Martin Luther King had just been murdered. Chicago's west side was in turmoil. People took to the streets. Rioting ensued. Richard J. Daley imposed a curfew, closed the streets to automobile traffic, shut down all liquor stores, closed schools and basically declared martial law. He called in the Illinois National Guard and mobilized all police and fire fighters. Then about 5000 regular military troops were ordered into the city. A ban was placed on all gatherings. In a confrontation that would've been comical had it not been so frightening and so utterly fascist in its intent, the police and troops swarmed on an after school tutoring program that met in a storefront. They surrounded it and pointed automatic weapons at the 35-40 elementary aged children and the teachers and volunteers who were gathered in the space. These folks were trying to occupy the kids in useful ways and keep them off the streets and out of danger. Bloodshed was averted when some of the community's elders stood in front of the riot guns and told the troops "Shame on you. Put away those guns. These are children. You'll have to shoot us first."

Meanwhile, a few blocks from this scene, I was sitting in another storefront office of a community organization that ran a job readiness program, a voter registration project and a skills training welfare-to-work project. We heard a rumbling outside and went to the windows to see what it was. We watched, dumbstruck, as a tank rolled down our narrow street, sideswiping vehicles. It stopped in front of our office. Its cannon swiveled to point directly at us. It moved forward. The cannon crashed through the plate-glass window, shattering it into a million tiny pieces. We stumbled over each other as we ran out the back into the alley, to be confronted by a line of National Guardsmen in full combat gear with weapons pointed at us.

The "we" in this case were three women (two of us were teenagers, one a retired public school teacher who ran the adult literacy program), two older men, both veterans of WWII and Korea, and the 9-year-old grandson of the older lady, plus the director of the organization -- an ordained minister.

If you've never looked down the barrel of a tank's cannon, hovering just a few feet from your face, you're very lucky.

This is what MY COUNTRY thought of our efforts to improve our community. We were black. We opposed the Daley machine and its attempts to control our community. We advocated self determination, education and civil and human rights for all citizens. That made us dangerous. That made us targets.

We learned then that the City of Chicago had plans to turn Soldier's Field (the stadium where the Bears play football) into an internment camp. We learned that the National Guard and the federal troops had commandeered railroad cars to evacuate people who were deemed to be a threat. We discovered that electricity and water had been turned off to some neighborhoods, in efforts to control the population. We saw troops lined up in the Midway, the parkway that separates the University of Chicago campus from Woodlawn, the adjacent neighborhood (all black and one of the poorest in the city).

Two days after this happened, I was arrested, along with several friends. We were in a station wagon loaded with food, mostly infant formula and cereal, plus canned goods and other groceries. It had been donated by a local grocer. Grocery stores were closed down and people were hungry. We were delivering the food to a local church which was handing it out to people in need. The curfew was still in force for anybody under 21. In spite of the fact that we were with older adults, in spite of the fact that we had identification stating we were VISTA volunteers, despite the fact that we were clearly on a mission of mercy, we were handcuffed, muscled into a paddy wagon and taken downtown and locked up. We didn't get out until our state senator called and arranged bail for us.

This is the way my nation responded to me and the crisis in my community. DON'T THINK IT CANNOT HAPPEN TO YOU. IT CAN.

Rev. Wright, Barack Obama's former pastor, had a point. God damn America, indeed.
In peace,

Jesus was a community organizer. Pontius Pilate, on the other hand, was a governor.

*W.E. A.L.L. B.E. News & Radio Special*

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