Chicago’s 33rd Ward Alderwoman speaks on navigating local governance as a socialist, decolonization of Puerto Rico, and building alternatives to the police.
Something that is really important to all of us at Rampant is Puerto Rico. Last year, your compatriots set off a worldwide revolt against corrupt governments: it started with #RickyRenuncia and then the rebellion spread to Ecuador, to Lebanon, Iraq, all over the world. After the movement succeeded in forcing former Puerto Rican governor Ricky Rosello to resign, US media coverage of the situation in Puerto Rico dwindled. Then the earthquakes happened. Now, once again, Puerto Rico has fallen out of the news. Do you have thoughts about the situation on the island right now? What is most important for people in the United States to know?
I always have thoughts about what’s going on in Puerto Rico. I have a lot of feelings about it, too. The earthquakes stopped for a few weeks but they have started again in the last few days. Experts have said that this is going to continue to happen, that this is the “new normal” in Puerto Rico.
It’s devastating. More than 700 homes have collapsed on the southwest side of the island. A school collapsed recently, and we were very lucky that it was close to Three Kings Day, so school was not in session. This happened at the beginning of January. Had there been children or staff inside of the school, they would have all died. There was no way that they would have survived, judging by what the structure looked like.
This brought up the issue of building codes and how government buildings have been built and whether they comply with code—apparently most schools in Puerto Rico don’t. Parents and teachers are very concerned and there have been protests to demand that schools do serious inspections so that students can go back and feel safe. It’s been incredibly traumatizing.
Recently the reality was that many Puerto Ricans were sleeping outside because they didn’t feel safe in their own homes. People started to form encampments, and there were whole families, women with newborns sleeping in tents, midwives going around the encampments offering care to pregnant people, old people who require care who were sleeping outdoors. The situation was dire and people were exhausted.
And it’s important to make it clear that these communities were being formed by people who had homes, but were too afraid to live in them, scared that there would be a big earthquake again soon, and that their roof would fall on them and they wouldn’t survive.
Then the COVID-19 crisis arrived and the government started scrambling to break up the encampments, but there were no real alternatives to house people. They offered public housing to some people, but a lot of times the units offered were far from the town where they currently live and work, so many people couldn’t take the offer. I have heard testimonies of people who were threatened with referral to social services and have their kids taken away if they didn’t leave. The government took away the water tanks that were provided to some encampments as well in order to force people to leave. The government managed to break up most of the encampments but there are still several left. There are also people sleeping in tents in their front yards. It feels like my people have gone from crisis to crisis, constantly living in a state of emergency that gives no space for peace. It’s horrible.
And of course, Puerto Ricans are resilient. But this word is problematic for me because we’ve been constantly told that we’re resilient—and we believe it because this is what we’ve always done to survive. But this leads to an over-reliance on ourselves and it gets very exhausting. People are really feeling that right now. When you talk about what happened after Hurricane María and how people took care of each other and found their power because they realized that there was no government at all, it was inspiring. But it was also infuriating—this is what led to #RickyRenuncia, to the protests that ousted the government. The people were like: “OK, you’re out and we know we have the power to take you out, because you weren’t there when we needed you and you don’t have any legitimacy.”
But then the earthquakes happened. And again the government failed to respond. There’s just not a plan. So, people are very tired and they’re spending all of their time taking care of one another—and it’s exhausting. This time around it has been a lot harder to articulate a resistance and build the kind of fight that was at the center of the #RickyRenuncia movement.
And Puerto Rico continues to endure austerity. Right now, under the US law known as PROMESA [Puerto Rico Oversight, Management, and Economic Stability Act of 2016], the people of Puerto Rico are under the power of a fiscal control board appointed by Obama. The bill was sold as a way to help Puerto Rico get debt relief, but what the bill actually does is make sure that the vultures get paid. There was recently an agreement reached between the board and the government of Puerto Rico to reduce the amount of debt but at the expense of getting a lot of money from a fund that is supposed to be used for basic services for Puerto Ricans. So, we’re continuing the diet of austerity that we’ve been on for a long time but every time it just gets worse.
At the moment, the Fiscal Control Board is trying to get a “Super Agreement” with the Government. They want money from several different sources to pay vultures from Wall Street. They are demanding pensions cuts, a hike on the sales tax, tapping into a reserve fund and a piece of the government budget, which means new cuts to already gutted government services. `
So sorry to have to ask you to recount that. The situation is indeed dire. It’s interesting what you’re saying about the United States and austerity. Can you talk briefly about how the colonial relationship between the US government and Puerto Rico has hurt people on the island?
The central thing is that we’ve never been able to be our own nation. Of course, we are our own nation in a way: we have an identity and an incredibly strong sense of self, of culture. But we’ve never been able to develop into a country with control over our own destiny. Our relationship to the US government has always been one of exploitation and control.
When I was growing up, I would hear people saying all the time that if we were not a territory—in reality, a colony—of the US that we would starve to death, that we would die. But then Hurricane María hit the island and people did die of dehydration, of malnourishment, of absolutely preventable causes. People realized that we were alone because the US did not care at all about what happened to us.
You’ve been active for years in efforts to mobilize people here in Chicago to help people in Puerto Rico. For example, you’re a founding member of Chicago Boricua Resistance. What can we do in Chicago, right now, in terms of beginning to decolonize the relationship with Puerto Rico? What do you see as the most important priorities?
For a long time I was not really involved in electoral politics, but now I have a seat on the City Council. And I have been fighting to get Bernie Sanders elected. I think we need a political agenda that makes sure to put provisions in place for Puerto Rico. The first thing is that the debt needs to be erased. That’s nonnegotiable. A lot of the debt is illegal. And it’s important to stress that Puerto Ricans did not benefit from that money, and a lot of that money was interest payments to vultures who line their pockets by exploiting us. So, if we are serious about making sure that Puerto Rico can recover, that Puerto Rico can sustain itself, it needs to start with wiping out all of the debt. We don’t owe money to anybody. That is a statement that needs to be made over and over.
Another thing is that the Fiscal Control Board needs to go. We don’t need anybody running our country, telling us what to do from on high. Although we need to make sure that Puerto Rico has the resources to rebuild itself, Puerto Ricans also need to be able to rebuild on our terms, not on terms set by Washington.
Puerto Rico also needs provisions in place to create clean energy. And I think it is very important that it is the workers who run the energy system. Puerto Rico has an opportunity to develop an economy that is actually centered on a Green New Deal, that is centered on sustainability. We can do ecotourism, we can grow crops all year long. There is so much we can do. We can be exporting energy. None of that is happening right now.
I’d like to shift gears a little bit and ask you about Chicago politics. You went from running a grassroots campaign for City Council to actually winning and then assuming office. I think it’s fair to say that the left has more experience campaigning than it does actually winning and then governing. Could you say a bit about what that transition has looked like for you, how that’s felt?
Being an activist, being an organizer, being someone who is not necessarily used to being “a boss” or used to getting all of the attention that winning an election gets you . . . to be honest, the transition was really overwhelming. In the future, we need to make sure that when newly elected people go into the halls of power together there’s a very concrete plan and a transition team in place. We need to make sure people are prepared and ready to go. We need to support elected officials and their staff once they win. It can’t all fall on the shoulders of the person who holds the elected office.
The transition was challenging, but we survived. It helped that we had a vision. It took us a few months to figure out how to navigate the system so as to carry out our vision. It’s not a year yet—we’ve been in office nine months—but now we’ve really got some momentum. I’m really excited to see how we continue to build that very solid vision, that transformative vision.
Thanks for sharing that. Sometimes we on the left get too excited and “rah, rah, rah!” when victories occur, and then we don’t follow through and do enough where we have blind spots. We need to address that moving forward. Many people are thinking about how to learn from the success of your campaign, which was buoyed by a variety of left organizations and social movements, such as the Democratic Socialists of America (DSA) and 33rd Ward Working Families. Can you talk a little bit about these organizations that played a role in your victory?
Sure. The first thing to say is that this all started with Tim Meegan’s campaign for 33rd Ward alderman in 2015. Tim’s campaign articulated a vision that we could have a city that provided for all of us, not just the wealthy few. This incredible campaign, which I participated in, came very close to a runoff with the incumbent—but we didn’t win. Shortly after that we started 33rd Ward Working Families, which is my political home. We knew that it was important to build an independent political organization that could take on the machine—really, the Democratic Party machine—by building around issues. We spent four years working around education, for a moratorium on charters, for affordable housing, for lifting the ban on rent control, for immigrant rights—and these became our signature issues. This enabled us to develop a volunteer base that was interested and invested in the issues that were the most important to people in the ward.
In the context of our victory in the election, it’s also important to mention United Working Families, the independent political organization [IPO], which brought unions into the fold like the CTU, SEIU healthcare. This helped a great deal, too. DSA, which I’m a member of, was also important.
There are incredible people in these organizations—so smart, so committed. Now that we’ve won we have to keep building, keep challenging politics as usual, to continue training people and organizing. One of the most important roles of 33rd Ward Working Families is to hold me accountable. It’s important to say that they decide whether I run again or not. After all, they drafted me as a candidate. That’s sobering. It’s not my seat. I respond to the movement.
When I joined 33rd Ward Working Families, I thought about how this might, in the long term, lay the groundwork for a left-wing alternative to the Democratic Party. Many others felt the same way and I think we’ve been very open and honest about that in the group. Right now, Bernie Sanders is doing well in many polls, killing it in the debates, but at the same time there is this very real fear that the Democratic establishment is going to take the nomination away from him. How do we defeat the establishment? Do you think formations like 33rd Ward Working Families are building infrastructure for an independent alternative to the Democrats?
That’s exactly what we’re building. There will be opportunities to work in coalitions with other organizations interested in independent politics. I think about DSA, I think about the Working Families Party, where we can find common ground to push for an alternative to the Democratic Party to ensure that we’re really looking out for the interests of the working class, to give power to the people. The work that we’re doing in 33rd Ward Working Families is essential to building that mass organization that we need. And that also includes the unions, the IPOs, community organizations. That’s where we’re going with this. I don’t have any doubt.
Recently the right-wing has been attacking you for your stance on policing. They’re claiming that you don’t care about crime. Can you speak to how you’re responding to these criticisms and, more generally, how the socialist left should think about issues like crime and policing?
Let me first of all say that I have started a Masters in Social Work while I’m an alderman—yes, I know it’s probably crazy to try to do this many things at once. But I have been learning a lot. Interestingly, the first course I took was on community violence. So, I have been immersed in discussions about different models that work to reduce violence and getting all of this data, and it’s fascinating.
I’ve learned a lot. We must understand that the left has traditionally had a really hard time talking about crime. We have an answer for prevention. Yes, we want to create the conditions in which crimes don’t happen or happen much less. But the reality is that in the moment we live in, there is going to be crime—and we’ve got to have something to say about how we’re addressing that. And the left doesn’t necessarily have a ready-made response to crime that is as effective rhetorically as the right’s answer, which is simply: more police, you just use police. We are learning, however. I’m becoming much better at communicating our alternative message, which begins from the knowledge that policing isn’t what is going to make us safer.
During the campaign, we talked a lot about policing, about reframing our ideas of safety. The right-wing tries to smear us by saying that we want crime because we want to reduce spending on the police. Their idea is that safety is policing. This is something that we absolutely have to challenge. It’s just not true.
The right’s only tool is the police. We’re trying to make sure that we’re bringing other tools to the table. Right now, we’re talking about a summer activation plan for public spaces. We want to look at places in the community where there has been the most gun violence and we want to make sure that we are bringing people into those spaces and activating those spaces. There’s a lot of research that shows that the more activity in public spaces there is, the less crime there is, the less violence there is. There are other things we’re doing as well. For example, we’re also doing a brigade on Monday, to invite neighbors to come out and look for all the lights that are off in the ward. It’s called “Safety Is Lit.” There’s so much the city could spend money on besides policing that would make us much safer and healthier.
Right now, the priorities are backward: the city puts enormous resources into policing and much fewer into things that improve people’s well-being. Because of wealth inequality, because of poverty—because of capitalism—the government often sees its role as one of punishing the population, of keeping people in line. So, the government criminalizes everybody, it criminalizes homeless people, and so on. Because punishment and criminalization are the only goals, the government just keeps pouring more money into policing. You see the same thing at the national level when you think about how the federal government puts such massive resources into the military. We need to stop that. If we actually want to transform society, we need to actually try to treat people like human beings and meet their needs. As you start investing in those things you are going to see a reduction in crime.
I want to share a beautiful anecdote with you because it speaks to this question of treating people like human beings and solving community violence in better ways. Roosevelt High School has had a lot of issues over the years with behavior. They had lots of detentions, for example. But they just brought in a restorative justice program and the detentions have gone down so much that CPS administrators thought the school simply forgot to report them. They had to come into the school to figure out what was going on. They are used to seeing so many detentions but now that’s no longer the case. The reality is that the restorative justice practices had a really positive effect.
We need to think about how to do this on a bigger scale. Restorative justice practices are more about communicating, about attending to our needs as human beings. This is how we need to think about crime more generally in our society. So, we’re talking to a bunch of organizations to do more violence interruption work, more violence intervention work. Today I wrote a letter to the mayor to ask that some funds are allocated for this. If we want to prevent things from getting worse, we need to make sure we have the infrastructure to respond when things happen.
The police, at best, only react after the shots have been fired, after people have already been shot. But that’s not good enough. We need to be able to respond before that happens. And to do that we need to know who’s hot, who’s associating with who, how can you prevent a volatile situation from boiling over, how to create nonviolent outlets for dealing with conflict. And guess what? Those programs exist and are very effective. We’re working with organizations and the mayor to have the funds to invest in this work.
Rossana Rodriguez Sanchez is Chicago's 33rd Ward Alderwoman and a Puerto Rican mother, educator, organizer, and community artist.