Chicago’s machine strikes again

January 22, 2015

Trish Kahle explains how Tammie Vinson's independent campaign for Chicago alderman was blocked--and why Vinson remains committed to activism.

AFTER A long, tough battle, public school teacher Tammie Vinson was forced off the ballot, along with six other candidates, in the election for alderman in Chicago's 28th Ward.

The residents of the ward, situated in the heart of Chicago's West Side, spoke clearly. Thousands signed petitions to get Vinson and other candidates on the ballot. But the incumbent, Jason Ervin, spent weeks and untold amounts of money using the city's convoluted election laws to disqualify signatures on technicalities.

Vinson knew she faced an uphill battle: Ervin has held his seat since he was appointed with the approval of the previous alderman in 2011, and he has the support of the city's Democratic Party machine. Still, as Vinson noted in a public statement when the first challenge to her placeon the ballot was filed, the lengths to which Ervin went to prevent an open election was particularly egregious:

The 28th Ward is the only ward of the 50 in the city where every candidate running against the incumbent had their petitions challenged. Ervin's decision to challenge every opponent's petitions shows a contempt for the voices of the very people he is supposed to represent, the very people who by the thousands signed petitions to have a free, open debate about our ward and the city's future.

Tammie Vinson
Tammie Vinson

Even as Vinson centered her campaign on issues of police brutality and public education, Ervin focused all of his energy on making sure he would run unopposed. "[He] wants to run unchallenged to hang on to an alderman's salary that's more than four times the average household income in the ward, and to earn a pension even as city worker pensions are under attack," Vinson said.

GOING ON strike as a member of the Chicago Teachers Union in 2012 convinced Vinson, a special education teacher, that budget cuts, attacks on workers and education privatization had to be fought at the ballot box as well as in the schools and the streets--and that rank-and-file teachers were the people to do it. A debate at the convention of the Caucus of Rank-and-File Educators (CORE), of which Vinson is a member, sealed the deal. "As educators," she explained, "we are the representatives and defenders of our children and our communities."

This summer, as a wave of candidates opposed to Mayor Rahm Emanuel's regime emerged across the city, Vinson decided to run as well. She joined a smaller group of insurgent candidates--like socialist Jorge Mújica, and independents Tim Meegan and Olga Bautista--who were not only opposed to Rahm, but also wanted to challenge the Democratic Party.

"People are always talking about the fact that the Republicans are bad," she said. "But the policies we're living under right now came from the Democrats! How can you ally yourself with people who make these kind of policies? You can't. Why should we settle for something that's just slightly less odious than the other?"

Democratic-backed policies like school "reform" have been devastating for Chicago Public Schools, and in Vinson's ward in particular. "They closed a bunch of schools here on the West Side, around Pope and Douglas Park in particular," she said. "Now there aren't any neighborhood schools in that area and kids have to walk much further to get to school."

Many of the closed schools had been declared "under-enrolled" by CPS, but as Vinson notes, under-enrollment only became a reality when cuts to public housing and connected support services displaced many residents: "They shut down the public housing, force people to move out of the area, and then claim the schools are under-enrolled."

The out-migration in Chicago's Black neighborhoods, like those that make up the 28th Ward, is striking: while the overall city population declined by 6.9 percent between the last two censuses, the city's Black population declined by more than 17 percent--a loss of about 178,000, or 89 percent of the total.

"Just before they closed Emmett [School]," she recalled, "they tore down a bunch of low income housing. I had three students who lived in that complex, but their families had to move out of the city to find affordable housing."

VINSON ALSO broke ground on another front: in January, she became the first candidate for public office to endorse the Black Youth Project 100's "Agenda to Keep Us Safe" and add it to her platform. At a joint forum, Vinson and leaders from BYP100 discussed the racism, criminalization and terror faced by Black Chicagoans in the 28th Ward and all across the city.

Even in the wake of nationwide protests that erupted following the murder of Mike Brown just a few hours away in Ferguson, Missouri, police have exacerbated tension in the community by sending almost exclusively white patrols to the almost entirely Black neighborhood where Vinson lives. "In the last six months," she says, "I've only seen two non-white police officers."

And while Black police officers aren't a solution to the problem, the practice of sending white officers in to patrol solidifies the perception most residents have of the police. "Everyone is treated like a criminal in their own neighborhood," says Vinson.

Case in point: Vinson's son was recently stopped and harassed by the police while leaving to their house in the morning to go to work. Police claimed they thought he was skipping school, even though he's 25. All of her son's friends have similar stories, and another young man Vinson knows lost a scholarship after being arrested "for being in the wrong place at the wrong time." Except the wrong place was his own neighborhood. He was criminalized for being Black.

The forum, which Vinson organized through a call to "make Black Lives Matter a reality and not just a hashtag," also demonstrated the importance of the fight against racism to defending our public schools and vice versa. As Vinson said:

What I'm hoping will happen is that we can present a real challenge to policing, especially in its current form. We're looking at some policies that can make our communities a little safer from the police, because right now they're criminalizing regular behavior, and that works to dismantle our community--and then they blame us, the regular people, for what their policies did! They shouldn't be able to arrest people for running red lights or selling loose cigarettes.

This makes its way back into the schools. They label our kids as "bad," when really what's going on is they don't have social skills or support. Why? Because often they're being raised in a situation where their mother or father has been taken away from them by these criminalization policies. They create this situation for these kids and then blame the victim. People like Rahm say that 25 percent of our kids are going to fail, but why? Why should we accept that? Our kids aren't numbers, and there are concrete things that can be done to address these issues.

Vinson's commitment to the "Agenda to Keep Us Safe," which demands the decriminalization of Black youth, demilitarization of police, strengthened civil rights law and federal Department of Justice oversight, and ending the war on drugs through decriminalization, represented an important link between the Black Lives Matter movement and a growing movement for politics independent of and to the left of the Democratic Party. Any independent working-class politics must take a principled stand against racism and actively fight police terror.

Tammie Vinson won't be on the ballot in February's municipal election, but she's still committed to independent working class politics that can demand an end to police terror, fully funded public schools and city services, and a living wage. She'll see you in the streets, and if you live in Chicago's 28th Ward, you should write in her name to let the Democrats know: they're on borrowed time.

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