by Will Tanzman
For more than 15 years, Jerry Davis-El went back and forth between Cook County Jail, where he would be locked up while waiting for trail because he could not afford to post bail, and prison, where he would serve time after being pressured into plea deals. Davis-El was one of many Chicagoans with similar stories. In 2014, churches involved in the Chicago-area organizing group The People’s Lobby (TPL) began reporting that members were being locked up before trial because they could not afford the bail amounts set by judges. There were more than 9,000 people locked up in the Cook County Jail, the vast majority incarcerated before trial (and thus presumed innocent) because they could not afford bail. The system is racist. While 24.8% of Cook County’s population was African American in 2015, the corresponding percentage of people incarcerated in the jail that year was 73%.
Davis-El was in prison when he found out that his daughter had been murdered. It was a turning point for him: he decided to turn around his own life and help other people as well, by joining The People’s Lobby new campaign to reform the County’s bail system.
Over the next three years, The People’s Lobby built a campaign that has strategically alternated between electoral politics and issue organizing, and we have played a significant role in decreasing the number of people locked up before trial by roughly 1,400. We started by working together with SOUL (Southsiders Organized for Unity and Liberation) to meet with the Cook County State’s Attorney at that time, Anita Alvarez, who was a leader in the “tough on crime” camp in the County. Together, we called on her to stop pressuring judges to set the highest possible money bails. When she refused, we began gearing up to challenge her in the 2016 primary election. TPL endorsed reform-minded former prosecutor Kim Foxx in October 2016 and pushed her to run on a platform that unapologetically highlighted her commitment to change the racist criminal justice system including bail reform.
As the primary was heating up, the Chicago Police Department was forced to release video of Officer Jason Van Dyke murdering the unarmed Laquan McDonald in November of 2016. A plethora of other activists and organizations from longtime anti-incarceration organizer Mariame Kaba to the #ByeAnita campaign led by Assata’s Daughters to TPL and SOUL made sure that Alvarez’s role in the cover up and her failure to prosecute Van Dyke was a key part of the story that voters heard. TPL and Reclaim Chicago (a partnership between TPL and National Nurses United) dialed and doorknocked more than 300,000 voters in the primary election and did about half of Foxx’s field work in the “get out the vote” period at the close of the campaign. As a result of both this longer-term electoral campaign and the immediate outrage over Laquan McDonald’s murder, Foxx won the 2016 election in a landslide. The election brought the injustice and racism in the county’s policing and incarceration systems into the public spotlight put elected officials on notice that they needed to be on the right side of criminal justice reform.
This dovetailed with momentum coming from a growing movement to end money bail that had been coalescing in the County. A year before the election, in 2015, Chicago Community Bond Fund (CCBF) had begun to pay bails for people incarcerated in the Cook County Jail and support them in becoming advocates for bail reform. In early 2016, CCBF and Chicago Appleseed began pulling together a coalition that TPL soon joined: the Coalition to End Money Bond. In October 2016, Civil Rights Corps, the MacArthur Justice Center, and the civil rights law firm Hughes Socol Piers Resnick & Dym filed a lawsuit challenging the constitutionality of the County’s money bail system. The following year, in February 2017, TPL worked with State Representative Christian Mitchell to introduce legislation to end money bail across the state. We also organized a public action with several hundred people, which included civil disobedience, that targeted Cook County Chief Judge Timothy Evans and demanded an end to money bail. Cooperation among these different movement actors was not always smooth, but we were ultimately able to act collectively in a powerful way that moved a number of complementary levers and added up to real power.
In July 2017, Chief Judge Evans responded to the complementary pressures of community demands and the lawsuit by issuing General Order 18.8A, which instructs judges to first determine how much money an accused person can afford to pay before setting a money bail, and to then set money bail amounts only within the limits of what could be paid and ensure release. If fully implemented, this policy would end the practice of using unaffordable bail to incarcerated people prior to trial. TPL and the Coalition to End Money Bond organized public rallies and a community courtwatching initiative to make sure the bond court judges knew voters would be scrutinizing their implementation of this new policy closely. As a result, the number of people locked up in the Cook County Jail fell from about 7,500 in September 2018 to about 6,100 in January 2018.
This campaign highlighted the strengths and weaknesses of The People’s Lobby’s political analysis and practice and gave us the opportunity to improve our practices to more effectively recognize the tight interconnectedness of race and class. We began this effort with a worldview that clearly prioritized class politics over racial justice. We believed that broad-based reforms creating universal improvements like a higher minimum wage were sufficient to fight structural racism because communities of color were suffering disproportionately from the injustices targeted by those reforms.
As this campaign continued, however, we began to see the ways this class reductionism was falling short both in our organizing and in the broader progressive movement. For instance, although it was true that people detained pretrial were being locked up because they were poor, it was also true that Black communities were being targeted by policing and pretrial incarceration far beyond the extent that could be explained only by disproportionate poverty. Moreover, many Black leaders playing active roles in our organizing have experienced race and class as inextricably intertwined and seen racism playing a key role in the budget cuts, poverty wage jobs, and more that have devastated working-class and low-income Black neighborhoods. At the same time, we were processing the agitations brought by the Black Lives Matter movement as well as the fact that Bernie Sanders’ campaign generated significantly less momentum among Black voters than white voters.
We also found that some of the single-issue organizing against mass incarceration isolated the racist criminal justice system from the larger system of racial capitalism in ways that we felt were inadequate. For instance, we found that many people in communities impacted by incarceration knew that the mass incarceration system was racist and ineffective, but that there was also concern that releasing more people might lead to higher crime and violence. These concerns forced our members to create a more comprehensive story of the root causes of crime and violence: disinvestment, deindustrialization, and privatization, all knit together by structural racism and corporate profiteering. This analysis pushed us to add demands for real solutions to crime and violence that challenged neoliberal racial capitalism, such as rebuilding public services and public sector jobs, large-scale reinvestment in Black communities, and restorative justice.
Meanwhile, some of the leaders who joined the organization to fight mass incarceration began responding to invitations to participate in other fights. They joined TPL’s effort to raise the Cook County minimum wage and a campaign led by TPL and our allies to close hundreds of millions of dollars in corporate tax loopholes to pay for much-needed public services. Both of these fights were initially framed as universalistic efforts aimed at improving conditions for the 99% with minimal explicit racial justice analysis. As these efforts progressed, however, we started telling a different story, about how the 1% was using racism to fuel the rise of low-wage jobs and attacks on the public sector to increase their profits at the expense of all low-income and working people but especially communities of color. Rewriting our narrative strengthened these campaigns, which contributed to two important victories: an increase in the minimum wage in a number of Chicago suburbs from $8.25 up to $13 and the closure of $125 million in corporate tax loopholes in 2016 and 2017. Just as we saw in our bail reform organizing, these campaigns demonstrated that organizing around interconnected racial and economic justice issues could lead to both reducing mass incarceration and creating solutions to the root causes of crime and violence.
A lot of ink has been spilled since 2016 arguing over a false dichotomy: whether race or class is more important in U.S. politics and explaining Trump’s victory. Fighting for bail reform together with organizing for higher wages and a fair state budget gave The People’s Lobby an opportunity to highlight the inseparability of racism and capitalism and gave Chicagoans opportunities to organize against both together. These efforts have also taught us some important strategic lessons on the power of combining issue and electoral organizing in a single strategy and the need to build coalitions and political alignments despite the challenges. We have made plenty of missteps along the way, and we have a long way to go before we can declare victory in bail reform, living wages, and a vibrant, expanded public sector paid for by taxing the 1%. But I think we at TPL and in the broader progressive movement need to keep struggling to build and win powerful campaigns for racial and economic justice that not only improve people’s lives in real ways but also fight the false dichotomy of race vs. class and begin to lay the groundwork for the larger-scale change we need.