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It’s Time to Fight the Democratic Mayors Who Are Champions of the Carceral State

The mayors of New York, Chicago, and San Francisco wrap themselves in the language of progressivism, but when it comes to the criminal legal system they’re Trumpian.

Lori Lightfoot addresses guests after being sworn in as mayor of Chicago during a ceremony at the Wintrust Arena in May. Photo by Scott Olson/Getty Images

This piece is a commentary, part of The Appeal’s collection of opinion and analysis.

After the New York City Council passed a resolution last month approving the construction of four new jails, Mayor Bill de Blasio declared, “Today we made history: The era of mass incarceration is ending in New York City.” 

But the $8 billion plan clears the way for land use rules to allow for the construction of new jails—not the closure of the Rikers Island jail complex—though the City Council passed a separate resolution authorizing the city to submit an application to change zoning rules to prohibit the operation of jails on Rikers by Dec. 31, 2026.

The city plans to move people from Rikers and into these new facilities by 2026 with a projected jail population of about 3,000. (Currently the jail population is about 7,000.) Mayor de Blasio’s term ends in 2022, so, as Vox noted, “it’s possible that a new mayor will change the timeline of the closure or reverse course entirely.”

Activists with the group No New Jails condemned de Blasio’s declaration. “So-called political progressives in New York City have a history of co-opting the language of grassroots movements in order to fit their profit-making agendas,” No New Jails organizer Mon Mohapatra told The Appeal. “We see the vote for what it is: a thinly veiled and illegitimate attempt to expand the city’s carceral infrastructure while claiming a progressive win.” 

So this isn’t the end of mass incarceration in New York City. It’s not even the end of Rikers. Worse, de Blasio also pushed against solitary confinement reform and reaffirmed his belief that the NYPD headcount should stand at 36,000 despite the fact that crime is at historical lows

De Blasio isn’t the only Democratic mayor in a major city branding himself as a progressive while embracing the carceral state. Although the 2020 presidential race has taken center stage in the media, people who care about policing and incarceration need to pay far more attention to mayors like de Blasio, London Breed in San Francisco, and Lori Lightfoot in Chicago. Big-city mayors control the largest police departments in the country and play a pivotal role in deciding what jails are closed or constructed.

On Oct. 4, Mayor London Breed bestowed incumbent status on her pick for San Francisco’s district attorney, Suzy Loftus. Loftus was lagging progressive rival Chesa Boudin in fundraising when District Attorney George Gascón unexpectedly announced that he would be stepping down to explore a run for Los Angeles DA. Instead of allowing Gascón’s interim replacement to finish his term, Breed appointed Loftus to the position. Given that incumbent DAs are re-elected 95 percent of the time, the appointment could easily determine the outcome of the Nov. 5 election.  “Mayor London Breed appointing her endorsed candidate for District Attorney, just days before people start voting, reeks of cronyism and political backroom deals,” DA candidate Nancy Tung said in a statement released after the announcement. “This is a blatant move to inappropriately influence this critically important election, and yet another example of the District Attorney’s Office being politicized and used for personal favoritism.”

At an October press conference, Breed told reporters, “I know that Suzy Loftus is the right person for this job.” But the event had been relocated due to noise from protesters condemning the appointment, in large part because of her law-and-order background.

Loftus has been endorsed by former San Francisco Police Chief Greg Suhr, who resigned in 2016 after a relentless series of protests, including a hunger strike, that highlighted his failure to curb the deadly violence of the city’s police department. And a police union lobbying group donated $105,000 to a PAC that opposed Boudin. 

In 2015, Breed was president of the San Francisco Board of Supervisors when the board voted down a measure that would have replaced the city’s infamous County Jail 4 with a new facility. Breed said although the dilapidated and dangerous facility needed to “come down,” the larger issue was a need “to tear down the system of mass incarceration it represents.” 

As mayor, Breed has once again been confronted with the question of what to do with the people incarcerated in County Jail 4, which is plagued with sewage issues and does not meet seismic safety standards. Some city workers have already relocated from the building, which would most likely become a deathtrap for prisoners in a major earthquake. 

Breed’s proposed solution is now the very thing she rejected in 2015: a new jail. But this time, she is dressing up the idea of a new jail with progressive language. On Oct. 17, Mayor Breed’s office released a statement claiming that the new facility will be rebranded as a “Justice Campus” that “will incorporate administrative space, courts, and centralized best practices in criminal and social justice services for all people.” Critical Resistance, a grassroots organization that played a key role in preventing the construction of a new jail in 2015, said they oppose any new jail, “whether it’s disguised as a ‘behavioral health justice center’, a ‘justice campus’, or a renovation.”

In Chicago, Mayor Lori Lightfoot, a Democrat whose election in April was greeted as a victory for the LGBTQ community and for progressives generally, sinks to Trumpian levels of deceptiveness in her attacks on bail reform in Cook County. Despite running on a platform of reform and promising to reduce crime in Chicago by improving the quality of life in struggling communities, Mayor Lightfoot’s proposed 2020 budget freezes funds for the city’s Department of Family and Support Services, while proposing a major budget increase for the police department. Perhaps most egregious, Lightfoot, who has also fought to maintain austere conditions in the city’s public schools, has supported police Superintendent Eddie Johnson’s claims that his abysmally ineffective officers are being undermined by a Circuit Court decision mandating affordable bail.

Chicago organizers who have campaigned for bail reform say it’s working—and they have proof. In 2018, approximately 10,000 fewer people were incarcerated in the Cook County Jail due to the decreased use of cash bail. Thousands of people who were at risk of losing their homes, jobs, or even custody of their children have benefitted from bail reform. People who are not incarcerated pretrial also have better case outcomes and lower rates of recidivism. 

But even with the Circuit Court’s ruling in place, approximately 2,000 people are still held in the Cook County Jail because of their inability to pay bail. Grassroots organizers have continued to push for the Illinois Supreme Court to issue a rule that would eliminate pretrial incarceration solely because of a person’s inability to pay cash bond. Cook County’s chief judge, state’s attorney, and county board president have all supported this demand. But these efforts have a powerful foe in Chicago’s supposedly progressive mayor.

“We are alarmed by Mayor Lightfoot’s repetition of blatantly false information from Chicago police Superintendent Eddie Johnson that attempts to conflate bond reform with gun violence despite mounds of evidence to the contrary,” Ruby Pinto, the campaign coordinator of the Chicago Community Bond Fund, told The Appeal. “Along with FOP [Fraternal Order of Police], CPD, and Superintendent Johnson, Mayor Lightfoot has used bond reform as a scapegoat for violence that is actually the result of economic disparities orchestrated by decades of divestment from the South and West sides.” According to Pinto, data from the Circuit Court itself shows that bail reform has coincided with a drop in violent crime over the last several years.

By opposing pretrial reform, Mayor Lightfoot is willing to sacrifice the lives of thousands of Chicagoans who have not even been convicted of a crime. At the same time, Lightfoot just approved $33 million to keep police in public schools, despite the objections of students who argue that the money should instead be allocated to pay for support staff, like nurses and librarians. Lightfoot also refused to honor her campaign promise to “provide each school with basic educational support positions like librarians, nurses and social workers,” claiming that “there is simply no more money,” until the Chicago Teachers Union went on strike to force Lightfoot to provide the funding. Yet, Lighfoot seemingly had no problem finding tens of millions of dollars to maintain a carceral environment in public schools. A budget is a moral document, and by shelling out money for police and pet projects of billionaires, while refusing to fund basic services for students, Lightfoot has offered a clear outline of her administration’s values.

We are in dark times politically, with a dangerous Republican occupying the White House, so the temptation to view Democrats as being on “our side” is real, especially when the president fearmongers about cities like Chicago to appeal to his base. But powerful Democratic mayors who build prisons and fill cages are not our allies, and we have a duty to resist the carceral state built in our backyards—just as we’re obligated to fight the violence of our president’s policies.