Chicago’s mayor is flunking the most elementary question of the Coronavirus crisis.
Among a range of different approaches to social distancing, there are just two camps: those based in compassion, and those based in contempt for ordinary people. Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot’s late-blooming enthusiasm for social distancing bears a key commonality with Trump’s despicable calls to reopen the economy by Easter. In the supposed service of public safety her selective, punitive measures show her disdain for working-class Chicagoans.
Lightfoot may think she can make up for lost time. She didn’t close schools when Chicago Teachers Union members warned that the virus was already spreading among students. She refused to close libraries and instead publicly encouraged people to flock to them until librarians started walking out on branch-level wildcat strikes.
But a week after Illinois governor J. B. Pritzker instituted stay-at-home orders, Lightfoot threatened, “If people don’t take this in a serious way, in which they must, I won’t hesitate to pull every lever at my disposal to force compliance.”
It’s clearly not true that repression is the city’s only option, as thousands of people rapidly mobilize, invent, and expand direct means to care for one another to make sheltering in place safe and viable for all. Unions and community organizations submitted a plea to the mayor, governor, and county board for a “Right to Recovery” package of initiatives including paid time off for workers facing unsafe conditions, housing, health care, and end to ICE check-ins, and the decarceration of immigration detention centers and Cook County Jail, among other measures that could save hundreds of lives by dramatically slowing the spread of Coronavirus in Chicago.
Lightfoot no doubt spoke to the frustration many Chicagoans felt after the first warm, sunny day of the year when throngs of people filled Chicago’s most celebrated parks, from the lakefront to The 606, an elevated recreation trail built on the remains of a freight train line.
But The 606, slashing through freshly gentrified neighborhoods, idyllically epitomizes how planners and politicians sculpt the city in the image of egocentric luxury living at the expense of the many. Lightfoot drove that mission forward from her first weeks in office, reversing promises of community engagement to divert billions of tax dollars to elite developers building Lincoln Yards on the North Side and The 78 on the South Side.
The United States as a whole now counts the greatest number of confirmed COVID-19 cases on the planet. It also boasts the most billionaires, whose existence entails theft on a massive scale from people expected to make do on minimal wages. The ethos of shared sacrifice clashes on a clear day with the exaltation of heroes like Jeff Bezos whose sole superpower consists of sucking profits out of highly exploited workers.
An arrogantly individualistic minority may gauge the low risk of Coronavirus to their own health as license to keep living as lavishly as ever. But they won’t be the ones to pay the price for Lightfoot’s stepped-up enforcement.
Chicago’s mayor had her hand on the levers of criminalization before the pandemic arrived. In February she ordered SWAT teams deployed twenty-four hours a day on city trains, part of an escalation in policing public transit that produced its first police shooting of an unarmed commuter mere hours after Lightfoot implemented it.
Giving Chicago police expansive new grounds for sending people to jail may be even more lethal now. The New York Times lists Cook County jail as the largest cluster of Conoravirus cases nationwide. These cases far outnumber those associated with overseas travel.
Lightfoot’s scolding tone (which inspired an entire Instagram account full of mocking memes) asks Chicagoans to direct our frustrations at those around us who don’t seem to be giving up enough. Ticketing those who “flout” social distancing with fines up to $500 will inflict plenty of pain on the 40 percent of households who didn’t have $400 savings for an emergency before COVID-19 plunged the city into a deep new recession.
The virus is also spreading among the Chicago police force, whose track record already indicates their preference for harassing Black and brown teenagers playing basketball or soccer (who might, in this moment, especially want a brief distraction from fear over their futures), rather than members of the Lululemon class coasting along the best-groomed trails.
Thousands of people are contending with new impossible choices. Does the single parent health-care worker risk bringing their toddler to daycare as long as it stays open, to keep their paycheck? The federal government’s promise of a one-time $500 check per child offers little comfort or guidance to the suddenly stay-at-home parent scrambling to home-school or even just entertain their kids through indefinite months of isolation.
Even ordering groceries in or checking the mail poses real risks as workers plead for adequate supplies to help them avoid delivering dangerous germs.
For many, the coming weeks and months of sheltering in place will enact a workday speed-up outside of the workplace, whether maintaining full-time workloads while caring for loved ones, or researching and navigating quickly evolving bureaucracies in search of emergency assistance. The pandemic’s casualties and economic toll also conceal crises of increasing gendered violence and dangerous losses of services for people with disabilities.
The last thing we need is to cast scorn or suspicion on one another.
Lightfoot and other politicians’ general contempt for us contrasts sharply with the incredible solidarity fueling volunteer networks across the city and country. At the city’s northern edge, Rogers Park Community Response Team drew more than five hundred volunteers within days of launching life-saving mutual aid. Each new request for delivery of anything from hot meals to prescriptions to virtual companionship gets answered within minutes.
Local Amazon warehouse workers fought for paid time off and won that concession for Amazon’s warehouses nationwide. Now striking Instacart and Amazon workers demonstrate how this moment of rupture can break down the victim-blaming, race-to-the-bottom ideological status quo. The front-line workers still reporting to hospitals, grocery stores, and warehouses deserve to keep the paid time off and hazard pay they’re taking bold new action to demand and, in many cases, win.
Millions of us have just separately realized how deeply interconnected our lives are with the hardest-working, least praised, often least paid, people around us. So rather than begrudging our neighbors their strolls through public parks at a safe distance, we should use this moment of realization to imagine what kind of public space we want to return to.
Rogers Park’s temporarily closed beaches have been struggling for survival for some time. Lake level rise related to climate change permanently closed several of the neighborhood’s beach entrances this year. But none of them would be there if not for collective struggle from below. Tobey Prinz beach honors the Chicago Teachers Union activist and community organizer who helped lead the Save the Beaches campaign that rescued miles of lakefront property from privatization in the 1960s.
Green space, fresh water, and human connection are not luxuries, they are the livelihood too many have been denied for too long. Survival networks alone can’t rid the world of the capitalist system intent on warming the planet well beyond human habitability. But they do contain the seed of what’s needed: the ability to see ourselves in one another and to act like our lives depend on taking care of each other.
Rachel Cohen is a working parent living in Rogers Park.