Cook County’s State’s Attorney Race Is A Watershed Moment For Black Lives Matter

CREDIT: AP Photo/M. Spencer Green

Cook County State's Attorney candidate Kim Foxx speaks at a news conference Wednesday, Dec. 2, 2015, in Chicago, Ill.

Protesters from Black Lives Matter and other activist groups seized upon the high-profile Donald Trump rally on Friday, March 11 to highlight a local issue: the contentious race for Cook County State’s Attorney. Alongside signs declaring “Dump Trump,” activists held signs that read “Bye Anita” — a reference to the incumbent state’s attorney, Anita Alvarez.

The election for the office responsible for prosecuting police misconduct in the Illinois county will take place on Tuesday, March 15, and the incumbent’s position has been challenged by many activists.

“We see a direct link between Trump’s overtly racist white nationalist campaign and Anita Alvarez’s record of filling jails and prisons with black bodies,” a Friday press release stated on the website AnitaMustGo.com.

Friday’s protest was the latest in a string of demonstrations against Alvarez. In the last three weeks alone, protesters from Black Lives Matter and the closely affiliated group Assata’s Daughters disrupted an Alvarez fundraiser in Oak Lawn, a state’s attorney forum at Chicago-Kent College of Law, and a speaking engagement before the City Club of Chicago. Activists criticize Alvarez for mishandling cases involving police brutality and miscarriages of justice against men and women of color in Chicago. Members of these activist groups have started to coalesce around Alvarez’s opponent Kim Foxx, a Chicago native whose campaign hinges on reforming the Cook County justice system and enforcing greater police accountability.

The controversy surrounding the shooting of 17-year-old Laquan McDonald has been a defining factor throughout the race for state’s attorney.

“[Alvarez] sat on the murder of Laquan McDonald for over a year,” said 26-year-old Tess Raser, a member of Assata’s Daughters. “To us, that’s just unacceptable.

McDonald was shot by officer Jason Van Dyke on October 20, 2014 on Chicago’s South Side. In a statement following the incident, an eyewitness officer claimed that McDonald had approached Van Dyke in an “aggressive, exaggerated manner…pointing [a] knife at Van Dyke.” After McDonald had been shot, the officer stated he “attempt[ed] to get up, still holding knife, pointing [it] at [Van Dyke].”

Police supervisors made an initial determination within hours of the incident that the shooting was justified. Just weeks later, the department’s official ruling reaffirmed this preliminary determination. The police report and dash-cam footage from the scene were sent to the Independent Police Review Authority, who is responsible for reviewing police misconduct. Aside from reassigning Van Dyke to a paid desk position, no action was taken.

The police department’s narrative of the incident, however, soon began to unravel. An autopsy report revealed McDonald had been shot 16 times. When a judge ordered the city to release a dash-cam video over a year later, the footage showed that officer Van Dyke had been at the scene for less than 30 seconds when he emptied all 16-rounds in his pistol. He continued to fire even as McDonald lay limp on the pavement.

Hours before video was released, Alvarez charged Van Dyke with first-degree murder. When asked why she hadn’t pressed charges sooner, Alvarez claimed there was an ongoing investigation into the incident—but the explanation did little to placate furious Chicago residents. Protesters took to the streets chanting “16 shots” and demanding changes to the system that had whitewashed the grisly incident.

Protester D. Lawrence holds a poster in front of a Chicago police officer during a march through Chicago's Loop calling for Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel and Cook County State's Attorney Anita Alvarez to resign in the wake of a police scandal, Thursday, Dec. 10, 2015, in Chicago.

Protester D. Lawrence holds a poster in front of a Chicago police officer during a march through Chicago’s Loop calling for Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel and Cook County State’s Attorney Anita Alvarez to resign in the wake of a police scandal, Thursday, Dec. 10, 2015, in Chicago.

CREDIT: AP Photo/Charles Rex Arbogast

Following the public outcry, Mayor Rahm Emanuel fired the police chief, urged the head of Independent Police Review Authority to resign, and welcomed an investigation into the Chicago Police Department launched by the Justice Department.

“I take responsibility for what happened because it happened on my watch,” Emanuel said. “If we are going to fix it, I want you to understand it’s my responsibility.”

Activists urged Emanuel to resign, but the mayor refused to step down. As the primary election for state’s attorney grew closer, their focus shifted from Emanuel to Alvarez.

The State’s Attorney’s mishandling of the Laquan McDonald shooting, and her refusal to acknowledge any mistakes during the case, are only the latest in a series of missteps during her time in office. For four years, Alvarez also fought to keep Daniel Thomas behind bars for a 1992 double murder that occurred while Thomas was in police custody for an unrelated incident. He was eventually exonerated in 2013 after spending two decades behind bars. In 2015, a veteran judge dismissed a case against Detective Dante Servin, who shot and killed a 22-year-old African American woman near Douglas Park, claiming Alvarez had mischarged the officer with manslaughter instead of murder.

“Anita has spent her career as a tenacious voice for victims of crime across Cook County, the majority of whom are black and brown,” the Alvarez campaign stated in an email to ThinkProgress. “She will continue her work to make the criminal justice system more fair by expanding community prosecution, pre-trial diversion and alternative sentencing programs, while continuing her efforts to combat wrongful convictions.”

While Kim Foxx does not have the same courtroom experience as Alvarez, her background has established a strong connection with the African American community in the city. A Chicago native, Foxx was raised by a single mother in Cabrini-Green, the notorious public housing development known for its harsh living conditions and daily gang violence. When shots rang out in her neighborhood, Foxx remembers taking refuge in the bathtub. When she was in high school, Foxx and her family were homeless for six months.

“We stayed in various shelters on the North Side,” Foxx said in an interview with ThinkProgress. “My last stop was at the Salvation Army.”

Foxx managed to escape the inner-city trap of crime and poverty that had ensnared so many of her peers. She attended Southern Illinois University, where she studied political science as an undergraduate student and earned her law degree in 1997. She returned to Chicago to work at the Cook County Public Guardian Office and later spent 12 years an Assistant State’s Attorney handling juvenile cases. While working in the Cook County judicial system, Foxx remained intent on improving the lives of underserved youths from minority communities.

“I think my experiences make me uniquely qualified for [State’s Attorney],” she said. Working with juveniles from underserved communities, she explained, “gives me a perspective to look at [the justice system] more broadly, as opposed to those who have only been groomed in crime and punishment.”

Foxx has received a slew of prominent endorsements, including from Sen. Dick Durbin (IL-D), the Chicago Tribune, and former Illinois Gov. Pat Quinn. In January, the Cook County Democratic Party endorsed Foxx — a stunning reversal from its endorsement of Alvarez in 2008. While Black Lives Matter, Assata’s Daughters, and other activists groups have not publicly endorsed Kim Foxx, many individual members see her as a potential catalyst to start healing the broken judicial system in Cook County.

“Right now we have a credibility issue with the public,” Foxx said. “So transparency and accountability are really important. We also need to make sure the office is reflective of the community it is serving. It’ll be very important for me to bring in a diversity officer to make sure—particularly in our leadership positions—that we have a diverse organization.”

She also believes tackling mass incarceration and the school-to-prison pipeline will be critical for ending the cycle of crime and poverty in African American communities.

“Once that finger goes in the ink, once that mug shot his been taken, once that number is assigned to you…it’s got a detrimental effect,” she told the Chicago Sun-Times last year.

The election of Foxx to State’s Attorney could be a watershed moment for both African American activist groups and the justice system in Chicago. Organizations such as Black Lives Matter and Assata’s Daughters could effect change within the system with the help of a powerful official sympathetic their cause. The judicial system in Chicago could start a fresh chapter after decades of mass incarceration and police misconduct.

But in order for both of these to happen, Foxx will need to balance the demands of her office and the demands of a passionate, frustrated constituency.

As the Chicago Tribune stated in its endorsement of Foxx, “It’s fair for her to ride waves of public animus toward law enforcement in some communities,” but “Job One for the state’s attorney…is to stand up for those dead victims” who are killed not by police but “stone cold killers” from within the community. The key for Foxx will be to carry out this responsibility with rigor and fairness while remaining mindful of the dangers mass incarceration and teenage imprisonment pose to the African American community.

The Tribune also highlighted “the need to bridge that disconnect between Chicago communities and their police officers,” which will be no small task for Foxx. Tensions have grown between the African American community and the police department in recent years, which is partly responsible for the rise of activist groups like Black Lives Matter and Assata’s Daughters. If elected, Foxx will need to convince these activists—her most impassioned, mobilized constituents—that working in partnership with the police may be the best way to effect change.

“The work that these [activist] organizations are doing—highlighting disparities in our criminal justice system, calling for transparency and accountability—are issues that are long overdue,” Foxx said. “Activism and making people aware of the issues is critical—but we also need people involved in the process.”

This piece has been updated with comments from Anita Alvarez’s campaign, which had not responded to the author at the original time of publication.