CHICAGO — Two sources close to Lori Lightfoot’s mayoral campaign say some staffers were disappointed with Lightfoot’s stance on her predecessor Rahm Emanuel’s controversial cop academy proposal.
In These Times spoke with a former campaign staffer for Lightfoot (now the mayor of Chicago), who said multiple campaign staffers were unhappy about Lightfoot’s reasoning behind her opposition to the $95 million police academy set to be built in West Garfield Park. The proposal, first introduced under Emanuel in July 2017, was approved by the City Council in March, despite overwhelming pushback from constituents of the 37th ward (where West Garfield Park is located), and nearly 18 months of protest by the #NoCopAcademy campaign, a coalition of more than 100 organizations across the country working to halt the construction.
While Lightfoot expressed vague opposition to the proposal during her campaign, claiming in a January tweet, “I’ve said NO to Rahm Emanuel’s $95 million cop academy since I got in this race,” Lightfoot has qualified her opposition to the academy as merely procedural, making clear that she supports more investment in new police training facilities. A campaign press statement released on March 13 (after Lightfoot had already made the runoff) reads, “Lori opposed the training academy that passed today, in large part because the Emanuel administration failed to appropriately engage and listen to the community in the public process ahead of the vote.” She ends the statement by arguing that “any facility where [police training] takes place must only be created after an intensive community engagement and input process.”
No Cop Academy advocates, on the other hand, don’t want city money invested in new police facilities at all, instead suggesting that the funds be redirected to schools, mental health resources and other community support services.
“We were putting in 80, 90 hours a week for a candidate who had built a campaign around the values of equity and justice,” said the former campaign staffer, who requested anonymity. But upon hearing Lightfoot’s stance on the police academy, “a lot of us were disappointed,” the former staffer said. (All claims by the former staffer in this article were corroborated by another source close to the Lightfoot campaign, who wishes to remain anonymous. Mayor Lightfoot’s office did not respond to a request for comment.)
The former campaign staffer and another source close to Lightfoot’s campaign told In These Times that multiple campaign staffers were disappointed that Lightfoot had not condemned the construction of the training center itself during her campaign nor taken issue with placement of the academy on Chicago’s west side, an area already struggling with police harassment and violence.
Lightfoot’s campaign staffers were disappointed even more, the two sources say, when Lightfoot suggested turning the shuttered-down Chicago Public Schools (CPS) buildings across the south and west sides of the city into spaces for police training. At a public safety forum at the University of Chicago on March 13, when asked what she would do differently with regards to Rahm’s police academy plan, Lightfoot responded: “We need more flexibility than one centralized location can provide. We need multiple locations. … We have 38 schools that are vacant from school closings, some of which can be repurposed to help us with our training needs.”
Chalkbeat reports that Lightfoot’s idea was “met with immediate skepticism on social media and by activists across the city.” The former campaign staffer told In These Times:
After she floated the idea of community police academies at the public safety forum … we expected some clarification of her comments and their implications … for [social] justice. As a voter, I was waiting for an answer.
But she and the campaign did the opposite. Lightfoot’s central argument was that a project like this must be done only after intense community review and vetting, and then … she suggested a massive, potentially violent disruption to numerous black and brown communities across the city.
Starting with that moment, and in the weeks that followed until April 2, it really felt like a different campaign than it had back in November or December.
Two days later, on the March 15 episode of The Ben Joravsky Show, Lightfoot clarified her comments on the “mini academies,” stating, “We were talking hypothetically. … Nothing will happen on my watch, and certainly not the repurposing of those 38 schools that remain on CPS’s ledger, without going into the community and talking to people.” Still, Lightfoot maintains that she has “opposed [Emanuel’s] training academy because of the way in which that process worked, which excluded people from the conversation and people in the community who desperately need investment.”
Proponents of Emanuel’s police academy proposal claim that building the academy would meet the Left’s demand that the Chicago Police Department implement better police training. Alderman Michael Scott Jr. of the 24th Ward says, “If we want police reform, it starts at the beginning. If we want first responders to de-escalate, we need to train them.” Lightfoot appears to be in agreement that more police training is needed. In fact, she went a step further, saying that “to do it right, [building the academy] would cost far more than” the proposed $95 million.
But Page May, an organizer with Assata’s Daughters (a primary coalition member in the #NoCopAcademy campaign), tells In These Times that simply building a new academy “won’t change the actual training that officers receive at all.” And others argue that a new facility is not needed in order to implement better training. “They already have facilities in which they can implement training,” said Christian Snow, executive director of Assata’s Daughters, in an interview with Jerome McDonnell for WBEZ. “Training is not about the facilities, it’s not about how much resources you put there, it’s about the content.”
Given that there’s been no significant indicator that Lightfoot has any meaningful plans to halt construction on the project, some have written off the No Cop Academy campaign as a loss. But Mariame Kaba, an organizer, educator and writer, doesn’t see it that way. In “A Love Letter to the #NoCopAcademy Organizers from Those of Us on the Freedom side,” Kaba expresses what she sees as the achievements of the campaign: “Through your actions, people quite literally the world over expressed their solidarity with your fight. They saw themselves as directly implicated in the vision of the world you have so beautifully inhabited all these months. All of these are wins.”
Across the country, people indeed showed their support. In California, Youth Justice L.A. and Critical Resistance LA held an action in solidarity with No Cop Academy against AECOM (the Los Angeles-based company awarded the construction contract to build the center), disrupting AECOM’s annual shareholders meeting. Youth Justice LA wrote in an Instagram post, “We want peace builders/intervention workers instead of more armed police officers in our cities across the country! Sending power to Chicago from the west west!”
The campaign has also received attention on the national stage. Several weeks before the City Council vote, youth activist Destiny Harris gave an opening speech at a Bernie 2020 rally in Chicago, discussing her organizing with No Cop Academy, bringing the fight to a larger audience, and with it, pushing the concept of police abolition closer to the mainstream.
Lightfoot has given no indication that plans for the academy will change under her mayorship, last saying in a March 15 statement that “The City Council took that vote the other day. It’s moot. The training academy is going on the West Side.”
But some believe the youth organizers of No Cop Academy will continue to bring renewed energy to the fight for social justice in Chicago. In the same interview with McDonnell from WBEZ, Stefani Bator of No Cop Academy said of the campaign: “I’ve seen hope. And I’ve seen joy. This is a black youth-led movement. … Young black and brown Chicago teenagers are taking on the Chicago machine and they are winning.”