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On the morning of March 16, a coalition of grassroots organizers held a press conference at Rainbow PUSH Coalition, located at 930 E. 50th St., to stand in support of 2023 Chicago mayoral candidate Brandon Johnson. Residents of New Orleans and Philadelphia attended the event as well, and spoke about their experiences with Paul Vallas, Johnson’s opponent, during his tenure as former schools chief in their respective cities.

“We’re here as a preemptive warning to Chicago. We cannot allow Paul Vallas to become mayor here,” said Dr. Ashonta Wyatt, a former New Orleans public school principal. “What he’s done in New Orleans is an indication of what he’ll continue to do all across this country if we allow him the power of a mayoral seat.” According to a 2011 article in the The Times-Picayune, Vallas “closed traditional schools, opened charter schools and extolled the virtues of school choice.” 

As the event wrapped up, local activist Mark Carter and former Chicago 9-1-1 dispatcher Keith A. Thornton Jr. were among a group of Vallas supporters who entered the event and began shouting. According to Block Club Chicago, the group was connected to the Midwest Coalition to Stop Violence. They were escorted out, and held a separate news conference outside alongside other former Philadelphia schools executives.

AirGo Radio co-founder and #LetUsBreathe Collective co-director Damon Williams, a supporter of Johnson’s campaign for mayor, attended the March 16 press conference. He shared his thoughts about the event and its interruption with The TRiiBE.

(as told to Tiffany Walden, editor-in-chief of The TRiiBE)

For me, it’s important to name that Black politics is so much greater than the Black vote. The Black vote can be a tool of our politics. But for so long, the vote has been a weapon against us, and I think they’re trying to recreate and replicate that history. So I’m gonna say it, and I’m willing to be wrong, because I do get really annoyed with everyone saying every election is the biggest election. But it does feel like there’s a high likelihood that this will be the most important election I’ll have in my lifetime. Not only is the candidate that I’m supporting part of a larger political commitment that I’ve dedicated my life to, but the opponent is so harmful and toxic really. I’ve never seen such a stark divide; more than the Obama elections, even more than even the Trump elections.

Let me talk you through how the morning went. So I was invited to be part of the contingency of Black, South Side community organizing folks to stand in this moment and stand with Brandon Johnson. The OGs are there; [community organizer and Journey for Justice Alliance national director] Jitu Brown, [Chicago Alliance Against Racist and Political Repression educational director and field secretary] Frank Chapman, [former Kenwood-Oakland Community Organization executive director and 2016 IL state representative candidate] Jay Travis, [activist, University of Illinois-Chicago professor, historian and author] Barbara Ransby, the folks that I look to as our elders and have the longest record continuously of doing this work in our city.

Education, in terms of policy platform, was at the crux of the press conference. Also, the idea was, we can’t have amnesia in naming how harmful Paul Vallas has been nationally and globally to public education. Someone who participated in the hunger strike for Little Village High School in 2001 spoke at the event. Then there was a connection made to the [2015] Dyett High School hunger strike

Then there were mothers and organizers from both New Orleans and Philadelphia to talk about Paul Vallas’s record. Vallas went to New Orleans right after [Hurricane] Katrina, and they talked about the characterization of New Orleans public schools after that trauma and how vulgarly insensitive he was to the collective trauma of that community during one of the worst ecological tragedies in United States history. 

One of the things that Brandon Johnson said in closing, which I think was a really good point, is that public education and the state’s responsibility for education is pretty much the first political activity of Black people after emancipation. So what we’re witnessing is the destruction of our ancestors’s dreams. Brandon Johnson powerfully spoke to how he plans to continue that dream, evoking Martin Luther King, Jr. and connecting this larger investment into not just education abstractly but also that a healthy work environment and healthy learning environment has to be one in the same. 

So Brandon Johnson leaves, and there’s going to be breakfast. Jitu Brown offers to take a question or two. I didn’t realize what was happening because most of the folks were present during the press conference. [The Vallas supporters] asked a question, I couldn’t actually hear it but I started to hear Jitu Brown’s response. It became clear that their question had a pro-charter school framing. It became clear that their questions weren’t in good faith and that they were there to disrupt.

It’s important to know that this all happened at Rainbow PUSH. The breaking of decorum was really surprising for it to be happening in this space; a space that is known to be the buttoned-up place of respectability. But unfortunately, this activity isn’t new. They’ve been doing these types of threatening disruptions for years — and, our understanding is that it’s done at the behest of the establishment, no matter what the race is. 

Days after Pierre Loury was killed [in 2016], there was a vigil right where he was shot, right around the corner from where Freedom Square was. Some of the people participating in the disruption here [at PUSH] were there [in 2016] and took over the family’s vigil, threatening people, threatening me. This isn’t some random contingency. They have always been interrupting folks who are advocating for public education, organizing against police violence, organizing from an intersectional lens. They come with this hyper-masculine violence, even though there were women with them as well. They triggered a lot of people. They really upset a lot of the women that were there. It was extremely disrespectful.

In the video, Damon Williams of the #LetUsBreathe Collective delivers a powerful speech at an event commemorating the 4th anniversary of Freedom Square, a demonstration where Chicago organizers occupied an empty lot across from a Chicago Police Department “blacksite” for 41 days in the summer of 2016.

This is actually a testament to this moment. It’s not a coincidence that the Vallas base has now aligned itself with this counter-insurgency in the Black community. It speaks, I think, to what this moment is. 

There are a lot of patriarchal ideologies and logics that depend on and support capitalism. The conversation about charter schools versus public schools really ain’t about test scores. It’s not even really about learning conditions. It’s about how our social network, or social resources, are organized. Are they organized privately by for-profit billionaires, or are they democratic institutions? 

It saddens me and breaks my heart that it’s not that hard to get certain Black people to that place. I think maybe part of what they want is to create confusion. I’ve never seen it so clear cut, whether on the ground or actually in a politically established office, of there being a white racist campaign versus a Black liberatory grassroots campaign. 

I would say these bad actors are doing an effective job of making it look like the community is split, or like there is Black support for our own oppression, which is both angering, it’s disgusting, but it’s also sad. I think the major reason why Paul Vallas wants a Ja’Mal Green near him, or coordinates with a Willie Wilson, is because they know that they are not in good relationship to Black communities and it actually helps them embolden their base. You might be able to marginally get a few folks who might listen to Willie Wilson, but I think it’s more important for this pseudo-MAGA or explicitly MAGA, explicitly Blue Lives Matter, pro-cop, anti-teacher contingency to feel affirmed in their politics. There’s been a real ideological [backlash against] anti-racist politics . . . obviously, the conversation around Critical Race Theory, or the media’s investment in demonizing this terminology of “woke,” or naming the framing of our society as oppressive is harmful, or backwards or counterproductive. 

[Johnson’s platform] is a platform that has been built from the ground up. Whether we’re talking about the education work, or Treatment Not Trauma, these are things that came from the ground, that came from the soil. Basically, we’re choosing life and fertility versus death-making institutions or the lack of support of the public. 

Folks’s trauma and real-life experience is real, but the over-broadcasting of crime and violence is a political strategy to fear your liberation and to love your oppressor while trusting a messenger that does not care about you. Not only do they broadcast fear, they erase us. That’s a part of what made me comment on Ja’mal Green’s statements about only white progressives caring about public education and the investment into policing. That is something that we created.

Young Black people, dedicated Black people, educated Black people, uneducated Black people, we’re the ones who are from these communities who have experienced violence, who have lost loved ones, who have experienced the police, who have engaged in the Chicago public school system. We’re the ones advocating for this. Fear of harm, which is valid, should not make you dismiss the intelligence of folks that are bringing you solutions. White people are not coming up with these ideologies and ideas on their own. They’re learning it from the Black liberatory space that should be more centered in people’s understanding of Chicago and of our politics.

It’s important to note: whether it’s the Obama administration, whether it’s the Nation of Islam or Rainbow PUSH, whether it’s Arne Duncan, whether it’s Rahm Emanuel, Chicago has always been a table-setter for the United States. And so what becomes more possible here, if we vote for liberation, and we vote for progressive politics, it’s really significant for our nation and a great opportunity before us.

Don’t fear your liberation. That liberation takes work, and you should see yourself as a part of that work, as opposed to a passive observer. Our political movement is inviting people into doing that work. The fear-based politics are to demobilize people and to say, “Depend on us. We got you. We’re going to do it with the old tactics that have never served your community.”

Don’t trust your oppressor. And for folks who watch the news, know that they are keeping you separate from the people in your community that care about you the most.

is a movement builder, organizer, hip-hop performing artist, educator and media maker from the south side of Chicago, and Cohost of AirGo. He is the co-director of the #LetUsBreathe Collective, an artistic activist organization birthed out of supply trips to support the Ferguson uprising in resistance to the murder of Mike Brown.