Movements Got Brandon Johnson Elected. How Do We Organize From Here?

A run of progressive victories proves that social movements have transformed Chicago, but the migrant housing crisis shows that contradictions and challenges persist.

Asha Ransby-Sporn

Brandon Johnson supporters pose for a photo inside Build Coffee in Woodlawn before a Sunday morning canvass. Photo by Asha Ransby-Sporn

In September, Illinois became the first state in the country to end cash bail, overhauling a system that ties pretrial incarceration to one’s ability to pay large sums of money. Days before that, the newly formed Community Commission for Public Safety and Accountability (a product of decades of organizing for a more independent police oversight structure) moved to end the use of the city’s gang database, a tool that has enabled faulty gang affiliation” accusations and led to racial profiling and increased surveillance of Black and brown Chicagoans.

Also last month, Chicago made moves toward ending the subminimum wage for tipped workers, increasing the pay of a large segment of the city’s workforce. And at the September 14 city council meeting, an ordinance was passed to create a working group to plan the implementation of Treatment Not Trauma, a community proposal to expand public mental health services and non-police responses to behavioral and mental health crises.

At that council meeting, two important housing measures were also introduced. The South Shore Housing Preservation Ordinance was put forth by Alderman Desmon Yancy and Alderwoman Jeanette Taylor (both former community organizers). This legislation would mitigate the harm of displacement and gentrification connected to the Obama Presidential Center currently being constructed in Jackson Park. A plan to Bring Chicago Home,” which would create a mansion tax” on property sales valued over $1 million specifically in order to fund housing for Chicago’s houseless population, was also introduced. Once passed through city council, this proposal will be put to Chicago voters in a March referendum (since it involves changes to the city’s tax code).

All of these were made possible by the long-term organizing efforts of left-wing social movements and community advocates — and many were moved forward by a mayor and city council that shifted significantly left in the last election.

Two people hold signs during a 2021 Treatment Not Trauma rally outside the now-closed Woodlawn mental health clinic. Photo by Sarah Jane Rhee

But in the same month that Chicago has seen so many progressive steps forward, the city announced the latest development in its handling of the influx of migrants in need of shelter as it works to live up to its sanctuary city commitment. Utilizing a contract the state of Illinois negotiated with the company last year, the city contracted multinational security company GardaWorld to set up and staff winterized tents as shelter for thousands of migrants without housing through the coming season. More than 14,000 asylum seekers have arrived in Chicago since last summer and the number continues to grow. City-run shelters are currently housing about 9,000 people. Thousands more are sleeping on the floors or lawns of police departments and airports. The plan to house people in tents and to collaborate with a company like GardaWorld, which runs for-profit detention centers where there have been numerous allegations of abuse and mistreatment, has sparked criticism from community advocates including many of Mayor Brandon Johnson’s supporters.

At the end of the day, a capitalist world order and U.S. foreign policy in particular are to blame for the levels of instability and poverty that drive mass migration on a global scale.

Defenses of this approach have emphasized some of the unfortunate constraints upon the city government: a limited set of pre-contracted state and city vendors to choose from, an existing contract Gov. J.B. Pritzker’s administration signed with GardaWorld for asylum-seeker-related emergency services, a budget deficit and the genuinely unprecedented difficulty of working to shelter such a large number of migrants traveling to find sanctuary so quickly. Although the reality of a city with tens of thousands of houseless people has existed, the city has never before taken responsibility for providing shelter or housing for that many at once. The plan has been offered as a way to prioritize moving asylum seekers out of police stations where they have been vulnerable to abuse, including reported sexual violence by officers.

At the end of the day, a capitalist world order and U.S. foreign policy in particular (including harsh economic sanctions on countries like Venezuela) are to blame for the level of instability and poverty that drives mass migration on a global scale. There is simply no comprehensive solution at the local level to the interrelated geopolitical issues at play here.

Migrants in Eagle Pass, Texas, wait in line for a bus to Chicago. Photo by Andrew Caballero-Reynolds/AFP via Getty Images

Nonetheless, the decision to contract a company like GardaWorld is in tension with the mayor’s and our broader movement’s commitment to a less militarized approach to public safety.

What are we to do with this contradiction?

Revolutionary thinkers Grace Lee Boggs and James Boggs wrote about how we must struggle with the contradiction between the actual and the potential.” In other words, the ideals of what we would like our society to be are always a ways ahead of what can be made real in the current conditions. When movements bring new and better ideals into the public imagination, they also illuminate new contradictions between what is right and what is real. It is in the struggle to reconcile those contradictions that progress is made and new contradictions, new steps toward a better world, emerge.

While a lot of weight has been put on measuring the success or failure of a Johnson mayorship, the election of a mayor from the ranks of the labor movement was just one part of a long-term strategy.

While a lot of weight has been put on measuring the success or failure of a Johnson mayorship, the election of a mayor from the ranks of the labor movement was just one part of a long-term strategy. To put the present struggle in context, it’s worth looking back at how Chicago’s broader Left has set and worked toward transformative goals. A long road of community organizing, labor fights, massive protest and skin in the political realm has truly altered the window of political possibility in our city.

When Chicago’s Black youth-led movement against policing and racial violence first gained traction and garnered widespread attention in 2013 and 2014, abolitionist demands like ending money bail and taking money away from the police were fringe even within our movement. It took years of mass protest, putting forward new narratives about what justice looks like, campaigning and educating on the issues, forming coalitions to establish a place for our issues in larger progressive alliances and building partnerships and political power to even put these demands on the table. 

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Similarly, when Chicago’s Fight for $15 effort took off in 2012, it was considered a visionary demand and a campaign with unusually bold tactics. Having organized thousands of workers to walk off the job, demand better pay, and reshape the narrative around what low-wage workers deserve, the Fight for $15 won and laid the groundwork for campaigns like One Fair Wage to advocate for tipped workers excluded from previous gains. A little over a decade later, the labor movement has played a big role in electing a former labor organizer as mayor and is on track to expand the benefits of a $15 minimum wage to many more.

When the long-time housing organizers at Southside Together Organizing for Power and leaders at the Kenwood Oakland Community Organization pulled together a grassroots coalition to call on the city and the Obama family to commit to a community benefits agreement (CBA) for the area surrounding the coming Obama Presidential Center, the David and Goliath nature of the fight was undeniable. Building on years of tenant unionism, renter battles against predatory landlords and resistance to gentrification spurred by University of Chicago sprawl, community members elected a city council advocate in Woodlawn’s 20th Ward and passed the Woodlawn Housing Preservation Ordinance in 2020. Now, an expanded CBA coalition is putting forward an even more comprehensive piece of legislation to mitigate rising rents and the displacement of residents in the next-door South Shore neighborhood.

What Chicago’s community and labor organizing ecosystem and its bold social movements have done is dramatically shift what’s on the table politically.

Popular demands for a rent freeze that brought the idea of universal housing into the common sense of early pandemic lockdowns and the impressive Fair Tax organizing effort that came close to winning a graduated income tax via a statewide ballot referendum in 2020 both contributed to conditions in which bigger wins around housing and how we fund it are now possible.

In a time when communities tend to be more fragmented, workers more isolated, and our society more unequal than at any other point in history, it can be easy to dismiss the power of everyday people coming together to challenge the status quo upheld by the rich and powerful. While none of these fights are over (nor are any of these advancements enough” on their own), they are significant.

Protesters hold a sign outside the National Restaurant Association trade show in Chicago on May 22, 2023. Photo by Daniel Boczarski via Getty Images

What Chicago’s community and labor organizing ecosystem and its bold social movements have done is dramatically shift what’s on the table politically. It’s the combination of protest movements that insist on visionary demands and the hard grind of slow-burn community organizing that together make paradigm shifts possible. 

Still, leftist and progressive leaders face several serious challenges and have a long way to go to move away from the neoliberal status quo that has left so many people in our city displaced, criminalized and with unmet needs. 

Shortly before Johnson made it to a runoff, a group of us who were working hard to elect him but also worried about the campaign straying from its initial public safety commitments organized a roundtable event to put him in conversation with abolitionist organizers and community leaders with expertise on the issue. We wanted to reaffirm his connection to the movement that was powering a large portion of his volunteer base. We also wanted to create space to have hard conversations about his stance on the police budget. We did just that, engaging in a very direct exchange, and Johnson summed up his comments by half-joking, I’m not going to become mayor and then capitalism will fall.” 

Attendees reacted in appreciation of his candor and groundedness about what would and would not be possible for an elected leader to do for us. Afterward, I received a flurry of text messages from community members who were excited to see a room full of community organizers ready to hold him accountable to his words,” that Johnson didn’t present himself as a savior” and that, while it was clear that he wasn’t a card-carrying abolitionist,” it was a sign of hope for those of us who are.

We event organizers emphasized to the audience of activists and community members that we need not let up organizing if Johnson won. That meeting — a type of conversation I hope to see more of with the new administration — exemplifies so much of what our movement is navigating now that our coalition includes people with governing power at a higher level. 

Brandon Johnson sits with other panelists during a public safety roundtable event. Photo by Paul Goyette

Chicago is a few months into an undoubtedly changed political landscape. We’ve got a mayor from the ranks of the labor movement who campaigned on a root-cause approach to public safety; a plan to tax the rich, in a city council that’s the most progressive and diverse it’s ever been; and an expanded ecosystem of community groups and labor unions with some of our core issues as serious political priorities. Our 2023 municipal elections marked a real upset to the neoliberal status quo and long-standing political establishment. 

Getting here was hard. Going beyond winning on individual issues to winning transformative change in our city will be even harder. Because most of us on the Left have not typically had a lot of power and therefore have minimal experience wielding it, we tend to be much better equipped to call out injustice than we are to make our alternative visions real. We may not even be conditioned to really believe we can do so.

It is not on movements or everyday communities to excuse harm done by those in positions of power; our job is to name that harm and take part in the responsibility of charting an alternative path.

It is guaranteed that even a left-leaning mayor, inheriting the web of public-private contracts, gutted public infrastructure, an overreaching police force and budget challenges, will oversee some incredibly harmful things and have to choose between bad options. It is not on movements or everyday communities to excuse harm done by those in positions of power; our job is to name that harm and take part in the responsibility of charting an alternative path. A robust Left contending for the power to change a large and powerful city will involve a dynamic set of actors engaged in healthy debate and rigorous struggle around how to address the many problems facing our city.

We should bring this awareness and approach to the migrant housing crisis. Decisions like the GardaWorld contract deserve scrutiny, warrant community and political leaders putting forth immediate housing solutions, and require long-term plans to create more just options in the future. While it’s always relevant to put forth visionary demands, movement leaders should match calls for things like universal housing” or abolish the police” with tangible solutions that have enough teeth to be implemented and taken seriously. Progressive independent political organization 33rd Ward Working Families is one of several to issue a statement calling for radical transparency” about the city’s plans and how other options were exhausted, offering another important way the Johnson administration can model responsive governance. They inquire about bold but tangible ways the city might be able to provide shelter, like using emergency powers to retrofit existing buildings or exercising eminent domain to seize vacant properties. 

A broader set of voices is also putting pressure for resources on federal and state leaders, including Pritzker, who has shifted blame onto city officials despite having contracted GardaWorld in the first place. Now, the mayor’s office has publicly committed to meet with 33rd Ward Working Families about what comes next, and I trust that they will meet with additional groups with a stake in the issue. 

What the Boggs framework teaches us is that the struggle to reconcile contradictions is an inherently never-ending process, but it is the terrain where change can be made.

Unlike a Lori, Rahm or Daley, whose political imperatives were to please the corporate elite and the real estate investors who funded their campaigns, we would actually like Johnson to succeed. We want to see his administration reconcile the contradictions between the values of the movements that elected him and what is politically possible within the confines of city government. We want him to achieve what he campaigned on and serve the interests of the movements, organizations, communities and labor unions that got him in office. What the Boggs framework teaches us is that the struggle to reconcile contradictions is an inherently never-ending process, but it is the terrain where change can be made.

While the contradictions and challenges are not going away, nor getting smaller, our movement can grow more strategic and more powerful. Now more than ever is the time for those on the side of creating a more equitable Chicago that invests in the public good (that’s who I mean when I say the Left”) to step into greater political agency and leadership and remain forward-thinking. We must work to expand what’s politically possible and continue landing wins that transform our city for the better.

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Asha Ransby-Sporn is a Chicago-based community organizer and writer committed to building the power of Black communities toward economic and racial justice. She has led and been a part of community-based campaigns that have won ballot referenda on investing in non-police mental health programs, blocked a weapons manufacturer from a multi-million dollar tax break, pressured institutions to divest from the private prison industry and organized on winning political campaigns. She was United Working Families’ South Side field director for Brandon Johnson.

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