#259: Radical Departure

December 23rd, 2013

I recently came across a piece I wrote in 2009 for an early version of the Chicago Underground Library arts blog.

Now known as the Read/Write Library, the library is an amazing place where I used to volunteer, trying to figure out how to classify zines in a database and taking occasional forays into what I insisted on calling “liblogging.” (They tweet at @TheChibrary, a pun I came up with that went over a little better.)

The arts blog was going to follow Chicago’s creators and social innovators. I wanted my contribution to be a dry run for this site, a chance to get a little limber at the literary journalism before investing in this project.

The piece is a bit cringe-inducing to me now, but not a letter has been changed since I sent it off in ’09, even the typo about “a billions dollars.” So let’s take a trip to 2009, when a city was trying to figure out what to do after the International Olympic Committee told it to fuck off.

They lost the crowd, to be true.

They lost the crowd, who would rather yell to, of, at each other about what the problem is. What is the problem? Is it me? Is it you? Is it racism? Is it apathy? What. Is. The. Problem?

Not a great question, especially since it’s nowhere near the one they gathered to ask.

This week, WBEZ, The Public Square and the Mansfield Institute for Social Justice and Transformation gathered four activists and academics to a panel discussion called “After the Olympic Bid: What’s Next For Chicago?”

The session, held at 6 p.m. Dec. 1 at Roosevelt University, was designed around a simple question: How can activists harness the energy that the Olympic bid generated?

That’s it. That’s all. A city’s dreams (and more than a billions dollars) were raised for the bid, which was sold to investors as a way to improve Chicago. How can the people really interested in improving the city generate the same interest?

“I think that we as progressives, as radicals, have an opportunity to come up with a progressive, radical vision of what this could be as a city,” said panelist Adam Green, a University of Chicago professor and the only person I’ve ever heard said “stadia” and “fora” instead of “stadiums” and “forums.”

We’re going to save the world, we know. We’re going to be the ones to get it right, right?

Right?

If the future of Chicago is based on “After the Olympic Bid,” then we as a city are lost, as lost as the cable that connects my camera and my computer. (In other words, there aren’t going to be any pictures with this entry.)

I don’t blame the panelists — Green, spoken-word teacher Kevin Coval, organizer Amisha Patel and Amy Skeen, who runs a girls sports nonprofit. Yes, moderator Natalie Moore of Chicago Public Radio could have kept a firmer hand on the discussion, but several people seemed to come there to yell.

When one man held up a copy of a book he said everyone needed to read – and then named the progressive bookstore where people could buy it — and then pointed out a bookstore bigwig in the back of the room (the bigwig waved), I left. I cut out a half-hour before it was set to end. It was my own radical departure.

It wasn’t that the forum wasn’t asking tough, important questions. It was that it asked them once and then opened up the whetstone so everyone could grind their own axes.

The group started talking about harnessing post-bid inertia but ended yipping about whether the left is weak or strong. Honest and true, that’s how it went.

The major revelation of the event for me was not from the discussion. It was spoken-word artist Aja-Monet, a Brooklyn transplant and the youngest Grand Slam Champion of the Lower East Side’s Nuyorical Poet’s Cafe. She, along with hip-hop bluesman Sharrieff Muhammad, opened the forum.

While Muhammad’s lines were merely fresh, dynamic and powerful, Aja-Monet was a revelation. Carl Sandburg as a young, African-American woman. Chicago’s new laureate.

It was Amy Skeen, the girls sports activist, who put the night’s bickering in the best perspective for me.

“I think the saddest thing would be if everyone leaves here tonight thinking, ‘Somebody needs to do something’ without realizing we are that somebody,” she said.

“Yes,” I thought to myself as I pulled on my coat (the old man had yet to shill the book). “We are the somebody. But what’s the something?”

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