Building Participatory Democracy in Chicago

If you are interested in organizing for local power in Chicago please get in touch with Nick Kreitman at

Building Participatory Democracy in Chicago

We live in a unique time in Chicago history; finally we are witnessing the erosion of the political machine in local politics. After decades of scandals, an increased eye turned towards city hall from federal investigators, and the defection of many major labor unions from Daley’s coalition, the political machine is limping along on the major contributions from downtown developers. Another blow to the political machine has been the mobilization of the progressive Hispanic community over issues of immigration and assimilation. Similarly, Chicago’s progressive white community has been invigorated by the anti-war movement and is engaged in a myriad of “greening” projects which have largely been frustrated by Daley, either used solely as symbolic propaganda tools, or totally fumbled like the city recycling program.

Frustration in Chicago’s black communities is also coming to a head, with rampant gang and police violence wracking neighborhoods already suffering from limited school resources and an increasing number of school closings. Although the problems of Chicago’s predominately black neighborhoods are dire, hope is being restored as Obama’s campaign, along with other rising local black figures like Jesse Jackson Jr., are bringing a new momentum towards the impetus for change in Chicago.

Most importantly, Chicago’s youth are again paying attention to politics and are becoming active participants in politics. The Jena 6 mobilizations saw hundreds of student across the city organize busses to Jena, Louisiana, in addition to organizing solidarity actions to support the defendants. Much of the energy of the recent immigration rallies was from the youth, organizing by the thousands through myspace, text messaging and at high schools and shopping malls. Mobilizing this generation more than any other issue however has been the occupation of Iraq and imperialistic foreign policies of mainstream politicians of both parties. Barack Obama has managed to direct this upsurge in youth enthusiasm to launch a historic presidential campaign, which has already trained hundreds of dedicated youth/student volunteers from Chicago, who will be returning from positions around the country as seasoned electoral veterans after the election in November. We are in an exciting time; we need a strategy that can combine our peers’ heightened expectations from politicians and an enormous reservoir of trained volunteers returning from Obama’s campaign into a lasting transformation of society.

Substantive political change is possible only through political organizing at the most fundamental levels. In Chicago the most fundamental political identity is the ward, or neighborhood district that is guaranteed a representative on City Council. Our focus has largely been on challenging corporations like Boeing, or on challenging national political figures like Dick Durbin. This approach has not yielded results because we have not challenged the source of these institutions’ power, the Chicago Democratic Party Machine. Boeing is in Chicago because of the enticement package given to it by City Council, and Durbin banks on the turnout efforts of the machine each election. Our explicit agenda outlined in SDS’s name is to build a democratic society, but we have ignored the fact that the most logical launching point for a democratic society is the neighborhood we live in and the precinct we cast our vote at. Instead we have made “radical demands” on City Council, only to have our demands fall on deaf ears. Without building our own power in Chicago we will forever be at the mercy of the well organized political machine that will never deliver a resolution against a war on Iran, or for supporting military desertion, nevermind materially support such efforts, no matter how “militantly” we “demand.”

We can change direction however. Not only are we students, but we are situated in Chicago wards. Together with others in our communities we have the leverage to build a democratic society beginning in the wards in which we live. If we can use our talents and energies to build a democratic society in our wards we can present a new challenge to Daley’s machine, one that is directly democratic and empowering to everyone in the ward community. We have the potential transform the role of alderman from an authoritarian “representative” of the machine, into a delegate on City Council voting the wishes of a participatory ward assembly where the entire community can be empowered. Precincts, or district divisions within the ward with a physical location where people can vote, can be organized as the basic units of political deliberation within a new democratic framework for a ward.

Changing the identity of the ward into a directly democratic community, with a candidate selected from the ward assembly to serve as a delegate on city council would be revolutionary. Almost all social services received by Chicagoans are directed by all-important departments of city government. If we are serious about improving public housing, ensuring quality public education, ending police harassment, and transforming our local economy, organizing along ward lines is imperative. Ignoring City government will only make us irrelevant as we will continue to be locked out of making the decisions materially affecting our communities. Revolutionary organizing means working to build directly democratic institutions today, and building these institutions will require engaging and challenging the power of the machine in the wards.

The success of this campaign depends on the energy of those interested in making participatory democracy in Chicago a reality. Our success will hinge on our ability to engage in meticulous and democratic project planning, including our ability to execute our decisions. The rest of the document is structured as a project plan for the initiation of a local, ward-based political organization, tentatively called Chicago Solidarity Movement (the name is irrelevant).

If you are interested in organizing for local power in Chicago please get in touch with Nick Kreitman at

September/October 2008

-Attract around a dozen interested organizers to hold an initial meeting of the Chicago Solidarity Movement

-Hold a weekly or biweekly study circle on Chicago politics, focus on Harold Washington’s campaign in 1983, Richard J. Daley’s Democratic Machine, and the contemporary “growth-coalition” of Richard M. Daley

-Establish an online domain where directed reading sessions can be followed by those unable to attend meetings

-Outreach to graphic designers to begin designing thematic graphics for organization

-Debate and select which ward to begin the initial ward organization

-Build a database of 200 potential student volunteers at campuses across the city through organizing successful social events like movie showings, parties and activities like softball/Frisbee

-Make contact with every existing student group on each university campus across the city

-Outline a budget for the next two month period, write a provisional constitution for Chicago Solidarity Movement

-Map out points of interest in the selected ward with volunteers and local establishments who offer to host events

November/December 2008

Dedicate time from the study circle to research issues within selected ward

-Make contact with all influential social organizations in ward, identify allies and begin discussion about creating a process for a creating a search committee for an aldermanic candidate for 2011 election

-Identify provisional structure for resident participation in ward assembly

-Build a database of 100 ward resident supporters

-Expand student volunteer database to 500 names

-Create orientation program to student volunteers about the ward, its history and its issues

-Begin outreach (canvass) effort to ward residents about a ward specific platform, and a city-wide platform

-Identify opportunities for student volunteers to build social programs to help serve ward issues, begin recruiting students specifically for Chicago Solidarity Movement operated social programs (for example free SAT tutoring)

-Identify space within the ward to use as a temporary office, begin planning to move to a permanent office space

-Begin full scale fundraising operation to finance temporary/permanent space and draft compensation procedures for organizing expenses e.g. gas, coffee for meetings etc.



Filed under Uncategorized

4 responses to “Building Participatory Democracy in Chicago

  1. olivia

    Bravissimo! Ash and I would like to assist you with organizing in January.

  2. Честно говоря, сначала до конца не понял, но со второго раза дошло – спасибо!

  3. не уверена что это так) хотя спасиб

  4. Подписался на RSS, буду следить =)

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s