‘To be a West Side organizer’

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Destiny Harris, 19, is a Black queer woman from the Austin neighborhood on the West Side of Chicago who organizes with Dissenters, an antimilitarist group, Generation Green, a Black environmentalist group, and various other Black youth-led organizations in Chicago.

This essay was published as part of Essential Work, an Injustice Watch first-person series by young Black activists in Chicago who are wrestling with the coronavirus pandemic, racial injustice, and police violence.

Photography by Kaleb Autman.

“I’m from the part of the city that they don’t be talking about.”

For the past 19 years, I have existed in this world, in this body, as a Black, queer, poor woman.

But for as long as I’ve been living freely as an Angela Davis-reading, Rent-watching, New York ball scene-researching gay ass femme—I’ve lived just as loudly as an Uncle Remus-eating, Sicko Mobb-bopping, Lud Foe-banging West Side Chicagoan. Yes, the neighborhood and side of town you represent are as much a part of your identity as your sexuality. And yes, being from Outwest, Austin, is a personality trait.

To live and grow up on the West Side is to exist between a strange dichotomy of love and culture on one end and struggle and resistance on the other. It means being forced into community organizing to fight for my humanization, because the system in this country, founded on oppressing Black and Indigenous folks, is working as planned.

To be a West Side organizer is to live in the spirit of our ancestors who lived and died revolutionary lives. It is to fight with the drive and spirit that Martin Luther King Jr. brought with him to North Lawndale in the 1960s as a leader in the Chicago Freedom Movement against housing segregation and redlining. It is to ground myself in knowing that the West Side is not new to organizing around an abolitionist framework.

We organize on the same foundation of abolition and around the same issues of food apartheid, housing insecurity, and police brutality that Baba (Fred Hampton) was fighting when Chicago police assassinated him in 1969.

***

Covid-19 exacerbated the negligence BIPOC suffered from government institutions that uphold systemic oppression. Early on in Chicago, 70% of people dying from this virus were black.

That disparity was the product of disregard of Black lives by the healthcare system, the education system, the Prison-Industrial Complex, the Military-industrial Complex, and all institutions that uphold capitalism.

On the West Side of Chicago, crisis is normalized. What does it look like to have those crises exacerbated due to a pandemic?

It looks like the redistribution of resources that happened on Aug. 10, what the masses know as looting, in response to constant economic deprivation and Chicago police shooting a 20-year-old Black man in Englewood.

I lay in my bunk bed that night, palms sweaty, ears glued to police scanners, overwhelmed with guilt. I had decided to take a self-care day to prevent burnout after organizing for three months straight. But I questioned how I could bask in leisure at a time when people on the ground were suffering and needed supplies.

When Madison Street was burning, all I could think about was how the West Side still hasn’t recovered from the economic downfall we faced after the 1968 riots. I was glad my people were finally getting resources they had been deprived of throughout this pandemic, but I was sad, too. Not because I care about property, but because I knew the city would scapegoat our anger as the reason it doesn’t invest in us.

My work became more based on mutual aid because I understand that my community is the most powerful resource for providing relief in my lifetime. Abolition is about burning down oppressive systems. But it is also about building strong relationships in our communities and knowing we have all we need to keep us safe.

If the government adequately funded social services, there would be no need for mutual aid.

But we understand that we will never have access to the resources we need in abundance if we wait on the government.

***

I’ve been organizing to bring more into this movement given both Covid-19 and the massive mobilization occurring across the country in response to the murders of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and others who police have killed since this pandemic started. I’ve done a lot of my work by teaching and convening people to build more youth power on the West Side, to radicalize more young folks and ground them in abolitionist theory and practices.

I curated a four-week abolitionist training over the summer for marginalized West Side youth, to build networks and power around organizing and bring more visibility to the West Side. We’ve collected donations for a weekly food and supply distribution throughout Austin and North Lawndale.

I supported training and outreach around the #DefundCPD campaign to make this language of “abolition” and “defund” more accessible for people from the West Side without political education.

I spent much of the summer organizing around the #CopsOutCPS campaign to remove police from schools, including at my alma mater, Whitney Young Magnet High School, and pushing the school district to eliminate its multi-million dollar contract with the Chicago Police Department. We know that a school resource officers’ mere presence contributes to the school-to-prison pipeline.

I’ve also been working on closing the generational divide between youth organizers and older organizations who have been working on the West Side for decades. That has meant working to build connections with the Northwest Austin Council and the West Side chapter of the NAACP because this movement only works—and is the most powerful—when it’s intergenerational.

When I think about what this moment means for the West Side, I think about a principle that I’ve learned to live by through organizing:

“Your liberation is tied to mine, and mine to yours.”

The organizing and mobilizing Outwest around abolition is a part of a broader battle. It’s part of a collective push towards Black liberation that spans from the South Side of Chicago to Louisville, to Minneapolis, to Libya, to Puerto Rico, and all over the world.

***

This moment is very personal to me.

I’ve watched my relatives leave the West Side like many other Black people and start new lives in places like Iowa and Arizona, hoping for more security. Both my parents are essential workers risking their lives during this pandemic to make a living. My mom is a caregiver to people with physical disabilities. My dad works as a technician for the Chicago Transit Authority.

I have four siblings who are struggling to navigate Chicago Public Schools through virtual learning. For me, this means four additional devices connected to a single WiFi network simultaneously, interrupted Zoom calls, and missing parts of my online college classes to help them. We’ve had to make “office space” out of hallways in our crowded apartment.

This moment is also very personal because I’ve been a victim of the Chicago Police Department’s terror. Police beat me at City Hall in 2019. I had come there begging city officials not to pass a vote that I knew would prevail and allow Mayor Lori Lightfoot to build a $95 million cop academy in my neighborhood at the time, West Garfield Park.

Our lives are on the line.

Black youth from the West Side of Chicago are most at the margins.

But we will continue to build community, to dance and rejoice and engage in the revolutionary practice of Black Joy. We will continue to take care of each other and give back to the Earth because we have been and will always be “on the freedom side.”

This piece was edited for clarity and length by Adeshina Emmanuel with additional editing and project support from Adam Mahoney.