Activist Jedidiah L. Brown [center, in hat] outside a Cook County courthouse in October 2018 after former Chicago Police officer Jason Van Dyke was convicted of killing LaQuan McDonald in 2014 | Photo by Carolina Sanchez [The TRiiBE]
The People is our section for opinions on all things concerning Black Chicago. In this opinion piece, writer Charles Preston responds to a Chicago Sun-Times column critiquing millennial voters in February’s municipal election.

My grandmother, a beautiful god-fearing Black woman, always told me to respect my elders. I am desperately trying to embody her lesson after reading Mary Mitchell’s next-day column critiquing Chicago’s millennial voter turnout in the municipal election on Feb. 26.

Mitchell is a longtime Chicago Sun-Times columnist recognized for her commentary on popular Black culture and social issues: from rappers Chance The Rapper’s child support and Cardi B’s twerking to neighborhood violence, politics and policing. She is an influential pioneer for Black columnists, and is widely known as a significant voice amplifying and interrogating the Black community. I can go on and on about all of her accomplishments, awards, and general prestige that more than qualifies her to speak on a myriad of topics.

However, her latest column aimed at millennial voting lacks context and nuance. It also misinforms readers into believing that millennials failed this election. After reading her column, I recalled my grandmother’s words to respect my elders. Same time, though, I believe it to be disrespectful to local movement elders, who have emblazoned a path for current millennial activism, to not respond to Mitchell’s column.

Mitchell begins her column with this premise:  “…the expected ‘[Laquan] McDonald effect’ that bounced former Cook County State’s Attorney Anita Alvarez out of office and pushed Mayor Rahm Emanuel into stepping down never materialized.”

Her argument is based on incomplete voting numbers (ballots are still being counted until March 12), a comparison of municipal election turnout to November’s general election, and naming a couple of activists who ran for office but received less than 30 percent of the vote in their respective wards.

Her criticism, or short observation, ignores the totality of the “McDonald effect” and the power of those millennial activists.

Let’s start with the two activists she explicitly names in her column: William Calloway and Jedidiah L. Brown.

Activist William Calloway [right] leading a march after the death of Harith Augustus in 2018. Calloway will likely face 5th Ward Alderwoman Leslie Hairston in a run-off election on April 2 | Photo by The TRiiBE

As I type this, Calloway is in a runoff against 5th Ward Alderwoman Leslie Hairston. Before his name graced headlines for helping release the Laquan McDonald dash-cam video, Calloway protested in his South Shore community and activated families to fight against police brutality. What was Calloway doing before that? He was in the streets as a member of the Vice Lord gang. Calloway turned his life around, got active in his community, became one of the biggest thorns in Emanuel’s backside, and is now in a runoff against a politician he constantly protested against. The fact that a reformed gang-member, with no college degree, is currently campaigning in a runoff to become alderman of the ward that is home to the University of Chicago speaks volumes about the millennial surge in activism.


Activist Jedidiah L. Brown received about 20 percent of the votes in the 7th Ward. This probably doesn’t seem like much to Mitchell, but we must consider Brown’s checkered past and how arrived at this moment. He’s been a controversial activist often ridiculed in Facebook posts and YouTube comments. After Kenneka Jenkins’ mysterious death at a Rosemont, Ill. hotel, he drove up to Rosemont and protested in freezing temperatures with other young Black people. But what I find to be most telling about Brown, is the fact that two years ago, he had a mental health episode that caused him to single handedly shut down Lake Shore Drive by threatening suicide with a gun to his head. Two years ago, Brown was entrenched in a battle against personal demons and mental health. A week ago, he received 20 percent of his ward’s vote.


Newly-elected 49th Ward Alderwoman Maria Hadden | Source: Facebook

I find it somewhat dishonest that Mitchell never mentions newly elected 49th Ward Alderwoman Maria Hadden in her column. Hadden, who is 37 years old, a millennial according to Pew Research Center’s ages 22 to 38 definition, became the first openly queer Black woman to ever be elected to Chicago’s City Council. Prior to making the decision to run for office, she gained some experience organizing campaigns as a member of BYP 100 — one of the first organizations to march the night the McDonald tape released. On election night, Hadden scored a victory over six-term incumbent Joe Moore in a landslide victory.


We also cannot forget the 40th Ward observed Ugo Okere, a 22-year-old Nigerian immigrant with a democratic socialist platform, win 14 percent of the vote in a field of five candidates. Who is in a runoff in the 40th ward? Andre Vasquez, a former battle rapper leading a progressive campaign with the endorsement of People for Bernie Sanders. Do you know what inspired Ugo to run in the first place? Bernie Sanders running for President.


In her disappointment toward millennials, Mitchell briefly states how Amara Enyia was supported by Chance The Rapper and Kanye West in her mayoral race. Not only does she neglect the work of the hardworking youth activist group Good Kids Mad City’s advocacy for Enyia, but she glosses over the fact that Enyia was able to amass 8 percent of the mayoral vote on less than $700,000 with only two primary donors. In comparison, Susana Mendoza garnered 9 percent of the vote raising more than $2.7 million for her campaign. Jerry Joyce raised over $2.5 million and received 7 percent of the vote.

But “the McDonald Effect” is bigger than movement individuals winning office and gaining greater proximity to the mayor’s office. It’s about a people’s commitment to building power and shifting the current political climate to reflect the interests of the protest movement.

Two campaigns are dominating Chicago’s political space amongst the grassroots and City Hall’s elite. The #NoCopAcademy campaign and the campaign for a Community Benefits Agreement for the Obama Presidential Center are major talking points for every mayoral candidate that ran in this race. This was due to millennial organizers’ polarizing their respective issues. It’s their post-Laquan McDonald protests and organizing that forced candidates to publicly state their positions for or against police reform and the cop academy. Currently, mayoral candidates Lori Lightfoot and Toni Preckwinkle have publicly stated that they are in opposition of Emanuel’s $95 million cop academy. A Community Benefits Agreement for the Obama Presidential Center is slowly becoming a reality after voters overwhelmingly showed their support on the relative Feb. 26th ballot measure.


Organizers march through downtown Chicago in October 2018 after former Chicago Police officer Jason Van Dyke is convicted of killing Laquan McDonald in 2014 | Photo by Carolina Sanchez [The TRiiBE]

Many activists who stood in front of Lori Lightfoot and Garry McCarthy at past Chicago Police Department Board hearings are now witnessing those very candidates reiterate (some would say co-opt) their talking points! The call for more mental health clinics, an elected school board, and defunding police in favor of more community-based programs is not an original thought by candidates. This is the result of the incredibly penetrating and revolutionary action by youth.

Pictured in Mary Mitchell’s online column is Maria Hernandez. Hernandez is a former member of Black Lives Matter Chicago Chapter and recently canvassed the 37th ward to raise awareness for the #NoCopAcademy campaign. In all my millennial-ness, I personally direct-messaged Hernandez on Facebook and asked her why “millennials,” or youth, are constantly blamed for low voter turnout. Here is what she said:

Adultism. Establishment adults with questionable backgrounds did a lot of co-opting youth-directed work last year, to their own gain, and now they’re whining because young people still somehow didn’t do enough. They should be building real trust instead, because youth have been and will continue astutely directing narratives and mobilizing voters of all ages. We need to talk about organizers and politicians in their 30s & 40s who can’t get their habits, insecurities and ego out of the way to save their own lives.

Yet they expect young folks and black people to carry every election since Obama — and in many ways that is what has happened, in this municipal election as in the last. Grown-ups need to grow up. Sometimes the Important Certified adult in the room is the one who should be seen and not heard — and I suspect some career politicians and organizers are bitterly envious of the vision of Chicago youth.”

Let’s play with numbers.

The voter turnout for Chicago’s 2019 municipal election currently sits at 35.22 percent. In her Feb. 27 column, Mitchell quotes Chicago Board of Election spokesman Jim Allen’s comparison between the 2019 municipal voter turnout and November’s general election as an indictment on youth turnout. I found this interesting since low voter turnout in Chicago has been happening for the last few years.

Take a gander at Chicago’s municipal and general election turnout since 1999:

2018 General Election: 60.67%

2016 General Election: 71.04%

2014 General Election: 48.81%

2012 General Election: 75.41%

2010 General Election: 52.88%

2008 General Election: 73.87%

2006 General Election: 49.25%

2004 General Election: 74.63%

2002 General Election: 53.09%

2000 General Election: 69.79%
2015 Chicago Municipal Election: 34.03%
2011 Chicago Municipal Election: 42.30%
2007 Chicago Municipal Election: 33.08%
2003 Chicago Municipal Election: 33.70%
1999 Chicago Municipal Election: 41.92%
(Source: Chicago Board of Election)

The data clearly suggests two things. Registered voters go to the ballot box to elect the next president above anything else (indicated by years 2000, 2004, 2008, 2012 and 2016). Voters find it more important to vote in general elections than municipal elections. In millennial words, Chicago — old and young — doesn’t keep the same energy at local elections.

Malcolm X eloquently stated: “…the newspapers will have you hating the people who are being oppressed and loving the people who are doing the oppressing.”

Millennials didn’t fail this election. That narrative is flat-out wrong and tired. The impact of organizers and activists is beyond the numbers, beyond the headline of a seminal newspaper, and far beyond the realm of imagination of those who idly wait for the future to come.

Writing columns is good, but being invested and knowing the ins-and-outs of Chicago’s youthful movements is better.

It all started with youth-led marches.

Charles Preston is a writer and activist based in Chicago. He ain’t for none because he was raised by strong Black women.

Correction: This op/ed has been updated to reflect that Maria Hadden is the first openly queer Black woman elected to Chicago’s City Council.