By time I arrived at St. Sabina Church on Chicago’s South Side last Friday, 500 people had already crowded into the street at the side of the 80-year-old building, waving signs and engrossed in a smattering of speeches from the makeshift podium. A smothering thunderstorm had rocked the city only hours before, but by now the roiling clouds had given way to a clear, pastel sky.
Those who gathered had another storm on their minds: the tornados of gun violence that regularly tear through this neighborhood, Auburn Gresham, and many others across the city, including Englewood, Lawndale, Pilsen, Back of the Yards, Austin. The previous weekend, 46 people had been shot in Chicago, including seven homicides, and already that afternoon a 31-year-old man had been slain.
June 21 marked the summer solstice in the Northern Hemisphere, but last Friday’s gathering was not a festive celebration. In recent years summer here has come to be associated less with vacations and leisure than with the annual upsurge in gang violence. Many of the participants had recently lost loved ones to such violence, and were resolved to stand against this trauma that irreparably tears through lives, families and whole communities. The mood was mournful but also defiant.
There is a peace movement gaining traction here. It is not protesting a foreign war. It is not trying to catch the ear of the president. Instead, it is trained on the community. Like all peace movements, this one is going public to challenge the presumed inevitability of war, to break its inexorable spell, and to open psychological space for an alternative. All movements contest the dominant narratives, especially those that stubbornly feed the paralyzing assumption that there is nothing that can be done. This is what the rally and march last Friday night was about, beginning with its theme, “Occupy the Streets.”
The organizers have taken on the central metaphor of the recent Occupy movement, but have expanded it dramatically. This movement is not about staying put on a specific plot of real estate. Instead, “occupy” here means a process whereby the entirety of the neighborhood — and, ultimately, the city — is engaged, revitalized and transformed.
Fr. Michael Pfleger — St. Sabina’s pastor who has been actively challenging the violence, and the poverty and racism that spawns it, for decades — put it this way at the opening rally: “We cannot wait for law enforcement or for government. We must run our homes. We must run our neighborhoods. We must occupy the streets. We must come out of our houses, out of our churches, out of our businesses, and be the presence in our communities. ” He continued, “We must be the eyes and ears of the community — to let our children know that we are watching over you and we will protect you. We are 911. We are the blue lights. We’re the Interrupters. We are in charge of the community… Occupy the streets. We must reach out to our brothers in the community. Stop demonizing them! Stop telling them they are nothing but gang bangers. Let them know you’re our sons, you’re our daughters, we love you and respect you. But we also want to send a clear message: We have zero tolerance for shooting or killing.”
For Fr. Pfleger, these words are not only rousing oratory. They are a call to action backed up with a thoroughgoing plan. He is serious about challenging the cycles of violence that are reinforced, from his perspective, by inaction by the rest of the community. That’s why “Occupy the Streets” will be marching every Friday night throughout the summer. Like last week’s march, they will repeatedly trespass the “us vs. them” arrangements that all but guarantee sprees of escalatory violence. They, like the marchers that assembled last week, will walk through multiple gang territories.
But this summer-long action campaign will not be restricted to public witness. It is a 24/7 job that everyone can take up. “Our message is clear,” Pfleger said with steely urgency. “Chicago, this summer, get out of your homes. Get out of your churches. Get out of your synagogues. Get out of your mosques. Get out from behind closed doors and blinds. Break the code of silence and apathy. Be the boots on the ground on your block. You may not be able to change a city. But guess what? You can change your block. You can change your house. You can change where you live… Let’s occupy the streets. Let’s march. Let’s let our children know we’ve got their back.”
For years, Pfleger and Saint Sabina Church have been engaged in the kind of up-close conflict transformation he’s urging all of us to take up and multiply. A recent example is a project the church started last September: a 16-week basketball tournament in which teams are formed with members from different gangs. Not only do they play together, they also eat together and attend conflict resolution sessions together.
There have been some perks — including tickets to Chicago Bulls games doled out by some of the team’s players, with the proviso that members of different gangs sit together in the luxury boxes provided by the NBA team. Two tournaments have been held so far, and the plan seems to be paying off. Since September there have only been two violent episodes in the neighborhood, and neither was perpetrated by the gangs involved in the basketball program. This is only one of the many programs that the church has built to grapple with the violence that flows from the structural violence of racism and economic injustice.
After a haunting rendition of the Sam Cooke classic “A Change is Gonna Come” sung by a young man in the community who had recently competed in NBC’s reality show The Voice, the march stepped off. People of all ages floated out into a normally busy 79th Street — it had been shut down by the police — with a pensive urgency, waving signs that read “Stop Killing Our Future” and “Guns Are for Cowards.” In keeping with the evening’s theme, signs in English and Spanish scattered across the march commanded us to “Occupy the Streets with Peace.” The words, for this moment, were translated into reality.
The resolve in the gait of the marchers seemed to dramatize the fact that what appeared to be a typical march was, in fact, a journey of life and death. This was a relentless journey through a terrain where life and death all too needlessly trade places — but also a journey toward another outcome. A profoundly rooted longing for a nonviolent alternative seemed to pervade the crowd — a longing that appeared to deepen as we walked the narrower streets lined with houses and children streamed out of the night to join in, with their parents in tow. These two- and three-year olds now seemed determined to lead the section of the march I found myself in, energetically scrambling ahead of us as if lunging toward some finish line — as if straining toward a future with some substantial chance to live and even flourish.
Then I heard it. The low rumble of a chant washed over us from the unseen front of the march. Though I have heard it for many years in many other marches, when the chant reached us I realized that it was like hearing it for the very first time:
What do we want?
When do we want it?
What do we want? The lines were big and bold and urgent. Peace! Now! The questions and answers ricocheted down the line, bouncing off the nearby buildings and homes, saturated with a poignancy and resonance where death and injuries from gun violence — this week, this day — is skyrocketing. This was not a peace for some far off place. It was a peace that needed to happen, to come alive, to occupy this place.
Friday night’s pilgrimage set off into the unknown to fill the streets with peace, even as the first weekend of the summer saw another turn in the deadly wheel of violence. They will continue this work week after week this summer, undaunted in their resolve to build a powerful and transformative peace movement at home.
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I had the opportunity to attend a service at St. Sabina last fall and was blown away. You see there that the activism of the community is firmly, deeply rooted in an astonishingly rich liturgy: music, dancing, swaying, praying, giving, eating. I also got to take a tour of the neighborhood around the church, on which each stop was a site that the church community, through creative and radical direct action, had helped transform for the better.
Fr. Pfleger’s witness and that of his community, it seems to me, manifest some of the most challenging contradictions of race and poverty and religion in the United States today. He has been highly controversial (you may remember his outburst about Hillary Clinton during the 2008 presidential campaign), but the controversies are painfully revealing. I highly recommend the film about him, Radical Disciple.