Las Vegas Conference a Reminder of the Need for Continued Vigilance

Below are reflections from Jane Ramsey, executive director of the Jewish Council on Urban Affairs (JCUA), on this year’s American Sociological Association Annual Meeting, which was held on Aug. 20 to 23 in Las Vegas.

By Jane Ramsey
Executive Director, JCUA

Slot machines at McCarran International Airport in Las Vegas

When I stepped off the plane in Las Vegas, I was astonished by the immediate sight of hundreds of slot machines, literally steps from the gate where we deplaned. This soon became a familiar sight, as slots are everywhere — in the hotels, in the restaurants, in the grocery stores — truly everywhere. The flashing lights lure with the promise of winnings and fun. For me, the flashing lights and their presence at virtually every turn was a sad reminder of the exploitive and predatory nature of casinos.

Dr. Calvin Morris, executive director of the Community Renewal Society, and I, were in Las Vegas  to speak on a panel spotlighting Chicago organizing entitled “Faith Activists: Justice, Community Revitalization and Reconciliation,” at the annual meeting of the American Sociological Association (ASA).

The meeting was moved to Las Vegas after the planned Chicago location became untenable due to the protracted hotel labor dispute at the time of ASA’s planning. Thus, understandably, the conference was moved and Las Vegas had enough hotel spots to provide for the more than 5000 members.

As JCUA has learned over the two decades plus we have been fighting the introduction of casinos into Chicago, the industry lures individuals, families, seniors, and low income communities to its doors. For the most vulnerable, lowest income targets, the casinos have offered money to get started and free transportation, and promises of so much more — all to profit from the targets’ larger losses and dashed hopes.

As I am writing, in fact, Mayor Emanuel has stated his intention to fill the City’s empty coffers with winnings from a Chicago-based casino — winnings that will come from the very residents whom the City touts it is responsible to protect. The casinos line up backers like Emanuel with sales pitches stating that they will largely generate revenue from tourists, not residents of Chicago. However, this information does not hold up in research study after research study.

Chicago, already a world class city, attracts tourists for its’ culture, beauty, shopping and myriad assets. Studies confirm that casinos will not be a factor in growing Chicago’s tourist base.  For these reasons, and so many more, JCUA, and our allies, have requested a meeting with Gov. Quinn to urge him to hold firm on his expressed reservations regarding expanded gaming in Chicago.

The irony is that the substance of our gathering in Las Vegas — the many presentations about issues and communities of interest to the sociologists, political and social activists from around the country — were remarkable and thoughtfully examined a vast array of issues.  In particular, a session preceding my session with Dr. Morris reflected upon the Grant Park protests, politics, events and aftermath of the 1968 Democratic Convention. Among those reflecting were political and civil rights activists including Tom Hayden (“Chicago 8” member), Michael James (Heartland Café), Marilyn Katz (MK Communications, Inc.), Frances Fox Piven (professor, CUNY).

The discussion provocatively and thoughtfully explored the movements that led up to and followed the Democratic Convention — the building of alliances in Chicago across race, faith and class that laid the foundation for the historic election of the city’s first African American mayor and reformer, Harold Washington; for the broad based coalitions that advocated and achieved social change in Chicago and beyond; and for the 2008 election of President Barack Obama.

The importance and relationship of movements to electoral politics was affirmed and debated with panelists differing on the nuances of where to place emphasis, but agreeing on the necessity of both to achieve changes that result in a more just society. Finally, the challenges that resulted from the fractures and turf wars on the left were explored with hope and implications of lessons learned for today.

Our panel built upon these analyses.  We reflected on the role faith activists have played for decades in Chicago, aligning with aggrieved groups seeking to bring down the oppressive Chicago political machine and often challenged by the machine’s efforts to divide, conquer and co-opt any challenge to its dominance and authority.  We also explored the divisions each of us face within our own communities where sparks and push back are a common thread when we engage and work to move our own constituencies into partnership with others for our shared progressive justice agenda.

The contrast between the realities of a predatory Las Vegas backdrop with the American Sociological Association’s progressive, visionary and insightful presentations was stark and fascinating. Perhaps the juxtaposition generated a renewed sense of urgency for justice and change. It did for me.

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