John Arena, this week’s guest, is a founder of the City Council’s Progressive Caucus and Alderman of the Northwest Side’s 45th Ward.
As we spoke, there were reports that the City’s consent decree for the reform of the Chicago Police Department could be released at any time. But the agreement, worked out between the Mayor’s Office and Attorney General Lisa Madigan, apparently with the cooperation of the FOP, the union representing Chicago Police, reportedly had become hung up over one issue. The City wants police offices to file a report every time they “point a gun” at anyone, and the union is strenuously resisting the demand.
“I do know that if an officer is pulling his weapon that should be the very last measure that is taken, that he is forced into that position,” Arena insists. “And if they are pulling their weapon and that’s the case, then logging the reasons for that whether he fires or not should be documented, especially at a time when what we see is they are pulling their weapon and they are firing their weapon. So is that a completely unreasonable request in the context of what we’re dealing with right now,? In the context of just a police department that’s engaged and there’s conversation with the community, I would say yes, that’s unreasonable. That’s not where we are as a city right now.”
We pointed out that the likelihood of a new decree seemed sudden, since there hadn’t been much discussion about the document’s progress in recent weeks. Arena responded that the Mayor had quietly retreated from his promise of significant, powerful statement on police reform. “When the mayor came out after the revelation of the Laquan McDonald video and said we are going to reform the police department, we are going to attack the culture of silence, we’re going to go after these things and we are going to get a consent decree, and then he backed off of that, it was Lisa Madigan that pushed him back forward to that table.”
In fact, she sued to get the process started, we pointed out.
“Exactly, sued the city. So these are the signals that why you see marches on the Dan Ryan and proposing marches on Lake Shore Drive is because of those kinds of actions of government. When we say we are going to tackle a problem head-on and then say okay, well now that the camera lights have turned off we’re going to start backing away slowly. This is the kind of thing that undermines confidence that we are taking action to address these critical concerns.”
“We have to talk,” he continued. “This is part of what – when we say the culture of silence and some of the hardened folks on the police side that say let them do their jobs. Well I’m sorry, their job is not to create a body count and I don’t think that’s what they want to do. They want to be safe and go home at the end of the day. We have to reset the gauges and create a structure that there’s accountability. And if we’re not talking about it then we are part of the culture of silence.”
After the shooting last weekend of barber Harith Augustus, the CPD released a few seconds of silent video of the event and claimed credit for transparency. Arena was unconvinced. “I think if we’re going to take a policy that we’re going to release videos then release it all, because context matters, and people on both sides will say that,” he explains. “If somebody says why did you shoot that person, he wasn’t armed, what did you see? Seeing it from different angles, seeing the dialogue that led up to it, what was said, what threats were made or not made, all of that stuff is important. What this video did was take this out of context, so you only see the officers coming up to what I saw was somebody standing there in a dialogue with an officer, and then to manipulate the video, to illuminate – well look there’s a gun there. At the end of the day we have a conceal carry law here. We have a Second Amendment law that is supposed to apply to everybody. What that’s trying to say is a black man with a gun is an imminent threat, and that is not what the Second Amendment illuminates.”
“What’s interesting ,” he continues, “is the fact that they zoomed in on the fact that he had a gun as if that was the only thing that mattered, again projects to me a level of bias saying a black man with a gun is an imminent threat and he was not. What’s interesting, what they zoomed in on, was a gun in a holster, holstered at his belt. It was only illuminated because he was being thrown onto a car and his shirt came up. The only time he made a move towards that weapon was when he was being shot in the back. So I think there’s a lot that’s illuminated there and in a lot of ways we need to see the rest of that (video) so we can say why was that man a threat in that moment?”
The Tribune reported this week that Tax Increment Financing districts in Chicago captured more than $660 million dollars last year. That’s more than a third of all the property taxes paid by Chicagoans in that year. Arena has been a vocal critic of the use of TIF money for large-scale private developments, but says that his ward has benefitted from the two smaller TIFs in his district. “(If) I can build a park or I can put a new roof on Schurz, if I can put a new soccer field on Schurz High School and create a better opportunity and people seeing that school as an opportunity for their kids, that increases home values. So that’s how you can cycle that money and invest here locally and get a benefit at the home that’s across the street.”
The problem, as he sees it, is that the areas where poverty is rampant – the very areas these funds were designed to help – can’t generate their own funds because there’s no increment to tax. The increment is the amount that property values increased over a period of years. That number is huge along, say LaSalle Street, but it’s pretty much zero along 79th street. “If I have a zero incrementing TIF on the south or west side I can’t put money into my schools.,” he explains. “I can’t build streets, I can’t build roads…And in a neighborhood like mine where I’m gaining businesses and I’m seeing increment increase in property values I don’t need to incentivize a business to come. I will do that by just doing the hard work, picking up the phone, walking them around the neighborhood, talking about what’s great about the neighborhood. That’s a different tool. That’s just the communication tool.” That’ he says, is why he and the Progressive Caucus have called for annual increases in the amount of surplus funds from wealthier TIFs that can be moved to poorer areas for vital infrastructure projects.
We ask about the police training academy, for which he voted “aye” on two separate occasions in the past few months. He says he still favors some kind of new training facility, but perhaps not the one the Mayor has proposed.
“We say we need to train this force, retrain the old force if you will, and train hundreds of recruits that are coming through the system for us to get to the force level we need. That’s a difficult thing to do in the facility we have. Is this exactly the right time and place to be focusing on a building? That’s a difficult conversation. I would be supportive, I’ve offered support for the two votes we’ve had to take that are related to the money… I did vote for the $10-million in TIF to acquire the land and the $20-million for them to do the planning of what the facility would be like. And what I said in my statements on council floor about that is it matters how the building is going to present itself to the community. Is this going to be a fortress where recruits go in and then come marching out and nobody can see through the veil? No. I will vote against that.”
Turning to politics, we ask this political veteran if he thinks that Mayor Emanuel could win re-election outright in February, without having to face a challenger in a runoff. “Yeah, I think that’s a possibility,” he tells us. “The money will drive a lot of the reason why that’s a possibility, and the money that the credible challengers could or could not raise. So yeah, there is a possibility of that. Again, we have a very divided city. Some people are like, well, I don’t like everything about him but he’s the guy we’ve got, and some people are like no way, never.”
John Arena says he’s not going to publicly endorse anyone in the Mayor’s race, and that’s because his concern is the City Council, and he believes that’s time for the Council to claim its proper role as the seat of Chicago’s power. “I truly believe that for the council to play its role well we need to be independent of the mayor, regardless, even if it is a truly progressive mayor that I love. I need to look at what’s put in front of me from whoever is in that office and I need to look at it critically and make sure that it’s doing the best that it can do with taxpayer dollars or achieving the best aims. If we have a city council that is less run by a mayor’s floor leader, I think we should have a council floor leader.”
“I think that’s what (Emanuel) is most afraid of, that that’s the movement that we see. We see a lot of progressive candidates coming forward running across the city, and I think he sees the possibility that with the progressive caucus in the 2015 cycle going from 8 to 11 members, if that trend continues and we get to the high teens getting to 26 votes on progressive legislation is in our sights. We’re doing it now and he’s worried that that’s going to become more and more a commonality in the council.”
Facebook announced a major expansion of its Chicago offices yesterday, and, of course, we’re all waiting to find out whether Amazon wants to come here. Arena says these developments are positive, but they shouldn’t be the Mayor’s main focus. “When he brings a headquarters in it can’t be just the count of cranes in downtown Chicago. It can’t be just the count of corporate jobs. Those jobs are living in the suburbs. The jobs we need are for black and brown communities that have 40% unemployment. You start creating that opportunity, you start addressing the crimes at issue that we have, the murder rates, the interactions between police, places where people see no hope and feel no hope and feel that nobody is there for them is where you see crime, is where you see desperation. And if we’re not addressing that it’s denying our humanity, that we are not looking at a way where we can help and we’re not helping.”
And Arena talks at some length about the building he has been trying to get built on Northwest Highway in his ward, although he’s been facing vocal community opposition.
“One of the big pieces of this building that doesn’t get talked about is that it’s got a preference for the disabled,” he explains. “Less than 1% of the units in this city of Chicago, think about this, millions of units here – are accessible to the disabled. They also tend to be the lowest income earners because of their disabilities, and we ostracize them to parts of the city where they can’t get around where the sidewalks are broken. Where the rents are where they can afford the sidewalks are broken so they can’t get to transportation. This is literally you would be able to see from this building the most robust transportation center on the northwest side. You can get to any suburb, any part of the city from that via bus, train, or metra. If we say no to that then we’re wrong.”
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You can read a full transcript of the show here:CN transcript July 26 2018