Photo courtesy of Kim Foxx [Facebook]

It was a daily procedure. I saw it firsthand as a criminal court reporter for the Chicago Tribune in 1978. Chicago police dropped off a bunch of shackled Black men at the Cook County Jail, where zealous Criminal Court prosecutors were ready to charge and try them. There would always be some that needed to be where they were taken — murderers, child molesters and the like. But there were more who were there for the small stuff — shoplifting, pot smoking and walking or driving while Black. 

The routine was so steady that the end result could have been the punchline to that classic Richard Pryor joke: “You go down there looking for justice, that’s what you find — just us.”

It won’t be as funny but the joke may be on us if Kim Foxx’s supporters don’t show up to vote her back into the Cook County State’s Attorney office on Tuesday (March 17). Foxx has been under fire since 2019, when she dropped all charges against Jussie Smollett.  Her chief opponent, Bill Conway (D), has spent $10.5 million in campaign ads to unseat her for the $193,000 a year job. Foxx’s two other challengers, Donna More (D), a private attorney, and Bob Fioretti (D), a former Chicago alderman, aren’t considered to be the threat Conway may turn out to be. 

When Foxx began as an Assistant State’s Attorney prosecutor 19 years ago, she couldn’t help but see that there was more “just us” than justice at 26th and California Avenue, where the Cook County Courthouse perfunctorily processed arrestees. Unsettled by what she saw, Foxx tried to see the point of view of the other side, the white people who grew up in the suburbs or the ones who knew or cared little about urban Black people. 

Either way, Foxx knew these particular white people — those serving as prosecutors and judges and the like —  were not from the same place she’s from. She grew up in the notorious Cabrini-Green housing projects during the tail end of a period when whites fled the city for the suburbs and the manufacturers with the jobs followed shortly after. What they left behind in some parts of the South and West sides, and some nearby Black suburbs, were pockets of poor Blacks where drugs had become their currency and firearms the tools of their trade.

Foxx was all too familiar with guns. In an interview on “The Ben Joravsky Show” podcast, Foxx recalled the days of having to take shelter in her family’s bathtub as bullets started flying out of nowhere. At the same time, she knew that every kid packing wasn’t out to rob or kill. Some carried for protection.

Black lives mattered little in the mean courtrooms of the Cook County’s State’s Attorney’s office, the second-largest prosecutor’s office in a country that leads the world in the number of its citizens behind bars — with Black men disproportionately represented. From 1978, when I covered courts briefly for the Chicago Tribune, to 2016, when Anita Alvarez sat in the State’s Attorney’s seat, young Black men were right where they were supposed to be: locked up.  

“It was good guys versus bad,” Foxx told me in a phone interview this month. “And all of the bad guys were Black.”

That mindset was so entrenched in the Cook County justice system in the 1980s that while rumors of Chicago cop Jon Burge torturing Black men into false confessions ran rampant, State’s Attorney Richard M. Daley could easily shrug them off as hearsay. And that mindset apparently persisted six years ago, when Alvarez failed for a year to release the dashcam video of Chicago cop Jason Van Dyke shooting Laquan McDonald 16 times. 

Foxx stepped in as the reform candidate to challenge Alvarez, underscoring how much Cook County’s justice system was sorely in need of a dramatic overhaul. In 2016, Alvarez got 29 percent of the vote in the primary. Foxx got 58 percent before going on to win in the general election with 72 percent, becoming the first Black female State’s Attorney in Cook County.

After her win, Foxx was a woman of her word. Ready or not, Cook County’s justice system got strong doses of her particular style of reform. And the Chicago Fraternal Order of Police didn’t like the taste. If they get their way, Foxx will be a bad memory after Tuesday’s primary election and the new State’s Attorney will be a blast to the past.

As a reformer, Foxx shifted her office’s priorities to prosecuting violent crimes rather than low-level shoplifting and drug violations. Within months after taking office, she raised the bar for felony retail theft charges to $1,000 from $300. More than 4,000 fewer shoplifting charges were filed in her first two years in office compared to Alvarez’s last two years.  

Shortly after the legalization of cannabis in Illinois, Foxx expunged the records of 1,000 people with marijuana convictions. She has also argued for mental health and addiction services. During her first term, there were 5,000 fewer of us prosecuted and who knows how many more of them were outraged. 

In a world where getting tough on crime meant arresting nearly four times as many Black men for marijuana possession than whites — with prosecutors twice as likely to pursue a mandatory minimum sentence for Black people as for white people charged with the same offense — Foxx initiated restorative justice. 

Because of this, Cook County’s white criminal justice power brokers wanted Foxx out. And in 2018, “Empire” actor Jussie Smollett became as good an excuse as any to get her out. The star’s claim that he the victim of two MAGA cap — wearing white men in a homophobic and racist attack became a national story that embarrassed then-Mayor Rahm Emanuel (D) and the Chicago Police Department because of their failed early attempts to track down the haters. When evidence pointed to a stupid stunt, there were cries to lock Smollett up. The outrages spiked when Foxx’s State’s Attorney’s office dropped the 16 counts of disorderly conduct charges against the bad actor. 

The act of Foxx refusing to put yet another Black man behind bars, like white prosecutors of the past almost always did, left Kevin Graham, president of the Chicago Police Union, and others livid. Smollett became a ready-made bludgeon to be used against what they all considered a soft-on-crime prosecutor. And because Smollett was a TV star, rather than being yet another criminalized black man, he became the rich and well-connected getting a special favor. 

Since then, an investigation into Foxx’s dropping the charges is under way and six new charges of disorderly conduct for lying to the police have been filed against Smollett. Putting him in jail while removing Foxx from office is her opponents two-fer — a sure-fire way to reignite the war on crime and the glory days when Cook County jail was bursting at the seams. Their hope is that the people who put the reformer in office four years ago will sit Tuesday out and not go to the polls. 

My hope is that Cook County voters will ponder how that old axiom goes: Is it justice delayed? Is justice denied? Or is it “just us” delayed and  “just us” denied?

It’s your call.