Chicago voters on Tuesday elected the city’s first black woman mayor, but the historic nature of her victory quickly soured due to the backlash it provoked. Lori Lightfoot is a self-styled political outsider and out lesbian who has never held elected office. Yet her Establishment ties run deep, especially with local law enforcement. Lightfoot was a federal prosecutor in the 1990s. She served as president of the Chicago Police Board and chairwoman of the Police Accountability Task Force under outgoing mayor Rahm Emanuel. She has characterized Mayor Emanuel’s $95 million investment in a new police-training facility as meager, “[if] you’re really going to do it right.” None of this has endeared her to the black activists who’ve spent years fighting to divest from policing and invest in black communities. “Where outsiders see a political newcomer, we see an adversary with whom we have been actively entangled for years,” activist Benji Hart wrote for the Advocate.
The manifestations of this entanglement are myriad. Campaigns like #StopLightfoot and labor groups like the Chicago Teachers Union have opposed her, citing her law-enforcement pedigree and coziness with public-school privatizers. Black LGBTQ advocates who might otherwise celebrate her win as theirs have blasted her lack of interest in using rent control to address living costs. Lightfoot has responded by creating a web page to rebuff their critiques. “The Facts About Lori Lightfoot,” housed on her campaign site, has a retort or explanation for most. Where activists see an Establishment toady who often declined to hold police accountable for misconduct, she sees a commitment to affecting change from the inside: “With Lori as president, the board fired 72 percent of officers [found guilty], up from just 37 percent … before [her] time,” it reads. Where critics say Lightfoot has been “disrespectful” to police-violence victims and their families, she says she “took care not to show emotion in support or against the families to preserve the credibility of any ruling the Board would make.”
Incremental progress and preserving institutional credibility sound reasonable, at least superficially. But the crises that threaten Chicago — especially black Chicago — require more in 2019. After decades of brutal treatment of the community at the hands of police in particular, it is reasonable for activists to reject any official who does not stand unequivocally behind black victims. Voters may have handed Lightfoot a resounding victory at the polls. But on-the-ground organizers are bracing for something closer to a redux of the Emanuel administration, a cool bureaucratic detachment from their plight beneath a veneer of progressivism and inclusivity.
This expectation is earned. An oft-cited YouTube video of Lightfoot presiding over a 2015 Police Board hearing casts light on the tensions at play. At issue during the hearing was whether former Chicago police detective Dante Servin would be fired. Servin shot and killed Rekia Boyd, a black 22-year-old, in 2012. Boyd and three friends were attending a party in a park near Servin’s home. Servin, who was off duty, called in a noise complaint and approached the group with a gun. The circumstances under which Servin killed Boyd and injured her friend Antonio Cross have been disputed, but Servin’s claim that he feared for his life because Cross reached toward his waistband appears moot — none of the group was armed, and Cross had only a cell phone. Servin opened fire nonetheless. In April 2015, a judge dismissed the involuntary-manslaughter charges he faced because there was “no evidence of recklessness.” The state’s burden of proof was not met because Servin was in full control of his actions when he killed Boyd. In essence, he was freed because he was intentional about what he did.
The emotional fallout from the decision was shouldered heavily by Martinez Sutton, Boyd’s brother and most vocal advocate following her death. Sutton testified before the police board the following August, when it was mulling Servin’s fate. In the footage, Lightfoot, the police board president, can be seen toward the left of the screen, wearing a gray suit. Sutton is in obvious distress but stays lucid. He details allegations that Servin boasted to his face about killing his sister. He demands that the then officer be fired. He holds up a bag, saying that when he asked for his sister’s things after the investigation, he received a “bloody hat.” He raises his voice. “I understand that you have a lot of emotion,” Lightfoot says in response. “But we will not tolerate [this].” At that point, a group of young black activists there to support Sutton begin chanting and issuing demands. They are raucous. Lightfoot beckons to police to have them corralled. As they continue, Lightfoot adjourns the meeting, visibly annoyed. “Anyone who was not able to speak tonight because of the disruption, we’ll call you next time in the next few weeks,” she says. “Sorry for this.”
Lightfoot’s response to Sutton cannot be described accurately as combative or even adversarial. Nor can it be said to presage a lax ruling on the Servin matter. (Servin resigned in May 2016 before the Board ruled, preserving his pension and having all disciplinary charges dropped.) But it was brusque, bordering on callous in the face of his despair. It accommodated procedure over a community’s pain. As with other stances for which she has been criticized by activists, Lightfoot’s response was that of a dispassionate bureaucrat intent on letting the established mechanisms for accountability take their course. But the activists correctly understood those same mechanisms as inherently permissive and inclined to exonerate the very systems they were meant to regulate. This does not make Lightfoot a reactionary ghoul or unmoved by inequality. It makes her a pragmatist when Chicago needs a revolution. Her approach is reasonable in theory but corrosive in action. And it affirms her role as a steward of the status quo rather than an advocate for those it harms.