by Gabriel Piemonte
Actions always reveal priorities. It does not matter what a person says. You have to keep your eye on the ball, so to speak, in order to learn what is important to someone.
Last night, most of the South Siders who tried to attend a Fifth Ward meeting featuring representatives from the Obama Center and the Tiger Woods Golf Course were shut out of it. A big reason for the Obama Center people’s attendance was to gather input related to their project. (I’m not so sure that’s a motivation for the golf course people.) A topic that drew 600 people last week was planned for a room that held just 75 people. Alderman Leslie Hairston explained, not very helpfully, that the room had been reserved a year in advance.
In other words, ward meetings in the Fifth Ward are not planned based on the needs of the community but instead so that the alderman doesn’t have to be bothered with such small details once they are worked out. The significance of the topic at any given ward meeting is apparently unimportant in our ward. What matters is that the alderman not have to be troubled with details.
This puts her in a collision course with the will of the ward’s residents, who strongly desire information, engagement, access, and a role in the decision-making process. She is also standing directly in the way of several projects planned for Jackson Park, including the Obama Presidential Center, representatives of which have articulated a desire to collect input from all residents on their design. Whether that process is sufficient is another issue to be addressed, but what’s important here is that their efforts were thwarted by the alderman’s indifference.
Undeterred by Hairston’s poor planning, residents took advantage of the warm night air to discuss the same topics they had come to talk about at the meeting. When we were warned to leave or the police would come, I don’t think any of us took that seriously. After all, we were gathered peacefully, we were obviously all serious-minded folks, and who calls the police on a gathering of registered voters attempting to engage with an official they elected?
Apparently Leslie Hairston does, or her staff does, or, worst of all, they let employees at the location of their meeting – La Rabida Hospital, in this case – treat the citizens of the ward like criminals. The Fifth Ward staff and the Fifth Ward alderman should feel ashamed that this transpired. Fortunately, the police were courteous and polite and simply requested that the crowd make a way at the hospital entrance. As soon as they showed up, however, some people began to disperse. That’s no surprise to me – we got lucky with the police we drew. Another pair would have handled the situation much differently.
We all deserve an apology from Hairston, who instead seemed peeved last night that people didn’t just go away. I just don’t know what to say about her testy comment that the room reservations were made a year ago. I felt like we were trying to take her table at a fancy restaurant. “These reservations were made a year ago.” Big deal. Unmake them, and get a place big enough to match the need.
I am sorry to say that this is part of a larger pattern of arrogance and indifference among public figures on the South Side. These people have forgotten – or never really knew – that public service is, first and foremost, service. You serve at the pleasure of the people. Even those who run or work for private institutions need to understand this. Do not let your generous salary fool you. If your institution serves the public, you are there so long as you treat us well.
We need a social revolution on the South Side. We need regular people representing regular people. Some of the power that is in the hands of people like Leslie Hairston needs to be returned to the people. It is this belief that has led me to advocate for local development councils in other posts.
The challenge we are facing is that people are not taking us seriously. How do we change that? I believe that we have to organize as a massive voting bloc, demand greater control over local decisions and definitively punish whoever stands in our way.
This is not just a matter of being peeved as a result of being disrespected or frustration resulting from clumsy and indifferent planning. Across the South Side, poor leadership is literally a matter of life and death. We have huge problems that are going unaddressed while our alderman cannot be bothered to make room reservations. The key to making any headway on issues like crime, education, and public health is to listen to the people and to put their views about how to solve these problems at the center of the equation.
The people, given opportunity, resources, and authority, will outperform any one leader. We have to take back control over the conversation about managing change on the South Side. The stakes have never been higher.
(photos by Anne Holcomb)