Chicago Won’t Change Without Good Trouble

A still image from the documentary film,  John Lewis: Get in the Way

A still image from the documentary film, John Lewis: Get in the Way

As Congressman John Lewis is buried in Atlanta today, we should honor him not only by remembering his work, but by following his clarion call for “good trouble.”

We won’t get to justice without it.

John Lewis was no stranger to protests. By the time he was twenty-three, Lewis had been arrested some 40 times from the Nashville lunch counter sit-ins to the Mississippi Freedom Rides. In 1965, an Alabama state trooper fractured Lewis’ skull with a nightstick as he led a nonviolent march across the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma. Sixty people were beaten that day as they demanded voting rights. Lewis’ calm leadership, bravery, and commitment to a just cause were witnessed by millions around the world on “Bloody Sunday” and became defining features of the great man’s legacy. At the historic March on Washington, Lewis urged the nation to “get in and stay in the street […] until true freedom comes.”

2020 has shown us that true freedom has not yet come for Black Americans and other people of color. The murders of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor are two appalling proof points. We also find the evidence in racially segregated communities marred by blight and disinvestment; in school inequities; in the growing wealth gap between White and Black Americans; in the disparate mortality rates; and in the disproportionate impact of COVID-19 on communities of color.

Protesters today are filling the streets in our city and across the country, angry and frustrated by the lack of change. They are rightfully demanding a new sense of urgency and accountability from leaders and institutions that hold power: in government, corporations, law firms, philanthropy, and nonprofits.

Today’s protesters are not just marching against a racist system of policing; they are calling for fundamental shifts toward economic and racial equity across systems. The scenes between police and protesters today look eerily like the tumultuous 1960’s. Here in Chicago, we see young Black activists caught on a bridge, beaten and gassed by Chicago police. We read about protesters locked up and hidden from their attorneys. We hear about militarized federal agents in Portland terrorizing protesters with tear gas, rubber bullets, and unmarked cars. And we know that these outsized forces are headed to our city next.

We call on the Mayor, Chief of Police, and other City leaders to stop CPD’s unlawful use of force with protesters and other residents, and to expedite the implementation of the consent decree, which continues to be delayed. We also join our community partners in calling for the removal of CPD from Chicago Public Schools.

We also call on our Mayor, City Council, and other City leaders to make good on their promises to advance policy that addresses decades of redlining, systemic racism, and economic disinvestment in Chicago. We have a long history carved into our city of neighborhoods that have good schools, safe homes, and access to jobs – and neighborhoods that don’t. These racial gaps are not accidental; they are the results of overt and subtle policy choices made and maintained to this very hour.

At Chicago Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights, we understand these insidious patterns and have centered our work on disrupting them in partnership with community-based organizations.

  • When the Chicago City Council decided to approve $1.3 billion in public tax money for the private Lincoln Yards development using the racially discriminatory TIF process, we challenged them in court.

  • When Chicago Public Schools used racially discriminatory criteria to close the high-performing National Teachers Academy southside elementary school, we worked with parents and students to block their plan.

  • When the Obama Presidential Center threatened to displace low-income residents from Woodlawn, we fought alongside a community coalition for a Community Benefits Agreement.

  • And now, as an unprecedented pandemic threatens to undermine the same right to vote that John Lewis almost died for, we are training attorneys to help eligible voters from Indianapolis to Cook County Jail access the ballot, and filing lawsuits to prevent disenfranchisement.

John Lewis was the son of sharecropper; his family endured a system of economic exploitation close to slavery. He understood better than anyone how racism in our economy, our educational systems, and our elections continue to oppress people of color in this country, even decades after his advocacy began.

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