“We are completely frightened by, completely impressed by and completely in support of wherever this is headed.”
So said an August 27th Chicago Teachers Union tweet, when protesters graced Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos’s sidewalk with a guillotine.
Not some isolated incident, such flippancy about lawlessness shows a need for our city’s major union groups to more conscientiously heed the 2019 findings of the Senate Intelligence Committee: Russian social media trolls try to weaken our country by perpetuating and exacerbating tensions, including through inflammatory sentiments like their Tumblr front handle bleepthepolice.
In retrospect, this past summer has shown a troubling tendency within the orbit of CTU, United Working Families, and SEIU Healthcare.
In June, CTU produced an infamous meme depicting Mayor Lori Lightfoot as a villain captured by the Scooby Doo gang. With a white cop tied up and unmasked to reveal Lightfoot, many people perceived racial overtones like a lasso as lynching, and Lightfoot as an Uncle Tom. She herself called it “clearly racist.” Yet, too little discussed was how the meme pilloried law enforcement, in a simplistic cartoon world where police are bad and the mayor is the villain behind the villain. The long-standing social media refrain that “Lightfoot’s a cop” also works with the same logic. Factually incorrect, it uses the pejorative tinge to the word “cop” like in the fringe acronym ACAB (“All Cops are Bastards”), while it incorporates her into a profession treated with a casual and easy contempt.
Unsurprisingly, CTU staff quickly removed this meme – but also punched back and derided widespread discomfort as a choice to “clutch the pearls.”
Soon enough, similar extreme sentiments popped up again in another social media feed. In covering a July City Council hearing, the United Working Families Twitter account referenced “Cop Lightfoot” and stated that “you can’t train a fish to walk and you can’t train a cop to care for Black and Latinx children.” Anything but fringe, UWF helped elect fresh aldermanic faces like Andre Vasquez, Rossana Rodriguez Sanchez, Matt Martin, and Maria Hadden, and it received $30,000 in support from an SEIU Healthcare PAC just this spring.
CTU, UWF, and SEIU Healthcare do much good for our city, including with their current fight for the Fair Tax constitutional amendment. However, this particular moment demands stronger leadership from them. At best, charged language has inadvertently bled into too little monitored social media feeds. At worst, this rhetoric constitutes centralized messaging in order to rally factional support. In any case, leaders like Jesse Sharkey, Stacy Davis Gates, Emma Tai, and Greg Kelley should take charge, determine causes, and find appropriate solutions, from better social media guidelines to conscious change of organizational culture.
It isn’t always responsible to say something that we have the freedom to say. In his Summer 2020 letter to SEIU Healthcare workers, President Greg Kelley himself not only underscored the racism of the George Floyd killing and the inequalities laid bare by Covid-19, but also stressed that “we need national and local leadership that unites us rather than divides us.” Anger, trauma, and death from policing and discrimination are real, and major change is long overdue.
Yet, it should give all of us serious pause, that a hostile power wants to stoke divisive rhetoric around violence and law enforcement. In their estimation, such rhetoric weakens our society, by hindering true change and thus perpetuating the injustice that many of us claim to fight.
We can only hope that the leaders of our city’s major union groups adopt a fuller perspective and choose to act more responsibly, as they continue to advocate for a more just and equal polity.
David Mihalyfy is an Independent Voters of Illinois – Independent Precinct Organization board member, and ran against 11th Ward alderman Patrick Daley Thompson in the 2019 municipal election. He is a current member of SEIU Healthcare, and has taken part in unionization drives under the American Federation of Teachers, SEIU Local 73, and Teamsters Local 743.