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Chicago moves towards community control of police

Commentary by Joe Iosbaker |
May 27, 2021
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The Chicago fight for community control of police is growing.
The Chicago fight for community control of police is growing. (Alec Ozawa)

Chicago, IL - On May 24, two years after taking office, Mayor Lori Lightfoot introduced her legislation for civilian oversight of the Chicago Police Department (CPD). Ironically, her bill was written without input from the community.

Under the name, “Community Commission for Public Safety,” the civilians in Lightfoot’s bill are appointed by her. In short, it keeps all the power over the police in her hands.

Ted Pearson, longtime activist against police crimes with the Chicago Alliance Against Racist and Political Repression (CAARPR), describes her bill as “leaving the people with nothing but a guarantee that nothing will change. It will erect a new layer of toothless bureaucracy over the already ineffective ‘oversight’ of the Chicago Police Department and call it progress.”

With this Lightfoot guarantees the police will not be held accountable. The reason for police terror in Black and Latino communities is to enforce the system of racist national oppression that denies them full equality. In the words of Frank Chapman, Field Organizer for CAARPR, the only way to end the deadly system of police crimes is for the oppressed Black and Latino communities to assert, “our democratic right to determine who polices our communities and how they are policed.”

Lightfoot’s record of police impunity

There can be no hope for change in how the police treat the Black and Latino communities as Lightfoot has shown she won’t hold police accountable for their crimes.

She ran for mayor on her reputation as a police reformer after leading the investigation in 2016 of CPD following the murder of 17-year-old Laquan McDonald by Officer Jason Van Dyke in 2014. The horrific video of Van Dyke shooting the Black teen 16 times was covered up by Mayor Rahm Emanuel for over a year. Emanuel feared that the video would have cost him his reelection. He was right. When the protest movement finally forced the release of the video, Rahm’s career was over. He denied it until months before the 2019 elections but dropped out of running for a third term just days before the trial of Van Dyke took off.

In the 2016 report issued from Lightfoot’s investigation, she called for a body of community representatives to be over the police, “to honor the principles established by CPAC,” referring to the campaign led by CAARPR for an elected Civilian Police Accountability Council.

The principle behind CPAC is community control of the police. This is a fundamental break from the failures over a generation of civilian oversight bodies to have any impact on racist policing.

In her campaign for mayor, she said this body would be among her top priorities and would be implemented within 90 days of taking office. Lightfoot broke her pledge when she took office in 2019. Then a year later, when the rebellion broke out after the murder of George Floyd, and 20,000 people marched and caravanned into the Loop, Lightfoot unleashed the cops to brutalize protesters.

At the end of 2020, Lightfoot was exposed for covering up a 2019 racist police raid of the home of Anjanette Young, a Black social worker. When 15 cops kicked in Young’s door, they found her getting out of the shower, and handcuffed her, leaving her naked in the middle of the room while they searched the apartment. She was in that position for over 13 minutes while she repeatedly told them they had the wrong house.

In February of this year, the city revealed that Lightfoot gave $280 million of the federal pandemic relief funds to the Chicago Police Department. This is on top of the $1.7 billion in CPD’s annual budget, 40% of Chicago’s entire budget.

Then in April, the police murder of 13-year-old Adam Toledo highlighted that unlike most other major police forces in the U.S., Chicago has no policy limiting the use of foot chases. Shot in the chest after a foot chase, Toledo was complying with the order to raise his hands. 30% of all foot chases end with cops using force against a suspect.

Lightfoot’s failures to stop racist policing became undeniable.

Showdown in battle for community control of police

Early in 2021, Lightfoot betrayed the Grassroots Alliance for Police Accountability (GAPA), with whom she had partnered on a bill that was seen as a watered down version of CPAC. After repeated attempts to get GAPA to weaken their bill to the point where it would have zero ability to hold the police accountable, GAPA saw the writing on the wall: the mayor was not interested in a democratic approach to police accountability. They approached CAARPR about negotiating a joint ordinance, which became Empowering Communities for Public Safety (ECPS). The joint ordinance was introduced in the Public Safety Committee of the City Council on Friday, May 21.

When the alderpersons who had supported GAPA decided to unite forces with the mass movement against the crimes of the Chicago Police Department, it resulted in an ordinance that will place decisive power over CPD policy in the hands of the community through a commission chosen in an election process. 60% of Chicago is Black and Latino.

The commission established by ECPS would get to rewrite the police rule book, including the policies on use of force. It would also hire and fire the head of the agency that investigates police crimes. Finally, ECPS contains a referendum to give Chicagoans the choice for the direct election of the commission, and the power to hire and fire the superintendent of police.

Lightfoot is facing a defeat in the city council as a majority of alderpersons are supporting ECPS.

Major caucuses in Chicago city council unite for ECPS

CAARPR and GAPA began talks in January along with the chief sponsors of the two bills, Alderpersons Carlos Ramirez-Rosa and Leslie Hairston for CPAC, and Roderick Sawyer and Harry Osterman for GAPA. The negotiations took on a greater urgency in February when Lightfoot cancelled a planned meeting of the Public Safety Committee to stymie the progress being made between the two organizations. Roderick Sawyer received a call during the meeting, and when he announced Lightfoot’s interference, he said, “This is war.”

On February 19, the two groups issued a joint statement. CAARPR’s Frank Chapman said, “The mayor is interfering because she does not want to see any change that would diminish her power, and what we are doing is putting the power in the hands of the people because that is where the power belongs.”

In March, the two groups united on the language of the bill, and then went to work to get the majority of the city council to support the bill. The city council Socialist Caucus had been with CPAC since 2015; the Progressive Reform Caucus was at the negotiating table with GAPA and CPAC. The Latino Caucus came to support ECPS shortly after.

Then with the help of a united group of 11 Black labor leaders (from SEIU Health Care Illinois/Indiana, SEIU Local 73, CTU, Transit Workers Union Locals 241 and 308, American Postal Workers Union, and the National Alliance of Letter Carriers, the Coalition of Black Trade Unionists, and the A. Phillip Randolph Institute), the Black Caucus joined the movement.

Class struggle behind the scenes

With the caucuses closing ranks, ECPS now has the support of a majority of the city council. This sets up a major confrontation between Lightfoot and the council, and the prospect of a veto by the mayor. Mayoral vetoes are rare in Chicago. The last one was 15 years ago. The alderpersons who played a leadership role in the negotiations, Carlos Ramirez Rosa and Roderick Sawyer, believe that they will gather enough council votes to override a veto by Lightfoot.

Looking at a deeper level, the level of conflict between Lightfoot and the city council is revealing the underlying material interests the different forces represent. Like most big city mayors, Lightfoot represents the major capitalist powers in Chicago: LaSalle Street banks, the Commodity Exchange, and investment firms; and the big real estate developers. Black and Latino alderpersons represent the petty bourgeoisie and bourgeoisie of the Black, Chicano/Mexicano and Puerto Rican nationalities – the small capitalists and professionals that are the dominant classes within those communities.

Lightfoot is a Black, queer woman, and gets racist treatment from the media. Also, she is attacked by the Fraternal Order of the Police and other racists, just as Barack Obama experienced in his two terms in the White House. But when the Black Lives Matter movement began the chant, “Who do you protect, who do you serve?” against CPD, everyone in this movement knew the answer. The police are there to defend the interests of the white ruling class. And the mayor provides cover for the cops.

The wards in the oppressed communities have been hit the hardest by COVID-19 and the economic crisis. On top of that, these areas – particularly Black neighborhoods – suffer the most from police occupation. All classes in the hood and the barrio are oppressed, including the professionals and small businesspeople from among whose ranks most alderpersons arise.

The constituents of the Black Caucus are crying out for relief from the pandemic, from the economic crisis and from police terror. And they want community control of the police, to determine who polices their communities and how they are policed. That’s why the Black Caucus broke with Lightfoot.

Showdown in city council between progress and ‘business as usual’

On Friday, May 21, the city council’s Public Safety Committee held its long delayed meeting to consider police accountability legislation. Lightfoot attempted to block the GAPA/CPAC ordinance being submitted as a substitute ordinance for the previous GAPA language. But on the 21st, Committee Chair Alderperson Chris Taliaferro announced that ECPS will be voted on in the June meeting. After Lightfoot’s bill was introduced, he announced her bill would be voted on as well.

Chicago is one of the cities with the worst problems of racist policing in the country. It is the only city to have apologized and paid reparations to victims of police torture. Kim Foxx, the current states attorney, has called Chicago “the wrongful conviction capital of the U.S.”

Now Chicago is poised to leap to having the strongest and most democratic police accountability system in the country. The decision is in the hands of the city council: will they stay united with the movement in the streets?