On December 15, I was one of a group of 16 protesters who went to jail for an act of civil disobedience at a protest demanding the resignations of Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel and State’s Attorney Anita Alvarez. Our demands were largely symbolic, given that neither Emanuel nor Alvarez has ever been moved by cries for justice or calls for decency. Deeply embedded in the monied, Democratic establishment, Emanuel and Alvarez are both quite accustomed to dodging the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune, and emerging when the onslaught has ceased, more smug and destructive than ever.
But in the wake of the scandal surrounding Laquan McDonald’s death, there was a sense of hope in the air, amid the sadness and rage of those who’ve tangled with the likes of Alvarez in the past – a hope that maybe, this time, the rest of the county might see her as clearly as we do. And while any opportunity to oust Emanuel seems either far-fetched or far off, Anita’s looming reelection fight offered an opportunity for the public to approach the polls with fresh memories of her complicity with police violence.
Chicago, of course, has become something of a national focal point in discussions of police violence. The familiar “a few bad apples” argument that is often invoked to defend police in general is now being applied at a national level, with police supporters characterizing Chicago’s entire department as a “bad apple” that doesn’t reflect the standards of other major cities.
While this argument is obviously reductivist, and erases the harsh realities of policing on a national scale, widespread coverage of our city’s police brutality scandals has brought meaningful attention to conflicts between police and Chicago’s most marginalized communities. Our city’s police are now widely recognized as being representative of what the Civil Rights Movement, in all its greatness could not overcome – and of the injustices at the heart of the current movement for Black lives.
The grievances at the heart of a movement that has electrified streets in cities across the country are written on the walls of our city’s police departments. Murder, corruption and a hardened indifference to Black life and death are the hallmarks of “law and order” in Chicago. But in late 2015, something changed. For what may well be a fleeting moment, the mainstream media has actually begun writing headlines that match the stories unfolding in our communities. For once, those most affected by anti-Blackness aren’t the only ones demanding consequences for police violence. And the names Black-led groups have been lifting up for months and years, of young people like Dominique Franklin and Rekia Boyd, are part of a larger chorus with a clear demand: that someone actually be held accountable for this violence.
But as we’ve seen, accountability doesn’t come easy when it comes to police violence. With few indictments leveled against police who kill, and even fewer convictions, police simply aren’t subject to the laws they are meant to enforce. And regardless of our various takes on issues of police brutality, we all know that cops very rarely answer for their crimes. Even those who support and defend police know full well that their acts of brutality go unchecked. In general, such people are simply willing to accept – or even support – such actions, as being the price of “safety” in an unkind world. Because regardless of how they might publicly represent their positions, many Americans embrace the characterizations of primetime police procedurals that portray police as protectors and avengers who sometimes have to cross ethical boundaries to keep us safe. This is a standard, mainstream perspective, propped up by glorified, fiction-driven stereotypes and illusions born of a need for the world to be divided into heroes and villains. Believing that criminals endanger us, and police protect us, allows us to accept the brutality that goes on around us as being, at worst, an unfortunate product of necessity. But, in truth, this perception is the last stronghold of those this system is actually designed to protect and comfort, because in 2016, the city I love, and plan to call home for the rest of my life, is riddled with enough bullets to shatter such illusions.
Chicago, perhaps more than any city in the country, proves that allowing police to operate outside the law does not keep communities safe. While police officials have steadily blamed a lack of community cooperation for their inability to close cases, their rank and file make the alienation of those communities a daily practice. For Black youth, police harassment is a standard expectation, and police violence a tragic fact of life. And Chicago’s street violence, which has become the stuff of Spike Lee films and late-night comedy routines, has raged on, at best unaffected by the presence of police, and at worst, compounded by it.
But how does a community confronted with such an intractable source of harm fight back? In Chicago, young Black people – and young Black women in particular – have led campaigns demanding accountability, but those waging these battles face formidable bureaucratic obstacles. Whether the demand is reparations for police torture, or the firing of a killer cop like Dante Servin, these are complex struggles that can drag on for years, fatiguing and testing the will of all those who care enough to fight.
But there is someone who can be held accountable, here and now, and in the simplest manner our system affords. Anita Alvarez can be voted out of office.
Alvarez, who has not merely failed to hold police accountable for their crimes, but actually participated in cover-ups and the prosecution of whistleblowers, is an elected official. That means that our city and county are actually afforded a very basic opportunity, on a semi-regular basis, to co-sign or reject her behavior. And while no number of feet on the streets can dislodge a killer cop if the system refuses to bend, Alvarez is wholly vulnerable to the will of the people.
But do enough of “the people” really care?
The young Black people spearheading the #ByeAnita campaign certainly hope so. They have lashed out against the beleaguered State’s Attorney, interrupting one reelection event after another, and propelling Alvarez’s dubious record into the national spotlight. But will those who don’t reap the daily consequences of her actions show up to defend Black lives?
As I stood at the intersection of Clark and Congress on the 15th of December, waiting to be arrested with my friends for shutting down traffic, I knew we were inconveniencing a great many people. I knew that, amid the cacophony of car horns blasting all around us, a great many commuters were thinking, or even declaring, “Sure, Alvarez and Emanuel are bad, but what have I done to deserve this?” And while I felt for good people, with good values, who may have been delayed on their way to do something that mattered, my feelings on the subject are largely less generous.
The “what have I done to deserve this” attitude about the inconvenience of protest is a common one, but for many who would say such things, I simply have to ask, what have you done to deserve peace? What have you done to defend the lives of those murdered and ground under by this system? And when have you made the slightest effort to correct the course of this racist society?
Do you believe, as J. Edgar Hoover once said, that “justice is merely incidental to law and order,” or do believe that we have a duty to demand that right be done in our names? And if you don’t believe that this system should be held accountable for the murder and abuse of people of color, how dare you speak at all?
If you are a resident of Cook County who believes that the trappings of this democracy have any value at all, you have a fateful decision to make that speaks to both your character and the character of the place you call home. You have an opportunity to do more than shake your head over tragic headlines or acknowledge that protesters might have a point. You have a chance to show up and make a single declaration for the sake of justice that will help shape the experiences of those who are subject to this system.
You have a chance to prove that, unlike Alvarez, you are not complicit with the violence that has been committed in your name.
A vote for Alvarez is plainly and simply a vote for anti-Blackness. It is a vote for the status quo of police violence and for the climate of fear in our city streets. And if you believe in voting at all, failing to show up for young Black people, for Black lives and for the very idea of justice means you have no right to open your mouth about violence, corruption, racial tension or anything else that’s tearing our city apart.
If you believe in the ballot, but choose to throw away this most basic of opportunities to affirm the value of Black lives, you deserve every inconvenience you are subjected to. And if you don’t help to displace Alvarez, please don’t expect me to care the next time I hear your car horn blasting as we shut down a city street. Because if you don’t care about justice, then you don’t deserve peace.