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Rejecting community oversight of police, Chicago’s mayor embraces the ‘royal we’

By Gabriel Montero |
October 21, 2020
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Chicago, IL - During the October 20 meeting of the City Council Public Safety Committee, it was announced that Mayor Lori Lightfoot will introduce her own legislation on ‘civilian police oversight.’ This will mark the absurd yet predictable culmination to Lightfoot’s journey as a ‘police reformer.’ It is absurd because Lightfoot’s legislation on ‘community oversight’ comes on the heels of her thorough rejection of any and all community-based demands for police reform and will undoubtedly include no substantive role for communities whatsoever. Predictable because as a former prosecutor, member and defender of the Chicago Police Department, Lightfoot has never shown any real interest in reforming the police, despite leveraging her role as head of the Police Board for her 2019 mayoral run.

The real reason the Public Safety Committee met to discuss civilian oversight was made clear with the announcement of Lightfoot’s new bill: the committee is getting ready to do the Mayor’s bidding. Since taking office, Lightfoot has not instructed her handpicked Chairman for Public Safety, Chris Taliaferro - a former police sergeant - to hold a single hearing on the longest-standing demand for truly transformative reform to Chicago’s police accountability system, the Civilian Police Accountability Council (CPAC) ordinance.

CPAC would give communities the power to control the police department through directly elected representatives. Since 2012, it has been the principal solution to police impunity for tens of thousands of Chicagoans who have demanded it, especially the city’s Black, Chicano/Mexicano and Puerto Rican communities facing police terror - a fact confirmed when a counterfeit proposal began to circulate within the channels of the city’s powerful NGOs in order to undercut CPAC’s demand for community power.

GAPA’s rival proposal to the CPAC was built around the delusion that the mayor would accommodate sticking “community” somewhere within the accountability system she did not already occupy. In response to that premise, the mayor simply swelled in power to crowd out all the available spaces. Today, GAPA is no more. Back in March, Lightfoot gutted the group’s proposal, refusing even to allow its toothless ‘Community Commission’ to have any say over police policy. Since then, she has walked away from the negotiating table altogether, announcing two weeks ago that she is going it alone. That leaves CPAC, but when asked recently what she thought of the demand for residents to exercise their democratic right to control the police, the Mayor stated unequivocally that she has always been against that right, “long before it became fashionable.”

For the October 20 hearing, nearly 2000 written comments in support of CPAC were sent to Taliaferro’s committee. In a repeat of the hearings held in 2018, when the public overwhelmingly rose to the mic to demand CPAC, all of the residents who testified on Tuesday voiced their support for community control of the police. None spoke on behalf of GAPA. Unable to attack the substance of CPAC’s demand to give communities the power to decide the terms of their own liberation and flourishing, the mayor’s city council lackeys tried to bog the hearing down in technicalities.

When it comes to addressing the fundamental issue of who should have the power to control and wield a lethal public institution, the contrast between the two opposing sides just got starker: the mayor on her own against Chicago’s communities, the mayor’s power versus the people’s democratic right to free themselves of police tyranny and abuse. In explaining how she can go it alone on community oversight after rejecting any power-sharing arrangement with communities, the mayor will no doubt utter something to the effect of, “The community, c’est moi.”

In the face of a national uprising against police crimes, the ‘police reform’ mayor has not only refused to address civilian oversight, she’s trying to completely do away with it. How did it come to this?

The uprising in Chicago that began on May 30 with some 15,000 protesters and a 4000-car caravan grew to some 100,000 people taking to the streets of Chicago over the summer to demand community control of the police. That demand has echoed throughout the city’s streets, reverberating its way to marches across the nation, and even into the first presidential debate.

The movement in wards across Chicago – including in the traditional police strongholds of the northwest – have led marches and sent thousands of emails to their aldermen to demand CPAC, including over 10,000 emails in Andre Vazquez’s ward, over 11,000 in Felix Cardona’s ward, and over 14,000 in Carlos Rosa’s. In the midst of the national reckoning occasioned by this uprising, the CPAC coalition has grown to over 100 organizations, including former members of GAPA such as Action Now, Asian Americans Advancing Justice, and Chicago Women Take Action, among others.

Rather than addressing police violence and syncing herself with the national moment, Lightfoot has unleashed her officers to protect property - including her own - and to brutalize protesters who have taken to the street precisely to protest police brutality. Praising her forces for clubbing, arresting and gassing thousands, she has upbraided them only for sleeping in the office of Congressman Bobby Rush when they should have been out defending property over lives. Her only response to the national movement for justice tremoring underfoot was to convene a working group on the Chicago Police Department’s use of force guidelines. The group concluded its work in October and recently published an op-ed calling the entire process a sham, after 150 of its 155 recommendations were rejected by the department. In the face of such ‘community input,’ CPAC calls for power, real democratic power to control the police accountability system in Chicago, not to have ‘input’ into it.

In celebrating Lightfoot’s role as enforcer during the pandemic and protector of property against unrest, the ruling class that put the mayor in power has sent her a clear message: “Order rather than justice.” Never willing to admit that their regime depends on police violence, exploitation and repression of Black and brown communities, the mayor’s base pushes the lie that policing is a benevolent tyranny that guarantees safety for all. With Lightfoot at the helm, they see an opportunity to revert the city’s political order to its pre-Laquan McDonald settings. After all, it was Lightfoot that Rahm Emanuel put out front to tell a city smoldering from the execution of Laquan McDonald that communities need a voice in policing. After that, Rahm had his Public Safety Committee stall any meaningful change until his exit. Rahm is gone – Lightfoot is the new Rahm, and having her say that the need for community-driven change has passed is the cover the ruling class needs.

There’s just one problem. The movement for the rights enshrined by CPAC has only grown stronger since forcing Rahm Emanuel not to run again and putting Laquan’s murderer on trial. Across the country, millions on the march are waking up to the fact that the police are and always have been a tool of white supremacy, serving the white supremacist ruling class that descends from this country’s founding lineage of slave owners. In connecting police repression to the protection of that wretched class, they see now why real police reform has never happened. In seeing others demanding the means to undo police repression through their own democratic rights, they see something that, though never before thought possible, hits them with the force of every true self-discovery. And once seen, that right is so close and so obvious that it cannot be unseen, only made into a material reality. For once seen, oppressed peoples can never turn their back on the right and the power and the means to destroy the bonds of their subjugation.