Support Independent Journalism. Donate today!

Lori Lightfoot’s Actions Don’t Match Her Rhetoric About Police

Like her Democratic mayoral counterparts in Portland, Atlanta, Los Angeles, and New York, Lightfoot has condemned police violence outside her borders, while using law enforcement to suppress demonstrations in her own city.

Lori Lightfoot waves to the crowd after being sworn in as mayor on May 20, 2019. (Photo by Scott Olson/Getty Images)

The morning after Officer Rusten Sheskey shot Jacob Blake seven times in the back in Kenosha, Wisconsin, Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot called for a criminal investigation. 

“I am deeply disturbed by the video capturing part of the incident,” she tweeted on the morning of Aug. 24. “I urge civil & criminal authorities to pursue an immediate & thorough investigation of the shooting. We pray that Mr. Blake survives. And we pray for his children, and for peace and justice in Kenosha.”

Like her Democratic mayoral counterparts in Portland, Atlanta, Los Angeles, and New York, Lightfoot has condemned police violence outside her borders, while using law enforcement to suppress demonstrations in her own city. Lightfoot ran for mayor as a progressive, promising criminal justice reform, but she has taken actions that have resulted in mass arrests of Black people and stamped out protest against the police, according to local activists.

“What this proves is that regardless of party line, all these people are still capitalists,” said Tanya Watkins, executive director of the Chicago group Southsiders Organized for Unity and Liberation. “All of these people are invested in protecting wealth and ensuring that the most vulnerable folks living in communities remain poor.”

Local activists say the city should use the millions spent on policing to ensure each resident has their basic needs met. Instead, Lightfoot and other elected leaders will use law enforcement to protect the current system of inequality, said Watkins. Lightfoot’s office did not respond to requests for comment.

“These legislators and the police are working together to protect capital and not invest resources in the people that need it,” said Watkins. “In order to protect that capital they will deploy militarized troops, bring in the feds, the national guard, anything that they can, to keep the poor folks from even asking for investment.”

On May 29, as protests gripped Minneapolis in the wake of George Floyd’s death, President Trump tweeted, “When the looting starts, the shooting starts.” 

Lightfoot unequivocally condemned Trump’s statement. “I will code what I really want to say to Donald Trump,” she said. “It’s two words: It begins with F and it ends with you.” Of Floyd’s death, she said, “Being Black in America should not be a death sentence.”

In June, reporter Colin Boyle tweeted a photo of a Chicago police officer giving protesters two middle fingers. Lightfoot called for the officer to be fired. 

“We’ll find that person and, in my view, that person needs to be immediately stripped of their police powers and start the process for firing them,” Lightfoot said. “We will not tolerate that kind of abusive, offensive conduct on the part of police officers.”

But she has overseen a police department that has arrested and abused protesters.

“At the press conference, she’ll tell everyone to look that way,” said Richard Wallace, founder and executive director of Equity and Transformation, an advocacy group founded for and by post incarcerated and marginalized Black people in Chicago. “Look at Trump. Look at Minnesota.” But in Chicago, he said, her actions are “parallel or worse.”

On May 30, Lightfoot declared a citywide curfew, which lasted for about a week; 75 percent of those charged for violating the curfew from May 30 to June 4 were Black, according to an analysis by the Chicago Sun-Times. The police did not release records for June 5 to June 7, the Sun-Times reported. By June 8, Chicago police had already arrested more than 3,000 protesters, according to news reports

Cook County State’s Attorney Kim Foxx directed prosecutors to presume dismissal for five misdemeanor charges “filed as a result of demonstrations,” including curfew violation and unlawful gathering. For a second class of charges, including aggravated battery to a police officer and resisting/obstructing arrest, “there shall be a presumption against proceeding without body worn camera.”

Over 400 complaints of police misconduct were made related to the demonstrations that occurred from May 29 to July 5, according to a report by the city’s police oversight agency. Of those under investigation by the oversight agency, more than half alleged excessive force, over 20 percent alleged improper searches, and 11 percent alleged verbal abuse. Lightfoot also raised city bridges to prevent access to downtown.

After assuring residents that federal troops were not welcome in Chicago, in July she agreed with Trump to have 200 federal agents sent to the city, the Sun-Times reported. After the news broke, community members protested outside her house, singing, “Fuck Donald Trump.”

“Anybody that would cooperate with Donald Trump in this moment has to be seen as an enemy of justice,” said Cook County Commissioner Brandon Johnson. “The only real response in this moment is to move away from the millions of dollars that we spend on policing every single day that has not led to safe communities, into a direction of real equity and justice and liberation, particularly for Black and brown people.”

The movement to defund the police is  demanding that police department budgets are cut and those savings are invested in meeting community members’ needs, explained Watkins. The Chicago police budget for 2020 is $1.76 billion, according to the Civic Federation, an Illinois-based research organization. “This is a call for investment,” said Watkins. 

One such necessary investment, said Wallace, is supporting “interventions that relate to either reparations or guaranteed income.” In June, Mayor Michael D. Tubbs, of Stockton, California, co-founded Mayors for a Guaranteed Income, which advocates for providing a basic income to all residents. On the federal level, Senators Kamala Harris, Ed Markey, and Bernie Sanders introduced legislation in May that would offer sustained assistance for the duration of the COVID-19 pandemic; their bill provides a $2,000 monthly payment for people earning less than $120,000 a year. 

When Lightfoot was running for mayor, she announced her support for a universal basic income. “I support a universal basic income because I believe that every person in this city should have their basic needs met,” she said in a statement in 2018. But in February of this year, she said a universal basic income was not sustainable, the Sun-Times reported

“I am about teaching people how to fish, so they can feed themselves for a lifetime,” she said at an anti-poverty conference at the University of Illinois at Chicago, the paper reported. “I want people to be able to stand on their own forever.”

Lightfoot’s critics say she has continued to champion ineffective police reforms that leave the power structure firmly in place. She called “defund the police” a “nice hashtag,” Politico reported

Lightfoot rejected calls to remove police from the city’s public schools, but said “major reforms” will be implemented, including additional screening and training of officers. The Chicago School Board also reduced the budget for school resource officers from $33 million to $15 million, WGN-TV reported last month. 

“We have heard you, and we have taken major steps to respond,” said Lightfoot. 

On June 2, the mayor announced additional initiatives, including mandatory crisis intervention training for all officers, as well as mental health support. In an opinion article in the Chicago Sun-Times, six Chicago alderpeople condemned Lightfoot’s “minor reforms,” and urged the city to consider cutting the police budget. 

“After a week in which police arrested 1,258 protesters, kneeled on a black woman’s neck, beat and pepper-sprayed peaceful protesters—including the Chicago Police Board president,” they wrote, “Mayor Lightfoot, who campaigned on police accountability, has promised another round of minor reforms to the Chicago Police Department to address Chicago officers’ cultural sensitivity and mental health.”

Students at Northwestern University protested the selection of Lightfoot as their virtual commencement speaker, highlighting abuses perpetrated by the city’s police department against protesters and Black community members, according to the Daily Northwestern. “We are tired of Mayor Lightfoot working to uphold a system that so actively harms our black students,” reads a letter signed by over 800 students, the Daily reported. 

Following a familiar script playing out in cities across the country, Lightfoot has cast those who engage in property destruction as looters and criminals. On Aug. 9, after Chicago police shot 20-year-old Latrell Allen in Englewood, community members went to downtown Chicago, broke into stores, and took items. “We are waking up in shock this morning,” Lightfoot said. “To be clear, this had nothing to do with … First Amendment protected activity.” She told Time magazine, that “the core of what happened—that’s organized criminal activity. … It was a planned attack.”

Local activists reject Lightfoot’s vilification of those who engage in property damage, and say they too are protesters—they’re protesting decades of racist policies that have created an economic catastrophe for Black Chicago residents. Many Chicagoans live in a city that fails to meet their basic needs, leaving them to find  “alternative means to survive,” Wallace said. 

“Some of those alternative means look like going into a store and grabbing what you can grab and bringing it home and selling it so you can pay for food, water, and shelter,” said Wallace. “It’s not like they’re sitting on millions of dollars and they’re like, ‘Yo, I’m going to kick down the door of this store.’”

The Justice Collaborative also wrote an open letter to Lightfoot with signatures from more than 20 community leaders, including Wallace and Watkins, criticizing her response. The Appeal is an independent project of The Justice Collaborative.

“The idea of good protest is one that works within the confines of people’s comfort,” said Watkins. “Until we create a just society and a just city where we take care of every resident, there can be no expectation that people will play within the confines of the rules that you set up which are unfair, inequitable, and also racist.”