Photo by Alexander Gouletas for The TRiiBE ®
By Natalie Frazier, The TRiiBE
Over the span of two weeks, Mayor Lori Lightfoot and her Community Safety Coordination Center (CSCC) are holding a series of Community Safety Town Hall meetings in various neighborhoods across Chicago.
On March 19, Lightfoot held what her team called the first of six in-person Town Hall meetings at Garfield Park Golden Dome Fieldhouse on the West Side. In an initial March 2 press release announcing the initiative, each Town Hall was scheduled to be a virtual event. The first Town Hall, which addressed public safety on the North and Northwest sides, was scheduled virtually for March 9.
Garfield Park’s town hall was originally scheduled as a virtual meeting for March 10, but was later rescheduled for in-person, to much confusion, after community members had already registered for the virtual one. The rescheduled date put the Garfield Park town hall a day after New York City Mayor Eric Adams and Lightfoot met privately to discuss possibilities for collaborating on issues affecting both cities.
A barrage of media outlets, community stakeholders, alderpeople and Chicago Police Department (CPD) officers came out to the Garfield Park Town Hall on March 19 to discuss the city’s approach to violence with collaboration in mind. City officials spoke with the public and answered questions on methods for improving public safety. The format also included a Q&A panel discussion with Lightfoot, CPD Supt. David Brown, Chicago Public Schools (CPS) CEO Pedro Martinez, Chicago Department of Public Health (CDPH) Commissioner Dr. Allison Arwady and more.
Just before the Q&A session, Lightfoot gave a speech, declaring that the Community Safety Town Halls and the CSCC’s efforts are about “being in concert with the community.”
However, the format of the Garfield Park Town Hall left collaboration between the packed room of attendees and city officials somewhat stifled. Community members were encouraged to discuss community safety issues among themselves and write out questions and ideas for officials following their discussion. With little instruction, the table conversations devolved into a plethora of off-topic debates, catch-up sessions and — dare I say — convenient opportunities for Lightfoot and police officials to take photos with community members.
At the beginning of the meeting, Chicago’s Chief Engagement Officer Martina Hone mentioned creating a collaborative list of ideas for approaching public safety. However, this list was lost in the spectacle of Supt. Brown’s romance metaphors and Lightfoot’s grandiose claims about loving the West Side. The latter is up for debate, considering that during Lightfoot’s mid-term interview with TRiiBE columnist Bella BAHHS in May 2021, the mayor couldn’t name any Black community spaces she claimed to frequent on the West Side.
If Lightfoot and the CSCC truly wanted to collaborate with the community on such a hot-button topic like crime and safety, they should have ditched the stage and their mics and switched places with the community members.
“There’s no equity around debate with us writing questions and we don’t even know what the meeting is about,” Troy Gaston lamented as he attempted to think of a question as he waited for the meeting to begin. An East Garfield Park resident, he voiced his concerns about the Town Hall format while sitting at a table with other community members and community stakeholders. Most of the other tables in the room included at least one police officer. Lightfoot and other city officials even sat down at some tables briefly.
The Town Hall commenced with an introduction from Hone, then brief speeches from Ald. Emma Mitts (37th Ward) and Ald. Walter Burnett Jr. (27th Ward), who both preside over West Side neighborhoods. Each of them made vague admissions about the lack of investment and infrastructure on the West Side, CPD’s sordid relationship with the West Side and the resiliency of West Side residents. This was followed by promises and calls for true collaboration between West Side community members and city officials.
In the 20 minutes following the introduction, Hone haphazardly introduced every notable guest she recognized. Finally she directed community members to explore the question submission sheets and blank community safety list before initiating the thirty minute roundtable discussions for each table.
At a table that included some members of the press, alongside North Lawndale and Austin residents, community members introduced themselves and had brief discussion about gang activity in North Lawndale. They then complained about the lack of promotion for the Town Hall.
Judy*, a long-time resident and first lady of a church in North Lawndale, said she hadn’t received any notice about the meeting until 11:00 p.m. on March 18, the night before. She discovered the digital flier for the Garfield Park Town Hall in a community engagement email thread.
Two other residents at Judy’s table, Tom* and Darold Wicker, added that after registering for the initial virtual event, they never received any official notice that the event was rescheduled for in-person.
(*Reporter’s note: Attendees were caught up in the spirit of conversation, and I didn’t want to be too disruptive as a media member at their tables. I wasn’t able to get their last names).
At both Judy’s and Gaston’s tables, community members discussed ideas such as cleaning and beautifying neighborhoods, alternatives to having the police show up for mental health crises, funding for community members returning from prison and innovative ways to simplify cannabis-related licenses for Black and brown people. These valuable ideas may have not been in concert with Lightfoot’s plans, but were worth city officials hearing.
After 30 minutes of allotted roundtable discussion, which was really an hour if you count the time CPD and Lightfoot milled around taking photos and shaking hands, city officials finally took the stage. Hone instructed help staff to collect the last questions from each table and began to sift through the questions and consolidate them into piles. She prompted city officials to respond to six questions she thought best encompassed what community members were asking and feeling. Topics included mental health resources, rebuilding trust between the West Side and police and root causes of violence.
City officials mostly used the questions as launch pads to discuss new campaigns, opinions and advice for community members. Hone took a deep breath and stated that there were many questions pertaining to defunding the police. She asked city officials how they were committed to preventative measures for violence when CPD receives more funding than housing and education combined.
“I fundamentally reject defunding the police,” Lightfoot stammered. “There are only three ways for Black and brown people to assuredly walk into the middle class – fire, cops, teachers.” A community resident yelled out sardonically, “Not teachers!”
Lightfoot doubled down on her conviction, adding that Black people should be taking advantage of these opportunities.
In a question about funding alternatives to police for mental health crises, Arwady mentioned an upcoming “Unspoken” campaign for destigmatizing mental illness. This mention of a half-baked campaign with little more than a web page felt like an attempt to offer the community something concrete after an hour of platitudes and performance.
Chicago Public Library (CPL) Commissioner Chris Brown thanked Lightfoot for helping city libraries expand Sunday hours across more branches. In a question about building trust between CPD and the community, Supt. Brown declared that his department had damaged its relationship with the community and bemoaned, “We are committed to you taking us back!”
An attendee stood up and yelled, “We take you back!” to an uproar of applause and laughter.
So what exactly did we learn at the West Side Community Safety Town Hall?
The CSCC is the multi-agency coordination behind the Town Hall. It is an effort by Lightfoot to connect and guide the public safety efforts of CPD, CPS, CPL and the Chicago Park District. Through the CSCC, Lightfoot’s administration claims it will take a pandemic approach to improving Chicago’s public safety by addressing root causes of violence.
The CSCC is supposedly committed to violence prevention on the West Side through repairing the relationship with police, offering alternatives to police such as more trauma-informed centers of care and expanding resources. However, as far as concrete plans, goals and explicit pathways for community involvement, there’s still much to be desired.
“We’re here with you for the long haul!” Lightfoot declared.
If upcoming Community Safety Town Halls continue with no agenda, or structure for accountability like this one, it will indeed be a long haul.
The next Community Safety Town Hall is scheduled for Wednesday, March 23 at 6:00 p.m. at Chicago State University on the South Side. According to Lightfoot’s daily schedule, she will be in attendance.
This article was originally published on The TRiiBE, a digital media platform that is reshaping the narrative of Black Chicago.