Chicago, Illinois / United States – June 06, 2020: Black Lives Matter Protest
Photo by hi_imrye/Shutterstock.com
A coalition of Chicago unions and community organizations has come together around the call “Black Lives Matter, Health Care Justice Now.” The group is demanding that resources that currently go toward racist policing be redirected toward human services that improve health.
About 200 people participated in a June 27 rally and march, including unionists, socialists, and advocates for health care justice and for abolishing the police. They drew attention to racist health care inequities and demanded that resources be taken from institutions that hurt communities and be put towards those which aid them. They marched from Chicago’s Medical District to Douglas Park, where Rekia Boyd was killed by an off-duty detective in 2012.
Many of the attendees were health care workers who see the inequities and want decision makers to act. Martese Chism is a board member of National Nurses United, which represents RNs at many area hospitals. She spoke of the large number of uninsured people who live in communities starved of multiple resources, concluding, “Now is the time for the City of Chicago to get their knee off Black Chicago’s neck, now is the time for health care justice, now is the time to defund police!”
Physicians for a National Health Program (PHNP) national board member Dr. Susan Rogers told the crowd how racial inequities were actually worse now than when she started working as a physician in 1979.
Black Lives Matter Chicago leader Ariel Atkins encouraged participants to build power by joining an organization. Alycia Kamil, a youth leader with GoodKids MadCity, advocated removing police from the schools.
But the decision makers who run the city and county governments have yet to tangibly address either police injustice or the inequitable way health care is provided. Mayor Lori Lightfoot was elected in April 2019 on a progressive platform of investing in struggling neighborhoods, supporting public education, overhauling the police, and reducing gun violence—and thus far hasn’t produced much on any of those fronts. On June 24 Chicago’s unelected school board appointed by Lightfoot voted down by 4-3 a proposal to remove police from schools. Cook County Commissioner Brandon Johnson, who spoke at the rally, has put forward a resolution to defund police and redirect resources towards Black and Brown communities.
Chicago has a 30-year gap in average life expectancy across census tracts—the worst in the country according to a 2019 analysis. In wealthy, white Streeterville, just north of downtown, people typically live to be 90. Predominantly Black Englewood is only eight miles away; the average life expectancy there is 60. This study was completed a year before COVID-19 hit Chicago, and a public health emergency should have been declared then.
COVID-19 has been devastating to communities of color in Chicago, which are heavily represented in “essential businesses” such as grocery stores, warehouses, delivery services, nursing homes, and hospitals. African Americans, while 30 percent of Chicago’s population, account for 70 percent of COVID-19 deaths. Latinos are 29 percent of the population and account for 44 percent of COVID-19 cases.
These numbers demonstrate chronic racist health inequities. There is no melanin-linked gene that associates skin tone with the underlying health conditions that put one at greater risk to die from COVID-19. Multiple peer-reviewed studies have linked health to adequate housing, access to healthy foods, availability of primary health care and medication, having a job that pays a living wage, and the level of stress one endures due to racism. A Chicago emergency room in an African American community was temporarily shut down in the middle of this pandemic, and people came together to resist that decision.
POLICE ACCOUNTABILITY OR POLICE OUT
The murder of George Floyd further intensified the spotlight on the effects of racism in our society. One ordinance now before City Council is to form a Civilian Police Accountability Council—an elected body that would oversee the running of the police department. This has garnered the support of 19 members of city council and six area unions.
The Chicago Teachers Union, along with multiple other organizations, is calling for police to be removed from Chicago Public Schools. Research has shown that having police in schools harms students and fuels the “school to prison pipeline.” The school district currently spends $33 million a year placing police officers in schools. A demonstration was held on June 24 calling for those resources to instead be used to benefit students.
CTU also warns the school district that when it considers reopening schools in the fall, “Keeping us safe will require more than just hand sanitizer.” CTU is demanding the resources to reorganize the schools internally and wants the $33 million to instead “ensure that every school has a nurse, a social worker, a restorative justice coordinator and adequate staffing.” In a district where the majority of students are people of color, their families have already been disproportionately affected by COVID-19.
Another demand, being put forward by organizations such as the Black Abolitionist Network, is for the city council to cut the police department budget by 75 percent and invest those savings in social services and community programs. This demand makes sense in a city that reduced the number of mental health clinics from twelve to six in April 2012, supposedly saving $2 million. Chicago’s 2020 budget has allocated almost $1.8 billion towards policing. If just 1 percent of that budget were redirected towards opening mental health clinics, simple arithmetic means 54 clinics could be funded.
Many of the organizations and individuals who came together and produced the June 27 action have been part of ongoing collaborations among labor, community activists, social justice fighters, and advocates of abolishing the police. Labor could make a difference in these fights; it is worth remembering the significant achievements when school workers struck last fall, despite the resistance of Lightfoot’s administration. As workplaces reopen and the pressure for in-person schooling mounts, coalitions such as these will be vital for Chicago’s safety and health.
Dennis Kosuth is a registered nurse and a member of both the Chicago Teachers Union and National Nurses United.