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Brandon Johnson on policing, circa 2020

WGN-Ch. 9 news interviewed Cook County Commissioner Brandon Johnson on Aug. 11, 2020 in the wake of a resurgence of racial unrest. I had the interview transcribed so interested readers can see what Johnson said and what he didn’t say, and not rely on outtakes and audio snippets.

WGN: There was rioting and organized looting last night and you’re calling to defund the police. Explain that.

Johnson: What we’re seeing, obviously, is an outbreak of incredible frustration and anguish from communities that have been isolated through poverty over generations. And what we have is a typical, very standard, quite frankly, a very tired response to the regularly scheduled pandemic, which is structural racism. And that response has been to increase police presence that has not led to anything of substance to secure communities (or) to make communities whole. … We’re spending nearly $5 million a day just on policing while families continue to experience homelessness, unemployment and lack of access to health care and transportation. You can’t take a certain level of urgency to protect capital and the wealthy and not have that same tenacity, to provide relief for families that have been devastated through structural racism for generations.

WGN: But, Commissioner, by defunding the police department, what are you hoping to accomplish? And how can that make citizens safer? And how could that, ultimately, do you feel, stop looting?

Johnson: You have to have investments in communities. Look, one of the best things you can do to secure communities is to make sure that people have access to jobs and health care and education. … Within my generation — individuals who were born in the late ‘70s, early ‘80s — one in four of us were criminalized and sent to prison; seven and 10 of us went to prison if we did not have a high school diploma. You can’t convince me that an entire cohort of people are predisposed to criminalization.

WGN: But sir, what about this generation? And are you suggesting that the money that we put in the police department go back into the communities?

Johnson: It’s very simple. Absolutely. Right. Now, if we think about the legacy of Harold Washington — the first Black mayor — he set up a structure so that (tax-increment financing) dollars can go into communities that have been underserved. Right now we have nearly a billion dollars in our TIF districts, and the last several administrations — from this current one to the previous one and the one before that — have continued to put money into the hands of the wealthy. And so that’s why you have playgrounds being built for the wealthy in Lincoln Yards by Sterling Bay while communities are suffering Great Depression era numbers of unemployment.

That’s the level of urgency that we have to have, we have to redirect dollars away from a failed, racist system and move it into the hands of people who really are trying their very best to survive day to day. And if we can’t do that, as a government, we are failing to meet the moment that Black Lives Matter has called for. Black, white, brown intergenerational — this generation is approaching this in a very bold, dynamic way to deal with the social inequalities that have existed for for too long.

That’s the urgency of now: To continue to criminalize people and to chastise folks for being poor is tired, and it’s old. And we actually need a new direction that really calls for massive investments in neighborhoods like mine, where I’m raising my children in Austin on the west side of Chicago.

WGN: I think the mayor would say that she’s making those investments with her INVEST South/West program. But let us ask you about these stores. The CEO of the Chicagoland Chamber of Commerce, told Crain’s Chicago business that there will be serious consequences if Chicago doesn’t get the situation under control. Do you worry about stores leaving Chicago and the county because they just don’t think it’s safe?

Johnson: What I worry about is people who don’t have jobs and access to food. Look, the fact of the matter is, these companies have insurance and assurances, and that this particular administration is doing everything it can to protect the interests of the wealthy, and (to protect) capital. You can’t keep putting profit over people.

And as far as INVEST South/West, it’s a very petite approach to a dynamic problem. You can’t have Austin and Englewood competing over a few million dollars when you’re sitting on $1 billion right now. The urgency of this moment requires something bold, progressive and audacious. You can’t continue to keep putting money into a failed system that not only criminalizes our existence, but it doesn’t keep us safe. There is no direct correlation between the amount of money we spend in policing and secure neighborhoods. We’ve got to do something different and that’s why you have a progressive response to make sure that we’re putting dollars in the neighborhood

WGN: Well you say that this generation is progressive, they’re audacious. But tonight, a Black Lives Matter peaceful protester said that looting is a form of reparations. As you said, the the stores have insurance. They say it’s okay to loot. It shows that they’re unable to eat. Is that the answer? To loot? Because it’s a form of reparations? To loot because they that’s how they can eat?.

Johnson: The question is, how do we make sure that people can eat? Look, no one is going to condone behavior that quite frankly, speaks to a level of desperation

WGN: So you’re not condoning looting?

Johnson: I’m saying that people are acting out of desperation. We don’t want a society that has economic desperation. But you have to pay attention to the cries that people had.

WGN: You’re not condoning looting?

Johnson: There’s no way to embrace that. What I’m saying is, you can’t condone the looting that corporations continue to do every single day when they take tax dollars from Black, brown and white folks all over the city of Chicago so that they can turn a profit. The fact that Jeff Bezos pays a lesser tax rate than people who are seeking unemployment? That’s a wicked system. That type of looting has to be disrupted as well. That’s what we’re calling for in this moment.