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‘Black and Brown’ unity a complicated goal after George Floyd protests in Chicago

A year after race protests in Chicago sounded calls for unity, shifting racial demographics, longstanding segregation and differing views on the role of police influence efforts to unite Black and Brown communities.

Residents in Little Village marched to support the Black Lives Matter movement and to call for unity on June 3, 2020.
Days after protests started to increase after a police officer in Minneapolis killed George Floyd, community residents in Little Village marched to support the Black Lives Matter movement and to call for unity on June 3, 2020.
Anthony Vazquez/Sun-Times file

A week after George Floyd was killed by police in Minneapolis, a large crowd of mostly Latinos gathered under the arch leading to Little Village’s bustling 26th Street.

People knelt during a moment of silence for Floyd. The smell of sage swept through the crowd as part of an indigenous ritual.

Some people waved signs stating “Black Lives Matter” while others held posters proclaiming solidarity between Latino and Black communities.

The gathering reignited a rallying cry for Black and Brown unity after video depicting Floyd’s death led to a racial reckoning across the country. In Chicago, shifting racial demographics, long-standing segregation and differing views on the role of police have put that goal to the test.

Fear spread as looting escalated

Last May, as protests demanding racial justice were followed by outbreaks of looting and confrontations with police, Black and Brown unity seemed to hit a fault line.

Hilda Franco knew anxiety and tension would build in the neighborhoods when bridges into the Loop were raised to keep crowds out. She started to see social media posts about people acting as vigilantes, standing guard outside of businesses in Latino neighborhoods like Little Village and Pilsen because some feared unrest and vandalism would spread from downtown.

She and her sister drove through Pilsen, a community her family had called home for years, to strategize how to de-escalate the situation. She noticed in Pilsen and Little Village that Chicago police officers were around but didn’t seem to do anything to stop those who were swinging bats and threatening people passing by, she said.

“The police were allowing our people to police folks,” Franco said. “They created this racial tension.”

Franco said what was playing out was sensitive because she learned some of the calls to protect local businesses were driven by elders in the community, who were urging younger people to protect the neighborhood.

“As a community in terms of race and ethnicity, we are not monolithic,” Franco said about how various Latino communities responded to Floyd’s killing and the wave of protests that followed. “Oppressed people are not monolithic; that’s the issue with oppression.”

An art piece by Sentrock is part of The Black & Brown Unity Mural Project by various artists near the corner of 79th Street and Cornell Avenue in South Shore on July 19, 2020.
An art piece by Sentrock near the corner of 79th Street and Cornell Avenue in South Shore is part of The Black & Brown Unity Mural Project.
Anthony Vázquez/Sun-Times

Role of police key in unity efforts

The quest for a Black and Brown coalition dates back decades in Chicago, and its goals then were similar to today’s.

In the 1960s, the Young Lords, a Puerto Rican activist group, and Black Panther Party members in Chicago came together to call for an end to police brutality, said David Stovall, a professor of Black Studies at the University of Illinois at Chicago.

“It’s almost identical to what the issue and concern was — police operating as an occupying force,” Stovall said about the multicultural protests last summer where “Defund the Police” was a rallying cry. “Those same issues were on the table in the late 1960s. They are almost parallel in terms of what they were asking for and what they are asking for now.”

In the 1980s, a group of progressive Latinos was among a diverse coalition that led to the election of the city’s first African American mayor, Harold Washington, said Maria de los Angeles Torres, a professor of Latin American and Latino Studies at the University of Illinois at Chicago. Torres, who led the city’s Commission on Latino Affairs during Washington’s era, said even then there wasn’t perfect unity, pointing out how some around Washington viewed Latinos as activists rather than experienced politicians.

Rep. Jesús “Chuy” García, D-Ill., said Washington was a supporter of issues like bilingual education and immigration reform before he became mayor. The Chicago Democrat became an alderman in 1986, helping Washington gain a majority of support in City Hall.

Washington also had a bond with Rudy Lozano, a Latino leader among a progressive movement that had been taking shape on the Southwest Side, García said. Lozano was murdered in his Little Village home in 1983, and some have questioned the motive for his killing.

Washington later died of a heart attack in 1987. Efforts to fortify an alliance were set back by the loss of the two leaders, leading to a change in City Hall along with an increasing role in how corporate money played a role in politics, García said.

Demographics, segregation impact unity

The demographics of the city have also shifted. In 1980, Black residents accounted for nearly 40% of the city’s population while Latinos made up about 14%, according to an online analysis of census data by Rob Paral. Now, Black residents account for nearly 30% of the city’s population while Latinos make up about 29%, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.

Kobi Guillory, the co-chair of the Chicago Alliance Against Racist and Political Repression, said segregation in Chicago sometimes means different communities don’t realize they are protesting the same institutions.

“Once we sit down and start talking and helping each other, we all realize we are all fighting against the same system — the same white supremacy system,” Guillory said.

Aislinn Pulley, the co-founder of Black Lives Matter Chicago, said she likes to remind people that there are Black people who are also Latino, and she thinks that is often erased by the city’s racial segregation of neighborhoods. She thinks it’s a problem not just in Chicago, but it seeps into racism across the country.

“It is that much more important for our Black and Brown communities to work against that racialized segregation,” Pulley said. “The point is to segregate us and view each other’s fights as separated. It’s not true, it’s a lie.”

Still, there have been expressions of support and collaboration. Franco said organizers last summer stressed at rallies the message of “somos muchos,” meaning “we are many” who stand with the Black Lives Matter movement.

Signs that read “Mothers for peace” (left) and “Black Lives Matter” hang on the doors of the St. Agnes of Bohemia in Little Village before a march in Little Village on June 5, 2020.
Signs that read “Mothers for peace” (left) and “Black Lives Matter” hang on the doors of the St. Agnes of Bohemia in Little Village before a march in Little Village on June 5, 2020.
Anthony Vázquez/Sun-Times

A hotline was created to help Black residents in Latino neighborhoods navigate getting groceries or going to work during those initial weeks of unrest, said Amara Martín, founder of ChiResists. Mutual aid groups also formed to bail out people arrested at protests along with providing food and legal aid to those on the streets, Martín said.

Residents step up to ease racial tensions

Xavier Ramey, who lives in Pilsen, felt the racial tension last summer and suddenly felt unsafe going to 18th Street in the neighborhood. He was one of the community leaders who came together to plan how to de-escalate the racial tension.

“It was important for those massive displays of love to confront massive displays not of hate but of fear,” Ramey said.

He pointed out that there are people from both communities who think interracial solidarity distracts from a community’s demands and creates a form of dilution of racial progress.

“For those of us who are bridges and have a foot in all these different worlds, we have to keep in mind what we are not looking for is 100% agreement,” Ramey said. “You measure the possibility for change and the level of agreement in the people willing to move. We try to increase those numbers. That’s organizing.”

Many of the groups had already worked together on some level, which helped create an immediate sense of trust, Ramey said.

Tanya Lozano, the founder of Healthy Hood Chicago, said the fight for social justice is often divided because organizations are often too focused on a specific demand they are most passionate about, though she noted many still push for collaboration.

“It doesn’t create enough space to talk about unity as much as we should if it was a priority for all of us,” said Lozano, who is the niece of Rudy Lozano. “We would get our demands faster.”

Responses to Toledo, Alvarez killings mixed

In recent weeks, protests mounted after a Chicago police officer in late March fatally shot 13-year-old Adam Toledo in Little Village. Days later, Anthony Alvarez, 22, was fatally shot by a Chicago police officer in Portage Park.

Like last summer, there were pockets of Latino residents who backed the police and demonized Toledo, said Berto Aguayo, co-founder of Increase the Peace. He also saw Black activists who stood with the Latino community members who are calling for accountability in the shooting, Aguayo said.

Stovall attended a large protest that took place after video showed a Chicago police officer fatally shooting Toledo, and he noticed the unity among Black and Latino community members. He stresses that moments of unity need to be understood and examined.

“Tensions arise when people don’t know each other,” Stovall said. “If you have spaces where folks can get to know each other, there’s less chance of conflict.”

In the Hermosa neighborhood, the Segundo Ruiz Belvis Cultural Center has four events planned with community leaders that will start May 24 focusing on Puerto Rico’s African roots. Omar Torres-Kortright, executive director, said the center wanted to go back to the center’s history of activism while thinking of the anniversary of Floyd’s killing. He sees a link between the colonialism Puerto Ricans have lived with and the injustices happening in the Black community.

“The institutionalized racism that is our reality in our communities doesn’t really want us to unite because there is a lot of power that comes in uniting these communities that have so many things in common and so many issues that are affecting both,” Torres-Kortright said.

García remains hopeful that young activists will have fewer biases than previous generations of immigrants that brought with them classism and a sense of anti-indigenous views taught in their native countries. He also thinks technology and being bilingual will help bridge the language gap that has existed.

Ramey doesn’t think last summer’s call for unity ended all differences between Black and Latino communities, but he thinks that moment still mattered.

“The residents of Little Village, Lawndale and Pilsen — we all have a memory of when we came together in a moment of intense chaos,” Ramey said. “And no one can deny that. No one can deny that solidarity can happen.”

Protesters kneel to pay respect to George Floyd on 26th Street in Little Village on June 3, 2020.
Protesters kneel to pay respect to George Floyd on 26th Street in Little Village on June 3, 2020.
Anthony Vázquez/Sun-Times

Elvia Malagón’s reporting on social justice and income inequality is made possible by a grant from The Chicago Community Trust.

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