TRiiBE-Lightfoot interview
Photo courtesy of ANF Chicago/The TRiiBE

An Abolitionist’s Midterm Conversation with Lightfoot

Having a mayor who isn’t afraid to have a pro-Black journalist day is nice, but having one who implements pro-Black policies would be better

It’s May 19, the day before Mayor Lori E. Lightfoot’s midterm anniversary in office, and each one of her press rooms on the fifth floor of City Hall are filled with journalists of color. Two of the mayor’s staffers, Victor Owoeye and Kate Lefurgy, were impressed by my new Brandon Blackwood End Systemic Racism tote. 

When Lightfoot entered the room, she was impressed by my Air Jordan 1 Retro High OG “Dark Mocha” sneakers. And I couldn’t hide my delight to see her in a well-fitting and cute suit. Lightfoot’s suit choices have been a running joke on Black Twitter, and although I’m a critic of the mayor’s politics, I had to let her know that the suit was giving what it was supposed to give.

Back in 2016, Lightfoot presided over monthly Chicago Police Board hearings that I disrupted as a youth protester demanding that the board hold then-Chicago Police Department (CPD) Officer Dante Servin accountable for the 2012 murder of twenty-two-year-old Rekia Boyd in North Lawndale. 

I was co-organizing the budding Black youth-led prison abolition movement with the #LetUsBreathe Collective, Black Youth Project 100, Assata’s Daughters and Black Lives Matter Chicago’s Justice for Families working group. 

I can’t tell y’all how many times I’ve been in the same room with Lightfoot. But, she didn’t seem to remember me—at least, if she did, she didn’t let on. 

I am a revolutionary. I’m the granddaughter of a Mississippi sharecropper turned West Side queenpin and the daughter of formerly incarcerated parents. My people are still fighting for their lives and freedom inside Illinois and federal prisons and Cook County Jail. My people are organizing to defund police, fighting for no cop academies and police-free schools. My people are still fighting for justice for Boyd, Laquan McDonald, Ronald “Ronnieman” Johnson, Pierre Loury, Adam Toledo and the growing list of Black and brown families who’ve lost loved ones at the hands of Chicago police officers.

Borrowing from one Black feminist organizer I admire and respect, Ella Baker, early in the interview I asked Lightfoot: “Who are your people? Who are you accountable to in this world—before and beyond being Chicago’s mayor?” Lightfoot has worked for two anti-Black Chicago mayors—Richard M. Daley and Rahm Emanuel—who Black community leaders have been organizing against for decades.

“When I was a kid, and really into my twenties, my mother would always say to me, ‘Don’t forget you’re Ann Lightfoot’s daughter.’ When I was a kid, what I thought that meant was don’t go out there and act a fool and embarrass me,” she said. “But who am I accountable to? I’m accountable to my heritage. I’m accountable to the sacrifice that my parents made to put me in a position that I could succeed beyond their wildest expectations and dreams for themselves. I’m accountable to the people who elected me [and] who wanted to see something different.”

I’d hoped our first Black woman mayor would have mentioned the Black and brown Chicagoans who have been subjected to redlining and government-sanctioned anti-Blackness, and how those issues shaped the lives of many Black people whose families migrated from the South only to discover there was no refuge from racial violence here either. Since the Great Migration, many Black Chicago families have continued to struggle with housing and job discrimination, school segregation, fascist police and more.

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Lori Lightfoot doesn’t come from the same world that many Black Chicagoans like me did. She grew up in the small town of Massillon, Ohio, fifty miles south of Cleveland. She was raised in a predominantly white community, attending well-resourced, predominately white schools throughout her life. When she was class president in high school, one of the biggest issues she and her peers faced was bland cafeteria food. 

In 2019, Lightfoot told WTTW that she felt the most Black during her three years in Hyde Park as a student at the University of Chicago Law School. I’m from out West, and not many Black people I know can relate to that.

I wanted to know more about which Black community spaces she frequents on the West and South Sides. 

“If you follow Black and brown businesses across the city [on social media], what you’re going to see is a trail of where I’ve been,” Lightfoot said, without naming a single Black business on the West Side, and pausing before naming one South Side business. “I make sure that I’m dining in Black-owned restaurants, whether it’s Pearl’s in Bronzeville [or] a nice little ice cream shop that’s opened up nearby. Of course I go to the West Side haunts as well.”

I came to the interview wanting to get to the nitty-gritty: On national news outlets, Lightfoot has presented herself as a truly progressive Black queer woman mayor. But I specifically wanted to know more about her understanding of Black liberation movements and the demands within them. 

When I asked her which Black Chicago liberation struggle resonated most with her, she didn’t mention any of the Black queer-led movements to end criminalization of Black LGBTOIA people and dismantle systems that perpetuate institutional racism and intersectional oppression. Instead, she told me about her brother Brian Lightfoot’s seventeen-year stint in a federal prison for possession of and intent to distribute crack cocaine.

“You mentioned, for example, formerly incarcerated individuals. This is something that’s very personal to me,” Lightfoot said before naming her brother. “I know he came out of that experience traumatized because he didn’t get access to good health care. He didn’t get access to the kind of job training and skills that he needed. And he didn’t get access to a transition plan so that when he came out, he’d actually be able to land on his feet and not recidivate. He didn’t get access to addiction counseling and support that he needed to keep him away from narcotics. So that’s something very near and dear to me.”

Lightfoot also spoke about the Black men she represented pro bono as a defense attorney, although she offered nothing about the ones she prosecuted as a federal prosecutor. “As a Black woman, as a woman, as a lawyer who has fought hard for justice for people who have been wrongfully incarcerated, for immigrants and refugees, the struggles that I am most aligned with are those where we see wrong, we don’t take no for an answer and we fight like hell to change things around,” she explained. 

I asked what she’s doing to help the ever-growing population of Black Chicagoans faced with post-conviction struggles. In a couple of weeks, she said, her administration will make an official announcement about new programs to support returning citizens. For the last six to eight weeks she’s commissioned a working group to create a comprehensive plan of recommendations to holistically address the issues and unique challenges facing people newly released from prison. These challenges have been exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic. The working group includes Safer Foundation and Cara Chicago.

“Up until recently, when you got out of [the Illinois Department of Corrections], you didn’t even get an ID. If you don’t have an ID, guess what? You can’t rent an apartment. You can’t get utilities. You can’t do anything without having an ID,” Lightfoot said. 

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Black low-income neighborhoods on the South and West sides have been hit hard by mass incarceration. The North Lawndale Employment Network estimates that more than seventy percent of all North Lawndale men between the ages of eighteen and forty-five have criminal records. Although the state spends more than $1 billion annually to incarcerate Black and brown Chicagoans, there’s been comparatively very little investment in reentry services.

“What I ideally would like to see coming out of IDOC, coming out of Cook County, is a real transition plan,” Lightfoot continued. “We know when inmates are going to be released. Let’s start six months ahead of time, if not sooner, in talking to them about the things that they need to know: how to be connected to services, whether it’s Medicaid, whether it’s food stamps [or] job training.”

Revolutionaries, I won’t get my hopes up because I’ve seen first hand the limitations of working groups.

Since 2018, I’ve been working with the statewide Women’s Justice Task Force to develop recommendations to decarcerate and reduce harm to women and families entangled in the criminal punishment system. And although many women leaders from across the state—including Cook County State’s Attorney Kim Foxx and Lieutenant Governor Juliana Stratton—have supported our working groups, Lightfoot has not. 

Furthermore, Lightfoot’s office led a working group with CPD last fall to develop recommendations to remove police officers from schools, but CPD rejected seventy percent of the group’s recommendations.

Because of this, the mayor’s plans for new re-entry programs didn’t seem promising to me. However, I did want to know one thing: if she is so passionate about supporting returning citizens, why do we hear her speak with such haste to reopen criminal courts, which would incarcerate more people?

In March, when Fox News asked Lightfoot about the backlog of cases in the criminal courts, she said, “We’ve arrested literally thousands of people who have been involved in car thefts, carjackings and so forth, but what happens is within 24 or 48 hours, they’re back out on the street and the backlog of criminal cases isn’t moving because Cook County hasn’t figured out that they can actually do criminal trials virtually like Lake County.”

Now we all know what Fox News is about. In a 2019 interview with “The Breakfast Club” radio show, former Fox News host Eboni Williams said the network was founded for the sole purpose of “the demonizing of the other.” Lightfoot skillfully panders to different audiences like a true politician. During our interview, she said nothing about arresting carjackers or keeping criminals locked up when discussing this topic. 

Instead, she offered this: “When people get arrested and they have a charge hanging over their head, and their case isn’t moving, what we’ve seen—and there’s been a number of studies in Cook County about this—[is] people end up pleading guilty because they just wanted to be done,” she told me. “If you’re not guilty of something, under our Constitution you have to have your day in court. And with the criminal courts not being open and cases not moving, people aren’t getting their day in court.”

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Naturally, that brought us to Foxx. In her first two years in office, nearly 4,500 fewer felony retail theft charges were filed as a result of her raising the threshold for approving felony charges to $1,000 from $300. And though I wouldn’t go so far as to call Foxx an abolitionist, she has certainly been a leader in bond reforms that have gotten us closer to abolition. In February, Illinois became the first state in the nation to end money bail. I wanted to know how Lightfoot feels about the movement to decarcerate Chicago.

“I don’t think Cook County Jail should be a debtors’ prison, and that’s a big part of, I think, things that Kim has talked about,” Lightfoot began. “But I want to also say we can’t forget the victims. I was just on a Zoom on Saturday with a number of mothers whose children had been killed by gun violence in the city. Their pain was just pouring through the screen. What they feel like is there’s nobody there for them.”

While families impacted by gun violence may feel temporary satisfaction when a perpetrator of harm is arrested, tried and convicted, that is not justice. 

The criminal legal system is not equipped to heal the families of victims of gun violence, who also have very little say in how criminal proceedings are handled. The way Lightfoot equates accountability with carceral punishment is troubling for Black Chicago.

Even more troubling is the disparity in what she believes accountability looks like for police officers. Sparked by the murder of George Floyd, Black revolutionaries in Chicago were protesting everyday for months in 2020. I asked Lightfoot what her views are on the proposed George Floyd Justice in Policing Act, which aims to eliminate qualified immunity, a policy that helps police officers escape legal liability for civil rights violations. Her response revealed how disconnected she is from Chicago’s Black liberation movement.

“If you unarm the city with valid defenses and officers, I think the consequences are going to be monumental. I think the amount of money that we are paying out in settlements and judgements is only going to go up exponentially,” she said. “I think, as an officer, if you believe that you’ve made an honest mistake, and you’re now going to risk your pension, your salary, your house, your future, I don’t know who would take that job.”

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By this point, revolutionaries, I was livid. I wanted to walk out the press room. I couldn’t believe that she was sitting in my face telling me that we should not abolish qualified immunity because it will make policing a less attractive job. But I had an interview to finish.

As Black organizers continue to call for police divestment and community investment, I had to ask about Invest South/West, one of Lightfoot’s signature initiatives to revive some of Chicago’s underserved neighborhoods. Over the past year, Lightfoot said, her administration pushed out $70 million through Invest South/West.

“And we got a return on that investment of $300 million in private capital investments,” Lightfoot said. “We’ve been extraordinarily transparent about the work that we’re doing and we’re changing the face of these communities by putting money [in them] and drawing attention to it.”

Although the Invest South/West initiative is exciting, it still falls short of the efforts we’ve seen the City put toward more affluent and resourced parts of Chicago. For example, the City is putting $2.4 billion in taxpayer subsidies into two new development projects, Lincoln Yards and The 78, according to WBEZ. Overall, the estimated costs to build Lincoln Yards alone is $6 billion, according to the City’s website.

The Invest South/West part of the conversation didn’t last for too long. We were only given fifteen minutes to do the interview, and by this point we had managed to stretch the conversation to thirty minutes—despite her press team rushing us to wrap up.

Afterwards, I left City Hall thinking that having a mayor who isn’t afraid to have a pro-Black journalist day is nice, but having one who implements pro-Black policies that we could benefit from every day would be better. 

Today, Black and brown youth organizers are protesting Lightfoot’s midterm anniversary near her home in Logan Square.

The Triibe will be there. And anyone interested in joining our tribe in building a revolutionary agenda for Black Chicago 2023 should be there too.

 

A version of this story was originally published on May 20 on thetriibe.com.

1 Comment

  1. I wonder what the author’s or the mayor’s impressions would be upon seeing the children in the sweatshops that make Bella Bahhs’ Air Jordan 1 Retro High OG “Dark Mocha” sneakers.

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