Dear reader, this text is published in the spirit of open-access as part of our new project entitled The Funambulist Correspondents. Every week for a bit over a year, we will publish a text written by one of our 28 commissioned correspondents in as many places of the world. The project is made possible through generous support from the Graham Foundation for Advanced Studies in the Fine Arts.
In the first week of April, my landlord informed my roommate and I that, come July, our rent would be increasing by $200 a month. That same week, Chicago police shot and killed three youth in three separate incidents. The youngest victim, Adam Toledo, was only 13 years old.
My rent going up, and three young people being murdered by the state, might seem like odd events to mention in juxtaposition, but they were deeply tied to one another.
Almost exactly a year ago, as the COVID-19 pandemic descended and the United States shut down, Chicago’s City Counsel passed a measure granting emergency powers to Lori Lightfoot—the city’s first Black and openly gay mayor. Previous to being elected, Lightfoot had been a federal prosecutor, and chaired the Chicago Police Board, where she infamously shielded officer Dante Servin from accountability after he shot and killed 22-year-old Rekia Boyd. Seizing on the COVID-19 crisis, the measure granted Lightfoot sole authority in deciding how aid from the federal government would be distributed, with little-to-no oversight.
Only a few months later, video of officer Derek Chauvin suffocating George Floyd in Minneapolis went viral, and the U.S. saw the largest popular uprising in its history. Millions took to the streets to protest the state murder of Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Tony McDade, and countless other Black lives lost before them. One of the most prominent demands was to defund the police, to reallocate local and federal dollars away from murderous departments and into the social programs that prevent violence on the front end—housing, public education, free mental healthcare, and more.
As demonstrations rocked Chicago, Lightfoot instituted curfews, repeatedly allowed police to kettle, beat, and stage mass arrests of protesters, and notoriously raised the bridges to downtown, cutting off access to the wealthiest neighborhoods from the overwhelmingly poor and working class Black and brown youth who were leading the demonstrations.
In December of 2020, Chicago’s City Council narrowly passed Lightfoot’s 2021 budget. Not only did the new budget increase spending on the Chicago Police Department, it made up for deficits by instituting fines and fees on poor and working residents—including red light cameras, placed disproportionately in Black and brown neighborhoods, which ticket any vehicle going more than five miles per hour over the speed limit. (In their first trial week, these cameras issued one ticket every 12 seconds.) Most significantly, the budget also included a $94 million property tax hike.
In February 2021, it was revealed that, of the nearly half a billion in federal aid dollars Chicago had to spend at its discretion, Lightfoot had given 65%—over $280 million—to the Chicago Police Department. For context, CPD already receives $1.7 billion annually, around 40% of the city’s yearly budget. The funds were largely used to cover overtime for officers who had spent the summer brutalizing youth demonstrators.
My rent increasing during a global health crisis isn’t only upsetting because millions across the planet are out of work and struggling to stay housed. It’s upsetting because Chicago had ample opportunities this year not only to supplement and cancel rent, but to reimagine public safety all together. There was consensus that what was most needed to protect residents’ wellbeing was not more policing, but access to public health, to remote learning technology for students, to income and rental assistance to insure social distancing.
It was COVID-19 that unveiled which resources were actually lacking, and what communities truly needed to stay safe during the crisis. Chicago officials didn’t merely squander this realization, they intentionally bulldozed past it in an effort to return to normal—“normal” being the regular state murders of the city’s most marginalized and resource-starved residents.
As details of the shooting of Adam Toledo continue to be uncovered, a cacophony of voices have rushed to justify his murder, alongside those of 18-year-old Travon Chadwell and 22-year-old Anthony Alvarez. A flurry of speculation about each of their individual characters, their potential affiliation with gangs, and whether or not they were armed at the time of their murders, inundated social media and local news reports. Far fewer speculated about the lack of resources in each of their lives, their relationship to disability, or their parents being essential workers. Even fewer have noted the fact that during the exact same period, multiple mass shootings occurred across the U.S., including the killing of eight massage parlor workers in Atlanta—six of whom were Asian women. Despite taking multiple lives, the white men in each of these shootings were taken into custody by law enforcement alive.
That Black and brown youth who have not committed murder are seen by police advocates as more deserving of death than white men who have is not ironic. In fact, it is an unambiguous indictment of policing as an institution, proof that it was never based on public safety, but on genocide.
It is not hyperbole to call increased spending on policing during COVID-19 genocidal. To rob working people of anchoring resources, investing them instead into protecting the property of the most wealthy, is violent at the best of times. To do so in a pandemic, which is already disproportionately killing Black, brown, immigrant, and poor communities, is unconscionable.
I am stressed about my rent increasing in a few months. I am concerned about my ability to continue living sustainably in Chicago. If this is true for myself as a middle class, self-employed, recent transplant, what does that mean for Chicago’s long term residents? For its Black, its undocumented, its unstably housed communities?
Cries from the protests of 2020 echo into a new spring of resistance. The demand to defund police—which some communities have been making for years—is still our best way forward. Elected officials—including those who share the identities of the communities most targeted by state violence—are not going to take up the mantle to redistribute resources to poor and working people, fostering real public safety. It is communities on the ground who’s lead must be followed, and the call is as consistent as ever:
Defund police, and fund the social safety nets and public services that truly protect poor and working people. Do so in the name of Rekia, of Laquan, of Adam, of Lavon.
This call was prescient before COVID-19, and will only prove more so as we face new global crises, collectively.