“Mic Check!”: Social Justice and the Race for Cook County State’s Attorney

When a crowd of University of Chicago students and Hyde Park community members crammed into the sunny Institute of Politics living room on Wednesday, February 17, they were expecting to participate in an open dialogue with Cook County State’s Attorney Anita Alvarez. What they got instead was a startling, adrenaline-filled glimpse into the discontent that Chicago’s mostly-black social justice activists feel toward Alvarez and her actions in Cook County.

Anita Alvarez, 56, is a lifelong Chicago resident and Cook County’s first Latina state’s attorney. In her thirty years at the state’s attorney’s office, Alvarez has gained recognition for her blitz against of gun violence, which peaked with a 2009 law mandating ten-year prison sentences for Illinois gang members caught with loaded weapons. She has also used the Illinois wiretapping law to prosecute individuals for recording police officers in public, spurring contention and debate about the constitutionality of this act. She has worked to reduce human trafficking in Illinois by drafting the Illinois Safe Children’s Act (HB 6462), which ends the practice of prosecuting minors who have been prostituted and grants them access to shelter and services. The act also provides more legislative tools for law enforcement to punish those who exploit children. Most recently, however, Alvarez’s other actions have been overshadowed by her office’s thirteen-month delay in prosecuting Officer Jason Van Dyke for the murder of Laquan McDonald in October 2014.

This delay prompted a protest when Alvarez visited the the IOP on February 17. At first, Alvarez exuded an air of determination, detailing her fight for harsher punishments for gun violence. However, just as Alvarez began speaking, a group of black students and community members clustered around the IOP door and were eventually admitted to stand in the back of the crowded room. The protest group included  members of Southside Together Organizing for Power (STOP), Assata’s Daughters, Black Youth Project 100, and Black Lives Matter Chicago. No more than five minutes into Alvarez’s talk, one of the group members began to shout “Mic check!” setting off a call-and-response chant enumerating the group’s grievances. “The people, unlike Alvarez, will not ignore police terrorism,” the protesters shouted. “We will not let Laquan be covered up. We will not let Rekia be covered up. We will not let Quintonio and Bettie Jones be covered up. This kind of dialogue is not about growth. It is not about healing. It is about covering up conflict and avoiding accountability.” Alvarez was ushered out the back exit of the IOP as soon as the protest started.

To demonstrate their rationale in calling for Alvarez’s resignation, the protesters invoked several cases in which she has been involved, beginning with the case of Quintonio LeGrier and Bettie Jones. In the early hours of Wednesday, December 26, 2015, Chicago police responded to a 911 call by Antonio LeGrier, who was worried about his nineteen-year-old son Quintonio’s erratic behavior. LeGrier’s parents hoped the Chicago Police Department (CPD) would help them calm their son, who was reportedly combative, arguing with his father and wielding a baseball bat. Instead, Officer Robert Rialmo shot the youth seven times, killing him as well as his downstairs neighbor Jones, who had answered the door and was struck by a bullet that passed through LeGrier. Antonio LeGrier filed a wrongful death lawsuit, claiming that his son was inside the home and Rialmo was outside when Quintonio was shot. Then, in early February, Rialmo filed a countersuit against LeGrier’s estate, alleging that LeGrier had swung the bat at him and that he had a reasonable fear for his life.

Alvarez asked that the FBI help investigate LeGrier’s shooting. According to the Chicago Sun-Times, this request “seemed to take a shot at the Independent Police Review Authority,” a City of Chicago agency that investigates allegations of police misconduct. Her extension of the investigation beyond the city of Chicago enraged the protesters in the IOP. “Because of Alvarez,” they declared, “police officer Robert Rialmo is suing the estate of Quintonio Grier instead of being held accountable for murdering Quintonio and Betty Jones.” Rialmo’s lawyer claims that the officer suffered emotional trauma from the incident, and that LeGrier “forced him to shoot.” It was Alvarez’s office that made the decision not to prosecute Rialmo for the killing, although it is unclear how the FBI investigation differed from the one the IPRA would have pursued.

Looking defiantly out at the crowd of event attendees in the IOP living room, the protesters continued to chant: “In 2010, Tiawanda Moore was arrested for audio recording two CPD internal affairs investigators as she attempted to file a complaint after being sexually assaulted by a CPD member in her home. Instead of demanding accountability, Alvarez prosecuted Tiawanda for two counts of eavesdropping,” they shouted.  Moore, a twenty-one-year-old Chicago resident, claimed to have been sexually harassed by an officer responding to a domestic disturbance call at the home she shared with her boyfriend. When she met with other police officers in August 2010 to attempt to file a complaint against the offender, they discouraged her from filing a report. Frustrated, she began recording their conversation with her BlackBerry. In doing so, Moore violated the controversial Eavesdropping Act, which is often interpreted to apply specifically to on-duty police officers. She was arrested and landed in Cook County Jail for over two weeks. Had she not been acquitted, Moore could have faced up to fifteen years in prison under the felony charge. Alvarez pursued the prosecution of Moore, contending that her initial statement to the police stood in contrast to what she said in court and that there was credible evidence for the state’s prosecution of Moore.

The protesters went on to highlight one further case, that of a black transgender woman named Eisha Love. On March 28, 2012, Love was trying to flee an assault by a man and a group of others at a gas station, and struck the man with her car in her attempt to escape. She consequently served three years and nine months in Cook County Jail’s all-male Division IX, on charges of aggravated battery. Although Alvarez was not as directly involved in this case as she was with LeGrier and Moore, the protesters at the IOP claimed, “Alvarez’s office upgraded charges on Eisha to first-degree attempted murder and asked for a fucking ten-year sentence.” Alvarez’s involvement seems to be limited to the fact that Love was imprisoned in Cook County Jail, under Alvarez’s jurisdiction.

As the call-and-response chant wound down, a young woman then began to read “a few names of CPD officers that have been either gotten off in bench trials or evaded charges altogether under Alvarez’s watch in her non-existent anti-corruption efforts.” The list included “Commander Glenn Evans. Officer George Hernandez, killer of Ronald Johnson. Dante Servin, killer of Rekia Boyd. And Robert Rialmo, killer of Quintonio Grier and Betty Jones.” Evans, in a bench trial, was found not guilty of shoving his gun down a suspect’s throat during questioning in 2013. Hernandez killed Ronald Johnson in October 2014, as Johnson was running away from Hernandez’s unmarked squad car. Despite dashcam video, Alvarez decided that no charges would be pressed against Hernandez because Johnson was also carrying a gun during the incident. Servin fatally shot twenty-two-year-old Rekia Boyd while off-duty in 2012, claiming that he was attempting to shoot a man nearby who he thought had a gun. Alvarez decided to charge Servin with involuntary manslaughter; he was later found not guilty.

After the protesters recited their grievances, Steve Edwards, executive director of the Institute of Politics, began talking to one of the young women, saying that he cared about the protesters’ concerns. She responded, “if you care about our concerns, go get your henchmen to get the fuck out of our face, go tell UCPD to get the fuck away from us, and tell all of these people in here that you’re sorry for inviting them here to speak and hear from a fucking crooked-ass bitch that hates black people and wants to see murderers get off! If you care about anything, go do that!” By now, UCPD officers had arrived on the scene and were standing by the door. After a few rounds of chanting “Hey hey! Ho ho! Anita Alvarez’s got to go!” the protesters exited the building and stood near the main entrance, talking to event attendees as they filed out.

As the protesters left, Edwards moved to the center of the room to address the event attendees who remained. He reminded the crowd that the IOP had invited the other candidates in the March 15 Democratic primary of the Cook County State’s Attorney race, assistant state’s attorney Kim Foxx and former federal and state prosecutor Donna More, to speak. Thus the IOP felt it would be fair to invite Alvarez and give her the same opportunity to answer questions about her campaign to maintain her office. Edwards expressed his regret that the protesters’ interruption of the discussion prevented constructive dialogue that could have addressed concerns about Alvarez’s actions in the McDonald case, though he acknowledged the protesters’ right to demonstrate peacefully, saying, “I regret [the interruption] very much, because here at the Institute of Politics across a whole range of issues, across a whole range of perspectives where the issues were often very very contentious, we have prided ourselves on creating a space where they can have frank dialogue, open dialogue, tough questioning.” He continued, “And unfortunately we don’t have the opportunity to allow those of you who have many of the same concerns or other concerns to pose those questions there. That said, we certainly honor their right to express their voices, that’s part of the democratic process, that’s part of free speech on this campus, and we certainly wouldn’t want to say anything other than to support that and understand how deep these issues are for so many of us in Chicago.”

Edwards’ sentiments were echoed, albeit more vehemently, by IOP Institute Director David Axelrod in a letter to the editor of the Chicago Maroon. Do you believe in a society in which people simply shut down and silence those with whom they disagree?” Axelrod inquires of his readers. “Can our democracy function that way?” Like Edwards, Axelrod recognizes that people have a right to demonstrate their anger and discontent with their public officials, yet lamented that this demonstration came at the cost of constructive dialogue, writing, “I admire those who feel passionately enough about public issues to be moved to action. At the same time, I believe strongly that free and open debate should not be muzzled by government, university administrations, or angry mobs.” Axelrod went on to commend Alvarez for being willing to appear in a public forum in which she knew she would be confronted with tough questions about her involvement in the McDonald case. He concluded by asserting that the IOP will “continue to insist that speakers are afforded the courtesy of a hearing and that those who come to listen are given the chance to question them.”

Black Lives Matter Chicago acknowledged the unique nature of Alvarez’s appearance in a video posted to their site, with a text slide before the video started reading “The format of this event was rare, as recent SA candidate forums have been large town halls that restricted Q + A with audience members.” In their view,  however, the young men and women who flooded the room on Wednesday were forced to take more drastic action than what could be contained within the context of such a forum.

The outrage felt by the black community of Cook County toward Alvarez and Chicago’s wider political regime is irrepressible, tenacious, and growing. However, Alvarez continued her campaign for reelection as Cook County state’s attorney. The race was one of the most contentious in Chicago’s history, with three women— Foxx, More, and Alvarez—vying for the position. Foxx presented the greatest threat to Alvarez’s incumbency, clinching endorsements from supporters such as the Cook County Democratic Party, former Illinois Governor Pat Quinn, prominent Latino U.S Representative Luis Gutierrez, and the Chicago Teachers Union. More was the underdog in the race; she’s a former federal prosecutor and member of the Illinois Gaming Board attorney who built her platform on reducing gun violence through stricter controls and on reforming the office of state’s attorney. Although most of the groups present at the IOP did not endorse a candidate for state’s attorney, since, as a spokesperson for BYP 100 said, “no one party or candidate will save us,” Foxx ran on the platform that is most likely to garner support from Chicago’s frustrated and often-neglected racial justice groups. She vowed to divert low-level offenders into rehabilitation programs, reform the juvenile justice system, and appoint a special prosecutor to handle all police-involved shootings.

Alvarez responded to the threat posed by Foxx and More by emphasizing her twenty-nine years of experience in the state’s attorney’s office and her work to impose and increase mandatory sentences for gang members caught with loaded weapons.  In the Illinois Democratic Primary on Tuesday, March 15, Alvarez lost to Foxx, with Foxx winning 58 percent and Alvarez 29 percent of the vote with 96 percent of precincts reporting. In her likely new role as state’s attorney, Foxx will have to face the impassioned demands of citizens such as those who protested Alvarez’s events: demands to increase supervision of the CPD and shifting to a broader, community-based response to crime. She has already promised to rebuild Chicago’s “broken criminal justice system.” Though Foxx is inheriting a deeply fraught and office, one thing is certain: from the day she begins to serve, Foxx will have to confront the racial tensions that plague Cook County, especially those between the black community and the Chicago Police Department. These tensions will shape racial politics in Chicago for years to come.

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