Ja'Mal Green (with megaphone) marches in Loop during December 9, 2015 protest. (Daniel X. O'Neil)

Ja’Mal Green (with megaphone) marches in Loop during December 9, 2015 protest. (Daniel X. O’Neil)

There’s a growing new political power infrastructure in Chicago’s African American communities. Led by young activists in their teens and early twenties, it is characterized by coordination through social media, management by individuals rather than organizations, and strengthened by a network of people fed up with Chicago machine politics. This network of protesters, as many have told The Daily Line, could play a critical part in 2019, if only they were less fractured, and more concrete in their demands.

“I think it’s the youth, man. The youth are stepping up,” said South Side activist Ja’Mal Green, echoing a recurring response about the changing political climate in Chicago. Green became a familiar face in photos of the dozens of protests around the city, and was arrested in a clash with police. “The older leaders are taking a back seat and they understand their time has come. The people with the biggest platforms are youth that have fresh ideas that want to be progressive, that want to change things for us and our kids. They’re rising up, getting involved in politics, becoming activists. Everybody wants to be involved in the decision-making.”

“They’re young, African American males, who have large followings on social media,” said Rev. Corey Brooks, pastor of New Beginnings Church in Woodlawn. “They have a very strong base of individuals who work with them and collaborate together. If they ever come together, it would be a very difficult task for the mayor to overcome that group.”

The Neighborhood Perspective: A Five Part Report From The Daily Line

Monday, Part 1 – Community Leaders: Frustrated With Emanuel Administration, But Waiting, Hoping For Improvements

Tuesday, Part 2 – A New Group Of African American Influencers Taking The Stage

Wednesday, Part 3 – Challenges For Mayor Emanuel: Trust, Violence And Development

Thursday, Part 4 – Chicago’s Wedge Issues And Emerging Challengers

Friday, Part 5 – Their Words: Raw Comments From Our Interviews With Community Leaders

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This new crop of political influencers build their reputations through a cycle of successful protests, media visibility and calls for action on social media. They distrust leadership, including those in their own communities, including African-American pastors. Some, who yielded significant influence because of their close ties to the fifth floor in the Daley days, are losing traction among these youths.  

“They’re doing things without looking for handouts from the politicians,” said LaCreshia Birts, an organizer and student at Kennedy King College. “I think the trustworthiness is why black pastors have lost support.” The Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement has had a growing presence at Kennedy King, Birts explained. “People have not always said they are satisfied about BLM. But there seems to be some satisfaction that they’re doing something, and it’s causing others to come out and do more.”

“Historically, people talked to the churches to talk to the black vote, and that is less effective because people coming up are not as connected to the church as they used to,” said Kevin Bailey, an activist recently elected as 20th Ward Democratic Committeeman.

From the local chapter of Black Lives Matter, BYP100, to supporters of CPAC and Assata’s Daughters, the youth are passionate, but are not unified by a policy focus. Largely organized around demands for changes to police policies, these groups spring into action with every police shooting.

At this time last year, they blocked doors to retailers along Michigan Avenue on Black Friday, shut down traffic on Lake Shore Drive, disrupted traffic near the NFL Draft in Grant Park, and repeatedly called for the Mayor’s resignation. Through winter and spring of 2016, they consistently staged gatherings outside Chicago Police Headquarters on 35th Street, demanded firings at monthly Police Board meetings, and attended nearly every public forum on police accountability.

“[Technology] has created a new system of influencers that are younger and more savvy. They really turned social media into this pool that will protect them and expose so many things that are going on. The youth and some of those younger ministers are really becoming the people in these meetings,” said Frankye Payne, Executive Director of the Southwest Chicago Chamber of Commerce.

When the mayor’s handpicked Police Accountability Task Force (PATF) held forums at high schools and community centers across the city, members of these groups staged protests–and in one instance, at Sullivan High School in Rogers Park, rushed the stage and shut the meeting down two hours early.

Members of these groups, largely supporters of a Civilian Police Accountability Council, kept up attendance at the City Council’s Public Safety Committee forums and the Progressive Caucus hearings, setting up tables to hand out flyers, buttons, and petitions to get an elected board to oversee the police department. While the efforts to bring about an elected oversight board fell short, some of those protesters had found a seat at the table.

Mayor Rahm Emanuel has made efforts to reach out to these leaders, inviting them to meetings at City Hall. Police Superintendent Eddie Johnson has been especially active, handing out his personal cell phone and conducting one-on-one meetings with activists, in an effort to hear their concerns before they become protest signs.

“[Johnson’s] very persistent in calling me and leaving voice mails, that he wants to work with me, you’d never see [former Superintendent Garry] McCarthy calling anyone,” said Green.

The Daily Line reached out to the Chicago Police Department for comment on Supt. Johnson’s meetings with youth organizers, outreach goals, specific achievements, and the perceived gap between CPD’s efforts and how communities view the department. Anthony Guglielmi, a CPD spokesperson, responded, “The Superintendent does meet regularly with community leaders and activists. He has a continuing dialogue and very open relationship with them about ways to increase trust between CPD and the minority communities. He has personally done a lot to breakdown some of the barriers–especially racial ones–that exist between communities and officers.”

The mayor’s office did not respond to similar questions before publication. But our sources agreed first addressing the demands of those groups is key to the mayor clawing back some of the 57% vote advantage he won in majority black wards in the 2015 election.

“The Laquan McDonald shooting, the reform of the Chicago Police Department and the investigation by the Department of Justice is all hovering over his [Rahm’s] head. And as long as that stuff is hovering over his head and we have these activists out here continuously marching in the city and those things are not just going away,” said Richard Wooten, a retired Chicago police officer and one-time 6th Ward aldermanic candidate. But the tall task doesn’t guarantee defeat. “Even if he doesn’t do that, it’s still going to be hard to get him out of office, because there’s no viable candidate that has come forward or has been making a move toward the fifth floor.”

While many of the new influencers have been successful staging protests, there is little agreement among them as to what their goals should be or a potential challenger to the mayor. And because the leadership is fractured, based on an individual’s ability to attract demonstrators to a protest, rather than institutional strength, it has been hard to draw the leaders together to agree on policy demands.

“It’s in complete chaos. I’ve never seen anything more undisciplined and disgusting,” said Rev. Jedidiah Brown, activist and pastor of the Chosen Generation Church in Woodlawn. “I attribute it to the older leadership not passing their batons, and now you have a bunch of charismatic young people like myself having trouble because we’re too busy fighting one another.”

“They all have a common enemy from their perspective, it’s not about being friends, it’s about having a common interest,” said Rev. Corey Brooks. “I think if he underestimates them, it would be the biggest mistake he’ll ever make. If I were mayor, I’d take lessons from what just happened to Hillary Clinton. It is not impossible.”

Many of the new African American youth leaders reject alliances with traditional institutions or leaders, claiming they’ve been tainted by past political deals or compliance with white establishment leaders.

“Those people have let a lot of people down. Clergy, aldermen. There’s a new generation of young people able to vote. [The others] are tied up in the same broken promises,” said activist and rapper Malcolm London. London, a protester in his early 20s, was the subject of his own hashtag after his arrest in November of 2015.

“Some of the folks see that pastors have become developers and entrepreneurs through relationships they created. They don’t speak because they’re trying to make sure they don’t damage a relationship with a political person or party because they resource me through things. My day care. My development. Now they’re silenced,” said Karl Brinson, Executive Director of the NAACP West Side Chicago Branch.

“I’m not a political strategist, but I think that people were led astray by their leaders, a lot of religious and community leaders that I think Rahm paid off and now they’re seeing what’s happened,” one union organizer who works on the South and West sides said.

Anita Alvarez’ reelection defeat for Cook County State’s Attorney by Kim Foxx in Spring 2016 has become a major cause celebre for the new youth organizers. But few sources The Daily Line spoke to shed light on political organization for future elections.

“I think these are activist circles for sure, but how they influence the political, it hasn’t been harnessed yet. The apparatus hasn’t been harnessed to vote for X. The apparatus to vote against, is there, like the vote against Anita [Alvarez]. I don’t know if the powers that be are calling those names,” said South Side activist Anton Seals, Jr.

The time to start reaching out is now, several sources said. “The challenge that organizers have… They need to start identifying someone. They need to find someone shortly to get their name out there, because it’s going to be very difficult to find a majority amongst leftovers,” one experienced citywide campaign manager said. “If Chuy and progressives were interested in running, they would be courting the black vote now. If they don’t know you, [they’ll] go with the devil [they] know.”