‘My ancestors were freedom fighters, and they’re teaching me how to fight’

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Kaleb Autman

Kaleb Autman is an 18-year-old creative director and producer, writer, and organizer based out of Garfield Park. He organizes with the Let Us Breathe Collective.

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

Since I was a child, I’ve been fascinated by the city within our city; my homeland, Chicago’s West Side, or Outwest as westsiders call it. Our dialect carries the Southern twang that we packed in our suitcase on the journey North. Our fashion, lingo, and communal attributes can only be categorized as unapologetic and over the top. The West Side also has a long lineage of freedom fighting and abolition work, from the Haymarket Square riots to the larger-than-life politics of Fred Hampton and James Bevel.

I was raised in a socially conscious household and community. It Takes a Village Early Learning, a daycare in the Humboldt Park neighborhood, gave me a safe place to run to. The walls were filled with so much Black joy, creativity, and, most of all, dreams. My educators taught me about the legacy of my ancestors, Black Power, and our obligations to social change.

After It Takes a Village, I attended Village Leadership Academy, a social justice-focused elementary school. I learned more rigorously about the world and got to travel the globe in service to social justice scholarship and community service.

In South Africa, we fostered community with those living in Soweto, one of Africa’s largest townships. In Haiti, we studied the Haitian Revolution. In Brazil, we studied the origins and significance of Capoeira, an ancient Afro-Brazilian martial art that enslaved people used to fight their oppressors. These experiences taught me my duty to other life and the transnational nature of our liberation struggle.

But it wasn’t until I started organizing in 2014 that I began to understand my community’s history of freedom fighting. I was 12 then, watching resistance sweep the nation after police killed Mike Brown. I sent a DM to an organizer named Page May on Twitter and asked her where young people like me fit into this resistance whose parents were scared to let them leave the house, let alone go to a protest. Page responded with, “let’s talk.”

She invited me to gather in a room with other young black and brown students struggling to process the world, systems, and trauma we inhabited. We sat and talked for hours that day, and carried our conversations into more meetings, which spurred the first direct action that I co-organized: Reclaim MLK Day Chicago 2015. We convened hundreds of people to walk from our school to the Juvenile Temporary Detention Center, calling attention to the school to prison pipeline, police brutality, and the reclamation of MLK’s legacy.

I continued my political radicalization with mentors and comrades like Damon Williams, Mariame Kaba, Bella Bahhs, Barbara Ransby, and Kelly Hayes. They helped teach me the foundational elements of organizing.

Since then, I’ve co-organized, consulted, and documented an array of campaigns, events, actions, and initiatives. Some efforts flat out succeeded like the #ByeAnita Campaign that ousted former Cook County State’s Attorney Anita Alvarez. Others shifted the social narratives and conversations about our communities’ experiences living at society’s margins, such as the #SayHerName campaign.

In the summer of 2016, my organizing home, the #LetUsBreathe Collective, and other organizations descended on the notorious Homan Square, an off-the-books police site in North Lawndale known for disappearing upwards of 7,000 civilians from 2004 to 2015. Organizers and freedom fighters chained themselves to ladders to shut this torture site down for one day. What we didn’t know was that this would turn into a 41-day abolitionist occupation. We slept on site, ate meals, and learned what it truly meant to be in community with one another. It was beautiful, traumatic, joyful, and a spiritual awakening all in one.

I can only continue this work because of the lessons of community, healing, trauma, and faith that Freedom Square taught me. Too often, young people aren’t given a seat at the table, whether the conversation is about organizing or not. I feel it’s my duty as an experienced organizer to help young folk navigate this work. In times like these, it is essential to look to youth leadership and provide them the tools of their own radicalization.

***

This nation of supposed freedom has taught us, those who live at the margins, that we don’t belong, that our fight is spontaneous and never sustained. But I know my history.

I know my ancestors were freedom fighters, and they are teaching me how to fight.

As Black folk migrated to the West Side in the decades after WWII, they faced white terrorists who claimed to be protecting their communities from Black people. The white communal structure would not accommodate them no matter how excellent they strived to be. But Black people kept moving to the West Side. Thus White Fight became White Flight. Our abolition grows from the inheritance of a crumbling community and our resistance to the implied worthlessness of our existence by the state (and even community benefactors).

When Martin Luther King Jr. showed up in North Lawndale in 1966, he, alongside others, called attention to racial segregation in housing, education, and employment. During the Chicago Freedom Movement of 1965 and 1966, Black westsiders made the same demands for affordable housing, for the defunding of criminalization and policing, for investment in communities, for access to gardens and good grocery stores—that westsiders are still demanding today. These were the same demands that resistors called for in 1968 when the West Side was left to burn after King’s assassination. 

Most people Outwest don’t read Angela Davis or know what the Police-Industrial Complex is by name, but they damn sure know it by experience. From Homan Square’s tortures to countless unlawful searches and seizures, westsiders know state violence’s wrath. Westsiders also understand the need for redistribution of resources at a city-wide level.

We walk streets that have had potholes in them for years. We shop at stores that lack fresh fruits and vegetables. We know that the City of Chicago closes our schools and hospitals but keeps spending more money on police. We know that corrupt politicians of all creeds have sold our communities to developers who seek to push us out. Black Chicagoans at large are leaving the city. What will this mean for Black Chicago and Chicago in general? I don’t know. But I do know that communities haven’t and will not go down without a fight.

***

I have been in deep reflection about my role as an artist and a person who believes in change. Covid-19 has taught me that no matter how many Angela Davis or Huey Newton books we read that we will never be prepared enough. How are we going to feed our people with no knowledge of the land? How will we educate our children virtually when many of them aren’t meeting the state’s proficiency standards with in-person learning?

Covid-19 has expanded the already rising needs of community members needing food, baby supplies, and education resources. Many working-class folks I know lost one and sometimes two jobs due to Covid-19.

We have a duty to feed and nurture and hold each other (not physically, of course) in new ways. I’ve been working diligently to support organizing and mutual aid efforts as best I can without contracting the disease or passing it to someone else. After the pandemic broke out, most of the physical organizing that I’d been a part of had to stop.

But when resistance began sweeping the nation after police murdered George Floyd and Breonna Taylor, the streets called in ways that I’d never seen before. One minute I was trying to secure pampers and wipes for a family, and the next minute, I was organizing jail support for young people arrested during actions.

This time has taught me the importance of sustainability and fluidity in our organizing efforts. At one moment, we are on the streets screaming and marching, and the next, we’re in peace circles with those who have abused community members. No matter where we are or whomever we’re around, I know we will be singing, dancing, and getting free. This is the work—eating,  praying, crying, strategizing, loving, reading, studying, listening, building, and hoping.

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