On one side of Western Avenue Evergreen Park police officers stood in a line in front of an under-construction retail development. On the other side of the street, holding signs and standing in solidarity, were black contractors, civil rights leaders and supporters.
The two sides were lined up at 92nd Street and Western Avenue because Ed Gardner, 87, the famed founder of Soft Sheen hair care, is tired of the lack of construction jobs and contract opportunities for local African Americans.
The retail development, which includes a planned Menards and Meijer, might be today's focal point, but the issue is a much larger one.
"It cuts at the heart of our kitchen tables," said Bishop Tavis Grant, the National Field Director for the Rainbow Push Coalition.
Grant says it is not a question of qualifications, as there are numerous workers and contractors who are qualified to participate in projects like this one.
"All people want is a fighting chance, and we are here to fight," Grant said.
There is a direct correlation between the level of unemployment in an area and the amount of crime, Grant said. African Americans have been hit particularly hard by the recession and he believes that for the first time, an entire generation of blacks have been largely shut out of the labor force.
Omar Shareef of the African American Contractors Association is carrying a list with him. A list of dozens of available black contractors.
He says that Meijer executives have been willing to work with his organization and made it a point to use a diverse set of workers. He has not seen the same response from Mendards or Power Construction, the site's contractor.
"They must have a diverse representation of the South Side," Shareef said. "These are companies that are absolutely qualified."
Shareef cited the popularity of Evergreen Plaza as a popular shopping destination for black families and the neighborhood's diversity as reasons why this site in particular should be using black workers.
He says that this protest was not a sudden development as he has been talking to the developer since April about the issue.
Gardner, Shareef, Grant and a few other leaders are scheduled to meet with the developers in a trailer on the construction site at 3:30 p.m. They hope the meeting is a fruitful one.
If it's not, Gardner has called for a 10,000 strong protest of the site this Sunday. He will be paying for the buses.
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