Red Star Bulletin Issue #16

Red Star Bulletin Issue #16

Welcome to Issue #16 of the Red Star Bulletin!

The aim of this bulletin is to bring Chicago Democratic Socialists of America members a regular round-up of important legislation, committee meetings, and other updates from City Hall, as well as analysis of what this means for our organizing as socialists.

Make no mistake: the City Council is not friendly terrain for us. We must first and foremost continue to build power in the places it derives from–our workplaces, our neighborhoods, and the streets. But we hope to give CDSA members information they need to assess the electoral project we’re embarking on, and to continue building it into a powerful vehicle for working-class politics in our city.

If you want to receive future issues of the Red Star Bulletin, click here.

Direct Action Gets the Goods — Highlights of the September 9 Council Meeting

Obama Presidential Center Community Benefits Agreement

The most recent Council meeting took the first major step to providing some actual protection to South Shore, Washington Park, and Woodlawn residents whose neighborhoods are threatened by the impending construction of the Obama Presidential Center (OPC).

The Woodlawn Housing Preservation Ordinance (O2020-3987)—co-sponsored by Jeanette Taylor (20th), Leslie Hairston (5th), and Mayor Lightfoot—passed unanimously and provides the following provisions:

– A requirement that at least 30 percent of new apartments built on the 52 vacant city-owned lots be set aside for “very low-income households.” This distinction is defined as households making less than 50 percent of the area median income, which works out to about $45,000 for a family of four.

– An initial $1.52 million to create a loan fund for acquiring and rehabilitating vacant buildings, with $100,000 annually thereafter.

– The creation of a program designed to help building owners refinance their property. The goal is to help keep rents affordable and prevent displacement. It has a $1.5 million financial commitment.

– An infusion of $500,000 to the Renew Woodlawn program, which aids low- and middle-income residents in buying homes in the neighborhood.

– A “right of first refusal” policy that allows renters to purchase their homes if the landlord decides to sell the building.

– An infusion of $1 million to the Home Improvement Grant Program, which provides grants of up to $20,000 to Woodlawn residents who have lived in their homes for more than five years to address safety, repair, and energy efficiency improvements.

These protections didn’t happen because of a moral obligation felt by the Mayor or even the individual work of a socialist alderperson (Taylor). A five-year battle preceded this development.

Working in the Obama CBA Coalition, organizers and grassroots organizations have been agitating since the OPC was announced in 2016. This ordinance came to pass because of their resolve and direct actions (recent examples detailed here and here). It is yet another reminder that movements precede change.

That said, the struggle continues.

The Woodlawn Housing Preservation Ordinance is a compromise, and socialists should not think otherwise. Taylor (20th) offered these words before the vote took place: “Of course, I want it all; I come from community organizing. But I do realize as an elected official, there [needs to be] compromise, and this is definitely the compromise.”

It was hardly more than a year ago that Taylor introduced a more robust ordinance, supported by the Obama CBA Coalition. While that ordinance was lost in legislative limbo, Lightfoot generated a watered-down version of the ordinance in February 2020. (You can read Issue #9 to revisit the differences between the two plans.)

As we continue to live within a neoliberal order, the changes we make through movements often restrain a capitalist system’s worst consequences without radically changing its structures. So it is with the measures passed by this ordinance. As long as the steps we take are making life materially better for working-class people in Chicago, however, they are fights worth waging.

The Police

While somewhat obfuscated by procedure, the City Council also approved four legal settlements totaling $6.6 million. These settlements all involved the Chicago Police Department (CPD), and three of the four settlements were in cases that allege misconduct or excessive use of force. Just last year, Lori Lightfoot doubled the amount budgeted for police settlements. Amidst calls to defund the police, this latest round of settlements is salt in the wound.

The Council will begin holding quarterly budget meetings next year, including an annual, special budget meeting on the CPD. The Mayor has made it clear that she does not support defunding the police. Defunding should be an easy decision to make for the City Council, as residents made their demand to defund clear, but nothing is likely to happen without Lightfoot on board.

Odds and Ends

The City Council voted (46 yeas, 4 nays) to ban the sale of flavored vaping products, except for those that taste or smell like tobacco. The few nays lamented the lost tax revenue and putting undue restrictions on business. Making public health decisions based on lost tax revenue is morally bankrupt, but it does highlight the city’s existing budget crisis—a crisis that has been exacerbated by COVID-19.

While politicians grandstand about relatively small tax revenue sources, they reject meaningful ones like the LaSalle Street Tax and neglect to cut behemoth line-items like CPD, let alone considering meaningful structural change. (On the state level, there’s a sliver of hope with the Fair Tax Amendment.)

While only a few alderpersons made these misguided objections, do not doubt that the majority of the City Council will make decisions antithetical to working-class interests if the optics are more favorable the other way.

Tune in to tomorrow’s (October 7, 2020) City Council meeting at 10 am CT by clicking here. It’s budget season for Chicago, so things are bound to get interesting.

Defund Police, Fund Community Mental Health

Echoing Chicagoans’ loud and clear calls to defund the CPD, socialist Ald. Rossana Rodriguez-Sanchez (33rd) is fighting for legislation that would eliminate police presence at mental health crisis calls.

On September 9, Rodriguez-Sanchez introduced an order to create the Chicago Crisis Response and Care System. The order proposes creating a 24-hour crisis hotline dedicated to calls related to mental health crises, substance use, homelessness, and conflict resolution. Instead of a militarized police force, teams of social workers and medical professionals would be available to respond to neighbors in crisis. This program is modeled on the CAHOOTS initiative, which has successfully operated in Eugene, Oregon, for the past 31 years.

If signed into law, Rodriguez-Sanchez’s Crisis Response and Care System would be the city’s first meaningful step toward defunding the police and prioritizing community care. The program would be operated by the Department of Public Health and the Office of Emergency Management and Communications and use funding taken directly from the 2021 CPD budget.

When armed Chicago Police officers respond to mental health crisis situations, our neighbors who need help end up dead. In 2015, Officer Robert Rialmo killed 19-year-old Quintonio LeGrier during a wellness check. LeGrier’s father had called for assistance, saying that his son was attempting to break into his room with a baseball bat. LeGrier, who had been experiencing mental health complications for at least a year, had made three 911 calls asking for help before the officers responded to his father’s call. In another abuse of power, off-duty Sgt. Khalil Muhammad shot 18-year-old Ricardo Hayes, an unarmed autistic teenager, in 2017. We know the police do not keep us safe; we must invest in public programs that reduce inequality and contribute to true public safety.

Rodriguez-Sanchez’s proposal would also reopen the six public mental health clinics closed by Rahm Emanuel. Right now, the entire city only has five of such clinics left, rendering mental health care inaccessible to those who need it most. The consequences are dire: in 2020, Cook County has seen a steep rise in suicides among Black residents.

As things stand, CPD gets nearly $1.8 billion per year. That’s 40% of the city’s entire budget. This summer, we saw where all that money goes; Lori Lightfoot’s police department spent a large part of this summer beating and intimidating protesters as she refuses to hear citizen demands to defund the police, establish a Civilian Police Accountability Council (CPAC), and reinvest in community resources.

Lightfoot has no excuse for ignoring the public’s demands for mental health care over heavy policing. We have made our demands clear. This summer, nearly 35,000 Chicagoans responded to the city’s budget survey. An overwhelming 87% of respondents responded in favor of reallocating funds from policing to community services, public health (including mental health services), and infrastructure.

The people have spoken. Now is the time for CPD’s funding to be rerouted towards measures that actually help our neighbors thrive. The Crisis Response and Care System is a vital step toward a future that prioritizes our communities’ lives, safety, and mental health.

The order currently has the support of eight aldermen: six socialists and two progressives. It has been assigned to the Committee on Health and Human Relations, chaired by Ald. Roderick Sawyer (6th Ward). The committee was scheduled to meet on October 1st, but this meeting was canceled on September 8th and, as of this writing, has yet to be rescheduled. One thing is clear: if we want to see the Chicago Crisis Response and Care System become a reality, we must organize and fight for it.

Police Torture and the Injustice System

This is the first in a series of Red Star articles on Jon Burge and Chicago police torture.

It’s been 27 years since Chicago Police Commander Jon Burge was fired for leading a ring of torturers working on the South and West Sides—yet some of his victims are just now winning freedom. In August, Keith Walker was released from prison after nearly three decades behind bars after the Illinois Attorney General’s office finally acknowledged that he was tortured into a false confession.

Walker is one of several hundred African American and Latinx men brought into CPD stations in the 1970s through the 1990s and subjected to torture by a group of cops known as the “Midnight Crew.” This gang of police officers worked to coerce victims into making confessions to crimes they did not commit. The confessions were used to convict and send them to prison, most for many years. More than a dozen were condemned to die in Illinois’ execution chamber.

The Midnight Gang used torture techniques that Burge learned during U.S.-led interrogations as a military police officer in Vietnam. Suspects were beaten, suffocated with typewriter covers, electro-shocked with a car battery attached to their genitals, shackled to radiators, dangled out windows, all the while being subjected to racist verbal abuse.

Once convicted, there was nothing Burge’s victims could do to get a hearing for their allegations of torture. Illinois prosecutors looked the other way while gladly using the confessions in court. For eight years, former head prosecutor Richard M. Daley was told about the torturers. He chose to publicly commend Burge instead. During his 22-year tenure as mayor, Daley did everything he could to avoid responsibility, claiming he knew nothing about what Burge and the animals he commanded did.

Burge’s torturers were finally exposed because of the efforts of torture victims themselves and their family members, who waged a long and lonely struggle to be heard. A 1991 article in the Chicago Reader headlined “House of Screams” introduced the torture allegations into the media. Burge was finally forced to resign two years later when a confidential internal police report surfaced, detailing more than 50 cases of “systematic” torture. Instead of being charged, however, he retired on a full police pension in Florida, spending his days on his fishing boat The Vigilante.

His victims, meanwhile, remained behind bars—some of them on death row. In 1998, several, calling themselves the Death Row Ten, decided to begin organizing on the inside. This gave a growing movement on the outside new urgency. Abolitionist lawyers succeeded in exonerating innocent men from death row, a total of 13 in a 13-year stretch. The Chicago Tribune’s investigation exposed a broken death penalty system. Equally important was a grassroots campaign organized by antiracists and socialists that put the powerful voices of prisoners themselves at the center.

In 2003, then-Republican governor George Ryan admitted to the injustices of the death penalty system. In announcing that he was granting blanket clemency and clearing death row, Ryan repeatedly referred to the scandal of Chicago police torture. The death penalty was abolished completely in Illinois in 2011.

Because of these struggles, Chicago is known the world over for its police department’s sickening history of racist torture and violence. Before he died, Burge was finally convicted in a federal trial and (all too briefly) went to prison. The City of Chicago formally has acknowledged the CPD history of torture and pledged reparations.

But real justice is still a long way off. The Illinois Torture and Relief Commission, established in 2009 and hamstrung from the start by a lack of funding, has a backlog of more than 500 cases to investigate. Prosecutors and the courts continue to block legal appeals by torture victims. And we know all too well the Chicago Police Department continues to behave brutally, most of all in the same poor Black and brown communities where the torturers operated not so long ago.

Knowing this history is imperative to our #DefundCPD campaign work. Police are a capitalist institution that cannot be reformed, and racism is endemic to the criminal justice system. Neither the revelation of torture nor public shame changed the CPD. Reform measures such as the torture commission—while a step in the right direction and a source of meager compensation for some of the victims—have not led to a substantial transformation.

As city and state officials, under pressure from the Movement for Black Lives, offer other police reform half-measures, this history is relevant: the struggle against police torture and racist injustice in Chicago gained what victories it did because prisoners and activists chose protest over accommodation and never stopped fighting for the full measure of justice available in our current system. Today, this means defunding and abolishing the police.

The Red Star Bulletin was conceived by Ramsin Canon and is a project of the Political Education & Policy Committee. This issue was drafted by CDSA members. Special contributions were made by Ali Cassity, Brent Glass, Charlotte Kissinger, Anna Kochakian, Alan Maass, Adrienne Nadeau, Sveta Stoytcheva, and Nick Thomas. Graphics were contributed by Patrick O’Connell. If you would like to contribute to the Red Star Bulletin or have any feedback, email politicaleducation@chicagodsa.org.