By Katherine Cavanaugh
Over one thousand working-class Chicago residents packed an assembly hall at the University of Illinois-Chicago December 11 to hear from six mayoral candidates on a topic near to the heart (and indeed, the survival) of poor people all over this country: affordable housing.
They came from all corners of this racially- and economically-segregated city on school buses rented out by community organizers, assuring that the elderly and disabled could make their voices heard as well. Every attendee had to pass through a metal detector and walk down a hall lined with cops, where they were then instructed not to boo or applaud the politicians on stage.
The event was nearly called off in favor of another forum scheduled for the same night in a white, middle-class neighborhood, hosted by the realtor’s lobby in a direct attempt to undermine the affordable housing movement. Ultimately, and unsurprisingly, the affordable housing forum was cut short in order for the candidates to please their campaign donors.
The last seven years have seen current mayor Rahm Emanuel’s office mete out unrelenting hostility toward poor Black and Latinx neighborhoods, including the shuttering of public schools and mental health clinics, incentivizing gentrification, and supporting (with massive funding) the brutality of the Chicago Police Department. Since Emanuel announced that he won’t be seeking reelection, mayoral hopefuls have sought to pander to the community activists and grassroots groups that (often successfully) challenged his administration.
The six candidates who participated in the forum were Amara Enyia, Toni Preckwinkle, Gary McCarthy, Lori Lightfoot, Dorothy Brown and Ja’mal Green. They answered questions from affordable housing activists on issues such as the accessibility of low-income housing, rent control and homelessness. Notably, most candidates voiced support for the reforms that activists demanded, including the Community Benefits Agreement for the impending construction of the Obama Presidential Library, which threatens to displace the Black working-class residents of Woodlawn, and stricter regulations and higher taxes for property developers. Even candidates who had roles in the Emanuel administration were quick to condemn the city government’s famous corruption.
McCarthy, the former Superintendent of Police who helped to cover up the police murder of Chicago teenager Laquan McDonald, was the only candidate to oppose rent control, a demand articulated by Annie Hodges of the Kenwood Oakland Community Organization (KOCO), who pointed out that skyrocketing rents impact families of color the most. He threatened the audience with the idea that their landlords would make up the profit lost to rent control by withholding utilities like heat and electricity, at which point several KOCO activists and others in the hall broke the taboo on audience participation in order to boo McCarthy.
Despite the care the candidates Enyia and Green in particular took to flatter the activist organizations in the room, it was clear that despite the numerous promises the candidates made that evening to the people of Chicago, no politician could appropriate the loyalty the people in that hall have toward their communities. The decades of redlining, police terrorism and austerity have honed the class consciousness of Chicago’s poor, and they came to the candidates’ forum not to pick a favorite, but to send a message: Black and Latinx youth and families, the elderly and disabled, the poor and homeless, will not be pushed out of this city without a fight.
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