By Ben Levenson
About a month ago I participated in a demonstration outside of Governor Bruce Rauner’s office. We sat for 10 hours in defiance of the governor, the budget crisis, and the politics in our state that are actively destroying our communities. This was part of a planned day of action to cap off the March to Springfield, a two-week 200 mile march from Chicago to Springfield organized by Fair Economy Illinois. With hundreds packed into the capital–we chanted, we sang, we shared stories of suffering of this human made crisis.
This all started over 2 years ago now, the last time Illinois passed a budget. Since 2015, our governor has been holding the state hostage for his radical right wing agenda of destroying unions and privatizing public services. The toll of this political maneuvering is devastating. One fellow demonstrator, Kelly, shared how the state owes Catholic Charities, the organization where she works, thirty million dollars. She is forced to try to pick up the slack caused by cuts and layoffs while people are dying on the street. Another demonstrator Erica, described the death of her cousin and the record breaking violence plaguing neighborhoods on the South and West Sides. She talked about how violence is exacerbated by budget cuts and a lack of programming for youth in her community.
So we sat and we sat and we took arrests because two years without a budget is ridiculous. But we protested not just because we want a budget. We want a budget for the planet and people of Illinois. A budget that funds human services, green jobs, healthcare, and infrastructure. A budget that creates real lasting jobs. We want a budget that is just. And the state of Illinois can provide all of these things. We just need officials and decision makers to step up for the people and not the big banks and corporations that do not pay their fare share of taxes. For more information about this budget, see the people and planet first budget at Fair Economy Illinois’s website.
For me–I’ve been involved with economic justice work as a leader at the People’s Lobby and a member of JCUA for the past couple of years. I do this work thinking about Illinois, but also about our entire system based on greed, corruption, and exclusion of the many by the few. This system does not reflect my values and it has hurt many people that I love. The hyper-competitive and status-based culture inherent in neoliberalism led to insecurity, anxiety, and tension in the community where I grew up; the stress to “get ahead” makes me feel like a shell of a person.
As a Jew, our world of inequality is antithetical to my tradition. I understand Judaism to be about tikkun olam and social action. I carry with me the exhortation to care for the poor, the sick, the prisoner, the stranger among us, because we were poor, sick, prisoners and strangers in Egypt; the teaching to not wait for justice, but to work for it; the history of Jewish leaders working for worker justice. I want to call on the Clara Lemlichs and the Isaac Deutschers of the world, who saw their activism as their Judaism. Their example teaches me to not forget our visions of a better world, to take action so everyone lives with dignity and the resources they need to thrive.