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Can Young Black Organizers Bring Down Chicago’s Top Prosecutor?

The Cook County state’s attorney race in Illinois could have major implications for Black-led, anti-police violence movements.

Progressive organizer Kaleb Autman, 14, speaks at a noise and light demonstration on March 10, 2016, in Chicago, Illinois. (Photo: Sarah-Ji)

On Tuesday, as voters in Illinois, Florida, North Carolina, Ohio and Missouri go to the polls, national attention will surely be fixed on the outcome of the presidential primary race — an outcome that has become unexpectedly contentious for the Democratic front-runners. But opponents of police violence around the country will also be focused on the outcome of a much less publicized battle: Illinois’ Cook County state’s attorney race.

In a city like Chicago, where establishment connections run deep, the fight to displace a controversial top prosecutor and the newly tight race between Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton intersect quite clearly in the minds of some community members. Given Hillary Clinton’s continued support of Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel, who many believe colluded with Cook County State’s Attorney Anita Alvarez to cover up a now high-profile police shooting, many view Clinton and Alvarez as being part of the same systemic problem: the establishment left, maintaining the status quo in the face of community struggle. “Tell me who you know, and I’ll tell you who you are,” said local organizer Tess Raser, of the grassroots group Assata’s Daughters.

The story of Laquan McDonald, who was shot 16 times by a Chicago police officer, is no longer the stuff of national headlines, but calls for the removal of Alvarez, who took over a year to indict McDonald’s killer, have not waned in Chicago’s Black community. Alvarez, who only filed charges against Officer Jason Van Dyke once the court-ordered release of dashcam footage of McDonald’s killing was imminent, has maintained that she did nothing wrong by taking over a year to charge Van Dyke — a decision which left the police officer, now charged with first degree murder, on the job for a full 13 months after McDonald’s death. Alvarez’s critics, including the editorial boards of Chicago’s two major newspapers, the Chicago Sun-Times and Chicago Tribune, beg to differ: They are calling for Alvarez’s eight-year tenure as state’s attorney to come to an end.

Some would argue that the complaints against Alvarez are systemic, and hardly unique to Cook County, Illinois. But while the McDonald case, and numerous other police killings in Chicago, may not set Alvarez apart from other prosecutors around the country in practice, it may well in consequence.

Young Black organizers in Chicago, who have helped claim victories as historic as winning reparations for survivors of police torture and securing a trauma center for Chicago’s underserved South Side, made a decision in the weeks that followed the traumatic release of dashcam footage of Laquan McDonald’s death: They wanted Anita Alvarez out of office.

“Bye Anita” campaign organizers and their allies rallied in the streets on March 11. (Photo: Kelly Hayes)

Traffic jams punctuated with chants of “sixteen shots!” became a fact of life in Chicago in the weeks after the dashcam footage of McDonald’s death was released, as protesters blocked major roads. Black Friday profits on the city’s Magnificent Mile were decimated by activists who blocked the entryways to major stores. Whether protest actions targeted roads or commerce, their message was clear: Protesters would not allow the city to proceed on its current path. If there would be no justice, there would be no peace.

“Anita Alvarez was involved in a horrible tragedy that is still being felt in the Black community by young Black people.”

But in a Chicago winter, daily marches are rarely a sustainable strategy. As arrests mounted, and legal resources were stretched thin, exhausted activists knew they needed to strategize beyond the heat of the moment. Since it was clear that neither Alvarez nor Mayor Emanuel was going to heed calls for their resignations, young organizers turned their eyes toward March, when Alvarez would be up for reelection. With the momentum of a presidential primary, organizers hoped that nationwide frustration with establishment politics might help rally support against Alvarez.

Some organizers have gone so far as to draw clear connections between presidential front-runner Hillary Clinton and the scandal surrounding Laquan McDonald’s death. “To this day, Hillary Clinton still supports Chicago’s anti-Black mayor,” Tess Raser said. “[Emanuel] conspired with State’s Attorney Anita Alvarez during his own reelection campaign to cover up the police murder of Laquan McDonald — a life that to Emanuel, Alvarez and Clinton did not matter — and any politician who supports him is implicated in it.”

But within the context of the Black Lives Matter movement, entering into the realm of electoral politics was not a decision that activists took lightly. Decisions about whether or not to endorse candidates, or in some cases, even meet with the president, have been the subject of major controversy. But after what one organizer described as “countless hours” of discussion and soul-searching, a coalition of radical, Black-led groups in Chicago came to a tactical consensus on the state’s attorney race. They would not endorse a candidate, but they would use every tool at their disposal to run Anita Alvarez out of office.

While activists from groups like Black Youth Project 100, Fearless Leading by the Youth, Assata’s Daughters and Black Lives Matter Chicago had previously joined forces around the cases of individual police officers and fought for certain policy measures, forming a coalition around an electoral race was new ground for this particular front in the movement for Black lives.

“It was something totally new,” said Katya Mazon, a local organizer who has worked closely with a number of those leading the campaign, “and it’s been incredible to see these young people, who’ve won battles and built organizations, come together to create this force. They’ve seized this moment to defend the lives that Anita Alvarez won’t protect.”

“We’re too young to vote, but we’re not too young to be impacted by the conduct of whoever’s in office.”

In a movement propelled by stories of out-of-control police that state’s attorneys and city governments refuse to rein in, politically targeting a prosecutor may seem like a logical step, but the realities of connecting movement work with electoral campaigns are anything but simple. Many of the youth involved with the movement for Black lives in Chicago consider themselves prison abolitionists and do not believe in incarceration or the current adversarial system of justice. The idea that electoral participation cannot deliver liberation is widely held within some of the city’s radical, political circles, and a great deal of discussion was needed before any interaction with an electoral campaign could be agreed upon at all. But after significant deliberation, those who would design the campaign chose to approach their participation in the election season as an act of harm reduction. “It won’t get us free,” said youth activist Kaleb Autman, “but it will matter.”

“Bye Anita” campaign organizers and their allies rallied in the streets on March 11. (Photo: Kelly Hayes)

Without endorsing Alvarez’s most formidable opponent, Kim Foxx, or so much as engaging in conversation with Foxx’s campaign, the young organizers mapped out a strategy of social media awareness and public disruption under the banner #ByeAnita. “We ran a social media campaign with the hashtag “#WheresAnita,” explains local organizer Veronica Morris Moore, “and folks let us know about public events that Anita Alvarez was having.” With memes invoking the imagery of the Where’s Waldo? children’s book series, activists solicited the public’s assistance in tracking Alvarez’s reelection events, and saw to it that she was routinely met with disruptions and reminders of why Black youth wanted her removed from office. Morris Moore, who organizes with the grassroots group Fearless Leading by the Youth (which recently won a trauma center for Chicago’s South Side), says that the coalition would send disruptors to each event, to interrupt Alvarez, block access to the event or “to just be visible around anything where we could draw attention to Anita Alvarez’s record.”

Events where activists successfully caught up with Alvarez and disrupted her events were chronicled on Twitter under the hashtag #ByeAnita.

With a budget of less than $1,000 scraped together for their efforts, the coalition of grassroots groups and organizers has staged more than a dozen actions in the last month.

These tactics, aimed at keeping grievances against Alvarez from falling from the public’s mind before Election Day, helped keep the record of the embattled state’s attorney in the spotlight, but according to Morris Moore, the campaign has also provided other benefits to its architects.

“In the beginning, the Bye Anita campaign felt like harm reduction, and like therapy in a sense,” said Morris Moore, noting that “Anita Alvarez was involved in a horrible tragedy that is still being felt in the Black community by young Black people. And even if the mainstream media isn’t paying attention to it anymore, we’re still feeling it.” But by bringing direct action to the campaign trail, and consistently ambushing their politically vulnerable target, Morris Moore says she found something that she needed in this political moment. “These actions have allowed me to recreate a way to be involved in politics,” she said. “I don’t have to support a candidate. I can say I don’t support this candidate, and this is why.”

In this case, Morris Moore has no shortage of material for her “this is why” explanation. The botched prosecution of Dante Servin, the police officer who killed Rekia Boyd, a chronic failure to hold police accountable for misconduct, and a disturbing track record of defending false convictions have given activists a lot of material for their neighborhood canvassing. But Alvarez’s overall approach to her position — an approach that critics say criminalizes crimes of survival and reinforces anti-Black police tactics — is also being challenged in public conversation, particularly by those who favor Kim Foxx, who supports restorative justice interventions.

One of the people fostering those dialogues is Timothy Bradford, who organizes with Black Youth Project 100 and a group called The Collective. Among those arrested on Friday, as local activists shut down Donald Trump’s rally in Chicago, Bradford suffered serious injuries at the hands of police. But after a harrowing emergency room visit and a day-long loss of liberty, Bradford was back on Sunday, helping to create art for the final hours of the Bye Anita campaign.

“The most important aspect of movement work is community building, period, point-blank,” Bradford told me, after stepping away to take a rest from the group’s art-making activities. “Organizing at the local level is the work of community building. It is the work of addressing how the community is impacted, and how the community chooses to respond,” Bradford added. “This is a very important moment for people who are used to engaging with politics through a mainstream, electoral format to have, not necessarily an awakening, but a re-envisioning of what solidarity and community are.”

 “Bye Anita” organizers rally with community members at the Juvenile Temporary Detention Center in Chicago on March 10. (Photo: Sarah-Ji)

In addition to disruptive protest, community dialogues facilitated by “train takeovers” in which performance and outreach efforts are mobilized on train cars, youth voter outreach, teach-ins and old-fashioned door knocking have all been part of the campaign’s efforts to facilitate the kind of re-envisioning that Bradford describes.

When asked if holding a single state’s attorney accountable has a wider relevance for the movement for Black lives, Bradford was clear about their aims in pursuing the top prosecutor, saying there was a clear political need “for her, as a symbol, as a representation, and for that office to be held accountable, and to be put on notice that we are paying attention, that we see you, and that if you act up, if you harm us, we are coming for you.”

One of the youngest organizers at Sunday’s art-making event was Kaleb Autman, a 14-year-old student at the Village Leadership Academy in Chicago. Autman and his classmates have taken a keen interest in carceral issues since the Black Lives Matter movement brought waves of protest to their city in 2014. In January 2015, Autman and his elementary school classmates organized what is widely regarded as one of the most powerful marches in Chicago’s recent history, when they led over 600 people on a march from their school to the local juvenile detention center, to drive home the reality of the school-to-prison pipeline, and to rally public support around shutting down the facility. Autman and his classmates believe that there is a legitimate intersection between their dream of seeing the incarcerated youth at the detention center set free and the current effort to displace Alvarez, and they have taken action in support of the campaign.

Traveling in large groups, elementary and junior high school students from the Village Leadership Academy have canvassed the city’s public transit system, chanting, giving impassioned speeches on El trains and talking with voters — particularly white voters, who the youth believe will ultimately swing the election. “People need to be aware that Anita Alvarez argues for maximum penalties against young people, in juvenile court, as a matter of policy,” said Autman, “and people need to understand the effect that has on children and on our communities. We’re too young to vote, but we’re not too young to be impacted by the conduct of whoever’s in office.”

Speaking at a recent light and noise demonstration outside the juvenile detention center, Autman addressed an intergenerational crowd of “Bye Anita” demonstrators who had come to denounce Alvarez, and to show love for young people who have been incarcerated during her tenure. “We all know that Alvarez has to go,” Autman solemnly told the group, as those present watched children inside the facility pound windows, raise their fists and form hearts with their hands.

Autman’s teacher at the Village Leadership Academy, local organizer Page May, takes pride in the organizing work of her students, and has high hopes that the work that is being done across age groups and organizations in Chicago could have larger implications for Black movement work. “Other cities are taking note of the tactics involved in this campaign,” May said, “and we are all prepared and excited to work with people around the country who want to hold prosecutors accountable, as a tactic in the larger struggle.”

For her part, Anita Alvarez has been publicly dismissive of the young coalition’s efforts. At an event where Alvarez and her supporters were greeted by activists holding a banner that read “Anita Alvarez Must Go — Vote March 15,” the state’s attorney responded to a question about the demonstrators by saying that she had grown accustomed to seeing them and that, as a mother, she hoped they’d had something to eat. But Alvarez’s dismissive tone doesn’t reflect the reality of her situation in this tight race. Having lost the support of the local Democratic Party and numerous local officials, Alvarez has had to lend her own campaign $200,000 to remain competitive in the final weeks of the race, with rival Kim Foxx trailing her in the polls by a very slim margin.

And while Alvarez has years of experience in the State’s Attorney’s Office and a contingent of long-term supporters to lean on, she also has something else that her nearest opponent does not: a relentless youth-led campaign that won’t let her escape the rage of an aggrieved community.

The young Black organizers who’ve pooled their collective efforts to bring down Alvarez have also enlisted the assistance of non-Black groups, and groups that aren’t specifically Black-led, as they have pursued their target, and support hasn’t been hard to come by. Morris Moore described the solidarity of Brown, Asian-American and white allies as having a “tone-setting” effect. “It reminds me of listening to Fred Hampton talk about how we would build powerful movements by crossing the boundaries that divide us to fight a state that’s against all of us,” Moore said.

Fred Hampton was the deputy chairman of the Black Panther Party when he was assassinated in his Chicago home in December 1969. Hampton, whose grassroots diplomacy and coalition building with white and Latino groups made him a prime target for law enforcement, was killed in a predawn raid authorized by then-State’s Attorney Edward Hanrahan. The controversial shooting hung heavy over Hanrahan’s career, and the prosecutor, who was eventually indicted for obstruction and conspiracy to present false evidence, lost the support of the local Democratic Party when he sought reelection in 1972. Without support from the local political establishment, Hanrahan lost the election and never successfully returned to public office.

While today’s organizers are certainly writing a different page of history, Black death, Black liberation and police violence are driving elements in both Hanrahan’s and Alvarez’s electoral stories. And like Hanrahan, Alvarez has been dealt the harsh blow of losing the support of the local Democratic Party.

After first adopting a position of neutrality, the local Democratic Party changed course in January by endorsing Kim Foxx to replace Alvarez.

Reflecting on the similarities between Hanrahan’s downfall and Alvarez’s current political woes, Veronica Morris Moore wryly noted, “Some of the things that are done right in history repeat themselves.”

As of Monday afternoon, 16 banner drops are being staged across the city of Chicago, reminding Chicago voters of the 16 shots that struck Laquan McDonald, and that tomorrow is Election Day.

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