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Saturday, August 22, 2009

Inside the Northside Action for Justice

When I attended the last Chicago Olympics town hall, I met Holly Krig, of the Northside Action for Justice, a group that bills itself as...

a grassroots, member-controlled organization that builds power for low and moderate income people in order to advance the cause of economic and social justice on the north side of Chicago and across the globe.

Holly invited me to their town hall this morning. I confess that I, a conservative, was intrigued by how a community organizing group operated and so I took her up on the offer. Because NAJ operates mostly on the North Side of Chicago, we must put the history of this group into context. NAJ was spawned from Voice of the People.

VOP began as a movement following the construction of Truman College. Truman College was constructed back in 1968. Back then, another Daley, Richard J. Daley, was mayor of Chicago. Truman College was built in the Uptown neighborhood of Chicago. To construct it, about 1600 units of low and mid income housing were torn down. The citizens were promised all 1600 would be replaced in the neighborhood and in the end a grand total of eight were built. As a result, a movement was formed.

The roots of that movement continue thrive today in NAJ. They fight for: social justice, living wage, affordable housing, and education for low and moderate income folks. Like most community organizers, their strength lies in their ability to politic on the grassroots level. I met one gentleman that told me that he lived in an apartment complex in which the tenants were disillusioned with the new ownership. They formed a tenants group. NAJ reached out to them and are helping them organize. It's that sort of ability to reach people on a grass roots level that makes community organizers so effective.

They picket, hold rallies, and come to schools to teach kids about their basic rights. NAJ, like most community organizers, is rooted in the philosophy of Saul Alinsky. One of their most unique organizing activities is when they shadow Chicago police. By this, they walk the streets and make sure that police aren't stepping over the line in doing their jobs. They make sure to stay a safe distance away, about 30 yards at least, and they bring their camera in case any malfeasance occurs. This is rooted in Alinsky rule #13 identify, isolate, freeze, escalate. In that, they identify their target, the police. They freeze the target with the camera. If the target is not performing their work properly, that video will isolate them. They continue and expand these activities and thus fulfilling the escalate portion of the rule.

I was most interested in the social justice portion of their platform. That's because conservatives like me see "social justice" as code for socialistic redistribution. I was pleasantly surprised to find most of their social justice activities those that I support. The one that is most personal to me is their work on behalf of victims of Jon Burge. Burge was a former police commander who, along with several lieutenants, tortured hundreds of confessions out of suspects for nearly twenty years. In many cases, members of the Cook County State's Attorney's office would take confessions of people that were clearly beaten. At least twenty victims of torture still sit in jail today and NAJ holds rallies in front of Attorney General Lisa Madigan's office to demand they get new trials immediately.

Other activities include attending CAPS meetings in which police interact with the public they serve. The afforementioned police shadowing is another social justice activity. In all of them, NAJ gets people on the ground to interact with the public in their neighborhoods. That's a critical ability that folks of all politically philosophical persuasions can learn from.

The group did eventually lose me when they began talking about living wage. First, the concept of living wage sounds fine but it's never defined. How much is a living wage? In this case, NAJ sees stores like Target and Walmart as the villains. They see those retailers as the purveyor of evil that not only don't pay their own workers enough but through cut throat practices force their suppliers to cut the wages of their workers. No one is forced to work at Walmart or Target, and frankly, the way they treat their own employees is entirely their business. Having outside groups force business decisions on private businesses takes us down a very scary road.

Even here, we had some agreement though for different reasons. NAJ believes that any so called "box store" (essentially a superstore) that takes city funds to build should be mandated to pay their workers a "living wage". I'm all for this because that would discourage these stores from taking city funds. I'm generally for retailers coming to Chicago building and hiring, but city funds shouldn't go to help a private enterprise get started. They should try and raise their own funds like anyone else would. A little hotdog stand would never get city money and so a box store shouldn't either. It is important to note that Walmart never asks for city funds and so would be excluded from their proposed legislation.

All in all, it was an interesting experience and two political philosophies came together and everyone left as friends, and I may even help with some future projects.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

And the moral of the story:

America works a lot better if we capped the population at 1 million people.