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Anti-Violence Activists Reclaim The Streets in Pilsen

Charles Dahm blesses homes in the Pilsen neighborhood


Anti-Violence Activists Reclaim The Streets in Pilsen

Pilsen residents have a long history of responding to violence with vigils, demonstrations, block parties, masses, and even basketball games, reclaiming corners that have succumbed to violence and demonstrating their unified opposition to the bloodshed.

The tradition goes back at least as far as the street masses held by St. Pius V in the 1980s.

“If somebody was shot in a place, then we did a mass at the site,” explains St. Pius V pastor Father Charles Dahm. “We’d bless the place, support the family, and make a statement against the violence.”

Father Chuck celebrates mass in the street

Father Chuck celebrates mass in the street. Courtesy of Father Charles Dahm

Block clubs and more organic, spontaneous coalitions have carried on the tradition over the years, and in 1999, The Resurrection Project (TRP) and the Little Village Community Development Corporation formalized it with the creation of the Resurrection Basketball League, a sports program that brings teens in from various neighborhoods to play basketball and promote peace in gang “hot spots.”

“We needed to be creative about fighting crime,” then-organizer Alvaro Obregon told the Chicago Journal in 2007. “If we hide from the bad stuff, then they win.”

Today, the League’s Friday night games have grown into block parties with a range of activities, from soccer and Zumba classes to face painting and a cook-out. The season closes with a peace vigil and Friday night mass in the St. Vitus plaza.

This past year, when young community organizers in Pilsen and Back of the Yards searched for ways to respond after the shooting death of a 17-year-old girl rattled their communities, they decided to take the strategy a step further and spend all night in the street.

“Somebody said, ‘Why don’t we just camp out?’” said Berto Aguayo, TRP’s safety and nonviolence community organizer. “It took a whole meeting to convince ourselves it was feasible.”

They held the first all-night “Camp Out for Peace” in Back of the Yards. Twenty community organizations and an estimated 200 residents came out for the event. They have since held additional camp-outs in Pilsen, Humboldt Park, and Little Village, using each as an opportunity to share stories and strategize about ways to reduce violence.

“We don’t sleep; we organize,” said TRP Director of Collective Impact Sal Cerna. “It gets personal.”

Organizers held another camp-out in early April 2017 and are planning more for the spring and summer.

– Jessica Pupovac