As a Black man, a husband and father raising his three Black children in the Austin neighborhood, and a former teacher of Black students, the murders of Black people at the hands of the state continues to shake me to my core. I feel sad, hopeless, desperate, fearful for my family and community.
Breonna Taylor, Rayshard Brooks, Rekia Boyd, Bettie Jones, Laquan McDonald. How is it possible that these lynchings–broadcast across the world in real time–have not already led to transformative change for the Black community?
How is it possible that in 2020, 155 years after the abolition of slavery, we must still demand that Black Lives Matter? Though we are no longer shackled by chains, too many Black families remain trapped within perpetual cycles of poverty, discrimination, and disenfranchisement, relegated to communities that have been abandoned for generations.
In my duties as a Cook County commissioner, I’ve seen hundreds of symbols throughout my district calling for justice for Black people. I’ve witnessed thousands marching against institutionalized racism and demanding an end to over-policing and incarceration of Black lives. This is, perhaps, the largest uprising in my lifetime.
And, yet, I wonder how history will judge us, if we allow these historic moments pass without enacting transformative policies that ensure Black lives not only matter, but are truly protected, supported and resourced.
We can start this transformation in Cook County, where thousands of Black people sit in jail cells, presumed innocent, but locked up nonetheless because they are too poor to pay for bail. Our county’s massive criminal justice system continues to deprive Black residents of their safety, dignity, economic security and freedom, destroying families every day. Cook County will spend $336 million on incarceration this year—a 26 percent increase since 2013. In comparison, we only appropriate a paltry $24.8 million on behavioral health care.
Contrary to popular belief, there is no correlation between the money spent on policing and incarceration and the safety of our residents. In fact, the application of justice for Black people is often arbitrary and discriminatory, leaving people feeling oppressed rather than safe. We need a paradigm shift that acknowledges the system’s failures and one that takes responsibility for the subjugation and abuse of Black people. Cook County must chart a new course and prioritize the lives of its Black residents.
We have a rare opportunity to begin that shift in Cook County with passage of the Justice for Black Lives resolution, which would give county commissioners a roadmap for taking millions spent on policing and incarceration and reinvesting instead in job creation, housing, healthcare, and safety measures that support Black lives.
In the coming months, the county board will be asked to make some very tough budget decisions that will reveal our true priorities and moral compass. We cannot continue down the path of austerity, disinvestment and over-policing. We must prioritize services that increase equity, prevent violence at its root, and transform Black communities.
Elected officials in dozens of cities have painted “Black Lives Matter” in various public places–even on the street across from the White House. These symbols must be coupled with budgets and priorities that make the messages on those murals a reality. Heeding the call of this moment demands that we move real resources out of systems that are killing Black people and into systems that promote their health and well-being.
Cook County Commissioner Brandon Johnson represents the 1st District