Following the death of George Floyd in May 2020, Juneteenth protests in Chicago painted a picture of a city united in grief but divided in perspective.
“No justice! No peace!” a crowd of hundreds chants in Grant Park, Chicago on June 19th, 2020. It is Juneteenth – a day celebrating the emancipation of slaves in the United States. The crowd is led by Illinois Governor J.B. Pritzker, various Chicago Aldermen, and civic leaders to show solidarity amid Black Lives Matter protests that swept across the nation throughout the summer of 2020. After protests, riots, and even looting in Chicago following the death of George Floyd, this one-mile march is a peaceful observance for civil rights and city unity.
Across the city, from Wicker Park to the Gold Coast, scores of young people join livelier marches – without Governors or Aldermen. As an observer and participant of both protests, I witnessed groups of all backgrounds walking in solidarity. I believe these marches demonstrate an unparalleled level of support for change among Chicago’s many communities. But what would that change look like in a city where the Chicago Police Department (CPD) and Mayor’s Office exercise considerable influence in policy circles?
For many Chicago residents – African American, White, Hispanic, police or teacher – this change would mean police and emergency response reform, budget reform, and greater respect for all communities. Chicago is a melting pot of peoples and interests. Achieving durable reforms will have to acknowledge that diversity to prevent animosity amongst Chicagoans.
Who are these Chicagoans? What are their thoughts on race, police action, and Chicago politics since Black Lives Matter protests and COVID-19 began exacerbating their differences in May 2020?
A Complex Puzzle
The sentiment behind Juneteenth protests far surpasses political opportunism or popular fervour following George Floyd’s death. The city is disillusioned with the ongoing battle between the Mayor’s Office, the CPD, Chicago Public School System (CPS), and the Chicago community over new strategies to handle issues like police misconduct, mental health calls, and even the city’s budget. Moreover, Chicago is known as a city of demonstration – these two protests reinforce a spirit of civil action that extends well beyond the famous Chicago Riots of 1968.
Chicago resident and member of the community outreach organisation United Working Families, Erin Hernandez, described Chicago’s sorrows and expressed that “people were really tired” and “lost hope” as the summer of 2020 kicked off. Many who were without jobs due to the pandemic, and outraged by the death of George Floyd, were fed up and decided to act once nationwide protests began in May.
For many Chicagoans, the city had been walking a tightrope. Funding the CPD over the CPS and refusing to make swift changes to what police are asked to respond to, like mental health calls, has exacerbated grievances in the city. Also active asan advocate of the Cahoots Mental Health Co-Responder Program in Chicago, Ms. Hernandez pointed out that “police only have an average 20 hours of mental health-related response training”, a minute amount for the complex mental health-related calls police respond to. There was also “overwhelming survey support for diverting funds from the CPD to CPS” and to mental health programs, she continued – but “Mayor [Laurie Lightfoot] did not listen” and avoided any significant budget or policy changes around the issue in 2020.
Facing large-scale criticism for the current budget and CPS’s contract with the CPD for police protection in Public Schools (worth $33 million), Mayor Lightfoot said “unfortunately, we need security in our schools” and reiterated her Office’s commitment to the current CPS-CPD budgetary agreement.
The community is not alone in its fatigue from COVID-19 and subsequent budget constraints. The first responders – Police, Fire, and Emergency Medical Services (EMS) – are fatigued as well. They had to undertake challenges spurred by the pandemic and monitor protests, next to handling regular security duties. As a result, many Chicago police officers are under immense fear, stress, and frustration. As Chicagoland Public Safety Officer Dylan M. states:
“There is also an overall outlook of fear, stress, and frustration. Job security, safety, and performance are all heavily compromised amid the 2020 events…because of the increase in physical harm that officers are at risk of receiving due to the wrong types of protests, and contact made with individuals with COVID-19”.
Being a first responder requires above-average restraint and commitment. Yet it is not surprising to see morale waver within first responder communities when everyone is battling the emotional and professional turmoil of the health crisis. As Dylan M. said, “while complacency is always forbidden, maintaining this level of alertness is demanding and can be emotionally and physically taxing”.
Despite the crisis and the complexity of their work, police escorted protestors peacefully up and down the city streets on Juneteenth. Dylan M. reminds us why many public safety personnel had no problem doing so:
“People see the uniforms we wear and think of a negative social disconnect. Behind these uniforms are those who support change for the greater good, but the climate we are working in obstructs that show of support”.
A Tale of Many Cities
Eight months after those two Juneteenth protests, the words “No Justice! No Peace!” still ring true. How Chicago’s various communities will respond to that truth is yet to be seen, but it appears it should lie in debate. Specifically, the debate in public fora between civic leaders, CPD and CPS leaders, and the Mayor’s Office. These parties must discuss the best budgetary changes for the CPD and CPS and what public safety personnel should and should not handle. Only a debate among the civic leaders, the CPD and CPS, and the Mayor’s Office can pave the way to a measured response.
Today, with divided information bubbles and group interests pervading the United States, Chicago and its communities could benefit from comparing the thoughts and opinions of its leaders in one, publicized format. A joint council, which could debate new problems and solutions facing budget issues, racial injustice, and police conduct on television and social media could bring forward new answers. Afterwards, new policies and reforms that reflect the concerns of the community, CPS and CPD, and the Mayor’s Office, can be negotiated.
This may be an unpopular solution for a nation brimming with divisiveness from Bremerton to Baltimore. But much like the city’s geographic position in the United States, Chicago should lie in the middle on these issues. Therefore, the city must institute police and budget reforms that ease the social climate within the city. But also acknowledge the community members who are first responders, who often support the ideology behind these changes, but who also have other issues to address. As Dylan M. points out, there has been a lot of negative focus on Chicago’s first responders since last May, but this attention could be used to bring the city’s first responders closer to solutions that benefit everyone in the community.
After all, Chicago is a large and diverse community. Connected by ideals but divided in how to actualize them. To become a unified city, a public discourse must be held among the city’s leaders to create innovative policies and reforms, and those reforms must then be evaluated by the whole of Chicago. Only then will the city truly become united in its pursuit of justice and achieving a better, more peaceful future for all its residents.
Disclaimer: The interviews with United Working Families member Erin Hernandez and Public Safety Officer Dylan M. were conducted following the 2020 Juneteenth protests.