The Fearless Civic Imagination of Chicago Youth


Friday night, directly on the heels of the Chicago Teachers Union “Day of Action,” the IIRON Student Network (ISN)organized an unexpected protest at the Chicago Symphony Orchestra.

Such a raucous, public action at a nominally nonpolitical cultural institution like the CSO is a jolt. The typical setting for demonstrations are workplaces, municipal and government buildings, and sometimes even the homes of public figures. Occupying public spaces and marches, whether specifically mapped or roving, both have strong traditions in American activism.

But this was something else. Protests at cultural institutions usually take some event or some work of art as its target, yet ISN was there to push the state of Illinois to restart funding for Chicago State University. The reason for choosing the CSO was as imaginative as it was analytic. Two of the CSO’s large donors, Sam Zell and Ken Griffin, are also underwriters of Governor Bruce Rauner’s attempts to overhaul state government. In 2014, the real estate magnate Zell donated $17 million to the CSO; Griffin, who runs the Citadel hedge fund, has given to the CSO for over a decade. By demonstrating at the CSO and specifically calling out the connections between Zell and Griffin and the effects of the Rauner’s governing, the ISN re-opened a contentious political front — the philanthropy of the wealthy.

The industrial elite of the late-19th Century — Rockefeller, Carnegie, Sage, and so on — pioneered modern models of philanthropic giving. In the face of serious critique about how they created their wealth and how they used it to their own benefit, the great “Robber Barons” experimented with ways to best give their money while also protecting personal and business interests. This did not inure them from charges of self-interested giving, such as Teddy Roosevelt’s bromide, “no amount of charity in spending such fortunes [as Rockefeller’s] can compensate in any way for the misconduct in acquiring them.” But these criticism did prompt Rockefeller and his peers to create explicitly non-partisan avenues for their giving — places like foundations, universities, museums, libraries, and symphony orchestras.

This is not to suggest that these kinds of donations lack either political intent or influence, but rather their assiduous anti-political appearance make analyzing these activities much more difficult. Who could complain about a kind gift to the symphony? Why question generosity?

Certainly some still do, whether it is the many protests directed at the Gates Foundation’s wide ranging initiatives to promote social change or self-consciously, self-styled “disruptive” philanthropy emanating from Silicon Valley. The difference between these critical assessments of charity and Friday’s protest at the CSO lays in the ISN’s keen eye for the connectivity among political operations. Instead of focusing on a giving program, on a charitable foundation, or even an particular philanthropic field, these Chicago youth keyed on wealthy individuals supporting both the governor’s political agenda and historic cultural institutions. It was Sam Zell and Ken Griffin who were identified for their role in withholding funds from Chicago State University. These men were called out inside the same building where they have been so celebrated.

Such a bold move has the effect of piercing the nonpolitical persona of the CSO. No longer a just a hub for high culture, the orchestra has been tabbed as complicit in a contentious political effort bearing down disproportionately heavy on Chicago’s Black, Hispanic, poor, and young peoples. This redraws the political map. The CSO is now a site of demonstration conveniently located downtown, which is ironically opposed to its traditionally distant, discouraging relationship to many Chicago communities. What was inaccessible has been made immediate through activism.

And we can ask the question, where next? Which other institutions that have happily taken donations from Griffin, Rauner, Zell, and their ilk — which of these institutions will be the next protest site? Which, if any, might seek to downplay their connection to the governor’s backers?

In the short term, this seems unlikely. One protest does not upend the deeply established architecture of wealth, influence, and respectability. But the ISN’s insight into Chicago’s political geography helps us see something new: a landscape of power and money and a map to new sites of activism.

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