As told to Tiffany Walden and Jim Daley

When Brandon Johnson won the election to be Chicago’s next mayor, my thoughts immediately went to 2020. 

That May, following the police murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis, Chicago erupted in rebellions and demonstrations that the city responded to with brutality and increased surveillance of activists. I remember sitting in the Breathing Room on May 31, 2020 with a concussion and abrasions on my face from being slammed into the concrete by the Chicago Police Department (CPD) during a peaceful demonstration. 

All that summer, a coalition was coming together. It was later named the Black Abolitionist Network, and it built the political community outreach campaign known as Defund CPD. At the time, Asha Ransby-Sporn said that activists should make police investment a wedge issue that every mayoral and aldermanic candidate would have to answer to in 2023. And even five years before the 2020 rebellions, Asha named policy reforms such as body-worn cameras as being harm reduction, not transformative or abolitionist. That’s significant, because Asha was the lead get-out-the-vote organizer on the South Side for Johnson’s campaign. 

And so the organizing that came out of the 2020 rebellions was one of the struggles for liberation that impacted the 2023 election. The Feb. 28 results of some aldermanic and police district council races, as well as Johnson making the runoff, showed the success of our organizing. Our political goals had already become a reality even before Johnson won the April 4 runoff.

I first met Brandon Johnson in 2016. At the time, Johnaé Strong and I were co-chairs of BYP100’s Chicago chapter. After the release of the video of Laquan McDonald’s murder by CPD officer Jason Van Dyke in 2015, our movement successfully toppled three targets: CPD Supt. McCarthy was fired; Cook County State’s Attorney Anita Alvarez lost her reelection; and Rahm Emanuel decided not to run for mayor again. And so the movement gained legitimacy in the eyes of many, and particularly of folks who were in progressive politics, such as the CTU. 

Coming out of that, Barbara Ransby called together a coalition that would center the intersections of progressive elements of the labor movement and the burgeoning young Black radical movement. That was the first time we sat at tables with CTU, SEIU and UWF in an early grassroots collaboration for a big May Day action and one-day strike on May 1, 2016. I would say, in terms of the movement we have now and the coalition that’s happening, I think that was the table that started it. The action was robust. This is when Chicago State was at the risk of closing that then led to a feeder march that led to a huge demonstration downtown.

Soon after that, Page May, a phenomenal organizer, educator and movement builder, began getting harassed online by white racists for speaking up about resistance to police violence, and a number of the people targeting her were teachers. We realized that a lot of Chicago Public Schools teachers are actually married to police officers. 

As a result, Johnaé and I met with Stacy Davis Gates and Brandon Johnson. They were with about two or three other Black teachers who were basically the head of the informal Black Caucus in the CTU. They sat and struggled with us and were humble. They acknowledged the harm. They acknowledged the misalignment. They honored our work and our sacrifice and our dedication. They made a commitment to work with their people, and that it was important that we stay connected and that we build something together. And it is from that commitment that I think we are here today.

In many ways, that grassroots movement is what made this moment possible. Now, we must take care not to let that movement be erased. 

I believe we have the opportunity for bravery. We have the opportunity for people to participate in revolution. That’s because we have the opportunity now to repair, restore and transform — which, if you expand those words, are reparations, restorative justice and transformation. Those are revolutionary approaches.

A get-out-the-vote rally hosted by New Mount Pilgrim’s pastor, Rev. Marshall Elijah Hatch, Sr., and featuring 2023 mayoral candidate Brandon Johnson and Rev. Al Sharpton, a longtime civil rights leader. Photo by ANF Chicago for The TRiiBE ®

How do we do that? We start by centering the harm that has been done to our communities. We also must organize collective accountability. And we must raise our own standards, raise our expectations and raise our ideals.

Once we center the harm we can acknowledge it, and that acknowledgement leads to accountability. Accountability allows us to heal. To do that, we have to hold those who have aligned with white supremacism accountable; we have to hold the new administration accountable; and we have to hold ourselves and the movement accountable.

What does it look like to center the harm, which is what restorative and transformative justice approaches teach us to do? In this conversation, when we’re talking about violence and crime, I think it is important to note that many of the people who voted for Paul Vallas are the people who are not themselves impacted by the violence. As we began talking about policing and police investment during the election cycle, the diversion to crime became a way to de-center those who have been most harmed by our public institutions, by our government and by the police department.

We need to center the families of victims of police violence, such as Rekia Boyd, Pierre Lowry, Ronald “Ronnieman” Johnson, Laquan McDonald, Adam Toledo, Quintonio LeGrier and Betty Jones, and so many more who we do not have the space to name. 

We need to center the families of the survivors of torture, and we need to continue to re-platform the work of the Chicago Torture Justice Center and the Chicago Torture Justice Memorial, and how they are documenting and also working to heal from one of the worst institutionalized torture rings in America. We need to center the countless people who have been harassed, abused, hurt, harmed, mistreated and disrespected by the police.

We need to center the people who have been displaced: those students and teachers who had their schools closed. The people who had their public housing demolished. The people who were priced out of their homes and evicted. Those who were poisoned by harmful materials, whether it be from Chicago Housing Authority (CHA) or from other city institutions or from corporate institutions who profit from polluting the neighborhoods. Many people in Chicago have had their health diminished and their lives shortened, because the public responsibility was not taken to protect people from preventable harm.

Lastly, we need to center the communities that have been suffering from organized poverty and abandonment. Chicago has had some of the highest statistically documented, racially concentrated poverty in the country. 

In Chicago, institutional harm has largely come out of CPD, CHA and Chicago Public Schools (CPS), and there have been people who have been organizing to address and acknowledge the harm.

There are also people in the Black political class who have aligned themselves with those who harm the Black community, and with the white supremacist base, in the name of capitalism, and self-interest. They endorsed Paul Vallas for mayor, and in so doing aligned with white supremacist actors such as the Fraternal Order of Police (FOP) and billionaire Ken Griffin, who directly profits from the gun violence in Chicago while funding reactionary politicians. I want to name them. Bobby Rush, Jesse White, Roderick Sawyer, Sophia King, and Ja’Mal Green should no longer have viable careers in Black politics. Calling out their alignment as selling out the community should be part of the acknowledgement of harm, and part of the consequence of how we see them moving forward.

As somebody who is committed to Black liberation on a multi-generational, lifetime basis, the Black Panthers in the Black radical tradition and liberation actually hold spiritual significance for me. Almost similar to how folks have saints or orishas, I have a spiritual connection to and reverence for them. So for Bobby Rush to betray that legacy and to collaborate with the folks who killed Fred Hampton, the folks who work to destroy that legacy and never want it to be taught in schools, I think that type of insincerity should make you no longer viable as a political figure in our community. And moving forward, as we see someone like Ja’Mal Green who is at a younger age working to come into prominence, we need to consider what our standards are and what we will allow. 

Now, how do we hold the Johnson administration accountable? First, let’s be clear: the election of Brandon Johnson is amazing and historically significant. But it is not a revolution. Revolution is not a singular event, a contest or a battle. Revolution is a process. Of course, the revolutionary process made this election possible. It is through the folks working for abolition and environmental justice and public education, who are actually trying to transform our society towards being healthy and meeting the needs of all life, that this moment was made possible.

On the campaign trail, Johnson made promises about police, policing and police investment that weren’t aligned with an abolitionist framework. He walked back his previous statement on defunding the police being a political strategy, and said he wouldn’t cut CPD’s budget at all. I think, as strategic calculus, that made sense and can be understood. I actually don’t know anybody who is demanding that he abolish the police department in his first term or his first 100 days. That is not the political reality we’re at. 

But the message that investment in policing is a path towards safety is just a false premise that actually supports our oppression. So even though it may have been needed strategically to defend against some political attacks I think that messaging affirmed our opposition’s values and principles. 

Before the election, Brandon Johnson was not a well-known political figure. He did not take the traditional route of launching a campaign and then building a base; there was a base that had coalesced around a progressive political vision and was looking for someone to champion its platform. That base activated and made Brandon Johnson possible. So we have to continue to hold our expectations of ourselves to a higher level, and that includes holding Johnson to a higher standard as well. 

How do we hold ourselves accountable and raise our expectations? We need higher expectations of ourselves, as people, as community members, as participants. We need higher expectations of our government and what it even means to govern, to provide resources, to even make laws. We need to have higher expectations of Brandon Johnson as an executive. We have selected him to be a representative leader with executive power over our collective resources. So within that, we have to be in the practice of what it means to hold a line to have a higher standard.

We also need to elevate our ideals. Dreaming of the impossible got us here. People thought it would not be possible in the electoral arena to talk about things like investing in non-police solutions to public safety, housing as a human right, education and mental health and wraparound services as things we could demand. But if it wasn’t for the movement incubating those dreams and creating a compass and roadmap for achieving them, we actually wouldn’t be able to have this conversation, and there would not be a Brandon Johnson administration about to take office.

Let us advocate for building a public infrastructure that centers the work that the community and movement modeled and seeded, such as practices of mutual aid, expanding access to free, healthy food, finding creative solutions to affordable public housing, reclaiming vacant land. Investments in collective wellness and protection, and the framing of proactive, restorative and transformative justice. What does it look like to publicly invest in community members checking on neighbors, or being trained in de-escalating conflict? How can we revive the spirit of Chicago’s block club tradition? How can we bring the people to participate in creating the kind of public safety that played such an outsize role in the election?  

Lastly, I want to emphasize that it wasn’t just political strategy that built this community. It was really culture, creativity and humanity. So in terms of raising our standards, expectations and ideals, let’s make more ambitious art. Let’s make better art. We’re not going to be able to address violence, poverty, bureaucracy or political corruption, if we are not nurturing our creative faculties. Art builds our humanity, and becoming more human builds our power. We have the opportunity to be more powerful.

In my first piece for The TRiiBE, I asked you not to move in fear. I believe the counterbalance to that is to take the opportunity for bravery, and to be in the state of freedom-making. Freedom is a courageous act, and ours is a movement towards hope.

#LetUsBreathe Collective's Damon Williams speaking at Freedom Square in 2020, where organizers demanded #DefundCPD and the closure of Homan Square police site. Photo by Darius Griffin // The TRiiBE
is a movement builder, organizer, hip-hop performing artist, educator and media maker from the south side of Chicago, and Cohost of AirGo. He is the co-director of the #LetUsBreathe Collective, an artistic activist organization birthed out of supply trips to support the Ferguson uprising in resistance to the murder of Mike Brown.