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Commentary: Phony Civilian Oversight bill defeated in Chicago

Mass pressure and a mayor’s own greed stall a planned power grab
By staff |
March 12, 2020
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Chicago, IL - In true Chicago fashion, Mayor Lori Lightfoot had expected to easily ramrod through a police reform bill this week that would have affirmed her grip on power. If passed, the “Community Commission for Public Safety and Accountability” ordinance would have left the entire police accountability system in her control, rendering it at the discretion of the executive branch whether to hold itself accountable for abuses of power committed by its police department, rather than giving communities terrorized by police tyranny the power to defend their rights.

In a stunning turnabout, the mayor’s efforts were stymied by mass pressure and a movement for transformative change that has demanded a profound, far-reaching and necessary alteration of the power dynamic in one of the most racist cities in the nation: the movement for community control of the police. As a result of that movement, and the mayor’s own avarice, the vote for the bill was called off at the last minute yesterday morning by the chair of the city’s Public Safety Committee, which would have otherwise sent the bill on to a full vote in the city council.

That the mayor’s proposed oversight bill is farcical is best judged by none other than Lori Lightfoot herself. In her former role as chair of the Police Accountability Task Force, Lightfoot wrote of the need for a new approach to police accountability, stating, “A coalition of community groups has proposed the creation of a Civilian Police Accountability Council (CPAC) to establish direct community oversight over CPD. The proposal here strives to honor the principles established by CPAC. We recommend that, as soon as possible, the City Council hold public hearings with the goal of developing the specific details of the Board - based on direction of the community - and selection of the Board members within 90 days of the start of the hearings."

Lightfoot penned this 2016, in the wake of the murder of teenager Laquan McDonald and then-Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s cover-up of that murder to ensure his re-election. Now that she is mayor, how does Lightfoot’s proposed police reform ordinance “honor the principles established by CPAC”? Simply put, it denigrates them. Under the mayor’s bill, communities remain without representation to decide how Lightfoot’s police force should be controlled. Under the mayor’s bill, everyone with power over police accountability is appointed by, and accountable to, only the mayor herself.

And in stark contrast to Lightfoot’s demand in 2016, not a single community hearing on police reform has been scheduled under her watch. Instead, secret deals between her office and well-funded NGOs are being struck behind closed doors to make sure she stays in control. When asked why he hasn’t scheduled any such hearing, even though he had planned to, Chris Taliaferro, the mayor’s choice for chair of the Public Safety Committee, the body responsible for creating legislation related to policing, told supporters of CPAC that it is not up to him to schedule a hearing. That left them to ask, “Whose decision is it and why was it your decision back in November 2019 - when you said you would - but not now?”

In response to the mayor’s maneuvers, the Chicago Alliance Against Racist and Political Repression has been waging a steady pressure campaign to demand actual community involvement in determining how communities can have power over the police. That includes members of the Chicago Teachers Union, SEIU Local 73, United Working Families, Democratic Socialists of America, Black Lives Matter, Trinity United Church of Christ, Freedom Road Socialist Organization, and Standing Up for Racial Justice flooding Taliaferro’s office with phone calls demanding that he schedule a public hearing in the community to discuss CPAC, which some 60,000 Chicagoans have already demanded that their aldermen pass and which has been introduced into city council three times since 2016. (A newly revised version will be introduced for a fourth time on March 18). In addition, some 20 legal experts from the University of Chicago and Northwestern University law schools are set to deliver to Taliaferro’s committee an open letter of support for CPAC as the solution to ending police abuse. This follows in the wake of an op-ed on CPAC published by two prominent legal experts in the Chicago Sun-Times the night before the mayor’s proposed stealth vote.

It didn’t help that the mayor’s own quest for power got in the way of her plans. Just before the vote was scheduled, the Grassroots Alliance for Police Accountability (GAPA) coalition that has been working with her in secret came face to face with the reality of an enemy with unbridled ambitions, as Lightfoot abruptly decided to strip from their proposed “Community Commission” the power to make police department policy. This was the last holdout for GAPA, as they have otherwise given away every other power for enforcing control over the CPD to the mayor. When the mayor made her move, GAPA cried foul. Together with pressure from CPAC’s supporters, it was enough to grind the vote to a halt.

As GAPA allows Lightfoot to take more power from the community and put it in her hands, more and more of its members have left the coalition, the compromises made weakening their bill to a shell of what it once was. GAPA’s name is now synonymous with the mayor’s naked power grab. Along with the last vestiges of any power the “Community Commission” might have had, so too has gone whatever remained of the Lightfoot of 2016. The only option left for GAPA at this point is to join forces with the oldest, broadest and most militant mass movement for community control of the police in Chicago and the country, and begin demanding real power for Black, Chicano/Mexicano and Puerto Rican communities to hold the police accountable - through CPAC. Faced with a mayor who rode the coattails of a police accountability movement in order to get elected, but who will not abide by any threat to her authority now that she’s in office, what do they have to lose?