Screengrab via YouTube
In 2008, Anita Alvarez became Chicago's first woman and first Latina state's attorney. After a tenure marred with cover-ups and controversy, many Chicagoans are no longer on her side. Now, whether she keeps her seat is up to the city.
On March 21, 2012, Rekia Boyd was standing with a crowd of friends in an alley on the West Side of Chicago when someone in her group got into a shouting match with a person in a nearby car. The person in the car was Dante Servin, an off-duty cop making a burger run. Servin, who is white, claims that at the time, he felt threatened by the group—which is why, he says, he pulled out his unregistered Glock and shot five rounds from over his shoulder in their direction.
One of Servin's bullets hit 22-year-old Boyd in the back of the head. She died two days later.
Boyd's family was eventuallygiven a $4.5-million wrongful death settlement from the city of Chicago. Two years later, the Cook County state's attorney charged Servin with involuntary manslaughter and reckless conduct. Given Chicago's storied history of police misconduct, citizens paid keen attention to this case. Many hoped Servin would lose his job and serve time in jail. But only one of those things happened.
Servin's charge came from the office of Anita Alvarez, a Mexican–American Democrat who was both the first woman and first Latina to ever win the state's attorney seat in Cook County. Unfortunately, Servin—who pled not guilty—was never even called to testify before he was acquitted. According to the judge, manslaughter was the wrong charge; Servin should've been charged with murder. Because Alvarez made the wrong call, Servin walked.
Now Alvarez, who became the state's attorney in 2008 when she won 26 percent of the vote, is fighting to retain her position. Unfortunately for her (and Chicago citizens), botching Boyd's case was only one in a slew of fuck-ups—and things don't look promising for the incumbent in this election.
Since 2009, Alvarez's office has been accused of multiple cover-ups—clearing killer cops at least 68 times—and the Democratic party has backed away from her. Activists are also responding to what they consider Alvarez's miscarriages of justice, especially when it comes to prosecuting cops and people of color: They want her out of office and have spent the last five months ramping up an anti-Anita campaign that could very well be her undoing.
"She is part of the violence we've seen," says Page May, an activist and anti-Anita organizer with the grassroots radical black women's collective Assata's Daughters. "She has blood on her hands. Voters need to understand what's at stake here."
Photo courtesy of Sarah Ji
"What's at stake" is the way future police shootings might be handled. This is incredibly important everywhere, but especially in Chicago—where there are well-documented problems with segregation, racial tension, and police misconduct.
"We've had numerous police scandals that date back before even I was born," says Craig Futterman, a professor of law with the University of Chicago. "Each time there's been a scandal, it's led to a political crisis; Chicago's leaders have followed a pretty familiar playbook. Some heads are gonna roll."
One head that has already rolled was that of Police Superintendent Garry McCarthy, who was asked to resign from his position last year following the release of dash cam video showing a white cop, Jason Van Dyke, fatally shooting a black teen named Laquan McDonald 16 times.
Van Dyke was ultimately found to have lied about the shooting and has since been charged with murder and misconduct. But Alvarez only brought the charges after the case grew into a national furor—400 days after McDonald was killed, months after the local mayoral election, and well after the city had quietly paid a hefty settlement to McDonald's family. Unsurprisingly, the McDonald case is plaguing Alvarez this election cycle.
Getting rid of one person will not fix a corrupt system, but you should still fight to get rid of people who are terrible.
"16 shots and a cover-up" became a familiar refrain with activists criticizing Alvarez for mishandling the case. Hundreds have protested daily: Marching into the streets, stopping traffic on the expressway, and, eventually, walking into Alvarez's fundraising events to remind her donors that some in the city are not happy with her decisions. In recent weeks, protesters have even prevented Alvarez from speaking to a crowd at the University of Chicago.
Protesters aren't the only ones working to remove Alvarez from office. One of her two opponents, Donna More, a former county and federal prosecutor—who is white—has openly attacked Alvarez's decisions during several recent debates.
"I think we all know that Alvarez was involved in a cover-up," More said in a debate last Thursday night. "She filed charges on [Van Dyke] before the judge released the video tape. What evidence did she have on day 400 that she didn't have on day 40? After 29 years, she couldn't recognize that crime."
Alvarez has defended herself repeatedly. "Police shootings are a complicated matter to investigate," she said at a different debate, as if that should explain why she took a little over a year to charge Van Dyke. "Doing a meticulous, thorough investigation is what we did, and the whole goal was to seek justice for Laquan."
Alvarez's reelection video also adds this: "The role of a prosecutor is not racking up convictions. It's about getting to the truth."
Screengrab via YouTube
Her other opponent, Kim Foxx, a former assistant state's attorney—who is black—says that defense is not good enough. "She knew for weeks that she was going to charge Officer Van Dyke—but she held off on those charges because she was waiting for the feds to finish their investigation, which is completely unrelated to the murder charges," Foxx said.
Foxx is the frontrunner in the race, and she's supported by the city's Democratic machine as well as the Chicago branch of the Black Lives Matter movement. On Sunday, she received an endorsement from singer John Legend, who stated that the state's attorney gig is too important and affects too many people of color for Alvarez to get reelected.
"As cases from Michael Brown to Laquan McDonald put front and center the people our justice system fails everyday, we must support candidates who recognize that our system is in desperate need of transformation," Legend wrote on his Facebook page. "It is imperative that we support and vote for prosecutors that enhance integrity and fairness throughout our criminal justice system."
Regardless of who takes the seat, many activists—most of whom are queer, black women—say they've already won because their work to bring the #byeanita campaign to the city's consciousness has succeeded. Organizers say the hashtag—a nod to the recently re-popularized quote "Bye Felicia" from the film Friday—is a "get out the vote" tactic designed to make constituents interested in learning why Anita's name has been substituted for Felicia.
Photo courtesy of Sarah Ji
"It's not enough to get Van Dyke," presses May, the Assata's Daughters organizer. "It's important for others to notice we're building out a movement—it's not just about police violence. The solution will expand beyond police. Anita Alvarez was part of a cover-up. She personally tanked the case against Dante Servin, who murdered Rekia Boyd. And having young, black, radical organizations get her out of office is huge right now. We know [what we're doing] has more political significance now than it did three years ago."
That said, no one thinks that a new state's attorney will be the only solution.
"Getting rid of one person will not fix a corrupt system," says Mariame Kaba, with Project Nia, another one of the groups involved in citywide organizing efforts. "But you should still fight to get rid of people who are terrible. There's a different kind of pressure now. I've been yelling about [Alvarez] for eight years."
Now, says Kaba, groups of all ages and races are linking together in newfound solidarity to create an even greater change. "We've never seen this kind of activism and organizing for young people of color focused on a state's attorney's race."
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