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You Can Buy Love

Who paid pro-Walmart demonstrators $100 apiece?

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Low on inspiration? Open your wallet. "Let me just first thank each and every one of the residents that are here today—I'd like to really acknowledge them," said Ninth Ward alderman Anthony Beale, speaking in the chamber of Chicago's City Council on Thursday, June 24. "It's residents like this who really give me the energy and drive to fight on their behalf."

Beale gestured toward the sea of white filling the spectators' gallery, men and women all wearing T-shirts sporting slogans that championed the project the council's zoning committee was about to approve: construction of a Walmart Supercenter in Pullman.

But it's possible not everyone felt as strongly about the project as their T-shirts did. Around 7:30 that morning, about a hundred Walmart supporters had filed onto two yellow school buses in front of the 63rd and Harper headquarters of the Woodlawn Organization (TWO). A south-side fixture, this social services organization is run, at least nominally, by president Georgette Greenlee-Finney, but it's heavily influenced by her husband, Leon Finney Jr., the City Hall insider who became TWO's executive director in 1969. He no longer holds a formal office at TWO, but he remains chief executive officer of its sister organization, the Woodlawn Community Development Corporation, which manages projects for the Chicago Housing Authority and develops real estate throughout the south side.

Many of the TWO partisans might sincerely have desired more jobs and retail options in Pullman. But they were also motivated by the promise of $100.

Aaron Garel, a 30-year-old Woodlawn native, was one of these protesters. Garel, known on the street as "Little" and "Little Man," says he used to be a drug dealer and a member of the Black Stones, a gang with ties to the old Blackstone Rangers. Three prior convictions on drugs and weapons charges make it hard for him to find work. When a friend, a TWO organizer, called him two weeks before the June 24 committee meeting and asked if he wanted to go downtown and make some money, he jumped at the chance. Besides, he believed in the cause: the south side did need more jobs, and if Walmart wanted to open a store, why not?

Garel says his friend told him to come to TWO's headquarters at 1 PM on Monday, June 21. When he got there, 15 minutes late, about 200 people were already gathered inside Tre's, a nearby restaurant and catering business part-owned by Finney. A TWO organizer addressed the crowd.

"He said it's about jobs, that they're trying to get people who are passionate about getting jobs for African-Americans and not just about looking to get money," Garel remembers. But there'd be money too, the organizer emphasized: $100 for two days' work.

The recruits signed up, were issued T-shirts and placards that said IT'S ABOUT JOBS, and filed onto four school buses that took them downtown. The TWO white shirts joined other demonstrators who were marching around City Hall chanting, "We need jobs," and after about an hour Garel and 100 others were led inside to show solidarity as Beale and a Walmart official held a news conference.

Half the recruits headed back downtown Tuesday for a rally outside City Hall that rang with the bleat of vuvuzelas. The other half, Garel included, were assigned to show their support before Thursday's zoning committee meeting.

On Thursday morning, about 100 white shirts gathered on the street in front of TWO. Two buses carried them north on Lake Shore Drive into the Loop, where they rallied with about 250 other Walmart supporters organized by Alderman Beale's staff. (Beale says none of the supporters he turned out was paid, though Walmart did pick up the tab for Beale's buses.)

The meeting that followed the rally turned out to be uneventful. The Chicago Federation of Labor had finally given prolabor aldermen the green light to vote for the project, which the zoning committee then approved unanimously. Without waiting for adjournment, the TWO contingent was whisked out of the chamber and onto the idling buses. Back in Woodlawn, an organizer told them to show up at Tre's between 3 and 6 that afternoon for their money. Garel got there at five. A TWO organizer had him sign a form and handed him a $100 bill.

Alderman Beale assured me neither his organization nor Walmart had paid any of the supporters, mostly Ninth Ward residents, who he'd brought to City Hall for the vote.

"I'd never do that," he said. "My integrity is extremely important to me. My staff worked extremely hard organizing folk legitimately."

Did he ask Finney or TWO to help out?

"No, not at all," Beale said. "You have people who have their own agendas, opportunists who try to insert themselves into any debate."

I called Walmart officials to ask if they knew about or had paid for the TWO demonstrations, but they didn't return my calls. Neither did TWO officials. But Leon Finney had acknowledged to me, months earlier, that last year TWO paid people to circulate petitions championing a pro-Walmart "Jobs or Else" campaign. (Garel says he got $25 a day for that effort.)

TWO's budget is almost entirely funded by tax dollars, and when public money's involved, nonpartisanship is generally expected. More than $4.4 million of TWO's $4.9 million budget for fiscal 2007-'08 (the last year for which tax returns and related documents are available) came from government agencies, including the Illinois Department of Human Services, Chicago Public Schools, and the city of Chicago. That was the year TWO managed to find busloads of people eager to show the Plan Commission, which Finney sits on, how ardently the public supported moving the Chicago Children's Museum to Grant Park. It was also the year Charles Holley, a Walmart executive vice president, wrote TWO a company check for $25,000.   

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