After the Dan Ryan shutdown, we need to march to the polls

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On Saturday, the city of Chicago’s longstanding failure to address violence in its underserved communities brought its residents into the streets and into the view of media from around the world.

Father Michael Pfleger of Saint Sabina Church led a peace march on the city’s Dan Ryan Expressway. After warnings from state police, and after a change of tactics by Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel, who announced at the eleventh hour that he was no longer opposed to the march, thousands of protesters streamed across the highway.

“We came out here to do one thing: to shut it down.” Pfleger said at the march. “Hopefully we got their attention.” Senior citizens, youth, pastors, ex-offenders, blacks, whites, Latinos, the unaffected, and the disaffected all answered the call to come out to march for resource access, fairness and equity.

A few days prior, during his Sunday service, Pfleger had sounded another theme of the march. “This is just not about gun violence,” he said. “This is about all the violence amongst us. Police on black crime, poverty, bad schools, incarcerated people coming back with no options, no jobs to go to, no housing for people to move into. We’re not stopping until the funding starts, and the resources come back into the neighborhood.”

He’s right. Poverty is an economic form of violence that produces inferior education, chronic unemployment, gun violence, shoddy infrastructure, and poor health outcomes. And racism contains and isolates poverty in black and brown communities as years and years of ineffective policy and legislation underscore the city leadership’s failure to come to grips with it.

And now the work begins. Like voting, protests are never a ‘one and done’ deal. There was not one, but three march attempts from Selma to Montgomery prior to the 1965 Voting Rights Act. The 1968 Memphis sanitation workers were on strike for not one, but 64 days. They then received federal wage guarantees and formal union recognition. During the first Poor People’s Campaign, protesters occupied the National Mall, residing in Resurrection City for 42 days. That helped get federal food stamps and nutrition programs expanded.

“This is step one,” Pfleger said during the demonstration Saturday. “Now comes the action.”

For a march to be effective, it must be linked with a demand. The demand must be put in the form of a policy, rule, or law that addresses the purpose of the march. Pfleger’s demand and goal were stated upfront and repeated Saturday hundreds of times: more resources and intentionality to mitigate community violence.

Once marchers achieve a goal, then voters must step in to sustain their objective. “If we don’t vote then this democracy doesn’t work,” former President Barack Obama said recently.

Government doesn’t work for people that don’t vote: never has, never will. Democracy doesn’t work for oppressed people unless we consistently highlight the failings of the status quo, and demand progressive legislative outcomes en masse at the ballot box.  As much as the under-served speak with their feet at the marches, it means nothing for the long term if we don’t speak into democracy’s microphone on Election Day.

It would bode well if the Dan Ryan march is one in a series of “Expressway to Justice Marches” tethered to voter registration drives—perhaps staging one per month alternating from the Dan Ryan, to the Kennedy, to Lake Shore Drive and the Eisenhower expressways. Every church, synagogue, mosque, student, teacher, parent, ex-offender, nonprofit leader and others concerned ought to participate. Then do it again. Marching long and often enough to force city leaders to devise and implement long-term solutions, while registering thousands of voters, may change the narrative.

It’s a both/and or a never/ever. March and vote.