Remembering Rene Maxwell: A Fighter from Chicago's Cabrini Projects

Revolutionary Worker #1208, July 27, 2003, posted at

On June 4, 2003, Rene Maxwell, a servant of the people, died of a stroke. Anybody who knew Rene even a little knew that when he walked into the room, the fighting spirit of humanity came with him. He knew exactly whose side he was on, and he never stayed quiet about it. The struggle against injustice became his life's work, and he gave it every bit of energy he could muster, and then some.

Rene was born in Stateway Gardens, one of the public housing developments in Chicago, in 1949 and raised in Stateway and Altgeld Gardens. He also lived in the ABLA Development and spent his last years living in Cabrini Green. In the early 1970s he went to work in the steel mills that encircle the southern tip of Lake Michigan.

In 1996, public housing came under attack nationally, with systematic efforts to tear down poor people's homes. Wardell Yotagan of Rockwell Gardens and Carol Steele of Cabrini Green co-founded the Coalition to Protect Public Housing (CPPH) and Wardell asked Rene to be his lead organizer. Rene realized the seriousness of the attacks on public housing and he jumped in with both feet. A lifelong friend described how he and Rene played cards together "every day--sometimes all day" for 40 years. "Then one day Rene came and told me about what was happening to Public Housing and what he had to do. That was it for the card games."

Ed Shurna, who worked alongside Rene since the founding of CPPH, called him "the heart of the organization, the heart of what we're all about. He brought with him life and passion. He just was a loving human being. He promised Wardell he would carry on the struggle for public housing, and he gave himself to it. He was our poet, our heart. And he was relentless, but with a light spirit."

Rene knew from experience what it meant to need low-income housing, and he worked tirelessly to bring this understanding to as many people as he could. He spoke at rallies and press conferences, to schools and churches and synagogues, and he appeared on radio and TV shows. He was a constant presence in Chicago's 24 public housing developments, talking to residents about their common struggle.

He had a straight-forward, no-nonsense approach. He was well known for going up in the faces of the authorities making decisions about public housing, not allowing them to portray themselves as servants of the people when they were in reality the servants of the oppressor and the architects of the people's suffering.

A Leader from Among the People

Over the years, Rene also came forward as a leader in other battles for social justice. He worked with a wide range of groups and was on the board of the Lawyers' Committee for Better Housing and the Workers' Rights Board of Jobs with Justice.

Rene often MCed rallies and press conferences and could galvanize a crowd like few others, leading chants and spelling out plainly why the people needed to fight. He was frequently asked to represent the struggle for public housing at rallies throughout the midwest and east coast. He traveled around the country to participate in events, conferences, and marches --with groups like the Kensington Welfare Rights Union and Jobs with Justice. Rene spoke at the UN after joining a march from Washington, DC to New York City which was organized to raise awareness about homelessness, hunger and other issues affecting people.

After September 11, 2001 Rene saw the danger in the political direction the U.S. was taking. He was deeply concerned for people in the U.S. and around the world and as the anti-war movement gained strength he took up that struggle. He was on the steering committee of the Not In Our Name Project in the Chicago area. He played an important role in the October 6, 2002 rally in Chicago and helped to organize a successful fundraiser for NION this past February.

Creative Force in the Movement

From his earliest youth Rene loved music. He and his brother wrote songs together as kids, Rene providing the lyrics and his brother the tunes. In the 1970s he formed a band, The Elements of Time, with his brothers and sister.

Rene was a person who was willing to make life-changing choices. He left his job in the steel mills to struggle to bring the music he loved to the people he loved. Until the day before his stroke Rene worked in the music industry. He, his brother and a group of Blues artists were scheduled to go into the studio the next day to re-cut a blues album Rene was producing. He was a manager and producer, bringing into being many gospel albums, and recording songs himself, including one with his daughter.

When Rene joined the struggle, he brought his musician's sensibility with him. Through his love for the people, he grasped that human beings need art and music to connect our struggles to the struggle of all humanity. He used his skills as a songwriter and lyricist to meet this need and also brought other musicians forward to the struggle.

On Juneteenth 2002 the Coalition to Protect Public Housing led activists, public housing residents, and youth in building a tent and cardboard box city on vacant land where housing had been torn down in the Ida B. Wells public housing development. Rene made that day a festival of resistance that no one who was there will forget. As people pitched tents and built homes out of boxes, Rene brought forward a memorable bill of musicians to alternate with speakers from 3 in the afternoon until 11 at night Gospel, solo saxophonist, and beyond, the music drifted through the makeshift city.

When Wardell Yotagan died in 1998 Rene created a theme song for the struggle to defend public housing, "Our Fight Must Go On." Barbara Moore said, "Rene would write songs and poems that went to the core of what this fight was about."

Earlier this year Rene pulled together a group of musicians and singers to create Recording Artists for Economic and Human Rights. He had a vision for strengthening the struggle by bringing together, through music, those who might not normally consider protesting and people who were the backbone of the social justice struggle.

Fighter for the People

Rene kept every flyer from every rally. He took pictures of people everywhere he went. His office, an apartment in the rowhouses in Cabrini Green, is truly a "Museum of the Fight for Justice," a gallery of flyers, articles, pictures, posters and quotes. Rene made beautiful collages, the smiling faces of the many people he worked with mingled among the articles and headlines about the struggle--for housing, for jobs, against the war.

He had love and a deep appreciation for the people struggling alongside of him. Every year for the last few years, Rene organized an appreciation ceremony on the west side of Chicago.

The destruction of public housing in Chicago by the system was a source of tremendous anger and sorrow for Rene. He knew how badly it affects the people--this hurt him deeply but also fueled his fighting spirit. Giuseppe, a 20-year-old DePaul University student who worked with Rene in both the housing struggle and the fight to stop the war, said: "He had so much energy, so much passion, and most importantly, so much hope. Nothing could hold him back."

While Rene hoped radical change could come about peacefully, he also could see the direction the world was going in did not suggest this would be so. Before 9/11, he had predicted that people broadly would eventually be surging forward, challenging the system. He would tell his revolutionary friends over the last year, "Didn't I tell you? That revolution is gonna happen."

Rene's outlook embodied much of a proletarian outlook--it strengthened him to see that injustice was everywhere, because that meant more people on our side. He didn't want to do just for himself: he was making music before he became socially conscious, and his son described how glad Rene was to have found a purpose for the music, that it was not in vain that he made music. In "Our Fight Must Go On," Rene's spoken intro says: "Let no one tell you different/ Until all injustices are erased/ And people's needs are met/ Until broken promises are kept/ And it hasn't happened yet/ Our fight, it must go on..."

The spoken interlude of "Our Fight Must Go On" was his credo:

"There are too many injustices
We the people face today
And wishful thinking, I'm telling ya
Will not make them
Go away
We have to stand together
Our purpose is all the same
People's issues must be addressed,
If not, our country will never change.
We have nothing to lose here
Everything in the world to gain
We've been passive far too long,
That's why injustices still remain.
The call for action is NOW!
Our backs are against the wall!
It's the only civil thing we can do
Before the curtains fall
So let me hear the voices
That separate right from wrong
Let the world know we are here!
Come on, sing this song!

Rene was our brother in struggle. He will be deeply missed.

This article is posted in English and Spanish on Revolutionary Worker Online
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