CHICAGO - A busload of journalists today from local and national media outlets left behind the downtown anti-NATO protests and met with residents of the city's huge Latino community who linked what the military alliance is doing worldwide to the violence and foreclosures they face in their neighborhood.
The bus trip to Pastor Victor Rodriguez's La Villita Community Church took the journalists along the sun-drenched but pothole ridden streets of Chicago's Southwest Side and along the 26th Street business corridor, home to 600 small shops and stores. The only business street in Chicago that pulls in more money annually than the La Villita shopping strip is the world-famous Magnificent Mile on the city's "fashionable" end of Michigan Ave.
Rodriguez, who runs a boxing club that he says saves the lives of many of the 60 kids who come there every day, is fighting what he calls a life and death struggle to keep kids off the street. "Two percent of the 90,000 people in this community are involved with gangs," he said, "but that's enough so that I can say with certainty that the gym here makes the difference in whether many of these kids will stay off the streets or be out there and get killed. Any cop will tell you that whatever you do to keep kids off the streets between 3 and 8 p.m. is saving their lives.."
What does all of this have to do with NATO?
"Sixty percent of our federal tax dollars go to the military," Rodriguez explained, adding, "In Cook County alone $9.8 billion will go to funding the military and wars. That's a lot of money that could be spent on youth, on addressing the violence and gang wars in our own neighborhoods."
Rodriguez, a conservatively dressed Latino man in his mid-fifties, does not look the part of the stereotypical NATO protestor but says he is proud to be part of the movement protesting the policies of the alliance. "I love my city, I love Chicago, it's the greatest city in the world," he said" but it is time we wake up and get our priorities straight. The city raised $36.5 million for this conference but can't come up with even $600 for a youth boxing club? With $600 we can give 120 kids the equipment they need to keep busy in here for a year."
Rahm Emmanuel, the city's mayor has boasted that the $36.5 million dollars for NATO-related costs, including $14 million for wine and caviar parties for 60 heads of state, was raised by World Business Chicago and not taken from taxpayers.
Leaders of Chicago's community groups and unions note, however, that Chicago taxpayers have already subsidized the summit by subsidizing NATO's corporate donors.
"Forgive us, but we are not impressed with corporations donating money towards champagne and caviar for the world's leading military figures," said Amisha Patel, executive director of the city's Grassroots Collaborative.
"African American and Latino children are dying from lack of jobs and investment in their neighborhoods, foreclosed properties are becoming havens for drug use and sexual assault, schools are being closed and we are supposed to be happy because big corporations raised some tens of millions of dollars for caviar parties. Those so called generous corporations took out tax dollars in the first place," she said.
Public records show that leading corporate members of World Business Chicago have indeed received large amounts of public tax dollars that they then put to their private use. United Airlines received $31 million, Boeing Airlines $24 million and the Chicago Mercantile Exchange almost $10 million. The Mercantile Exchange, Patel noted, spent the tax dollars on renovating its toilets. Many of the big corporations also received multi-million dollar tax rebates from the state, she added.
"Instead of raising funds for corporate junkets and NATO caviar parties," Patel said, "World Business Chicago should put their vigor into raising $100 billion for neighborhood jobs - summer jobs for youth, jobs for parent patrols to keep our kids safe, and jobs to clean up abandoned housing in our communities. A world class city takes care of its neighborhoods."
Photo: Victor Rodriguez, a board member of La Villita's Chicago Boxing Club, says $600 can buy equipment that will keep 120 kids busy in this boxing ring after school, five days a week for a year. Blake Deppe/PW