Chicago: On the Line at the Brigade House

Revolutionary Worker #1003, April 25, 1999

A cold biting rain fell throughout Friday morning, April 16, as a crowd of people gathered on the steps of 1142 N. Orleans. Two days earlier a Chicago city official came by the building--known to many as the Brigade House--to deliver an ultimatum to the members of the Revolutionary Communist Youth Brigade who live there. Get out by Friday 'cause the building's coming down. The Brigade's response was firm: We're not gonna be moved! From dawn to dusk, dozens came by to support the Brigade and take a stand. The mood grew tense when the gas company came to cut off the gas, and police and security arrived as backup. But by evening, the deadline had come and gone. The residents hadn't moved. The sheriffs hadn't come. 1142 still stood.

As RW readers are aware, there has been a growing fight against the attempts by the city of Chicago to tear down 1142 N. Orleans. The Brigade House--with a big sign in the front window defiantly stating "Stop Urban Cleansing"--is the sole standing structure in an empty lot filled with the rubble of recently demolished churches, residences and small businesses. It's located at the edge of Cabrini-Green, a public housing development on the near north side of Chicago. The City and the Chicago Housing Authority (CHA) have targeted the people of Cabrini for demolition of their homes and dispersal of their community. The powers want to turn this whole area into a profitable "gentrified" neighborhood, while breaking up what they see as a dangerous concentration of poor people near the center of the city.

The City and CHA have openly targeted 12 Cabrini-Green highrise buildings for demolition. Last week three more buildings were added to the hit list. They have already emptied out nine Cabrini highrises and taken the wrecking ball to four of them, along with demolishing many other buildings in the nearby neighborhood. All this is part of a national government plan to eliminate public housing. 100,000 units have been targeted for demolition by the year 2000--and 18,000 of them are in Chicago. For Cabrini-Green, this people-removal plan will mean wiping a community of poor and working class Black families clean off the map--to be replaced by more of the high-priced homes that have been sprouting up all over the Near Northside area. "Ethnic cleansing," Chicago-style.

1142 N. Orleans has stood squarely in the way of these plans. The authorities insist that demolishing 1142 will allow them to expand nearby Seward Park and "serve the community." But many Cabrini residents ask, "whose community?" This neighborhood was neglected and left to deteriorate by the power structure--until they began to eye it as a source of profit. Now, new stores are going up and the park is being expanded--while most nearby Cabrini highrises have already been boarded up or demolished. The City's justification for wanting to tear down the Brigade House is contradicted by the president of Seward Park's Advisory Council, who recently said that keeping the building as a landmark would be an "enhancement." Others say that 1142 should be preserved because of its historical significance; major civil rights leader Medgar Evers stayed there on his trips to the city. The President of the Cabrini-Green Local Advisory Council offered to work with the residents of 1142 to make the house into an African American history museum.

And 1142 has been a base of operations for the Brigade activists--to join with Cabrini residents in fighting urban cleansing and police brutality and bring the message of revolution into the projects.

The struggle for 1142 has struck a chord with people facing and fighting "urban cleansing"--in Cabrini and throughout Chicago. Scenes from the daily support vigils tell a part of the story. A Black man in a wheelchair rolls by and throws up a fist. Father Michael Yasutake--survivor of the U.S. concentration camps for Japanese-Americans and advocate for political prisoners--speaks at a morning press conference. A group of Cabrini teens stand on the steps--one young sister promising to "open up a can of whup-ass on them sheriffs" if they showed up to evict the Brigade. After helping to keep an all-night watch, two young white women take their place early morning on the front steps of 1142. Gretchen says, "The last couple of years the city has been on this crusade against poor people and against public housing...just pushing everybody else out to god knows where. It's gotta be stopped." James, a resident of Cabrini for 28 years, stops by one day: "I live here. My family lives here. My great grandma lived here. Her sisters lived here. This is our homes. This is about us. We don't have nowhere to go... All they have to do is fix the place up, but they want to put us out onto the streets. We're fighting for our right to live."

Many who have come in support have brought their own battle stories. An older Black couple who stopped by one day were friends of the former owner of 1142. The woman spoke bitterly about being forced to leave her home in a nearby Cabrini high-rise--put out so fast when the CHA closed her building that many of her possessions still remain boarded up inside. Community activists have brought news of the struggle in Chicago's West Town community--where armed city building inspectors went around "checking" units in two low-income housing developments and a housing activist had her car torched. A college professor spoke on the struggle to save what's left of historic Maxwell Street--once home to hundreds of street vendors and weekend blues jams, but now choice meat for developers and powerful private institutions. A representative from the League of Filipino Students drew a line from 1142 all the way to the housing struggles in the Philippines, where 80 percent of the people are extremely poor and shanty homes are built on garbage dumps.

The struggle over 1142 has broken through the usual media blackout--getting coverage in the local mainstream press and on TV news and radio shows. It's become a topic of debate on a local radio station website. The host of the website said he was drawn by the "idealism" of the activists.

At this point, the City faces no legal restrictions on evicting the Brigade from 1142 and demolishing the house. The lease on the house expired on March 31. A housing court judge ruled that the City could take possession of the building, but issued a few stays of eviction--the latest one expiring on April 13. On that day, an appeals court refused to extend the stay.

Police have kept the house under surveillance, at times harassing residents through the night. On April 16, the City sent the gas company out to turn off the gas to 1142. Work was halted after a Brigade member sat down next to the spot where the gas company was drilling. As we go to press, an eviction attempt could come down any time.

The Brigade members and supporters have made clear their determination to resist the powers and defend the building in the interest of the people. Grant from the RCYB said, "We are carrying out the will of the Cabrini-Green community and the larger community of Black and poor people in the near north side by staying here to keep this building from being torn down... Cabrini-Green represents public housing nationwide. And the plan to eliminate Cabrini-Green and the whole neighborhood must be stopped no matter what it takes. We are taking the firm stand of staying here and saying, `We will not be moved'--in order to defend Cabrini-Green public housing and all low income housing."

The courage and strength of the Brigade members at 1142 have been a real example and inspiration to many others. They have united with many people to draw a clear dividing line--between the cold-blooded officials and greedy capitalists on one side, and the oppressed people and their allies on the other. Their fearless stand--in the face of all that the other side has thrown at them--has shown that the people can fight against the injustices of this system.

This article is posted in English and Spanish on Revolutionary Worker Online
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