Essential Work: ‘Where did we agree to sign away our identities when we decided to fight for freedom?’

An activist Naira poses for a photo, holding her braids.

Photo by Kaleb Autman

Chima “Naira” Ikoro is a 22-year-old writer and activist from the South Side of Chicago. She is one-fourth of a collective called Blck Rising that focuses on mutual aid and organizing in the city.

This essay is part of Injustice Watch’s Essential Work project, a first-person storytelling series by young Black people in Chicago fighting racism and police violence amid the Covid-19 pandemic.

I was pulling out of my parking spot on the last warm day of November when the sun tried to take my eyeballs out, and I remembered the sunglasses in my purse. I reached for my sunglasses and put them on, rolled my windows down, and cut my music up.

As the wind drifted in one window and carried tunes out the other, I felt this sense of excitement.

“This is what summer is like,” I thought. “I need to do this more often.”

But then I remembered that it wasn’t summer. It was the last warm day leaving us at fall’s doorstep. School was about to start again, and I hadn’t even taken a break.

The uprisings begin

An activist Naira poses for a photo. This essay is part of Injustice Watch’s Essential Work project

On May 30, thousands of people took to the streets to protest the unjust treatment of Black folks, galvanized by the recent killings of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor, who both died after encounters with police. A lot of people went home after that. But some of us never really did — we stayed outside on our feet, sometimes for days without rest.

We threw block parties and organized food drives and grocery drop-offs. We gathered in healing circles, held silent sit-ins to honor the lives of slain Black women, and led training seminars about safety and abolition. We shouted down the heavens until our voices were gone, marching past people in Lincoln Park and Wicker Park eating at restaurants or jogging, still living their normal lives as if they didn’t hear our chanting.

People still managed to share their disdain for the block parties we threw. They did not understand how it was revolutionary for us to block traffic and dance in the streets. Some people can’t see what is liberating about a bunch of young Black and brown kids stopping white folks from being able to commute to their homes and jobs because they want to party to piss off the police.

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Video: ‘The allegory of the activist’

This short film is part of Injustice Watch’s Essential Work project, a first-person storytelling series by young Black Chicago activists.

Maybe our joy persisting through the violent crimes committed against us is an act of resistance. Maybe taking up space costs the city money, and we all know that money matters to Mayor Lori Lightfoot way more than all of our Black lives combined. Or maybe did anyone consider that it was summertime, and a bunch of Black kids just wanted to have fun?

Even if we were out there for no other reason besides wanting to enjoy life, why wouldn’t that be enough? In a city where too many of us have dead friends, why must our dreams die, too, when we decide we want to fight the system that is swallowing our loved ones whole?

Showing solidarity

An activist Naira poses for a photo. This essay is part of Injustice Watch’s Essential Work project.
For months, I was outside day after day, demanding liberation with my comrades, before folks started leaving for school, and the temperature dropped.

Meanwhile, the police viciously and violently pursued us for demonstrating our constitutional right to protest. When I would leave protests and go to lie in my bed at night, I could still hear chanting. I had nightmares about cops. I had nightmares about my friends being taken.

At one action we organized downtown on Aug. 15, police pepper-sprayed, beat, and arrested over 20 protesters. A cop hit me with his bike and crushed me before dragging my friend away from me. Instead of going to the emergency room, I went to the 2nd District police station at 51st Street and Wentworth Avenue with my comrades. We sat outside until cops released almost every protester.

When I visited the hospital four days later, I found out I had suffered a concussion and a strained trapezius. I hadn’t even changed out of my protest clothes.

“We deserve to have lives outside of our fight.”

An activist Naira poses for a photo, holding her braids.

The truth is, this work is hard, and it’s full time. And for most of us, it’s unpaid.

If we are so essential, we need our entire beings lifted up and not just part of us. My head is nothing without my body. My zeal and passion are balanced by going home and walking my dog and hand-dyeing shirts. Supporting us as people is just as revolutionary as supporting us as organizers, and we deserve to have lives outside of our fight.

I often think about the people I organize alongside and how they were my friends long before my comrades. Where did we agree to sign away our identities when we decided to fight for freedom? Do we not deserve support for all the other things we do, whether we are trying to make money or share our work outside activism?

I think about Jalen Kobayashi, a phenomenal organizer who was doing the work long before the wave this summer. We didn’t meet on the front line; we met six years prior when we were both poets competing in Louder Than a Bomb. Later, we did a summer internship together at Young Chicago Authors. We watched each other grow up, and we watched the transformation of each other’s art forms. And last summer, I watched them get beat up by the police and arrested.

People published think pieces about Jalen as an “activist” before they spoke about them as a human. Jalen makes jewelry, they rap, they are a phenomenal writer, and for months, folks saw them as a nuisance or a hero and nothing else.

I think about Alycia Kamil, who I knew as a poet before last summer. I knew she was a remarkable organizer with GoodKids MadCity, but not that she could sing, and I never knew she was a theater kid. I saw her get arrested on video before I found out any of those things. When she posts her podcast and workshop series that educates folks on the issues Black people face, I hope that the people who reposted videos from the day she got arrested don’t turn a blind eye.

I think about myself and how I had been waiting for warm weather, so I could practice skateboarding. I found out folks I knew skateboard, too, because a musician named Shawnee Dez and a skating group called froSkate organized protests on wheels, so that revolutionaries could have a chance to laugh, breathe, and still resist. But those protests did not get nearly as much coverage as the protests where police made examples out of us.

The world has turned the idea of freedom into an oxymoron for organizers. Many people believe that if we’re not risking our lives, we’re not worth their clicks and likes. But if you really love us and the work we do, celebrate all of us, protect all of us, and support all of us. Because when we share ourselves with the community, we share every fiber of our being.

An activist Naira poses for a photo. This essay is part of Injustice Watch’s Essential Work project.

Chima “Naira” Ikoro is a 22-year-old writer and activist from the South Side of Chicago. She currently attends Columbia College Chicago majoring in film and minoring in environmental studies. Ikoro is one-fourth of a collective called Blck Rising that focuses on mutual aid and organizing in the city.

This essay was edited by Adeshina Emmanuel with additional editing by Jonah Newman and Jackson Thomas. All photos were taken by Kaleb Autman. Emanuella Evans and Charles Preston provided project management support.