Yesterday, a friend shared a petition with me. It’s by a man named Timothy Lee and opens:
We want RBS Citizens to call off the eviction and provide an opportunity for my family to stay in our home. Before Mrs. Lee passed we grew up in this house and we are not planning to leave any day soon. This means we will not let anyone evict us form our home. We want to continue with the mortgage before it went default so that we can stay in our home.
I have several friends here in Chicago who are very active in the anti-eviction movement and their actions have deep historical roots in this city. It’s no secret that I am fairly obsessed with the Black American Communists of the early to mid-20th century. I actively seek out information about their lives and work. Many years ago, I read an article written in 1931 by Horace Cayton that was published in the Nation Magazine. He was a well-respected sociologist who studied black life. In “The Black Bugs,” Cayton recounts a scene that he observed in Chicago while eating in a restaurant: “I chanced to look out the window and saw a number of Negroes walking by, three abreast, forming a long uninterrupted line. On going outside I was informed that they were the ‘black bugs’ — the Communists — the ‘black reds.”
Cayton decided to join the group and march alongside them, curious as to what he would find. He wrote:
Turning to my marching companion I asked where we were headed for, and what we would do when we got there. He looked surprised, and told me we were marching down to put in a family who had been evicted from a house for not paying their rent. Things were awfully tough down in the Black Belt now, he continued, and jobs were impossible to get. The Negro was the first to be discharged and the last to be hired. Now with unemployment they were hungry, and if they were put out in the street their situation would be a desperate one. The Negroes of the community had been exploited for years by the unscrupulous landlords who had taken advantage of prejudice compelling the Negroes to live only in that district, and had forced them to pay exorbitant rents. Now, continued my informer, hard times had hit them and they were being turned out into the street. Furthermore, as the Negroes did not know their legal rights, the landlords would simply pitch their few belongings out of the window with no legal procedure at all. They, the Communists, were going to see that the people were not treated in this fashion.
This passage reads like it could be written today and in fact, it probably has been and is being written dozens of times across the country. The episode that Cayton writes about in 1931 ends predictably with the police arriving and beating the crap out of the Communists who had stopped to hear a soap box speaker. Cayton describes the chaotic scene:
Then the riot squad turned into the street, four cars full of blue-coated officers and a patrol wagon. They jumped out before the cars came to stop and charged down upon the crowd. Night sticks and “billies” played a tattoo on black heads. Clubs came down in a sickening rain of blows on the woolly head of one of the boys who was holding her [the soap box speaker] up. Blood spurted from his mouth and nose. Finally she was pulled down. A tremor of nervousness ran through the crowd. Then someone turned and ran. In a minute the whole group was running like mad for cover. One of the officers shot twice at one of the boys who had been holding up the woman speaker. The boy stumbled, grabbed his thigh, but kept on running. The woman was struggling in the arms of two husky policemen. It was all over in a minute, and all that was left was the soap box and the struggling black woman. I turned and left.
It would be rare today for the police to use this level of violence against anti-eviction protesters. Still, putting one’s body on the line to prevent an eviction often comes with the risk and even the likelihood of an arrest. I have a ton of respect for my friends who take this chance regularly. The very least that I can do is to sign a petition supporting Mr. Lee’s right to stay in his home. I hope that you will too!