The Red Rag Pantry (3601 W. Armitage Ave.) stands sentry a few feet from the No. 73 bus stop on West Armitage and Central Park avenues. It’s brightly painted and stocked with shelf-stable goods by the Chicago-based organization Feminist Uprising to Resist Inequality and Exploitation (FURIE). All are welcome to stop by and take what they need.
The pantry’s first iteration was a simple shelf that a community member set up at 3521 W. Cortland St. right when COVID-19 hit. At that time, neighbors used the pantry, but they did so quietly.
“People just didn’t feel comfortable going there,” a FURIE spokesperson said. “They would come really early. They were furtive. Often with kids.”
The discomfort of pantry users was not unfounded. “People were saying kind of vile things [online] about it,” the spokesperson explained – like, “it’s dirty, it causes homeless people to come over there,” and “we need to start calling the cops and the police.”
Amid these complaints, the pantry’s founder decided she needed support. Fortunately, a neighbor connected her with Chelsey Sprengeler, chairwoman of FURIE. The pair agreed that FURIE would assume responsibility for maintaining the pantry.
A ‘Grassroots, Pan-Womanist’ Organization
FURIE describes itself as a “grassroots, Pan-Womanist, Third World internationalist, Marxist organization.” Its about page explains that the group is “building international community focused on radical women refusing to be passive in a racist, colonial, capitalist system of overworked poor and oppressed people.”
“Every woman should know they are the heroes they’ve been waiting for,” Sprengeler said. “Another world is possible.”
FURIE runs programs like self-defense training (currently paused due to the pandemic), writers’ workshops and book clubs. On top of managing multiple social media accounts (including a Facebook page with more than 12,000 followers), they publish radical writing through their online journal, The PanWomanist.
Pre-2020, FURIE was gearing up to lead actions responding to gentrification in Chicago.
Organizing Around Gentrification
“We were going to start making noise about gentrification, realizing if we did it in Logan Square, it would get covered,” FURIE’s spokesperson explained.
It’s no secret that Logan Square has been a hotbed of gentrification in recent years. Areas along the western end of the 606 Trail have been particularly vulnerable. In one 2020 report, the Institute for Housing Studies at DePaul University found that the prices of 1- to 4-unit buildings along the western half of the trail have increased by nearly 344% since since 2012. Plus, demand from high-income buyers means that many will convert 2- and 4-unit buildings into single-family homes. This will leave fewer affordable rentals.
While there is plenty to make noise about concerning gentrification in Logan Square, FURIE ‘s planned actions never came to fruition. “That’s when COVID hit,” the spokesperson said. “And we lost folks.”
A New Home
Despite low membership numbers, Sprengeler decided it was important to keep the pantry going.
However, a variety of factors (including rats and complaining neighbors) led FURIE to relocate Red Rag. After a search wherein the team asked multiple “friends and social-justicey people”’ to house the pantry outside their buildings (all ultimately declined), the pantry found a new home at a local bike shop.
“The Red Rag Food Pantry Has Been Gentrified Further West,” FURIE’s Facebook page wrote on May 21, 2021. “But our long-time comrade, Mas, immediately swooped in and created a space for us, alongside his nonprofit, Bike 4 Life Chicago, located at 3603 W. Armitage Ave.”
Beyond securing a permanent home, FURIE also received a grant from Crossroads Fund to expand their mutual aid work. Then, in August of 2021, Chicago Mutual Aid Build Squad constructed an abode for the pantry – free of charge. Prior to this, the pantry was still operating out of a shelf.
“On Armitage, they love us,” the spokesperson said.
Mutual Aid Informed By Revolutions
Now, on either side of the pantry, stands a woman, red flag raised above her head and cascading behind her. Artist Sarah Balog created these paintings for FURIE in October 2021.
For the art, FURIE sourced material from imagery surrounding social movements in which women were integral. “We found all these sort of amazing graphics from these times, and we tried to incorporate them on the pantry,” the spokesperson said, citing Soviet, Cuban and Haitian revolutions as guiding influences. “Women were really involved in these revolutions.”
The pantry’s name also alludes to movements against oppressive structures.
“Red rag” references a symbol that emerged in Colombia during the pandemic. In March 2020, NPR reported that residents of Soacha, Colombia, were struggling in lockdown. The intense restrictions, including curfew from Friday night to Sunday morning, prevented maids, vendors and other working-class residents from earning money. Soacha Mayor Juan Carlos Saldarriaga organized food drives in an attempt to address community needs, but they were not enough.
Therefore, Saldarriaga called on residents who needed food to hang makeshift red flags from their windows. The idea was that neighbors would check up on each other and offer what they had to spare. Opinions were split on whether the program evidenced community solidarity or a lack of critical social services from the government.
On its website, FURIE’s organizers wrote that “In Columbia and other Latin American communities, the Red Rag stands for the immediate need of Community Solidarity and Empowerment during a crisis, especially when the government has failed The Masses. … what started as a cry for help … has evolved into a battle cry against the endless oppression.”
While there is not a culture of hanging red rags in Chicago, there is still need here. Data from the Greater Chicago Food Depository show that in the southwest corner of Logan Square that the Red Rag Pantry serves, 45-60% of residents live below 185% of the federal poverty level. In 2019, that figure was $47,638 for a household of four.
Feeding More People To Fuel Revolution
“Our goal is to expand where we’re able to feed people – not just at a drop-off pantry,” FURIE’s spokesperson said. “This is part of our doctrine … if you’re going to try to mobilize people, you need to feed them … we learned that from the Black Panther Party.”
In 1968, the Black Panther Party began a free breakfast program in Oakland, California. It spread to other chapters, and by 1969, the Black Panthers were serving free, hot breakfast to around 20,000 children every day that school was in session.
However, “it is really hard to run a real functional grassroots organization in Chicago that is like the Panthers,” the spokesperson said. Despite the difficulties of organizing, FURIE pushes forward. The group is now part of the Second Rainbow Coalition. Fred Hampton, who was chairman of the Illinois chapter of the Black Panther Party, organized the first Rainbow Coalition, in 1969. The network of alliances brought together groups across racial and ethnic lines to fight against issues they all faced.
The Second Rainbow Coalition includes both original and new members, ranging from the Black Panthers and Brown Berets to newer groups like FURIE and the Poor People’s Army. The coalition’s goal is “educating, organizing and mobilizing the masses for socialist revolution.”
Of FURIE’s next steps, Sprengeler said, “We are building our grassroots movement now in New Orleans. Long-term plans include comprehensive housing and food systems reclamation to put socialism in practice in the U.S. as social and economic conditions continue to deteriorate here.”
How To Get Involved
While they do this work, FURIE continues to run the pantry. The group welcomes volunteers, with opportunities for both remote work (writing, social media) and physical work (maintaining the pantry).
All neighbors are welcome to drop off small donations at the pantry at any time. For larger donations, call 773-862-3049 to set up a pickup or drop-off. If you would prefer to contribute to the Red Rag Pantry financially, you can send money through PayPal to firstname.lastname@example.org. Specify “for the pantry” in the notes.
Featured photo: Jaley Bruursema