Residents and organizers camped out overnight at the planned site for the Obama Library to demand a community benefits agreement (CBA) protecting residents from being priced out of the neighborhood| Photo by Matt Harvey/The TRiiBE

On a typical day, the southwest corner of 68th & Blackstone appears to be nothing more than a vacant lot next to a viaduct beneath Metra tracks, one of about 1,200 vacant lots in the Woodlawn area. The disheveled mixture of patchy and overgrown grass, a tree here and there, trash on the ground almost as abundant as the weeds in which it’s tangled— yes, all the usual suspects of the South Side vacant lot are here. 

On June 11, though, there were new occupants. They came with coolers of water, boxes of snacks, sandwich platters, picket signs and banners, “Black lives matter” t-shirts, face masks and tents. These occupants were the Obama Community Benefits Agreement (CBA) Coalition. And the vacant lot, as their canvassing materials made clear that day, was Mayor Lori Lightfoot’s “Tent City.” 

The Obama CBA Coalition for the area around the Obama Presidential Center — a world-class museum and public gathering space — is composed of six community organizations and 20 ally members. The six core members include Kenwood Oakland Community Organization (KOCO), Southside Together Organizing for Power (STOP), Westside Health Authority, UChicago for a CBA, Chicago Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights and Black Youth Project (BYP) 100. 

Since its start in 2016, the focus of the Obama CBA Coalition has been to ensure that people living near the planned Obama Presidential Center aren’t disenfranchised and displaced as a result of gentrification. However, the “Lightfoot Tent City” rally and march on June 11 had just as much energy directed toward the goals of Black liberation and police abolition.

When I arrived at the “Lightfoot Tent City” lot at about 3:00 p.m., I met with Ashli Giles-Perkins and Paru Brown of BYP 100, who explained their perspective on the Obama Presidential Center. “It’s disheartening,” Brown said. “It’s something that should benefit the community, but then you hear that folks are going to be displaced.” 

The planned Obama Presidential Center is still in its infancy; no ground has been broken yet, but developers have already started looking to purchase space in the area. It will be located in Jackson Park and includes a museum, a nature walk and a plaza among other amenities.

“It’s way beyond a library now,” Giles-Perkins said. “They’re buying up all this land and it’s not benefiting anyone who isn’t at U Chicago.” The plans approved by the City Council for the Obama Presidential Center will take up about 19 acres of land in Jackson Park, and will increase the park size by 2.5 acres, according to the official website.

Brown is also a member of KOCO, and in being so, has encountered the displacement he speaks of up close and personal. “We’ve had people literally come into the office asking if we could help them find a place to stay for the night,” he said. “This is a president who says he wants to do good for the Black community, but you aren’t getting any benefit from [the center] unless you are part of the elite.”

“We would never dismiss the fact that having a center like this brought to this area could be good for the community,” Giles-Perkins said. “We just want the developers to be considerate of the people who live here and sign a community benefits agreement.”

In a broad sense, the Obama CBA Coalition is asking for a requirement that jobs be set aside for people in the communities around the Obama Presidential Center and the protection of housing for working families, those with low incomes and existing home owners, along with creating and supporting Black businesses and strengthening neighborhood schools. Their platform has been laid out specifically in their ordinance, proposed in 2019.

“A contract that promises to hire 50 percent of employees from this area, or an arrangement to put 50% of profits back into the community, something like that, that actually helps the people prosper. They [Obama Presidential Center developers] didn’t want to do that,” Giles-Perkins explains.

A proposed ordinance, called the Woodlawn Affordable Housing Preservation Ordinance, was drafted on Feb. 26 by Lightfoot’s housing department and later presented to the City Council, but was met with no enthusiasm from the Obama CBA Coalition. Her offer included $4.5 million dedicated to provide more affordable housing accommodations and support residents who are at risk of displacement. According to Block Club Chicago, 20th Ward Alderman Jeanette Taylor said Lightfoot’s proposed ordinance doesn’t do enough to protect current residents of the surrounding area from displacement. The ordinance sits at odds with the community benefits agreement ordinance which itself is backed by 29 aldermen, and addresses concerns beyond affordable housing such as employment and school improvement.

The recent murders of Breonna Taylor, and George Flloyd at the hands of police has tilted BYP 100’s programming heavily toward combatting police brutality and pushing police abolishment. Most recently they have been involved in organizing protests, including one at the Chicago Police Department (CPD) station on 51st and Wentworth, where protesters including Damon Williams, and Christopher “ThoughtPoet” Brown were locked up after Memorial Day weekend demonstrations.

Signs posted at the "Lightfoot Tent City" protest demanding the city to defund the Chicago Police Department budget, which is currently more than $1.7 billion | Photo by Matt Harvey/The TRiiBE

At the “Lightfoot Tent City” rally and march, there were signs demanding the city to defund CPD, abolish prisons and hold cops accountable for extrajudicial killings. According to Giles-Perkins, the plan was to occupy the city-owned vacant lot overnight — a space that they feel they should have the rights to before any outside developer.

“I don’t think that we could fix one without addressing the other,” Giles-Perkins said about the relationship between protesting police misconduct against Black people and protesting against the displacement of Black families. 

“They are two sides of the same coin in a white supremacist system,” Giles-Perkins said. “Even if you have affordable housing, you can still be left with schools in that area that don’t have new books, but have a police presence and metal detectors.”

It’s just past 4:30 p.m. and as I continued speaking with Giles-Perkins, the police presence surrounding us began to grow. I immediately noticed, based on the curious looks on many of their faces, that the cops pulling up to the “Lightfoot Tent City” rally and march didn’t seem fully aware of what was going on. 

I asked Giles-Perkins if they got a permit for today’s protest. “No. No,” she replied dryly. “It would be backwards with our principles to ask permission if we can occupy this city-owned land that we’re all paying for, just for them to send police here to keep us in line.” 

As the police presence grew steadily, the number of protesters also grew exponentially— from little over 100 to more than double that — as the clock moves closer to the 5:00 p.m. start time for the march. According to Giles-Perkins, the route for the march was to head down 63rd, to Cottage Grove, to Midway Plaisance, east to Cornell through Jackson Park and back down 63rd to home base at Blackstone. 

When the marchers finally occupied the street, led by Brown, they were followed by a half-mile long caravan of cars honking in solidarity, flanked by CPD SUVs blocking traffic on either side. Brown led the protest with chants of “Black Lives Matter,” “No Justice, No peace,” and “What do we want? When do we want it?”

The march started off without a hitch, and even gained new participants soon after it began. Some people even came out on their front porches to join the chants. I took a moment to regurgitate some of the information Giles-Perkins and Brown imparted to me, when a woman passing by with her daughter asked what the march was for. “Well okay,” she said affirmatively.

It was 6:30 p.m. on the dot when the march returned to home base at 63rd and Blackstone. Though the numbers decreased as some began to go home, the evening wasn’t winding down. Next up was a performance by artist Jay Tha Poet, a testimonial from ThoughtPoet, followed by poet and activist Kwyn Riley a.k.a Kwynology. 

Just as ThoughtPoet was getting started, I was called over by Sharon Payne of STOP. Payne had heard that I was reporting on the protest and looking for perspectives from the community to add to the story. She had spoken on behalf of STOP earlier in the day during a press conference.

“We need people to wake up and start fighting alongside us,” Payne said. She’s been organizing with STOP for 15 years, and fighting for an Obama Presidential Center CBA since 2016. She implores her well-off neighbors to use their voices. “I can’t stress enough how quickly your six-figure life can fall apart and you’ll need us just as much as we need you,” she said.

Kwyn’s voice echoed in the background of our conversation. Her poem about the pain of growing up loving a Chicago that didn’t love her back, ‘Windy,’ became the backing track to Payne’s testimony about the dangers or gentrification and divestment from Black communities. 

“We don’t need more golf courses,” Payne said. “We want these vacant lots so we can turn them into low-income housing. We don’t need a new fishing spot or nature walk. We need jobs for the people who are living below the poverty line.” 

According to a study done in 2019 by University of Illinois at Chicago, about 70% of people living within a two-mile radius of the planned Obama Center are considered low income, based on the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development standards.

“I’m of the many residents of the area who is at risk of displacement,” said Payne, who lives on 63rd and Harper, around the corner from the demonstration. “We need more people to join the fight before it’s too late. They’re gentrifying us out of our homes. This is a war that they are waging on us.” 

Kwyn received a round of applause as Payne finished her thoughts. It was 7:30 p.m., and even though I was heading home for the night, for the citizens of the “Lightfoot Tent City,” the fight was just getting started.