I’ll be very honest, I have struggled with what I want to say and what I have been told by political people on what I should say. The murder of George Floyd was not the start to what is happening but an evolution of what is happening. I’ve often shared the story of my life, my biological mom being addicted to drugs during Reagan’s racist war on drugs and being forced into adoption and my adopted father being a civil rights attorney during the era of tough on crime. This past Sunday, my youngest sister sent me a text to say she is worried about me. That even though I’m a State Senator, she’s worried the police could kill me. She wanted to remind me that she needs her big brother. The pain and the sin of racism and classism and patriarchy are very personal to me. To say I am upset is an understatement.
So, I want to paint a picture. A very real picture. I want you to see what young folks see. I won’t go too far back in history, I will keep it relatively recent. If you are 18 or 30 years old, recent history has been quite painful. Our lives include a war in Iraq built on a lie. Our lives include a recession for which a few billionaires that are too big to fail got bailed out and the rest of us got sold out and pushed down. Our lives include school closures, service cuts, and austerity. Our lives include the murders of Trayvon Martin, Michael Brown, LaQuan McDonald, Rekia Boyd, Ahmaud Arbery, Breona Taylor, Tony McDade, and George Floyd. Our lives include the election of Donald Trump. Our lives were built within a system that has exploited us and has often failed us time and time again.
It has become abundantly clear that many of us aren’t rooted in even knowing these young folks who are protesting. First, you should know that it is very much a leaderless movement and this comes out of a long standing theory of change post-1960s and this model is similar to the Hong Kong protestors or the Czech “Velvet” Revolution. Second, if you have supported the Hong Kong protests but see yourself demonizing the protests at home well you are in for a surprise. Many of the organizers are sharing tactics and many see the authoritarianism of the Chinese Communist Party and the United States Government as more alike than different. Third, in 2015 I stood on Michigan Avenue to block a store during Black Friday Protests and it was peaceful and I still faced repercussions because it “cost business money.” If your peaceful protest interrupts commerce it will still be treated harshly. Fourth, most of what is happening has been peaceful, diverse, and spontaneous but that is boring. The looting has become the story because it is exciting and fits into the old press saying “if it bleeds, it leads.” I’ve thought about the looting and there are those who loot to cause chaos and those who loot because of the pain and chaos of where they live.
To quote that famous progressive, Donald Rumsfeld, “While no one condones looting, on the other hand, one can understand the pent-up feelings that may result from decades of repression and people who have had members of their family killed by that regime, for them to be taking their feelings out on that regime. And I don’t think there’s anyone in any of those pictures … [who wouldn’t] accept it as part of the price of getting from a repressed regime to freedom.” A broken clock is right twice a day.
The story of this crisis isn’t the looting, it is the why, the what, and the how. Why are people so mad? Why are people so hurt? What do people need? How are we going to help?
Many of our leaders have begged large companies and big box retailers to come and allow our constituents to shop at these stores. And if these companies do show up, they demand to be subsidized by our tax dollars. Large corporations have made luxury goods to be commodities, these luxury goods serve as mines filled with diamonds but the workers’ job is to work those mines for very little pay and very little benefits. For example, if we had paid sick leave and gig worker protections, the fruit of that fairly valued labor would be put back into our communities. Many of us, mostly black women, take this little pay, pennies on the dollar compared to their counterparts, and spend roughly half of it simply on housing. The same housing that has been turned into financialized investments that prey on us. And then if we want to have a real shot at “making it,” we’re expected to talk a certain way and act a certain way that’s “appropriate.” We still get told our struggle is our fault and hear criticism against black families for being broken. We continue to see incarceration used as a replacement for the goods and services we need. It isn’t that we need to simply reform incarceration but move away from it towards something more tangible, more material.
So, the pandemic hits, our friends and family get sick or die. We are told we have pre-existing conditions but the pre-existing condition of terrible health care disparities in our communities isn’t seen as a reason for our pain. So we get told our struggle is our fault. The economy collapses and millions of people get laid off and many re-hired by a large gig company and/or a warehouse for very little pay, very little rights, and very risky environments. We then get told our struggle is our fault. We see a Black man, George Floyd, get murdered on an arrest stop over a counterfeit $20 bill. We are reminded that our struggle is supposedly our fault. I repeat, The story of this crisis isn’t the looting, it is the why, the what, and the how. Why are people so mad? Why are people so hurt? What do people need? How are we going to help?
I have no guarantees of what comes next. But a great thinker once said, “The crisis consists precisely in the fact that the old is dying and the new cannot be born; in this interregnum a great variety of morbid symptoms appear.” So, we either turn towards locking up everyone, restricting the rights of people, and extreme amounts of control or we turn towards something more positive, more democratic, and folks like me can test what is comfortable for what is right even though it isn’t immediately popular. I am not here simply to be re-elected, to skate by out of fear, I am here because I fundamentally believe in bold change. I wanted this seat to improve the world. To me that is fighting for what are basic human rights. The right to a roof over your head, the right to be healthy, the right to breathe air and drink water, the right to a comfortable job, and the right as a black person to walk down the street without living in fear. We have the right to have real safety and justice that doesn’t involve closed circuit tv and blue lights on every corner.
These times are challenging but we aren’t alone. We can rebuild our communities and build a beautiful world for each and everyone of us. From Cairo to Rockford, we can make Illinois whole but in order to do so we must see that being bold is the pragmatic option. So, let us be bold.