“Police Are Not Designed to Solve the Problems People Are Facing”

In the wake of George Floyd’s murder, calls to cut police budgets have spread like wildfire. In an interview with Jacobin, two Chicago city council members explain why they’re calling to defund the police and why the city’s mayor Lori Lightfoot can’t credibly call herself a “progressive.”

The Chicago Police Department headquarters in the Boystown neighborhood on the North Side of Chicago. Alyson Hurt / Flickr

Interview by
Micah Uetricht

The speed with which the demand to “defund the police” has caught on in response to the mass protests all throughout the country in the wake of the police murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis has been shocking. And leftist elected officials have often been at the forefront of that call.

Rossana Rodriguez-Sanchez is the alderwoman of Chicago’s thirty-third ward. Jeanette B. Taylor is the alderwoman of Chicago’s twentieth ward. Both are members of the Democratic Socialists of America and were two of the six signatories on a recent op-ed in the Chicago Sun-Times entitled “Cutting funding for police could lead to a better and safer Chicago.”

The alderwomen spoke with Jacobin deputy editor Micah Uetricht for the Jacobin Radio podcast The Vast Majority. You can listen to the episode here. The conversation has been edited for length and clarity.


MU

What were your initial reactions to seeing the George Floyd video? And have you all been in the streets with the protests since the video was released?

RRS

I don’t think I have a way to describe seeing the video. The amount of pain, the disgust, the frustration… Yes, I have been in the streets. I feel like what I have seen in the streets and what I have experienced myself is that shared feeling of rage. That’s what I felt when I saw that video, absolute rage. It has been really cathartic to see people share that rage, and take to the streets and raise their voices.

Several people who I love dearly were arrested two Sundays ago in Hyde Park. I showed up at Fifty-first and Wentworth [the Chicago Second District police station], and what I encountered was incredible. There was a crowd of people outside waiting and demanding the release of these activists. When I tried to go inside, I found a police force that was preventing lawyers from going in and talking to their clients. The lawyers were only able to go in because I was there. People were being deprived of access to legal counsel. These people were beat and detained for absolutely no reason.

So what we’re seeing in Chicago on the ground is a ridiculous amount of use of force by the police, deploying the police to beat up black and brown people who are on the streets protesting and manifesting that rage that we all feel — not only because of George Floyd’s murder at the hands of police, but also because of all of the murders that have come forth. Breonna Taylor, for example — nothing has happened with the officers who killed her. She was in her bed.

JT

The video is nothing new to black America. It happens all the time. This time it was videotaped. They’ve been killing black folks for years, and we’ve been saying that it wasn’t right, it was unjust. Now that we have video, the world gets to see just how racist the police system is in this country — really, how racist this country is altogether.

For me, there is fear, there is outrage, of course — but it’s enough that you get numb after a while because you see it so much. Let’s go back to Rekia Boyd, let’s go to Laquan McDonald — those are all folks who have been killed by the police. Laquan McDonald’s killer only went to jail because the city of Chicago rose up and said, “No, he does not get to kill this young man” — after they lied, after the police superintendent lied, after the mayor lied, after everybody lied after seeing the tape.

Too often we are killed and nothing happens. The police department was never meant to serve and protect people of color.

I’ve been to some protests. I’ve also had to go to the police station to help people get out of jail. It’s 2020, and I just can’t believe what this country is, but I’m not surprised. You can only do so much to folks and then you get what is happening the last couple of weeks. I don’t agree with looting, but I understand. We’re in a pandemic, and people have been working almost three months, and you give them twelve hundred dollars — what did they expect was going to happen?

And then you have a mayor [Lori Lightfoot] who is supposed to be progressive, who won’t defund the police or even say it; she’s too busy thanking the police. You’ve got generations of folks who are owed an apology, and we won’t get it.

MU

You are two of the six signatories on an op-ed that was recently published in the Chicago Sun-Times, calling for defunding the police. Give us the basic case: why is defunding the police an important demand to put forward at this moment?

RRS

Because the police are not designed to solve the problems that people are facing. Police are not meant to protect people — particularly people of color. If you want to have safe communities, if you want to keep people protected, we all need things like jobs — decent-paying, jobs with benefits and job security, and jobs that are fulfilling. People need housing. Nobody that does not have a roof over their head is safe. People need support services. People need mental health services. We have a police force that is being called mostly to address nonviolent crimes. People deserve to have their needs met, and the police don’t meet any of those things.

If we want to see safe communities, if we want to see communities that are whole, we need to start investing in the things that we know are going to keep people safe and address their quality of life.

We have to start by investing in black communities and the communities that have been most devastated by the logic of austerity that has taken so many resources from social services and the safety net, and then put it at the service of punishment, imprisonment, and mass incarceration. If we’re really saying that we care about black lives, if we say black lives matter, if we say that we care about our communities, we had better start investing in those communities and in the things that actually make us safe.

MU

In the op-ed, you mention numbers that are similar to other cities in the country, but are still staggering to think about. Forty percent of the City of Chicago’s budget is spent going to the Chicago police department (CPD). The city spends five million dollars on policing every day. Those figures don’t even include the more than half a billion dollars in police misconduct settlements paid out in Chicago alone in the past nine years, which sounds like a number that you would hear in the federal budget, not just in the budget for one city’s police brutality cases.

RRS

If you compare the amount of money we’re putting toward policing — for example, in the 2020 budget, we have roughly $1.8 billion allotted for the police. Then, you have all the social service agencies together — the Department of Family & Support Services, the Chicago Department of Public Health, the libraries, the Commission on Human Relations, offices for people with physical disabilities — which have roughly $1 billion to split between all these agencies. But we have $1.8 billion for policing in Chicago. That contrast is just so stark.

What are you saying to our communities when you’re saying “I’m going to invest all of this money in policing you, and only this amount in giving you the support that you need?”

MU

Are you surprised at how quickly the demand to defund the police has become such a rallying cry around the country? Two weeks ago I would have assumed that such a demand was necessary, but not one huge numbers of people would get behind. And yet here you all are in the Sun-Times, making this case. There’s suddenly traction all over the country in local governments to defund the police. Do you find that surprising?

JT

No. I’m not going to pay people to kill me and my kind, period. It’s not a question. And any elected official that says anything different doesn’t deserve to serve the public. It’s not just people of color. You have all these Caucasian brothers and sisters that are protected by the Chicago Police Department and by police departments across the country saying “no, we are not paying for our people to get killed. They are human like we are. We are not going to do this.”

It’s hilarious that we’re protesting police brutality and we’re still getting beat up, doing these protests. Can somebody explain that to me?

MU

You would think that when police are being protested for something, they wouldn’t do the thing that they’re being protested for in response to the protests.

JT

The president of the Chicago Police Board got beat up at a Hyde Park protest. The Chicago Police Board president is a black gentleman named Ghian Foreman. I have the pleasure of knowing Ghian. Politically, sometimes I don’t agree with him, but he’s a really smart brother. The same protest where we had to get our young people who are in community organizations out of the police station, when [the police] attacked them, they attacked [Ghian] and did not know that he was the president of the police board. Why? Because he is a black man.

So I don’t care if you become the president, the president of the police board, a congressman, or a senator. You are not exempt from the racist practices done by the Chicago Police Department.

MU

What have your non–Democratic Socialists of America members, non–community organizer activist–type city council colleagues been saying in response to these demands to defund the police?

RRS

Right now we’re lucky that we have a voice that we have never had before in city council. There are six of us that are behind the demand to defund the police. But we have other progressive colleagues that are having these conversations with us as well.

Of course, a huge amount of council members are not entertaining this idea, and are not willing to engage with this conversation. We need to continue to push so that this conversation is had. It is being had in New York, it’s being had in Los Angeles. It is definitely being led in Minnesota. We can’t ignore this. We are elected and the people are out in the streets telling us what they want us to do.

The mayor is currently talking about training. We know that the Chicago police are getting trained. I personally know people who are doing a lot of training around de-escalation and black history. There are people having peace circles with police officers in the CPD.

If you don’t change the material conditions for people, you’re going to keep having the same situation, because that is what the police were designed for. We don’t necessarily have the support of a majority in the city council, but we’re going to have to make sure that this conversation is had.

MU

What has been the reaction from your own constituents around this demand? Do you feel like there is a clamor to defund the police from the people in the communities that you all represent? Is it mixed? Are there some people who definitely do not want to push for that demand?

RRS

I have never gotten so many emails supporting something that I’ve been putting forward! I’ve never gotten so many emails from people saying “we agree with you, we need to defund the police.”

We created a survey, and we’re putting it on our website to let people tell us what their thoughts are around policing. As soon as we have a good amount of responses in our survey, I’m going to make it public so that people can see what our community is saying about this. But all I have gotten are emails from people agreeing with defunding the police and supporting [the Civilian Police Accountability Council (CPAC)].

JT

One of the things I ran my campaign on was CPAC. We see police brutality every day in the simplest ways. The summer I ran [for office in 2019], a young man was killed at the corner store and the police were laughing. Just imagine seeing your friend lying on the ground, and the police laughing — then the store itself clean up the blood and open up like nothing happened. That’s the reality you see too often in my community.

So I’ve gotten a host of emails that say “defund the police.” I can’t do anything but adhere to that. I’ve got three black boys, and I tell people all the time: when I see [a call on my cell phone that looks like it could be coming from a police station], my heart drops, because it’s always the thought that this is going to be that call to tell me somebody’s shot one of my kids. That’s not a reality that a white mother has in the city of Chicago. Why is it mine?

And I’m really tired of the rhetoric of “It’s a few bad apples.” [Fellow Minneapolis police officers] watched that police officer put his knee on George Floyd’s neck. The force stood by and watched. This is the one reason I could never support [former CPD] Superintendent Eddie Johnson, because he’s going to say “if there’s a ‘code of silence’ [within the CPD], I’ve never seen it.” Well, you must be blind.

MU

You all have brought up Mayor Lori Lightfoot. Can you talk about what her response to these protests and what the demands to defund the police has been?

RRS

We have seen an increased presence of police everywhere. We have seen the use of the National Guard in Chicago, and something that looks like a militarized state; we have seen a lot of police brutality; we have seen cases upon cases of people who have been unjustly arrested and beaten up; and I am sure that we’re going to be seeing a lot of lawsuits.

JT

Don’t forget about the private security [the mayor] purchased.

RRS

We just saw her hire a private security company with $1.2 million, which we just don’t understand. We’re saying that we don’t have money, we’re broke, but we can find money like magic for policing our communities! It’s just incredible — $1.2 million, just like that. Overnight. I’m going to hire a private company who has lots of shady issues and give them this money to keep us “safe,” when we have seen that the protests have been mostly peaceful.

The response has been really repressive. I don’t understand why we are still not having a conversation about defunding police when this is being talked about in every other major city in the United States.

MU

Has she explicitly rejected the demand to defund the police?

JT

Yes, we had a press conference on Friday. Jewel-Osco [a local grocery store chain] is donating a million dollars to a rebuild fund, and they made the announcement in my ward. It took everything in me not to get out of my seat and walk out of the press conference. She said out of her mouth, “I’m not going to defund the police.” There wasn’t a question about it; she didn’t think about it.

When she decided to hire this private firm, she didn’t have a conversation with us. When she brought the National Guard to the city to protect the downtown area, there was not a conversation with us. We are not a part of the conversation. She has executive power, and you’ve got to remember: we’re two of the aldermen who voted not to give her that power. [Mayor Lightfoot recently passed a sweeping bill that gives her new executive power to respond to the coronavirus pandemic that was passed over the opposition of twenty-one of the city’s fifty city council members, citing concerns that the new measures would reduce the mayor’s democratic accountability to the council.] We knew that they were going to spend money out the wazoo and not talk to the people.

See, people have a misconception. We don’t work for Lori Lightfoot. We’re her coworkers. She clearly doesn’t understand that. I don’t work for her! I work for the citizens of Chicago in the twentieth ward. Rossana works for the thirty-third ward citizens. We make decisions for our wards. We live here, she doesn’t; and clearly she doesn’t understand that, which is why, even before this happened, there was so much contention between the aldermen and her.

MU

Mayor Lightfoot has portrayed herself as a progressive mayor. This is a buzzword that a lot of people want to affix to themselves lately. What is your response to that characterization of her and her tenure as “progressive”?

JT

[Extended laughter]

RRS

You can’t say you’re progressive and, at the same time, be throwing police at protesters that are saying “black lives matter, we don’t want any more police brutality.” You can’t call yourself a progressive when you leave teachers out for eleven days, going on strike for things as basic as social workers and nurses. I’m sorry — I can’t agree with the idea of somebody that says that they’re progressive but their actions don’t reflect that. And, granted, progressive is a word that can stretch a lot!

MU

Who doesn’t like “progress,” right? Nobody’s against progress.

RRS

Right now, defunding the police is not a radical demand. That is good government. The idea of funding public services and making sure that people have their needs met — that’s just good government. How can you say that you’re progressive if you’re not even entertaining the idea of having that conversation?

She doesn’t even want to have the conversation. She has decided that all communities have been asking her for more officers, more policing in their communities, and she’s not going to take resources away from policing. Well, I am having a lot of people tell me that they want us to defund the police and reinvest that money, so she’s clearly not listening to some people. I don’t know if she’s making a political calculation about who votes and who doesn’t vote, and who is ultimately going to keep her [in office].

But what I’m seeing is a lot of support for taking resources from policing and punishment, and putting them into services that will improve the lives of people.

MU

This week there was an amazing turnabout on the part of Mayor Bill de Blasio in New York City, who last week was saying that he would not defund the New York Police Department. Then, all of a sudden, this week, after incredible scenes of horrific police violence and the clear effect that people are not leaving the streets and not abandoning this demand, de Blasio seemed to be changing his tune.

It raises the obvious question about Chicago, and whether the mayor here, perhaps in response to similar, continued mass numbers of people in the streets, will also eventually change her mind about this demand to defund the police.

RRS

That has been pretty remarkable. We also saw Mayor de Blasio completely justify how his police officers ran over protesters. The pressure that has been created by these protests is just way too powerful. It is really hard for anybody who is elected right now to ignore this moment.

MU

The demand for defunding the police is obviously about taking resources away from the police and directing money to other social policies that could actually benefit people’s lives and create real safety for them.

You two represent two very different districts in Chicago, but two districts that could use additional resources. If there were to be a defunding of the Chicago Police Department, and new money was freed up in the Chicago budget, what would you all want to see those resources be used for in the communities that you represent?

JT

Education, housing, and employment. Education is fundamental to everything. Whatever you want to become, you need to be educated. Why is the money not going into that?

I’m in a community that will be gentrified because of the Obama presidential library. Why would you not put in housing? I have a population of homeless teens that live in my community. There are plenty of places you can put it.

The reason why young people don’t have anything to do is because there’s no money in social services. There’s no money in after-school programs. There’s no money in summer programs. There are plenty of places that money could go, if we’re talking about helping a generation that we’ve neglected. This is the same generation that had to deal with school closings in fifty major [schools]. This is the same generation whose mental health clinics we closed. This is the same generation whose bare necessities we took away.

What I tell folks is: this is just like a cat. Your cat loves you, but back it into a corner and see what happens. He’s going to come out scratching. And so that’s what we’re seeing in all of these major cities around the country. These folks are tired, and they should be.

RRS

We need housing. I have a huge homeless population in my ward. We need jobs, particularly for young people. We need a lot of money invested in education and restorative justice for our schools. We need mental health services. I have a huge undocumented population in my community that doesn’t benefit from a lot of resources, so putting those resources in places like schools, where everybody is able to access them, is going to be really important. We need to be able to provide a lot of those services through institutions that are going to be able to cater to the undocumented community.

We also need to strengthen the fabric of our communities. There are a lot of things we can be doing in order to do that. It has become really evident through COVID-19 that we don’t have a social safety net. There was nothing in place when, all of a sudden, people started losing jobs, and couldn’t pay their rent, and people were scared that they were going to get evicted. We have seen an incredible response from the communities, creating mutual aid networks incredibly fast so that we can address the needs of the people. That work needs to be done also by the government.