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Chicago Tribune lends its press to racism

Commentary by Frank Chapman |
May 1, 2020
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Frank Chapman.
Frank Chapman.

Chicago, IL - The headline in the Chicago Tribune Wednesday, April 19 blared: “Two charities have bailed scores of felony defendants out of Cook County Jail. Some were soon charged with new crimes.” The headline could have said, with equal validity, that “Millions of Chicagoans were not arrested last year. Some were charged with new crimes.”

The article is filled with racist ‘dog whistles’ about [Black and brown] people with guns and hysteria regarding violent crime. In actual fact, in the past three years the rate of violent crime in Chicago has declined significantly. The Tribune is blowing the racist ‘get tough on crime’ horn that fuels the racist, jingoist and misogynist President Donald Trump.

Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot, as if on cue, responded to legal actions to save the lives of people facing COVID-19 in Cook County Jail and unable to post cash bonds. The mass release of jail detainees, she declared, could put Chicago residents “at an increased risk of being the victims of serious crimes.” In fact, during the last three years a lot more people who were out (but out on bail) were arrested for crimes than people who were out and who were not on bail. The Tribune did not go so far as to suggest that everyone should be jailed because they might commit crimes.

The explicit target of the article is the organizations and individuals who believe in the Eighth Amendment of the U. S. Constitution, which declares that “Excessive bail shall not be required,” and who put their money where their words are when they say that Black and brown and poor people should not be jailed simply because they are poor.

But the real target of the article is the thousands of people, overwhelmingly Black and brown, who are crammed into the COVID-19 infested Cook County Jail who have been convicted of no crime but who are facing death from the epidemic raging through the jail.

The article tries to suggest that two charitable organizations, the Chicago Community Bond Fund (CCBF) and The Bail Project, jeopardized public safety by posting bail for nearly 1000 people during the last three years who were only in jail because they were too poor to post bail. The Chicago Alliance is an ally and supports the CCBF.

Tribune ‘investigators’ found 162 people who had made bail and were later charged with felonies since 2017. Two of them have been charged (not convicted) for murder. Yet COVID-19 has killed a reported six prisoners held in Cook County Jail. Six people dead in jail are OK for the Tribune, against two people charged with murder outside.

Almost 500 people in the jail had confirmed COVID-19 on April 27, yet the jail is not routinely testing prisoners unless they become seriously ill. In prisons where authorities have conducted wider testing the infection rates are 75%, as in Marian, Ohio. Many observers think the number of deaths and cases in Cook County Jail is much higher than reported.

The Chicago Tribune should apologize to the people of Chicago, especially Black and Latino people, and retract this article. Words matter. These words can, and probably will, result in increased racist attacks, by police and racist vigilante groups.

Chicago police have a long and sordid record of killing unarmed Black and brown people, and torturing suspects to extract confessions. The Tribune has helped to expose some of these police crimes. It’s time for the paper to do some real investigative journalism.

Frank Chapman is executive director of the National Alliance Against Racist and Political Repression and co-chairperson of the Chicago Alliance.