Insurgent Midwest: The Constructing Solidarities Symposium

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by Ken Salo, Zsuzsa Gille and Efadul Huq


[Editor’s note: the Public i requested contributions on this important conference from both organizers and academic attendees; these perspectives have been integrated into this article.]

On September 8-10, delegates from grassroots movements-in-resistance to evictions in Cape Town and Chicago gathered in Urbana-Champaign. This encounter was the latest phase of a two-year project to construct trans-local solidarities through building networks of shared local praxis. Convened by UIUC’s Humanities Without Walls – Insurgent Midwest project, about 10 delegates from three grassroots organizations—the Housing Assembly and Pathways to Free Education from Cape Town, South Africa, and the Chicago-based Autonomous Tenants Union—gathered to recommit to their shared vision for creating a more humane urbanism, to share organizing experiences, to express solidarity with the different struggles and to formulate common projects and future actions.

Before moving on to share the diverse issues, themes and perspectives that this gathering produced, we would like to say a few words about the title of our project. Its central aim is to provoke a series of insurgent epistemological encounters between active and activist scholars who are differently situated in struggles for more humane socio-spatial changes; between those with academic and those with territorialized commitments; and between ethnographic knowledge and the experiential worldviews of subaltern actors. Moreover, we use the language of insurgency not only in its usual meaning of forceful intervention but to suggest a clearing of different pathways for radically destabilizing authorized forms of power, knowledge and territorial organization. These clearings, we argue, are the sites where activists envision, experiment and construct their desired new socio-spatial relations out of the ruins of older realties rooted in relations of unequal exchange.

Transnational Dialogue for a Humane Urbanism

At the public symposium, the room was packed, with many only able to stand for both the kick-off event on Saturday evening and the all-day Sunday session. The talks were thought-provoking and the discussions passionate.

Scholars usually only study activists and their organizations, and it is unusual and frowned upon to give them a more active role than that of a research subject. Here the goal of the faculty, mostly in UIUC’s Urban and Regional Planning Department, was to understand the similarities and links among cities’ recent experiences with urban development, the privatization of public space, the mortgage crisis, and the attendant evictions and disenfranchisement of residents on the margins of society. Prior research and activist experience has shown the benefits of two types of collaboration: that between grassroots groups focused on different single issues, mostly labor and housing, and that between organizations in different countries. These cross-sectional and transnational ties are becoming ever denser, but they have not actually been documented and analyzed by scholars who equally see the need for political solutions to urban inequalities.

The task was thus to understand what forms of resistance and community organization work in similar situations in different parts of the world, and not just with the goal of learning from each other but also to explore how transnational alliances among these movements and organizations might help their cause. It is to the credit of the University of Illinois that its Illinois Program for Research in the Humanities funded this collaboration through the Global Midwest program.

The presentations by activists actually revealed even broader and richer synergies among issues than previously expected. The Autonomous Tenant Union, for example, mobilizes against multiple displacements—not just exclusion from low-rental housing due to gentrification and evictions, but also against deportations. Johnae Strong, representing the Grassroots Education Movement and Black Youth Project 100 in Chicago, told how organizing on one issue inevitably made activists “stumble” onto another and recognize the need to articulate their connections. For example, Black Lives Matter and the sanctuary cities movement both shed light on state violence and thus reveal the urgent need for safe spaces. However, as more and more public schools are shut down in South Chicago and as this same area is lacking a trauma center, one quickly recognizes how the state withholds its protective shield from certain undesirable citizens. While thus connecting racial inequality, health care and education, seemingly separate policy arenas, community organizers (that much ridiculed term in the 2008 elections) are finally allowed a glimpse of the Right’s long-term and broad vision for the city. Interestingly a Palestinian activist found many similarities between Palestine and “Chiraq” [using a controversial term that mashes up ‘Chicago’ and ‘Iraq’ to indicate a veritable war zone in parts of the city].

Lest one thinks this sounds like some conspiracy theory, we need to heed urban sociologist Michael Goldman, who came down from the University of Minnesota. He explained how the many seemingly unique and contradictory tendencies in big cities are tied together by the strategic maneuvering of finance capital, whose ever more sophisticated investment practices dictate what gets built where, quite independently of not only what is needed but also of what there is a market demand for. Building luxury apartments is not more profitable than building low-cost housing, but the former can more easily be securitized into globally circulating bonds. Thus even if these buildings are not even half filled, they still bring in billions in profits.

This of course raised the question of the time horizon of these movements. Are they forever stuck in reactive rear-guard action and caught up in protecting their communities in small battles day-in and day-out, or can they take a step back, allowing them to see the forest from the trees and articulate alternative visions?

Most did indeed articulate alternatives, but for some this was a concrete political strategy, while for others a whole new way of looking. The Autonomous Tenant Union argued against collaborating with elected officials or indeed even with the liberal cultural elite, and claimed that if it were up to them they would move directly to call for expropriation of private housing. Others stressed education and exploring indigenous ways of being and new ways of connecting class and race inequalities.

Field Notes on a Local Convergence of Grassroots Movements in Insurgent Motion

Grassroots movements of poor people are resisting their brutal evictions from public and private urban land and shelter in ways distinct from liberal struggles for individual citizenship rights. Despite the different realities of living in the peripheries and centers of our historically unequal, diverse and urbanizing world-system, emerging practices of collective resistance possess familiar features as responses to the devastating social problems wrought by new, global rounds of capital “accumulation by dispossession.”

A key common characteristic is territorial rootedness in spaces reclaimed through disruptive, insurgent and often illegal occupations of public and private land and housing. These occupations, often episodic, sometimes endure as collective “takeovers,” or the taking back and transformation of formally authorized places into informal and unauthorized territories for asserting new subjectivities, socio-political actions and reciprocal social relations.

A second common characteristic is autonomy from neoliberal corporate state formation, its political parties, labor and religious allies. This autonomy rests on reviving popular democratic cultures of decision making via self-organized people’s assemblies, and increasing the capacity for producing independent means of material subsistence. This model seeks self-sufficiency, usually via waste reuse and recycling, and producers’ familiarity and involvement with all phases of production.

A third common feature is increasing the capacity for self-educating and training members, families and children through active, performative and democratic education practices that build on lived experiences of resistance practices. The educational space is the whole occupied territory, and every resident is trained as an organizer and teacher; campaign slogans include “each one teach one” and “everyone an organizer.”

A fourth feature is the role of women and extended families as the mainstay of movement activities to extend existing networks of care, health and well-being beyond their biological families. Groups of families often shelter under the same roof, working community herb and produce gardens in Cape Town’s occupied territories.

These brief observations are not conclusions and represent only tentative aspirations, flows and movements in worlds that are constantly in motion. Nevertheless they are a barometer from which we can sense the profoundly humane quality of the social bonds among supposedly dehumanized activists forced to occupy territories from where, we think, the anti-systemic solidarities necessary to transform our present exploitative world will most likely arise.

To find out more about the project, go to


Ken Salo is an activist scholar who works to support struggles of racially oppressed, exploited and excluded poor people for dignified livelihoods in the urban peripheries of segregated Cape Town, Champaign and Chicago.

Zsuzsa Gille is Professor of Sociology and Director of the Global Studies Program at UIUC.

Efadul Huq is a doctoral student in urban and regional planning at UIUC. He studies environmental governance and urban informalities in Bangladesh.

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