Activist Bill Drew pictured with his wife, Gloria. Credit: Photo courtesy of the Drew family

My old friend Bill Drew died on May 14, and I’ve been reflecting on the impact he had on his community – in particular on the movement for political independence on the Southwest Side – as well as the impact he had on my life.

In many ways he reminded me of Milt Cohen, the political organizer who helped elect Harold Washington as mayor (and who also recruited me to journalism), whom I wrote about in my first column in this space.  Both Bill and Milt were old radicals who immersed themselves in neighborhood issues.  Both were white activists who devoted themselves to the empowerment of people of color.  Both had a remarkable tenacity, both had constantly searching, questioning minds, and both dedicated themselves to energizing and inspiring people to get involved.

Bill left a record of his quest, a memoir he published online after he learned he had cancer shortly before his 66th birthday.  It’s a testament to his rigorous self-honesty and realism, and it’s a redemption tale – the story of a pugnacious kid from an Irish Catholic family in Waukegan who got swept up in the anti-war movement at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, and who spent a decade in Milwaukee organizing support for factory strikers, victims of police brutality, and everyone from farmers to local Native Americans.  He spent a year in prison after jumping a police lieutenant who had a young demonstrator in a choke hold.

Only after his memoir was published did I learn how Bill had first touched my life.  As editor of a left-wing paper, he had learned about and publicized the campaign of the United League of Mississippi, which was boycotting businesses in Tupelo to protest police brutality and demand jobs for blacks.  It was 1978, and I was a college student and joined a campus group that travelled to Tupelo for a solidarity march.

It was definitely educational. I still remember the huge church meeting that greeted us, the haunting melody sung by a contingent of striking poultry workers – “Walking that picket line a mighty long time, I’m not tired yet” – and the confrontation with a column of about 40 masked Ku Klux Klan members who tried (and failed) to force United League marchers off the road.  And at a rally in front of city hall, I remember seeing Klansmen in full regalia stepping out of the police station to observe and menace.

Bill had moved to Chicago by then, and I met him around that time.  He was a jovial, enthusiastic, salt-of-the-earth type guy.  But after the movement that he’d thrown himself into began to falter in the 1980s, Bill descended into a downward spiral of drinking and drugs.  His memoir gives an unsparing account of that descent, of hitting bottom and digging himself out.  He taught himself computer programming and built a successful career.  He married Gloria, a hospitality worker whose emergence as a leader of Chicago Public Schools lunchroom attendants he recounts with pride.  He raised two excellent sons.

I heard from Bill again in 2009, when he began organizing support for a local art student who’d been charged with murder after he defended himself – with the Exacto knife he carried for the purpose of sharpening pencils – when he was jumped by a carload of kids.  At Bill’s urging, I attended the student’s sentencing hearing, where his teacher and minister were joined by neighbors including a former cop and a Chicago Fire Department lieutenant speaking on his behalf.  Bill also organized a block party to raise funds for the young man’s legal defense and promote positive activities for youth.

His memoir says this event represented “activist Bill reborn.”  The next year, he was organizing precinct workers for the campaigns of Rudy Lozano Jr. for state representative and Jesus “Chuy” Garcia for Cook County Board.  He put his computer skills to use building the database for the TIF Illumination Project. That project, which has schooled thousands of people across the city in how tax increment financing works, wouldn’t have been possible without Bill, according to Tom Tresser of Civic Lab.

A couple of years later, Bill was diagnosed with inoperative pancreatic cancer.  He faced the news with incredible courage – he would tell me that he viewed it as an opportunity, a spur to double down on his political efforts and deepen his appreciation for his family. At a 66th birthday party after the news, scores of old comrades travelled from Milwaukee and elsewhere to pay him tribute.

He fought the cancer with the same determination he’d fought the powers that be over the years, and he won five additional years of a purposeful life.  His main focus was on building the McKinley Park Progressive Alliance and expanding that into the 12th Ward Independent Political Organization.  He was proud that in the 2015 election, that group had full contingents of volunteers staffing every polling place – and that, unlike many progressive campaigns, the volunteers were folks who lived there.

Here’s part of his clear-eyed assessment of the 2015 election, in which Garcia forced Rahm Emanuel into a runoff: “When all the votes were counted, we were not the kind of movement that could that could topple Rahm Emanuel’s coterie of global power brokers.  We are a populace fragmented by the cunning of the One Percent.  We rose up to fight back.  We lost.  And yet we gained a lot.”

Bill had a vision – and it is slowly coming to fruition – of a network of IPOs across the Southwest Side.  The organizational form harks back to the small-d democratic political organizations that emerged to fight the Democratic machine in the 1970s, under independent aldermen on the North, West, and Southwest Sides.  (The only IPO continuously operating since then is in Garcia’s 22nd Ward.)  It was necessary to remain active between elections, he maintained, and his groups held educational forums year-round.  One issue he highlighted was the questionable practices of the national charter school network run by the Turkish Gulen movement, whose Concept chain opened a school in McKinley Park in 2013.

That’s what was special about Bill Drew.  He looked beyond the daily grind that bogs down progressive activists.  He asked how we could take things to the next level – and he was a consummate master of figuring out the next step, and the step after that, and inspiring people to move forward together.

I am among many people who will miss him.  But he left a strong legacy – and many people in place to continue his work.

Curtis is an opinion writer for The Chicago Reporter.

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