By Benjamin Rossi
A Google search can say a lot about a person. Most peoples’ names yield, if anything, a professional webpage or a Facebook profile. Type in “George Blakemore+Chicago,” and the search engine dredges up dozens of PDF files, the minutes from public meetings of the Park District, Forest Preserve, Cook County Board Committee meetings and many more going back for years. The minutes often note a few public speakers, along with their occupation—vice president of a union chapter, patient, social worker, professor. Appearing next to George Blakemore’s name: simply “Concerned Citizen.”
Blakemore has turned that generic title into a personal calling card of sorts. He is perhaps Chicago’s most prominent concerned citizen. Anyone who has ever been to a public meeting has seen him and heard him speak. He makes appearances at almost every public meeting held by government agencies on the city, county and state levels within city limits. Not everyone agrees with what he has to say, and some view him as a troublemaker or an annoyance. Others think that he is, in some ways, a model citizen. But few know how he got to be Chicago’s gadfly, or exactly how involved in government he is.
At the Park District Board of Commissioners meeting in early April, Blakemore approached the dais to speak. His face was set in its usual, dour expression. Blakemore has high cheekbones and a small jaw, unevenly matted by a graying beard. Tall and thin, he walks with his shoulders slightly stooped. Today he wore a charcoal gray suit, canary yellow shirt and a flower-patterned tie. Blakemore used to come in wearing his street clothes: tattered plaid shirts, sweatpants. But he has started to dress up for public meetings in the past couple of years, he says, so that people will take him more seriously. He still carries around his famous shopping bags, filled with papers, books and sometimes snacks. And his hair—a loose tangle of mini-dreads—has remained the same.
“My name is George Blakemore and I am a concerned citizen,” he began. His voice was soft, slightly hoarse, as if he were unsure of himself. “I am also looking forward to this new transition that is happening, a new day, I’m sure, with our new mayor.
“However,” and here his voice rose and he leaned forward, facing the commissioners. “I hope that even though most of the board members will be here because you say you have a defined term, most of you will see yourselves as independent of the mayor. In-de-pen-dent. You have a tax base that doesn’t depend on the mayor. You’ve been flexing your muscles good, we have a very good park district, but it could be better. We need you to think out of the box and as an independent board. We don’t care, we’re glad, we welcome our new mayor, but we want you to continue in your program and we don’t want you to be influenced by the mayor. We want you to be the servant of the taxpayers, the citizens of the City of Chicago.”
The secretary of the board reminded him that his two minutes were almost up. Blakemore switched gears, asking about Loyola University’s deal with the Park District to develop and use an indoor track facility at Broadway Armory Park. Will the hours that Loyola uses the facility interfere with the hours that other citizens would like to use the track? “It’s good, this agreement, I’m not against it, but it must always work for the good of the most people.”
Blakemore turned away from the commissioners and faced the audience, his finger raised pedagogically. “This is the most important part of the public meeting, when the people speak. Thank you all, and all of you, have a blessed day.”
“Someone said, every teacher is a preacher,” Blakemore told me. “I still consider myself as a preacher: not religious, but I’m still teaching by my activism in the community.”
Blakemore is perhaps best known for helping change the name of the El stop at the Harold Washington Library Center from “Library-State/Van Buren” to “Harold Washington Library-State/Van Buren.” The Chicago News Cooperative wrote about the name change in The New York Times, portraying it as a populist show of largesse on the part of the outgoing Mayor Daley. Indeed, Blakemore says Daley’s personal involvement in his campaign to raise awareness about Harold Washington’s legacy changed his view of a mayor he has criticized for the past twenty years. “I knew he had power, but I didn’t know he had compassion,” he says.
The issues Blakemore addresses in his public testimonies range from putting more benches in public parks to some of the most contentious problems that face local government, like the recent controversy over Oak Forest Hospital. But throughout his years of public speaking he has often returned to a number of core themes. He is a tireless critic of the way the city and county fills minority contracting goals, pointing to corruption at the Office of Contract Compliance, which certifies minority and women-owned business enterprises, and the Office of the Purchasing Agent, which procures goods and services for Cook County agencies, as well as their city government counterparts.
“These companies were being formed by African-American men or women who were used as fronts by Caucasian company owner/operators just to satisfy the minority quota for that contract,” says Tony Peraica, former commissioner for the Cook County Board who himself has a reputation for eccentricity. During his tenure, Peraica says “George was dogged in his pursuit of those minority-contract-abuse situations.”
Another area to which Blakemore called attention during Peraica’s tenure was abuse at the President’s Office of Employment Training (POET). Blakemore inveighed against spurious job-training programs that failed to provide community members with real world skills in exchange for government grants. “He was on the money with that,” Peraica says. In fact, a lot of people were indicted, and Shirley Glover, who was POET’s director, went to jail for a couple of years for stealing money. “So clearly he was on to something real,” he adds.
Laurence Msall, president of the Civic Federation, a non-profit government research group, similarly sees Blakemore as an important contributor to civic life. “The requirement for public hearings is maybe not the most efficient way for the government to operate, but George’s participation and other citizens’ help assure that the government is operating in a public and transparent way,” he says.
Blakemore has advocated for some of the Civic Fed’s proposals in his public testimonies, including the separation of the Cook County Forest Preserve from the County Board of Commissioners. “He raises some very profound issues for our local government,” Msall says. “Such as examining the basis by which resources are allocated, the level of debt, sometimes raising rather sensitive issues related to race, affirmative action, issues of minority rights and minority representation. These issues sometimes make public officials uncomfortable, but are important issues for discussion.”
For some, Blakemore’s testimony is more like a sideshow, a jolt of caffeine in the very dry proceedings of government. Blakemore himself seems to relish this role. At one meeting, he overheard a union representative sitting next to him murmur “it’s showtime” as he stood up to speak. He liked that. “It’s something unique about me and my presentation that people listen,” he says.
There’s no denying, however, that both in his public testimony and in private conversation Blakemore’s rhetoric can be harsh, and strikes some as offensive. His criticisms of city government are sharp and well-informed, yet there’s an additional element of racial labeling that seems to reflect a worldview as divided as the city itself. On the other hand, as his friends and supporters contend, he may simply be trying to provoke. He insists on calling Maxwell Street Market, where he used to make a living, “Jewtown.” He’ll talk about people, even to their faces, as if their ethnicity is their primary characteristic: that Puerto Rican police officer, that Jewish reporter, that Polish union representative. As we were walking down Wells in the heart of Old Town one unseasonably warm March afternoon, Blakemore pointed to a Hispanic woman pushing a stroller carrying a white child. “The black woman has to learn it’s a new day in America. You can’t even be no damn nanny without an education. You got to be smarter than that Mexican woman!”
“There are some instances when you need the velvet glove instead of the hammer,” says Jerry Butler, Commissioner for Cook County’s 3rd District. “George has only got the hammer. I think he bullies to make his point. He’s very consistent about what he’s trying to achieve, but he may be going about it in the wrong way.”
Blakemore’s views about the use of public resources by illegal immigrants have met with particular controversy. One of his favorite themes at the Cook County Health and Hospitals System meetings is how money that is being used to treat undocumented immigrants should be used for citizens—particularly African-American citizens. “Resources should be used for citizens of the United States,” he said at a meeting of the Finance Committee last May. “There’s a negative financial impact of undocumenteds on the system.”
Blakemore’s comments seemed to agitate Finance Committee Chairman David Carvalho enough to provoke him to speak directly on the issue at a meeting in August, 2010. Carvalho said it was the stated policy of the system and of the Cook County Board to serve all residents. “We have not been silent,” he said. “We are serving all the residents of Cook County, not just citizens. They are entitled to services because of their humanity, not just because of their citizenship.”
“George’s view is that [illegal immigrants] are gaming the system, that they don’t belong in Cook County Hospitals,” says Butler, who chairs the Health and Hospitals Committee of the Cook County Board and also sits on the Health and Hospitals System’s Board. “But what’s the alternative? Let people die? Let them spread communicable disease? Doctors and nurses shouldn’t be in the position of having to turn people away based on their immigration status.”
Blakemore also has no patience for many black officials, who he accuses of pandering to the “plantation politics” of the Democratic machine instead of advocating for the interests of African Americans. He takes a hard line on a number of key issues, including affirmative action and the slave reparations issue. If black politicians do not say that they are against minority groups besides blacks receiving the benefits of affirmative action, they are “sellouts, Aunt Jemimas, Sambos.” Asked who these “sellout” politicians are, Blakemore says, “That’s Jesse Jackson, that’s Obama, that’s Reverend Brazier, that’s Farrakhan. If they’re religious or political leaders or business leaders and they don’t advocate for reparation of the black man in America I consider them sellouts.”
At a Health and Hospitals System’s meeting last year, he accused members of the board of having a “slave mentality” about health care, saying, “black leadership stinks on this issue.” His bitter indictment of African-American officials is one of the reasons he feels it is his duty to attend public meetings: who else, if not him, has the courage to advocate for the black community? “The tragedy of it is I shouldn’t have had to stand up in a public forum and address the Harold Washington El stop issue,” he says. “This is why we have elected officials.”
Former commissioner Peraica believes that Blakemore’s rhetoric antagonized board members, causing them to try to change the procedures of the meetings to quiet him. “He was particularly critical of African-American commissioners who didn’t do their homework, came unprepared, asking improper or dumb questions,” he says.
About four years ago, the public-comment period during Cook County Board meetings, a decades-long tradition, was discontinued. Peraica thinks that was largely due to commissioners’ impatience with Blakemore. “That’s largely retaliation against George’s participation,” he says, noting Blakemore’s frequent disparagement of several commissioners’ preparation and attendance. “A lot of commissioners complained that he was putting them on the spot, and that he was wasting their time.”
However, Larry Suffredin, Commissioner for the 13th District, denies that abolishing the public-comment period had anything to do with Blakemore, arguing that public comment at board meetings is inappropriate since most of the actual business of the board is handled in committee where comments are allowed. About Blakemore, Suffredin says, “When I think of George Blakemore, I think of the First Amendment,” adding, “seventy percent of the time he’s on target, but thirty percent of the time he’s out to lunch. He can get agitated.” Neither polished nor polite, Blakemore’s style of speaking and acting is the product of a life spent confronting the sometimes bitter realities of urban, African American life.
Blakemore was born in February, 1942, the son of a railroad porter in Forth Worth, Texas. After a couple of years in one of the country’s first public-housing projects in Fort Worth, Blakemore’s family moved to the South Side of the city. “It was a time of Jim Crowism and segregation, and I grew up in a black ghetto,” he says.
But for Blakemore, his Fort Worth neighborhood of the fifties represents, in some limited ways, the ideal from which contemporary inner-city black neighborhoods have deviated. “Because everyone had to live together, we had doctors who were our neighbors, we had lawyers, we had dentists, we had professional people, we had laborers, we had whores, we had alcoholics, and all these people lived right in that ghetto and we all got along.”
After graduating from high school, he attended Huston-Tillotson College (now University) in Austin, as his father and mother had before him. He studied political science and government, soaking in an intellectual culture enlivened by scholars who had studied under civil rights fathers like Carter Woodson and A. Philip Randolph. His time at college stoked his lifelong passion for education and for activism.
Graduating in 1965, Blakemore became a schoolteacher. Four years later, after reading about efforts to integrate the Chicago school system in Ebony magazine, he decided to come up north. What he saw in schools on the city’s West and South Side ghettos shocked him. “I didn’t know that the black people up here was living in such deplorable conditions,” he says. “I took my kids to a store to buy them some candy, and I’ve never seen anything so horrible. They had screens to block you off—when you buy something, you have to do it through chicken wire. They still have something like that in the ghetto. The children were used to that, but I wasn’t.”
He was also uncomfortable with the presence of white administrators and teachers who worked alongside him. Where he came from, he says, schools were segregated even at the administrative level. “Maybe I came from the South with an attitude, a black male with an attitude. But my view of the whites in the schools was ‘Here’s a great white father coming to save us and do missionary work.’ I had some different opinions about how to educate the black child.
‘There was a need at that time to be taught and relate to one of their own. A black teacher can motivate, stimulate and educate black children better than a suburban white that has no cultural identity with the community and with the students.”
After three years, he says, he lost the passion for teaching. He taught as a substitute instructor in Gary for some time after leaving the Chicago Public Schools system. In the late seventies, he began selling jewelry, garments and other small goods on the streets and in bars. He eventually became a fixture at Maxwell Street Market. His business led him around the country; during Jesse Jackson’s presidential run in the late eighties, Blakemore sold memorabilia as the campaign made its way around the East Coast.
Before the 1980s, Blakemore’s political participation was confined to diligent voting and an unsuccessful bid at precinct captain in Texas. Then came Harold Washington’s mayoral campaign. “[African-American journalist and activist] Lu Palmer came down to Maxwell Street and had us sign these little petitions that we wanted Harold Washington, like a plebiscite,” Blakemore remembers. He handed out leaflets for Washington’s campaign and attended political meetings on the South Side. The campaign, and Washington’s victory, inspired him. “It wasn’t about Harold Washington. I didn’t know the man. It was about that empowerment of the black community—that’s what fascinated me. It was just a beautiful time.”
But Blakemore quickly became disillusioned with Washington, who he believes “sold out” like other African-American politicians instead of advocating for the black community’s interests. “The second time around I wasn’t so happy, because [Washington] wasn’t as politically astute as he ought to have been. He chose to try to bring in the white community, the Hispanic community all under his umbrella. And I didn’t like that because the black community needs so much healing from the legacy of slavery. These resources should have all been targeted, ninety percent or eighty percent to the uplifting of black people. He wasn’t doing that.”
At about the time that Richard M. Daley took office, Blakemore was beginning to go to public meetings. The habit formed gradually, precipitated by incidents that confronted him, he says, with the dysfunction of government at all levels. He began going to the Cook County Health and Hospitals System meetings after discovering that the physical therapist treating him at Stroger Hospital was not certified. He started showing up at the Water Reclamation meetings because of the cooking-grease disposal practices of some vendors on Maxwell Street Market. His attendance at Park District meetings picked up early this decade after he requested benches in Mariano Park on State and Rush streets, which were ultimately installed. “It was not like, I wake up and say I gotta go to Cook County Board meetings, I have to go to Water Reclamation,” he says. “Once I went there, God gave me the vision and wisdom to see a system that was not serving the community. I saw government working completely different from the theory that I learned in the schools that I attended.”
Soon he was a regular attendee of the Cook County Board, Park District, CTA, Forest Preserve, Health and Hospitals System and more. Every year he adds more meetings to his schedule, feeling that it is his responsibility to represent the black community in, for example, the Lincoln Park Advisory Council, which he has started to attend regularly. “This going to meetings, is a part of me. I live for this, I eat it, I sleep it, I feel it, it is like a religious way of life. I would be lost if I couldn’t get involved in some issue that will benefit my community.”
Blakemore also began to file discrimination complaints against various Chicago businesses with the human rights commissions on the city, county and state levels. Most of these complaints accuse the businesses, which have included AMC, Starbucks and Treasure Island, of withholding services or use of their facilities because of Blakemore’s race or his perceived homelessness. According to his former attorney, Matthew Weems, he has received compensation from some of the businesses, but none of the cases have gone to trial. Blakemore accuses the commissions themselves of discriminating against him as a serial filer who should not be taken seriously.
Weems says that Blakemore is “the ultimate test of humanity. I don’t know that Mr. Blakemore needs to walk around with shopping bags and holes in his shirt, things like that, but I think he does that to sort of make a statement that you shouldn’t judge people by their appearance. I feel he’s a litmus test, a walking litmus test for how people really think.”
An observer of the city’s political life for years, Blakemore is not optimistic about government’s ability to solve perennial problems. “These issues are not new. All politicians promise health, education and public safety. All politicians tell the same lie to the black community—and most don’t even believe that politicians can deliver the goods anymore.”
At 69, Blakemore has begun to think about his legacy. Particularly since the murder of a gadfly in Teaneck, New Jersey in 2010, Blakemore has feared for his safety. He did not give me his cell-phone number or show me his apartment building in the Gold Coast neighborhood. And despite his bitter criticism of Chicago politics, he has no desire to return to the Fort Worth neighborhood where some of his siblings still live, saying that it, too, has succumbed to the inner-city ills that plague Chicago.
Perhaps because of this worry about his legacy, Blakemore decided in 2009 to try to do something he might never have imagined doing a few years ago: become a political insider. He submitted a petition to put his name on the ballot for the 2nd District of the Cook County Board, running against Robert Steele, the son of former commissioner and interim board president Bobbie Steele. “I wanted to go into that role after I was exposed to Bobbie Steele and I saw how she was using her position as a commissioner to enhance the hiring of her family,” he says.
Some of his friends and fellow activists helped him collect signatures, while Commissioner Peraica put him in contact with a lawyer who could advise him about election law. However, Bobbie Steele’s objections to putting Blakemore on the ballot were sustained because some of Blakemore’s signatures could not be verified. Steele’s son, Robert, is now commissioner.
Blakemore plans another run in the future, although he faces some obstacles. Along with his controversial views, he has a criminal record going back to the 1980s, with counts ranging from disorderly conduct and misdemeanor assault to peddling goods without a license. Still, all of the charges have been stricken off, meaning the judge dismissed the charges. In any case, Blakemore believes that his run-ins with the law will not harm him, and indeed might make him more sympathetic to African-American voters. “The average black man in America has dealt with the criminal justice system. Yes, I have been locked up. I’m not a saint. I’m only flesh and blood and it takes all these hats and characters to make George Blakemore.”
On a bleak morning in mid-March Blakemore stood talking to Cook County Inspector General Patrick Blanchard outside the County Board Room at the County Building on Clark Street. The Board had just adjourned, but Blakemore was going to speak at a Forest Preserve meeting in a few minutes.
He walked over to me and told me he wanted to show me something. We approached the wall opposite the boardroom’s doors where the pictures of all the past board presidents are arranged. “Do you notice someone missing? Where’s Bobbie Steele?” he said, smiling. Steele served for a couple of months as the unelected interim president of the board in 2006. “I didn’t like Bobbie. I thought she was a crook. But why isn’t she up here? Wasn’t she president? This is part of our history, too.”
It was classic Blakemore: witty and irreverent, yet deeply concerned about preserving the history of the Chicago area in a way that would educate the public. At heart, as he told me over and over again, Blakemore is a teacher. On the other hand, he wasn’t going to wait to see if there was a good reason Steele’s picture isn’t up on that wall. He says his piece, and then he moves on.
The security guard opened the door and told Blakemore that the meeting was starting. He picked up his shopping bags, shook my hand, and walked into the boardroom.