Why We Disrupted the University of Chicago’s Fundraiser

By Daniel Kaplan
JCUA Community Organizer

Sun Times Photo

Members of the Trauma Care Coalition, a group of students and community activists, block the northbound lanes of Michigan avenue Thursday evening to demand that the University of Chicago provide a Level 1 trauma center for residents on the south side of Chicago. | James Foster/For Sun-Times Media

“Trauma Center Now!”

Last night, the University of Chicago hosted an event at the Ritz Carlton to raise money for its capital campaign. Students, alumni, faculty, and patrons came out to financially support the university. They were not alone.

More than 60 members of the trauma center coalition came from across Chicago to protest, including JCUA. Chanting and marching, we demanded that the university reopen the level 1 trauma center it closed in 1988.

Nine protesters chained themselves across Michigan Avenue, blocking traffic. Seven other protesters registered for the capital campaign event, and disrupted the program multiple times.

JCUA members did not get arrested, but they did disrupt the event inside. We participated in this protest because we recently joined a coalition organizing for a trauma center at the University of Chicago. There are currently no adult trauma centers on Chicago’s South Side, leaving people shot in South Side neighborhoods without access to nearby emergency care.

► JCUA’s involvement in the trauma center action could not have been possible without the efforts of its members. You can become a JCUA member by registering here.

Trauma Center Coalition members blocked Michigan Avenue in an act of civil disobedience.

A recent study by the Illinois Department of Public Health identified the University of Chicago Medical Center as the best positioned South Side hospital to operate an adult trauma center. Yet for five years, the university has ignored calls from the community to open one up. Even as they raise $4.5 billion for their capital campaign, the University of Chicago claims they are financially unable to run a trauma center.

The Disruption

Our decision to disrupt was not an easy one. While civil disobedience and disruption are not new for JCUA, some attendees expressed discomfort in undertaking these actions. Nonetheless, we felt it was important to participate as full members of the coalition in this action.

In the lead up to Thursday’s protest, we had conversations with members about their feelings and concerns regarding confrontational tactics. Some members wondered if our approach was too antagonistic towards the University and its donors. How would donors perceive the disruption? Would they be alienated from hearing the message of the campaign? Is it ethical to disturb the peace by crashing an event or blocking the flow of traffic?

I know that many of JCUA’s supporters share similar concerns. I therefore think its important to extend the conversation we had with members to the broader JCUA community.

The value of civil disobedience

Strategically, civil disobedience and disruption are indispensable tools for advancing campaigns. These confrontational tactics are necessary when people with power refuse to listen to the community.

Powerful institutions often think that if they remain unyielding for long enough, they can outlast the efforts of organized communities. They need to know they’re wrong, and nonviolent escalation gets that message across. The coalition’s actions demonstrate our strength and determination, and put more pressure on the University of Chicago to respond to the coalition’s demand for a trauma center.

Confrontational tactics are also important because they garner media attention to our cause. Last night’s protest received coverage from the Chicago Tribune, NBC 5, the Chicago Sun-Times, and several other news services.

The disruption also brought the message of the trauma center campaign into a room designed to insulate people from confronting it. Because of the disruption, the University of Chicago’s supporters heard that a Trauma Center would cost less than one half of one percent of the money raised in the capital campaign.

Disruption can be framed as antithetical to discussion and engagement. Yet how many more people have heard about the trauma center because of this action? Inside the capital campaign event, some attendees booed our disruptors. Others applauded and joined in on the chants for a trauma center. Our disruptive tactics elevated the discourse, created more discussion, and potentially brought more people to the cause.

March 5th disruptors

JCUA members celebrate after successfully disrupting the fundraiser.


Why now?

As new coalition members, the action may feel abrupt to JCUA supporters. It’s important to recognize that the decision to disrupt was anything but. The trauma center campaign is five years running. During that time, the coalition has repeatedly attempted to engage with University officials and donors. The university has stonewalled the coalition, only reciprocating engagement on its own terms and in deflective ways.

The coalition needs to pressure the University of Chicago with escalation tactics because they have not otherwise been moved. The university decided to raise the age of the its pediatric trauma center only after the coalition disrupted its fundraisers, its expansion attempts, and its bid for a presidential library. Until the University of Chicago agrees to sit down to a regional meeting with hospitals, politicians, and community leaders, they leave us with no other choice but to disrupt.

Our civilly disobedient role models

From the civil right movement to immigrant rights to the AIDS Crisis, activists and organizations secured crucial social justice victories through civil disobedience. JCUA itself may not have come into existence without civil disobedience. After seeing civil rights marchers attacked in Gage Park, JCUA’s founder Rabbi Robert Marx chose to take an active role in civil rights disruption tactics. Rabbi Marx did not come to this decision lightly. In a letter to the Jewish Federation, Marx wrote,

“Some of you will accuse me of helping to create violence. To this, I respond that I am not inciting to violence, but rather it is those who prohibit free men from peacefully marching who do the inciting.”

Martin Luther King after being hit by a rock during a march through Gage Park in 1966.

Martin Luther King after being hit by a rock during a march through Gage Park in 1966.

Rabbi Marx took a position that many considered abrasive, confrontational, and inappropriate. In doing so, he crossed over a line that landed him on the right side of history. We have an opportunity to carry JCUA’s origins into 2015 and take bold stances for righteous and necessary change. May our disruption bring a trauma center to the University of Chicago.

JCUA will honor trauma center campaign organizer Veronica Morris Moore at our annual seder on March 19th. Purchase your ticket today!

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