It’s a sweltering Sunday afternoon in early summer, and the 33 people gathered at the Altgeld Sawyer Corner Farm, a community garden in Chicago’s rapidly gentrifying Logan Square neighborhood, are trying to decide whether they’re prepared to break the law. The atmosphere is festive—there are pizzas and watermelon slices spread out on makeshift tables, coolers full of bottled water, and small children playing hide-and-seek among the planters—but the speeches are serious.
Anthony Joel Quezada, a young activist wearing a Soy Queer Latin@ T-shirt, tells the group that since Donald Trump became president, the threat of deportation has brought fear to the city’s immigrant communities. Charles Rosentel, who lives in the neighborhood but teaches world history and coaches the debate team at a charter high school in Hermosa, a few blocks to the west, describes one of his students as “the most gifted debater I’ve ever coached.” “If she wants to go to Harvard, she’s got the talent,” he says, “but I can’t take her to the state championships because she’s afraid that if she leaves Chicago, even for a day, the aunt and uncle she lives with—her guardians—might not be there when she gets back.”
Several weeks earlier, Rosentel and his wife, also a teacher in Hermosa, attended an “Immigration 101” class organized by Quezada’s boss, Carlos Ramirez-Rosa, the alderman for Chicago’s 35th Ward. Aimed at educating potential allies, the sessions were held at the same time as a “Know Your Rights” class for immigrants and their families. “Today we have chosen to come together and keep each other safe,” Ramirez-Rosa tells the Logan Square crowd, which will break up into teams to leaflet the neighborhood with flyers advising residents what to do if officials from Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) knock on their door. At the same time, he and Quezada ask those who are willing to physically block attempted deportations—and get arrested while doing so—to identify themselves. The volunteers will be trained in nonviolent civil disobedience and organized into a phone tree covering the entire 35th Ward, with the whole campaign directed and funded out of Ramirez-Rosa’s office.
“This is what governing from the left looks like,” Quezada says.
In 2015, when Ramirez-Rosa, then just 26, defeated a three-term incumbent backed by Chicago Forward, Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s super PAC, to become the youngest member of the City Council—and the first openly gay Latino ever elected to any position in Chicago—he made headlines. But very little of the coverage drilled down to what really makes Ramirez-Rosa stand out: his approach to politics. Using his district office and staff budget to organize community-defense committees is just one aspect of what he calls “being a movement elected official.”