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Chicago 2023 mayoral candidates Brandon Johnson and Paul Vallas
Photos courtesy of Brandon Johnson and Paul Vallas

This article was first published by the Chicago Reader a newspaper in Chicago, Il. Aside from the headline and a paragraph to update readers on the latest in the mayoral race, it appears as it was published and has not been edited by PJP.

Like most Chicagoans, I’ve only been half-heartedly following the race for mayor. So on January 31, I settled in to watch WGN’s mayoral debate and see who the best candidate was.

An hour and a half later, I was both outraged at some of the things I heard and relieved that it was over. I was saddened at the prospect of Chicago’s future with the possibility of some of these candidates at the helm. Overall, it was a poor night for Chicago.

In late February, Chicagoans voted in a close mayoral election, and decided Mayor Lori Lightfoot will not earn a second term. On April 4, the city will vote once more in a run-off mayoral election between Paul Vallas, a more conservative Democrat, and Brandon Johnson, a Cook County Commissioner, who’s a former teacher and more progressive.

While only two candidates remain, that February debate illuminated a problematic approach to combating crime that Chicago is considering — a tough-on-crime approach that seems to be proliferating since the COVID-19 pandemic arrived.

I heard a lot of the same old tried-and-failed ideas. Many candidates promised more police and tougher penalties. We hear these same things every election cycle. And how is that working out? Illinois has some of the strictest gun penalties in the country. If an individual possesses a firearm, discharges one, or discharged one to cause the death or serious injury in the commission of a felony, judges are required to add 15, 20, or 25 years, respectively, to their sentence. Despite that, Chicago still has violent crime and high rates of murder.

Doesn’t it seem like this strategy has failed? It’s lazy politics. Candidates can shout for tougher penalties and longer sentences all they want, but this only expands mass incarceration. It does nothing to stop the violence and crime. It’s a good sound bite, but a failed policy.

Some candidates would have you believe that the violence is widespread in Chicago. While violence can and sometimes does spring up anywhere, the highest concentrations of violence are in neighborhoods like Little Village, Englewood, West Garfield Park, and Fuller Park. It’s concentrated in mostly Black and Brown neighborhoods, which experience many forms of disadvantage, from poverty to segregation, food and job deserts, and high unemployment.

When Paul Vallas talks about putting 500 new cops out there, I wonder if he’s talking about these neighborhoods. He certainly isn’t walking down the streets of any of these neighborhoods in his commercials.

Willie Wilson’s comments were particularly distasteful. He likes to say, “Take the handcuffs off the police.” It’s tone-deaf. Most people, especially in Black and Brown communities, are afraid of having interactions with the police. Yet he evokes the image of someone slipping the leash off an attack dog.

Wilson said that the police should go after criminals and “chase them down like rabbits.” What kind of Chicago does he want to preside over? We have laws, and people have rights. We don’t hunt people down like animals in this country. We don’t need this kind of rhetoric. People who break the law are human.

The police Wilson wants to uncuff will be invading disadvantaged and underserved Black and Brown communities. I am sympathetic to his son having been killed. I can’t imagine the hurt and pain he must have. But it sounds like he wants to use the city’s resources for vengeance. This, more than anything else, should be disqualifying.

I was also interested to listen to Chuy García and see if he had any new ideas. He didn’t. He said, “Downtown is the engine that runs the city,” and called Loop investment, “building a more equitable Chicago.” Is that what equity means to him—investing in the richest parts of the city, when a quarter of the city does not have rail service, or when neighborhoods like Englewood are struggling to hold on to even one grocery store? Our policy cannot be one of neglect and disinvestment.

Politicians love the status quo. Punishment is the most consistent response to urban crime, violence, and poverty. All you have to do is look at the nightly news to see that these policies have failed.

Black and Brown Americans are less likely to live in communities with strong institutional support. Exclusionary housing policies and discrimination pushed Black Americans into segregated neighborhoods. The government and the private sector neglected these communities, leaving them with underfunded schools, food deserts, lack of quality healthcare, unemployment, and poverty.

We need to understand the harm caused by widespread disinvestment and abandonment. We need to focus on poverty, segregation, disinvestment, and the widespread availability of guns to people who shouldn’t have them.

I only really heard one candidate speak about investing in neighborhoods and that was Brandon Johnson. He spoke about workforce development and investing in small businesses. He seems to understand the need to shift from punishment and focus attention on the policies that create and sustain poverty in the first place.

Johnson spoke about crime anxiety in Chicago, and he is correct. Community violence translates into fear of public spaces and leads families to leave their neighborhoods if they can afford to. In many of these neighborhoods, large numbers of adults are currently incarcerated in the justice system. This overwhelms the adults and institutions that remain and leaves young people who live there vulnerable to the violence of others.

The city must find ways to invest in these disadvantaged communities. It must help Black and Brown small businesses get off the ground to help build a sense of community and employ people from the neighborhoods. The city also must incentivize developers to build in underserved communities. We need to push for affordable housing. Many vacant lots can be bought cheaply and developed. As heavily taxed as the city is, we need to offer tax credits to developers who come to these communities.

Fifty percent of all 911 calls are for nonviolent issues. These calls should not be handled by the police but by certified experts and community members. This would allow for more police presence in the areas that need them and allow members of the community to be treated as something other than suspects. We need to find alternatives to police for nonviolent calls. We have to explore what can exist rather than what does exist.

We also need more mental health clinics. We cannot discount the significance of community issues, addiction, and undiagnosed mental health issues. We need services for trauma related to community violence and we need to develop strategies to shift funding to culturally competent providers of treatment and healing.

The next mayor needs to reach out to Chicago’s youth. Young people want to be politically active. We need to help them form community organizations that interrupt violence and empower young people to lead change efforts in their schools and communities. The youth need understanding and simply to be heard. The mayor needs to listen—not just to understand the root causes but also the root consequences of exposure to them. How can anyone feel like our leaders really care about us when they won’t even take the time to listen?

Lastly, Ja’mal Green said that “hope is not a plan.” In and of itself, that is true. But hope is also an important form of resistance, both political and personal, and it reaffirms what is possible and what is worth fighting for.

Hope is a political activity and a large part of what will inform voters’ choices for mayor. There is hope that they will follow through on their promises, hope that they will listen, hope that they will not follow failed policies but build communities, especially in the most underserved communities.

Hope must be a part of everyone’s plan.

Disclaimer: The views in this article are those of the author. Global Forum Online has verified the writer’s identity and basic facts such as the names of institutions mentioned.

Anthony Ehlers is a writer and 2022 graduate of the Northwestern Prison Education Program. He is incarcerated in Illinois.