WITCH stages ritual to protest housing inequalities in Chicago

Heather Greene —  January 31, 2016 — 44 Comments

CHICAGO. — On Feb. 6, a performance collective named WITCH will be hosting a ritual protest in Logan Square in support of local housing rights.The organizers describe the event as a “hexing and protective spell action,” which will include recognizable elements of Witchcraft practice. Due to this design, the protest has been attracting both mainstream media attention and social media backlash. We spoke with the group’s founders to find out more.

W.I.T.C.H. action, Nov 2015 [Courtesy Photo]

WITCH protest action, Nov 2015 [Courtesy Photo]

“Gentrification has been affecting Logan Square for the last 15+ years. Our action is concentrating on the increasing lack of affordable housing, which is certainly affected by gentrification, but far from the only issue surrounding it. We have all been impacted by housing speculation and insecurity, though our personal experiences vary,” explained Jessica Caponigro, Amaranta Isyemille Lara, and Chiara Galimberti, the three women who make up WITCH.

Jessica Caponigro is an interdisciplinary artist, educator, and activist. Originally from Pennsylvania, she is currently working as an adjunct instructor at the City Colleges of Chicago. Amaranta Isyemille Lara is a student, poet, and single mother. She is working toward a master’s in linguistics and has lived in Chicago’s Logan Square neighborhood since 2004. And, Chiara Galimberti is an artist, activist, parent, and educator. She is currently working toward becoming a herbalist and acupuncturist.

Galimberti said, “My relationship to Chicago has been very difficult as housing insecurity has deeply affected me and my daughters. I have been working multiple jobs since moving to Chicago and I have never been able to afford rent without public assistance. I know that my situation is by no means unique and that the vast majority of people in the city is negatively impacted by housing speculation, especially as that reality combines with endemic racism and sexism.”

This is the type of personal experience that inspired the three women to come together and form the performance collective. Their first organizational meeting was in October 2015 and, at that time, they chose to name the group WITCH. The acronym stands for Women’s International Terrorist Conspiracy from Hell and was used by a number of affiliated but separate women’s groups within the broader feminist movement of the late 1960s and early 1970s.

The original WITCH organization was formed in New York City on Halloween 1968. Its members created a manifesto that began:

WITCH is an all-woman Everything. It’s theater, revolution, magic, terror, joy, garlic flowers, spells. It’s an awareness that witches and gypsies were the original guerrillas and resistance fighters against oppression – particularly the oppression of women – down through the ages. Witches have always been women who dared to be: groovy, courageous, aggressive, intelligent, nonconformist, explorative, curious, independent, sexually liberated, revolutionary … [From the WITCH Manifesto, 1969]

This group of feminists chose to adopt the image and concept of the Witch to represent female empowerment in a way that was antithetical to socially-constructed, traditional gender roles and that flew, pun intended, in face of the patriarchal expectations. Several Pagan writers and historians, such as Chas Clifton, Margo Adler and Ethan Doyle White, have mentioned the 1960s WITCH organization in their writings, highlighting the similarities between that movement and the early modern Pagan movement in the U.S. In his book Her Hidden Children: The Rise of Wicca and Paganism in America,Clifton wrote, “WITCH was not religious, yet as Eller, and before her, Margot Adler note, it was a small step from the intense, intimate feminist consciousness-raising discussion group of the early 1970s to the Witches’ coven.”(Clifton, p 120)

witch manifesto

Forty-seven years later, Galimberti, Caponigro, and Isyemille Lara decided to resurrect the name, capturing that energy, history and legacy for their own work. While their Chicago protests are not embedded in any specific organized feminist movement, the three modern women have found empowerment and purpose within the original group’s message. They explained, “We think of Witches as historically being women (and some men) who were at the forefront of resistance against oppressive systems, and we strongly believe that there is not one way to be a Witch. We are interested in looking at the connection between social justice, feminism, and the figure of the Witch.”

In November, the women staged their first protest action. It was held in front of Chicago’s Thompson Center on Randolph Street. Similar to the upcoming event, the November action was staged to “protest disparities caused by inequality, chanting to hex those who cause it and protect those who suffer as a result.”

Then, on Jan 3, WITCH announced its second action and created a corresponding Facebook event page. Unlike the November action, the new Feb 6 protest would be held in conjunction with a local art festival called 2nd Floor Rear 2016, a “DIY” event that features art in “experimental contexts.” The protest is listed on the festival site as one of the featured happenings.

Since that Jan. 3 announcement, the group has received media attention from various mainstream outlets, as well as backlash from the online Pagan community. Jezebel and the Chicagoist each published an article titled, “Chicago Witches Will Exorcise ‘Gentrification’ Demons.” The online site Dazed titled its article,”Chicago Witches Hoping to Cast Out Gentrification.” As is often the case for mainstream Witch articles, all three included flashy stills from the The Craft (1996)

Galimberti, Caponigro, and Isyemille Lara expressed disappointment in the treatment of their story within these news articles, calling them “unfortunate and misleading.” And, it may have been this misrepresentation that is at least partially responsible for the subsequent social media backlash predominantly found on Facebook. One user wrote, “So you fight colonialism by using cultural appropriation … For many this is a way of life, and you mock it as merely a public art spectacle.” Comments like this one continued on with accusations that the women were disingenuously appropriating Witchcraft or Pagan traditions to serve their own artistic or political objectives. Another user posted, “YOU are not WITCH! You have no concept. I and many like me are witches. The real deal. How about you mock some other group inappropriately.”

But are they? The issue of their own religious or spiritual identity, or practice, was not publicly addressed. So we asked them, “Do you identify as Witches in a religious or spiritual sense? Are you Pagan?”

Caponigro said, “I most certainly identify as a Witch. I come from a long line of independent Sicilian women who strongly believed in holistic medicine and the powers of the earth and intuition, and passed down their spirit and knowledge to me and my sibling. Though I’m not currently practicing, there are parts of my life when I have identified as Wiccan.”

To this question, Isyemille Lara said, “I identify as a Witch. To me, being a Witch has to do most with using an honest and balanced voice to impart support, empathy, protection and power whenever necessary. Witchcraft is personal and adaptive. My family is from the northern deserts of Mexico. I carry this stoic intuition in my veins.”

And, Galimberti said, “I grew up in Italy, where the tradition of Witchcraft is different than in the United States. The memory of Witch hunts and persecution is still present, mixed with a classism that sees Witchcraft and Paganism as part of working class practices, and thus not taken seriously. I was raised largely by my grandmother who practices Malocchio, which mostly included a healthy skepticism for authority (whether of the state or the church), and a rich knowledge of herbs for healing and daily practices that allowed a connection with the spiritual world. I am studying Herbology and Acupuncture and I think of myself as a healer-in-training, with spirituality being a component of that identity.”

The three members of WITCH added that they are not in anyway mocking anyone’s system of belief. “We are empathetic to those who are angry because they mistakenly think we are appropriating their beliefs,” they said. “Those accusing us of being disingenuous or culturally appropriating Witchcraft are working under the assumption that because we do not practice in their particular way, our sincere connection to Witchcraft is somehow less valid.”

They added that Witchcraft has long and varied history, saying, “Witches were and are healers, spiritual workers, subversive independent thinkers, in addition to the definition of “witch” in the Pagan religious sense. The figure of the Witch is present in most cultures around the world, and can come to signify many different practices and beliefs.”

1969 WITCH protest in front of Chicago Federal Building [Courtesy WITCH]

1969 WITCH protest in front of Chicago Federal Building [Courtesy WITCH]

As for the group’s mission, the women explained that the Feb. 6 action will hopefully attract the attention of “politicians and companies that are profiting from housing development at the expense of most Chicagoans and especially working class people.” They were quick to add that they are no experts and can’t speak for everyone who has been “impacted by predatory housing” practices. However, they do hope to give voice to those who have such stories.

“During the action people will be invited to speak out about their experience with housing insecurity, the impact of high rents, and speculative development on their lives,” they explained. “We will then perform a protective charm that acknowledges the people and organizations that have been working on these issues for decades, including the Logan Square Neighborhood Association and the Grassroots Illinois Action.”

Galimberti, Caponigro, and Isyemille Lara described the upcoming protest action as a “combination of both magical ritual and performative gesture” that will be based on their collective “experiences and knowledge.” They welcome anyone to come and join them, Pagan or not. It is not a private or restricted event. They said, “We take our relationship with spirituality, Witchcraft, and social justice very seriously,” adding “Nothing scares the patriarchy more than a non-conformist, sexually liberated, independent thinker. Nothing scares the patriarchy more than a WITCH.”

Heather Greene

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Heather is a freelance writer and journalist, living in the Deep South. Professionally, she has worked for Grey Advertising Global, Coca Cola Company and GCI. She has collaborated with Lady Liberty League and has formerly served as Public Information Officer for Dogwood Local Council and Covenant of the Goddess. She has a masters degree in Film Theory, Criticism and History from Emory University with a background in the performing and visual arts.
  • Baruch Dreamstalker

    It’s a pity so many modern Witches are threatened by women who pick up on the free-wheeling, subversive Witch identification so crucial to the Craft’s explosive growth fifty years ago. I’m glad these women have personal roots that rebut the charge of appropriation but, really, even if they didn’t, let’s lighten up.

    • Damiana

      The thing about being subversive is that sometimes family, friends and descendants don’t always know how successfully subversive one actually was 😉

  • Berke Leyden

    I think you have been duped, Wild Hunters. I really don’t believe that these people have any interest in witchcraft beyond it’s current mainstream trendiness. I have an MFA and I also research witchcraft quite a bit so I am approaching this from a fine art angle and I just see a trendy art prank, not anybody interested in practicing actual witchcraft. Their stance has changed too. First, they were just a performance troupe casting a hex and they got backlash so then they were suddenly “fledgeling witches” and the backlash got worse and now suddenly they identify as witches and have witch grandmothers … IDK …

    • Jules Morrison

      Things you actually need to be a witch: call yourself a witch, practise witchcraft. Things that group are doing: calling themselves witches. Performing rituals.

      Heh, even if they don’t mean it for serious, they might get somebody’s attention.

      • Berke Leyden

        I saw no indication that they called themselves witches until they got some bad press. Additionally, I never saw them address the hurt pagans as peers. They just went straight here to for validation and then smugly posted this story on their event wall.

        • Damiana

          Maybe because people were requiring that they out themselves in order to stop the online harassment.

          • Berke Leyden

            I just don’t believe it. I don’t think this has anything to do with a spiritual tradition beyond surface spectacle. These are artists and performers first and foremost. I also don’t believe that the average witch would even seek out all this attention. They would just hex the gentrifiers and be done with it.

          • Deborah Bender

            I agree with you that the average witch wouldn’t seek out attention.

          • Damiana

            It doesn’t matter if you believe them or not.

      • Deborah Bender

        “Actual witchcraft”? What’s that, please? Who gets to draw the boundaries?

        The Pagans who are criticizing and disavowing WITCH probably have a realistic concern that they will be associated with this group in the public mind and suffer from backlash against the group’s statements and actions. That’s tough beans, because anybody can call themselves a witch and the word has associations of danger and opposition to authority that go back centuries. “Wicca” has largely eschewed those associations and is currently the safer term for public use.

        I know more than a few people who participated in a ritual or tried to do a spell as an experiment or an art project, not expecting any result except an evening’s diversion. Some of them got a big surprise and started taking what they were doing more seriously. That is generally a good result.

        • Jules Morrison

          I sympathize with people who lived through the times up until around the 1980s, when backlashes were still possible. They’re jumping at shadows, though. The public in general may love spooky movies but regards actual occultism as cosplay.

          • Deborah Bender

            I think you are right about the current state of public opinion, but see my reply below to Trickster3 about where this sort of thing might lead.

            There are historical reasons why the Craft laws of some initiatory traditions of witchcraft forbid threatening anyone with a hex. Making threats and actually performing the hex are sometimes treated as separate issues.

    • Baruch Dreamstalker

      Berke, there’s a long tradition of people dabbling in esoteric ritual as a lark and connecting with something deeper than expected. At that point there are two choices: turn back or go deeper still. If your belief regarding the WITCH participants (which is nothing but bald opinion) has any merit, I’m glad they didn’t turn back.

      • Berke Leyden

        I don’t think this has anything to do with a spiritual tradition beyond surface spectacle. These are artists and performers first and foremost. I also don’t believe that the average witch would even seek out all this attention. They would just hex the gentrifiers and be done with it.

        • Baruch Dreamstalker

          By their own account they are developing something that may someday be called a tradition. I don’t regard this as a valid axis of judgment.

    • Damiana

      Only one of them mentioned her grandmother.

  • Hecate_Demetersdatter

    I love it! Of course, I’m so old that I remember what W.I.T.C.H stood for.

  • ChristopherBlackwell

    As a Witch I have no problem with this group. Protest was a big part of some areas of Witchcraft. Whether they are full time Witches or not performance art is a great way to protest. It is easier to get the message out if you entertain the audience as well rather than just preach to them.

    Right now I am watching the entire third season of the American Horror Story, Coven. Is it anything like either Witchcraft or Wicca. No, but it is a good story and I can enjoy the story. I admit sometimes I wish I could do some of the stunts they do, but then, I would likely get into the same trouble as they do. Our limits sometimes protect us form ourselves.. Remember it was the fairy tale evil Witch that first drew our interest into Witches and magic working in the first place.

    • Gerrie O.

      True about evil witches on TV – I can enjoy those. However I will argue against the “fairy tale evil Witch that first drew our interest into Witches and magic working in the first place.” Not for me. It was the promise of Nature-centered and polytheistic religion.

  • witch61

    What a hot mess. It reminds me of a bunch of 6-year-olds screaming “look
    at ME!!” and as a tool for changing public policy, it is less than
    worthless. A fail on every level — political, spiritual and magical.
    Bring in the clowns.

    • Damiana

      My concern is that it will fail if they aren’t part of a larger group of organized residents who make their needs known. The theatrics are great if either backed up with true magic and/or others that work relentlessly on housing issues. I’ve done similar work – minus the theatrics – to surprisingly good outcomes. Magic aligned with a large group with clear goals and a powerful, tenacious stance can be very successful.

      • Deborah Bender

        Well said.

        • Damiana

          Thank you. I’m fortunate that hard work and good experiences shaped my words.

  • Michelle

    Wish I could see a video! Thank you ladies for spreading the word through positivity and inspiration. Love and light, sisters. <3

  • Trickster3

    Quote: “Nothing scares the patriarchy more than a non-conformist, sexually
    liberated, independent thinker. Nothing scares the patriarchy more than a
    WITCH.”

    No, no one is scared of you, you don’t frighten anyone. There is no cavalcade of wrinkled old men meeting in secret plotting the demise of “witches” nor closed room meetings where men are quivering in fear of “witches”.

    Gentrification in Chicago has been going on for decades and it stems from simple capitalistic growth related to population increases. I remember when there used to be a rush hour, now Chicago is so densely populated, it’s better to say at 5am when rush hour lessens. Density increases the cost of goods and services as related to median pay. Pay is increasing in Chicago for the lower Upper class on up, and decreasing for the upper medium class and downwards to the poor. This drives up prices.

    The demand for housing in a constraint geographical area causes prices to go up and up and up. Look at Wrigleyville or Blue Island, home of the middle class up to the early 90s. Now, both areas have become upper class due to the value of property. I grew up in little Poland, my parents bought their house in the late 60’s for 75k; they sold their house in 2000 for 300K.

    This divide is amplified by corporations who expand the divide by controlling wages. The drop in unions, the “right to work” laws, the lowering of standards in the Labor Laws have all attributed to the divide getting bigger and bigger.

    So, no one is scared of witches. And certainly no one is going to listen to a bunch of little girls screaming in hysterics “you’re a big meaning”, you did that in Salem and that didn’t go to well either.

    I find witches a funny lot. You talk the big talk of power of conquering, of little spells and hexes. But then you act like greedy little children, temperamental, demanding that everyone listen to you and every one is wrong for disagreeing with you. If your not a good person living a good life to begin with, all your hexes and spells mean nothing. You’re just a spoiled brat screaming for something you have not earned nor need.

    • Baruch Dreamstalker

      I see nothing of what you describe in the attitudes of WITCH. Your screed sounds like screaming at the mirror.

      • Trickster3

        Take remedial english then. witchypooh.

      • Damiana

        You’re right, Baruch.

    • Deborah Bender

      I was with you in your class and economic analysis. Not in agreement with your final two paragraphs, which tar a lot of different actors with a broad brush.

      There are practical reasons not to threaten others with hexes and to keep whatever magical activity you do on the down low. Societies in which belief in magic and hexes is widespread are often places where anybody can be accused of malevolent witchcraft, a charge which is very difficult to clear oneself of. The idea that people you know might be causing misfortune by magical means tears down social cohesion.

      Regardless of whether the wealthy believe in the power of witchcraft, the general public is susceptible to believing in it without having any realistic idea of how it works or what its limits are. Our culture is rife with modern advertising methods that depend on irrational appeals, conspiracy theories are widely credited, sensational movies about the supernatural are big moneymakers, the largest single religious bloc apart from Catholics is Protestant evangelicals whose churches teach a literal belief in the devil and his powers, and neither systematic logic nor the scientific method is widely taught in American schools.

      It wouldn’t take much to undo fifty years of “witches are harmless friendly nature lovers” PR and then we might see some lynchings.

  • Damiana

    I’ve been involved in housing issues for many years now. I understand their concerns and what they are facing. Housing insecurity can be overwhelming and terrifying. I admire the stand these women are taking.

    I also know how the minds of realtors, developers, landlords, property managers and their legal counsel work. From there is where much of my concern comes: If these women might not regret taking this particular stance down the line because of how it might be used against them. They also all have unusual names and these actions might follow them and haunt them.

    I truly wish them the best of all possible outcomes and ultimate justice.

  • Fraga123

    This is what happens when a society produces too many unemployable liberal arts majors.

    • Damiana

      This is what happens when a society unleashes land speculators and carpetbaggers whose only value is to increase the value of property, using underhanded tactics.

      • Fraga123

        Don’t worry all your money is going to pay for city/county/state pensions in a few years. There won’t be anything left to buy real estate.

        • Damiana

          When my tax dollars are used to fund pensions of retired public servants, I’m fine with that. It’s the money used for corporate welfare of the rich and for war that I’m not happy. Real estate speculation will continue.

          • Fraga123

            Social parasites or economic parasites. Sounds like your comfortable bleeding for both.

          • Damiana

            Why are you trolling?

          • Fraga123

            Why do you think giving tax $$$$$$ to incompetent, greedy retired police and CPS administrators is ok?

      • Berke Leyden

        You are either in the collective or a personal friend, aren’t you?

        • Damiana

          Nope and nope. I’ve only been to Chicago once, years ago. I have a lot of experience working on housing issues.

  • Damiana

    I read up on the Pagan pity party. Wow. Demanding that these women out themselves was disturbing.

    Single mothers are some of the most marginalized people in this nation, including the ones who’ve had to depend on public assistance. These three women are working to improve the quality of life for their families via their educational goals and their attempts at housing justice. The latter goals can better the lives of their community members, too. I truly understand if they didn’t have the time or ability to do larger Pagan outreach, not do they need the permission of the Pagan community for a live public art project.

    Where is the compassion and support of the magical community for the housing justice these women and their community need? Must the magical community’s privilege of feeling offended take precedence over the nasty, frightening and underhanded tactics of developers and landlords that these women are trying to overcome? They are fighting for a basic quality of life issue: affordable housing. I hope that they triumph.

  • Isabel Hagar

    This is not the first time women use the term Witch to draw attention to a cause. Research Starhawk and “Take back the night”. As Pagans and Witches are we becoming like so many other whiners who are offended by anything and everything.

    I too have roots in Northern Mexico and my grandmother who called herself a Catholic practiced many “folk” remedies, cures and traditions that would be considered witchcraft. I am not saying I come from a family of witches but there were witchey practices in my family.

  • Isabel Hagar

    I neglected to add that I have been a practicing witch for at least forty years. I did my official studies with George Patterson of the Georgian Tradition. I AM A WITCH!

  • Luxe Valkyrie

    Regardless of the public’s opinion, they protest a legitimate issue. One may scrutinize the moot in regards to WITCH, but belief is power. They believe this course of action will change things for the better. Let us pray it does; this issue is a terrible challenge for those seeking the comfort of stability. Blessed be.

    • Damiana

      Indeed.