On May 29th, after protests sparked by the murder of George Floyd ignited in Chicago, Mayor Lori Lightfoot made national headlines for her response to Donald Trump’s racist tweets. Her message for Trump “begins with an ‘F’ and ends with a ‘u,’” she declared in a press conference. On social media, the crowd went wild.
The headlines in the national press and the memification that followed was typical of Lightfoot’s mayoral term. She deliberately coded herself as a progressive during last year’s electoral campaign, and since then her well-oiled PR machine has invested heavily in keeping up appearances.
Lightfoot portrays herself as bold, brash, a down-to-earth vigilante in a suit who’s not afraid to stand up to powerful men. Above all she has loved jabbing back anytime the Trump administration mentions Chicago; the latest twitter dig aimed at the new Karen in the White House, press secretary Kayleigh McEnany.
But just as Donald Trump positions himself as the working man’s candidate, as a self-made millionaire and smart businessman when it is abundantly clear that he is neither, Lori Lightfoot’s progressive credentials are similarly fabricated. In fact, she shares more than a few qualities with the very president she loves to critique.
Like Donald Trump, Lori Lightfoot seems more preoccupied with power and public image than policy. In April, the COVID-19 pandemic provided the backdrop for a 29–21 split City Council vote that granted her emergency spending powers for contracts under $1 million, despite opposition from the council’s more progressive alderpeople. In a city that has had a long and dirty history of machine politics, a mayor interested in circumventing City Council looked more like the undemocratic status quo than progressivism.
Although her special powers expired at the end of June, Lightfoot used them at the height of the first surge in COVID-19 cases for things like contracting with two downtown hotels to provide quarantine shelter for an at-risk unhoused population. This move generated enough positive press for Lightfoot that it drowned out the criticism—that she was spending money on Band-aid housing with expensive private partners instead of investing it more carefully into long-term public solutions. In the end, only 12 percent of the money earmarked from Chicago’s corporate fund for coronavirus relief was spent.
During the ongoing pandemic, instead of implementing real and equitable relief measures that would allow all Chicagoans to stay at home safely, Lightfoot spent her time yelling at Black teenagers at the park. When she stood up in front of cameras and warned, “Don’t make us treat you like a criminal,” she wasn’t speaking to white northsiders on the 606 trail. When providing resources like blanket rent relief or additional food assistance to underserved communities should have been the top priority, Lightfoot spent disproportionate time performing the theater of a strict and authoritative maternal figure who knows how to shame and punish kids of color into behaving.
Lori spent a lot less time scolding the police during a summer plentiful with videos and images of police brutality. In fact, the angriest she seemed to get at CPD was when cops were caught breaking into Representative Bobby Rush’s campaign office to nap and eat popcorn. Apparently, those images of cops sleeping on the job were bad PR. By contrast, images of cops literally cracking down on teenagers seemed to anger Lori less, perhaps because use of force isn’t unusual for a cop on the clock.
Like Donald Trump, Lori Lightfoot prides herself on being a law-and-order leader. During her campaign, she used her history as a prosecutor to position herself as a police reformer, saying, “We’ve got to stop treating black and brown folks like they’re expendable. A militarized response to the violence isn’t what people want, and more to the point, it’s not effective.”
And yet just since May, Lightfoot has trapped and arrested Black Lives Matter protesters downtown by raising bridges, barricading them with sanitation trucks to keep them vulnerable to police, and stopping public transportation into the Loop. She literally called in the National Guard. She imposed a citywide curfew. She ordered sweeps to arrest so-called “drug corner teens” over the Fourth of July weekend in Black and brown neighborhoods with the stated intent to hold them in jail over the weekend—during a pandemic. She supports expanding the budget of the much maligned cop academy in Garfield Park that is already estimated as a $98-million line item. She has refused to engage in any real discussion of defunding the police department, which takes up over 40 percent of the city’s operating budget. Under Lori’s leadership, Chicago is the largest city in the United States without any concrete commitment to defund the police after the George Floyd protests.
As other cities began to take the call to defund seriously, Lori defended Chicago’s bloated police budget in the New York Times magazine, stating that defunding “means you are eliminating one of the few tools that the city has to create middle-class incomes for Black and brown folks.” The notion that the only jobs available for Black and brown Chicagoans are in the police department indicates either an astonishingly woeful lack of imagination or straight-up cynical dishonesty. Instead of laying out Black and brown salaries as the sacrifice that defunding the police would require, Lori should be working to ensure that there are opportunities for Black and brown Chicagoans in all industries. Above all, no one looking to earn a living should feel like their best bet requires them to lock up their neighbors.
Recently, when Fraternal Order of Police president John Catanzara sent a letter to Donald Trump requesting federal law enforcement in Chicago, Lightfoot made a show of denouncing his request. But after declaring that she’d never let the feds into her city, she reversed her position and allowed cooperation between CPD and federal law enforcement as part of Trump’s Operation Legend. Her anger at Catanzara seemed then to be less about cooperation with federal law enforcement, and more about the FOP leader talking to Trump behind her back.
There is irony in seeing our mayor puff out her chest when Trump suggests sending federal agents into the city, when her own police force consistently demonstrates it can brutalize hundreds of protestors just fine on their own. When protestors were aggressively beaten and gassed during the Black and Indigenous solidarity rally on July 17th, Lightfoot put out a statement on Twitter that sounded eerily similar to Trump’s infamous “very fine people on both sides” comments post-Charlottesville. “It’s not peaceful protest,” she would go on to say, but “anarchy” carried out by “vigilantes.”
By falsely equating the responsibilities and actions of protestors with police while ignoring the severity of the police’s violence and the massive power differential between these two groups, Lightfoot’s balancing act read like yet more pro-police propaganda. The words she chose to use could have just as easily fallen out of the mouth of Trump. When Lori later decided to publicly attack the president’s authoritarianism, it seemed like it was in an effort to obscure her own.
And like Trump, Lori Lightfoot is a proven liar. She lied on the campaign trail, when she promised to reopen mental health clinics infamously closed by Rahm Emanuel. Instead, she reopened none, but allocated a tiny portion of the city’s money (less than 0.01 percent of the police budget) to mental health. The kicker is that a large chunk of that pocket change will go towards training even more police on mental health crises, instead of to direct services.
Lightfoot promised she would address inequities in Chicago’s public schools, and then when teachers went on strike for more resources she dragged her feet, telling them, “the fact is, there is no more money.” When the strike continued, her lie was exposed under pressure. The Chicago Teachers Union forced Lightfoot to make concessions, but she could have prioritized their needs from the start.
Lightfoot promised she would treat the city’s most vulnerable populations with dignity, but during the pandemic she has been over-policing and disproportionately critiquing the South and West sides for reasons that can only be about race and class. Nearly every person arrested for social distancing violations were on the South and West sides, and 40 percent of the total number of crowd dispersals in the city were carried out by the CPD’s West Side 11th District alone. Her most cut-and-dried commitment—that she would shut down CPD’s error-riddled so-called gang database—has gone unfulfilled.
Her careful positioning to appear as a foil to the president while still supporting a violent and militarized police force makes Lightfoot’s inability to meet Chicagoans’ needs even more appalling. It’s clear that one of Lightfoot’s primary concerns is to appear “tough on crime” and reduce the city’s murder rate. Young activists warned voters last year that a former prosecutor would have limited imagination when it came to public safety, and indeed it seems like an expansion of policing is the only solution to Chicago’s problems Lightfoot can see. In this way, she plays right into the racist dog-whistle talking points that Trump repeatedly conjures about our city. In failing to reimagine what public safety looks like with more resources instead of more policing, she is showing us the limits of her leadership. To a hammer, everything looks like a nail. To a cop, every solution looks like more police.
Despite broken promises and barefaced backsliding, national coverage continues to bleat that Lightfoot is a “progressive mayor,” even as other cities across the country are defunding their police departments, taking cops out of schools, and reallocating resources to communities most impacted by mass criminalization. It is becoming clear that if Lightfoot wants to make any real progress, she will need to do more than placate her constituents with memes, tweets, and insults to Donald Trump.
Chicago doesn’t need a mayor who tweets back. Rather than performative progressivism, we need a mayor who provides resources for the most vulnerable in our communities, who prioritizes BIPOC, poor, and disabled residents, and who thinks of safety as giving communities what they need to thrive instead of as policing. We need a mayor who will listen to our calls to #DefundThePolice. We need a mayor who will do the real, hard work to make Chicago the city we are organizing it to be.