We’ll See You on The Frontlines, George
PHOTO FROM PLAIN PRESS ARCHIVES
In Memory of George Hrbek: June 20, 1931- February 19, 2023.
by Molly Martin
(April 2023, Plain Press) I can hardly believe that George Hrbek is gone, but if I find him somewhere, I know it’ll be on the frontlines of social justice movements as they are happening. Most people who have lived on the Near West Side for decades can rightfully scoff at my knowing George for only four years, but that didn’t stop me from soaking up as much time as his family could spare.
I first heard the name George Hrbek in 2019 when I started working with the Northeast Ohio Coalition for the Homeless (NEOCH), the organization he helped found in the late 1980s to establish a community watchdog to hold our public systems accountable to providing dignified care for people experiencing homelessness. George had a way of moving moments into action. It was his sacred practice. The first time we met, I sat across from him at a table in the back of Denison United Church of Christ. We were organizing a protest in response to cease and desist threats to the church for providing overnight hospitality to unhoused people on cold winter nights. At the action later that week, 80 of us gathered outside City Hall, while inside George pitched a tent with Rev. Nozomi Ikuta and others until the city’s Safety Director agreed to meet with us on Christmas Eve.
George was a Lutheran minister who built a white antiracist spiritual community in Chicago, and he was also my teacher. He always had a genuine desire to understand me, and people who are willing to fail by acting. George was resolute on how deeply committed we must remain to challenging public institutions and the well-intended for their capacity to squash transformation from happening. After his 90th birthday, George became a champion for participatory budgeting (PB), our budding local campaign for more direct democracy and resident-led decision-making on public spending. He gave public comment at City Hall the month before he passed, urging City Council to support a PB pilot.
In late January, we held a community dinner together in support of a Youth Drop-In Center at 4100 Franklin Blvd. During dinner, my heart stretched a mile wide the moment I noticed a hospital band on George’s wrist. I stared at him with concern, while he looked back at me and asked, “So what exactly is your plan to bring all these people back in this room so we can get the meeting started?”
Ten days before George died, we sat together drinking milkshakes and I reaffirmed my promise to grassroots movement building. I promised him that I would honor his life by continuing to build a joyful community filled with hope and an undying love for life, as he had. George reminded me often that he wanted to be remembered for being a flawed person, or what he called a “real human being.” While I relished his thoughts on change, politics, and his own death, what I learned most from George came from his actions in this life. In the blink of time that we knew each other, I witnessed him reveal truth in the way he interacted with others in the world.
I miss George’s pure attention and the way he proclaimed someone’s presence when they entered a room. There are so many moments ahead of us to channel the same conviction that made George unafraid of consequences. I cannot wait to be with him on the frontlines again soon.
George Hrbek was born June 20, 1931, in New York City. Surrounded by family, he died at home on February 19, 2023.
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