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At midmorning on an overcast September day, a security man at the Hyatt Regency Chicago downtown steps outside to examine the threatening sky. Inside the hotel, Jerry Springer is scheduled to speak at a lunch meeting of the Broadcast Advertising Club of Chicago, and the word is there may be some kind of protest. “I have a feeling [the protesters] might not show up.” the security man says, sounding hopeful. “I don’t think they’ll want to march in this.” Clouds the color of dishwater look as if they could open up at any second.
But ten minutes later a yellow school bus rolls to a stop out front. Then another. The doors open and one by one, a line of black children files onto the sidewalk, all of them dressed in Catholic school plaids and dark colors. Some are carrying bright signs with slogans such as STOP TRASH TELEVISION and ADVERTISERS! DON’T FINANCE VIOLENCE.
Soon, a white priest bounds out of a bus and starts leading the children in a looping march on the sidewalk in front of the hotel. “Hey, hey, ho, ho, Jerry Springer’s got to go,” they chant. “One-two-three-four, Jerry Springer needs to go.”
After an hour or so of marching, the priest and the young protestors file onto the buses and head back to St. Sabina Catholic Church on the city’s South Side.
And that’s it. Springer never appears outside. There’s no confrontation and virtually no media coverage. In the rich history of Chicago protests, this exercise wouldn’t register as a footnote—other than perhaps to raise the question of why a local parish priest is taking on a nationally syndicated TV star.
But for Father Michael Pfleger, this is what life is about, tiresome, frustrating, hopeless, or not. For more than two decades, Pfleger has been fighting anyone he thinks threatens his community, particularly its children-everyone from the drug dealers who poison their bodies to Jerry Springer, whose sex-and-slugfest TV show, Pfleger believes, poisons their minds. The fact that the priest is a boyish-looking 49-year-old white man and his community is overwhelmingly black hasn’t slowed his crusade for a moment. He has fought crack dealers, bar owners, and anyone who preys on children. He has tormented the shops that sell drug paraphernalia. He hounded the city for years until it agreed with him that alcohol and tobacco billboards posed a health risk to children and had to come down.
He has been thrown in jail and targeted by hate. The threats against his life are taken seriously enough that for the past decade a Chicago police officer has been assigned to keep him from harm. He has been accused of making noise for its own sake and shooting from the hip, and cynics have suggested that he has way overstayed his 15 minutes of fame.
For all the commotion, though, Pfleger has scored some real victories, especially in his South Side neighborhood, where he has revived a dying parish. “Jerry Springer is a wimp compared to some of the guys Father Pfleger has taken on,” says Mike Kelly, a Chicago lawyer who has represented him. Pfleger has also aimed his protests well enough that he has won the endorsement of the city’s political powers. Mayor Daley calls him “an inspiration to me as mayor.”
After a career of more than 20 years, Pfleger shows no signs of wearing out—nor after tilting at a windmill like Springer, not even after suffering a personal tragedy on the streets of his neighborhood, as he did last spring. He insists that constant pushing is what he was meant to do, that he has been pulled that way since he was a young man. And if you ask him how he does it, where he gets the energy to keep fighting, he offers a straightforward explanation: “The call of the Gospel is to renew the face of the earth.”
PHOTOGRAPH: Antonio Perez, Chicago Tribune