Chicago Elections: You Can’t Reform a Broken System

On February 28, voters in Chicago will go to the polls to vote for the next mayor, their local aldermen, and members of the newly-created police District Councils. They will go to the polls again on April 4 to vote in the runoff between the two top candidates in each district. These local elections will be the first since the beginning of the pandemic and the George Floyd movement. Once again, however, although the working class is the vast majority of the population, we have no party in this election. Nonetheless, although bourgeois elections offer a distorted picture, they can be a type of barometer for how Chicago workers feel about their current situation.

These local elections will be the first since the beginning of the pandemic and the George Floyd movement. / Image: Joshua Mellin, Flickr

Crime and the police on the agenda

Numerous issues have been on voters’ minds this election cycle, including Chicago’s economy, jobs, and criminal justice reform. However, the top issues on voters’ minds have been crime and the police. In 2022 alone, there were 697 murders, the seventh year in a row with over 500 murders. Crime has even increased in wealthier neighborhoods, prompting neighborhoods like Lincoln Park, Bucktown, and Lakeview to hire private police forces to patrol these areas.

The Chicago Police Department (CPD) is also on voters’ minds. The brutal police killings of Tyre Nichols in Memphis and Manuel “Tortuguita” Terán in Atlanta were vivid reminders to the working class that police violence is just around every corner. Chicago is where police killed Laquan Macdonald and Adam Toledo in cold blood, and the kind of violence that people saw when they watched the murder of Tyre Nichols on video occurs regularly in Chicago.

In response to pressure from the masses, the City Council voted to create an elected board of Chicago residents to oversee CPD. This elected body will suggest candidates for the police board and superintendent to the mayor. In addition, the board will be able to hire someone to lead the agency charged with probing police misconduct, called the Civilian Office of Police Accountability (COPA). Lastly, the board will have the power to pass a resolution of no confidence in the superintendent, the COPA chief, and anyone on the Chicago Police Board. However, it can only do so with a two-thirds vote and any  real changes suggested are ultimately under the jurisdiction of the bourgeois courts.

The mayoral candidates have also weighed in on these issues. However, none of them have proposed solutions that adequately address police violence or crime, as to do so would require addressing the systemic cause. Willie Wilson, one candidate vying for office, has said the police “should be able to chase [criminals] down and hunt them down like a rabbit.” Meanwhile, the incumbent, Lori Lightfoot, a Democrat, has set the stage for the next mayor by increasing this year’s police budget by $64 million to a whopping $3 billion, about 18.3% of the city’s entire 2023 budget.

As part of the “special bodies of armed men” of the state, the police play a crucial role in upholding capitalism, Engels explains it best: “Because the state arose from the need to hold class antagonisms in check, but because it arose, at the same time, in the midst of the conflict of these classes, it is, as a rule, the state of the most powerful, economically dominant class, which, through the medium of the state, becomes also the politically dominant class, and thus acquires new means of holding down and exploiting the oppressed class.”

Thus, the state serves the interests of the capitalist class and maintains the capitalist system. It needs the police to subdue and instill fear and racial division into the working class, especially targeting Black and Latino workers. This is why the idea of “reforming the police” is an illusion.

The ruling class needs the police to instill fear and racial division into the working class./ Image: Mikasi, Wikimedia Commons

After all, the root cause of crime is poverty and competition created by the capitalist system. While some candidates like Brandon Johnson have talked about using nonpolice methods, all five candidates want to ensure CPD is involved in “solving the city’s crime problem.” But expanding the role of the police to solve the city’s crime problem will only increase police terror in working-class neighborhoods, likely leading to more murders by police. In short, police violence is not a bug within capitalism—it’s a feature.

The DSA-endorsed aldermen

Also of note are the fifty Aldermanic (i.e., city council) seats up for grabs. For Marxists, the Chicago City Council races are of particular interest because of the five DSA-endorsed Aldermen currently holding office, making up the Chicago Democratic Socialist Caucus. When these Aldermen first got into office in 2019, it was considered by many to be a watershed moment and a source of pride for some on the Left. The day after the runoff elections, Jacobin published an article stating:

A red wave has crashed into Chicago… These victories, in which citywide organizations like United Working Families (UWF) and the Chicago Democratic Socialists of America (CDSA) played a key role, mark a sea change in Chicago. They are a rare opportunity for progressive unions, radical social movements, and resurgent socialists to demand the working class have a say in Chicago.

Fast forward to today. Although socialism cannot be built in one city, one state or one country, a genuine workers’ government in Chicago could ameliorate some conditions and unify the working class while linking up with workers everywhere to struggle against the state and federal government’s austerity policies. Instead, these Alderman have largely fallen into line with the needs of the capitalists, despite this or that radical speech or pronouncement.

What should the Democratic Socialist Caucus have done these past years? In our view, it should have accepted its minority status and organized as the opposition, aiming to win over larger sections of the working class to socialist politics. It should not have been making deals with the establishment. Instead, it should have fought under a class-independent program that challenges capitalism.

It is crystal clear that its connections to the local Democratic Party have limited what it can do. Of the current Democratic Socialist Caucus, four ran and continue to run as Democrats (one of them, Rosanna Rodriguez-Sanchez, ran and won as an independent). As we have written previously, the Democrats and Republicans are capitalist institutions. Neither of the capitalist bosses’ political vehicles are “parties” in the sense understood by most of the world.

In truth, both bosses’ parties are political machines linked directly to the state apparatus. As stated previously, the state ultimately serves the interests of the capitalist class. Truly revolutionary politics or even substantial reforms simply cannot be won or effectively fought for with these or any of the other DSA-endorsed Aldermen—currently, five other non-incumbent candidates are running. Without a class-independent policy and party, their ideas will inevitably be watered down and co-opted by the Democratic Party in the interests of the capitalist class.

Take, for instance, the idea of “Defunding the Police” which all five sitting Alderman embraced during the George Floyd movement. Unlike police reform, this has gotten a lot of traction within working-class neighborhoods and anti-racist movements. While working-class distrust and animosity toward the police is entirely understandable and justified, the question of what would happen if City Council or the mayor defunded CPD has not been answered. As mentioned earlier, the police are critical for the ruling class under capitalism. If CPD were defunded, the capitalist class would simply look for something to replace it and do the job the police had been doing before. Would the Cook County Sheriff’s Office take over this job? Or could the next mayor expand the use of the private police forces patrolling wealthier neighborhoods to take over for CPD? Ultimately, only a workers’ government based on mobilizing the class as a class make Chicago a truly nice and safe place for all.

For a workers’ government, we need a mass working-class socialist party!

For decades, Chicago has been a one-party town dominated by the Democrats. Like the Republicans, they exist to maintain a system based on private property and profits for the ruling class. They cannot and will not provide solutions to the problems that stem from the crisis of capitalism because they are part of the problem. The capitalists know this and fear the eruption of a new mass protest movement in Chicago. While Brandon Johnson and the DSA-endorsed Aldermen may have good intentions, they cannot help the working class fight against capitalism effectively since they are running in a capitalist political party. In so doing, they provide left cover for the rest of the Democratic Party and help to legitimize its existence and reinforce illusions in it. It’s a simple truth but it bears repeating: the working class can only rely on its own organizations in its fight for liberation. 

There is an alternative to this nightmare. While the future may look bleak by many measures, this only shows the need for a new society based on socialism. The working class is the only class that can bring such a society into existence. We need a workers’ government at the city, state, federal, and ultimately, international levels. In order to bring about a workers’ government with a socialist program, a mass working-class socialist party is needed. Crime will no longer be the issue of the day because, under socialism, people will have their basic needs taken care of, including food, housing, and clean water.

The good news is that the International Marxist Tendency (IMT) is building the foundation for what can be part of a bigger movement to build a class-independent workers’ party. If you want to end the many horrors of capitalism, we invite you to join us in the fight for socialism in our lifetime!

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