This story was published in partnership with The TRiiBE, a digital media platform that is reshaping the narrative of Black Chicago and giving ownership back to the people.
Anytime there’s progress made in Black liberatory work, there’s often an oppressive force on the other side using all their might to shut it down. Pick almost any period in Black history where the people have fought to be seen as more than three-fifths of a person and won — usually, there’s a heavily-funded opposition campaign using the tools of criminalization to tear them apart.
For example, after the end of the Civil War in 1865, racist Southern states enacted “black codes” to penalize and limit the freedoms of newly-freed Black people. Fast-forward to the modern era, where after a years-long movement for Black lives brought widespread attention and accountability to police brutality, a counter “Blue Lives Matter” campaign surfaced and cities across the country — including Chicago — increased police department budgets.
A similar tug-of-war is happening in Illinois right now with the SAFE-T Act, a sweeping reform of the criminal justice system that was signed into law last year. Backed by the Illinois Legislative Black Caucus, the SAFE-T Act: expands police officer training in race and ethnicity sensitivity and de-escalation tactics, requires body cameras in all departments by 2025, creates stricter body camera regulations, and requires medical treatment for people in custody without unreasonable delay, among other things.
But the most controversial piece of the SAFE-T Act is the Pretrial Fairness Act, which goes into effect on Jan. 1, 2023 and will abolish cash bail in Illinois — the first state to do so in the country. Chicago organizers and civil rights groups fought tirelessly for this historic measure, understanding that the majority of pretrial detainees are Black or brown. Their inability to afford a bond leads to job loss, housing uncertainty and loss of child custody — while doing nothing to improve public safety.
However, a highly-funded, far-right conservative misinformation campaign has spread rapidly across social media in recent weeks, using fear-mongering buzzwords such as “the purge” and anti-Black imagery such as mugshots to describe an untrue scenario of lawlessness when the Democrats supposedly let all the criminals out of jail on Jan. 1.
“This is just in line with what we’ve seen in history. After we see a huge sort of uprising of civil rights demands, and they combine race, class and gender, there is going to be a reactionary element,” said Sen. Robert Peters, chair of the Senate Black Caucus and a co-sponsor of the SAFE-T Act.
The current misinformation campaign is being funded by conservative operative Dan Proft and Republican megadonor Dick Uihlein, according to Crain’s Chicago Business.
“So what we’re in right now is a tug of war between progressive voices that actually are saying that the status quo, the system we’re in now around public safety, is fundamentally flawed and broken. We need something new,” Peters explained. “But the problem is that anything new is going to impact the well-being of the ultra wealthy who have a lot of money and benefit from the privileges of suppressing particularly working-class Black and Latino folks.”
Thing is, cash bail is a matter of economic violence. Nationally, about 400,000 people spend night after night in local jails, awaiting trial for mostly low-level offenses, solely because they don’t have the money to bond out. An example of this is the high-profile case of Kalief Browder, a 16-year-old Black teen who was incarcerated in Rikers Island Jail, New York City’s pretrial detention center, for three years for allegedly stealing a backpack in 2010. He spent two of those years in solitary confinement. A couple of years after his release, he succumbed to the trauma of incarceration and took his own life in 2015.
Cook County Jail is one of the largest pretrial detention centers in the country, with a current population of more than 5,600 people, 74% percent of whom are Black. Additionally, it’s situated in Cook County where 24% of Black residents currently live below the poverty line, the highest of any racial group.
Cook County Public Defender Sharone Mitchell Jr. witnesses the impact of cash bail on Black communities daily. He routinely sits down with families, most often a mother, grandmother, aunt, or woman partner, he said, and negotiates what he calls a “ransom.” Essentially, that’s the amount of money families need to come up with to bond their loved ones out of jail.
“Having a conversation of, ‘do you have $1,000? Do you have $5,000 or $10,000? Can you save a few checks up? Can you not pay a bill?’” he said.
“You often see people waiting a year, two years, for their case to be resolved. And we know that (incarceration) is a tool to get people to plead guilty,” Mitchell continued. “You hear about false confessions? Well, many of those people were in pretrial incarceration right when that happened.”
When a person is accused of committing a felony, they go before a judge who is tasked with making a decision about what’s going to happen to them during the pendency of the trial. Mitchell said currently there are three options:
1. The judge can release the person on an individual recognizance bond, meaning they need to return to court on their own or can be re-arrested.
2. They’re held in custody without bond until the case is resolved.
3. They’re eligible for release, but only if they pay a cash bond.
The SAFE-T Act will eliminate the third option. Under the SAFE-T Act, a defendant can only be detained in jail pretrial if they’re charged with specific types of felonies, like murder and sexual assault, and if prosecutors prove to a judge that the defendant is a flight risk or “poses a specific, real and present threat to any person or the community.”
“It basically says, OK, there needs to be some eligibility. There needs to be some requirements for a person to be detained because, again, we’re talking about a person who is innocent until proven guilty. We know that this region has a real problem with wrongful convictions and false confessions,” Mitchell said. “So just an allegation doesn’t mean somebody’s guilty.”
How did we get here?
When the SAFE-T Act was signed into law in spring 2021, Sen. Peters remembers feeling deep dread. He knew he and the Black Caucus were in for an even bigger fight, anticipating a counterattack from critics and right-wing extremists, such as the one currently playing out in viral Tik Tok videos and memes across other social-media platforms.
“They really made this an election issue with a lot of funding,” Peters said. “We’re basically now trying to push back and we have to catch up to the fact that essentially the far-right is using a Black Caucus pillar to try to scare people, particularly in the suburbs, to not vote and possibly allow anti-abortion, pro-assualt weapon candidates to get into office.”
Veteran media and political consultant Delmarie Cobb likened the Republican’s misinformation campaign to the Russian meddling tactics of the 2016 presidential election, when they released politically damaging information on the internet and spread propaganda across social-media platforms.
“This is the new method of infiltrating our communities with misinformation,” Cobb said about counterattacks to the SAFE-T Act.
Coupled with the unyielding sensationalized reporting and rhetoric that inaccurately paints Chicago as the “murder capital of the world,” a fear-mongering misinformation campaign painting the SAFE-T Act as the ‘Purge Law’ is easy to spread. And conservatives have routinely taken advantage of such opportunities, dating back most recently to the election of the country’s first Black president in 2008.
Peters said Republicans decided to attack President Barack Obama by attacking Chicago. “So for 14 years now, when we talk about Chicago, it’s tied to this Republican campaign to try to undermine President Obama,” Roberts said. “In the ‘80s, the way people talked about LA and New York, any place where you have a large Black population and any sense of progressive politics, it becomes the boogeyman city of right-wing politics.”
Mitchell agreed, adding that there is a real economic interest in the talking point that Chicago is plagued by crime. Everything from drill music’s Chicago origins to news reporting is a money maker for politicians and institutions.
“I’m not gonna sit here and deny that we don’t have our problems, but we know that people make money off of this. When you see big outlets posting about Chicago or the Illinois ‘Purge Law,’ people are making that decision knowing that they’ll get clicks, knowing that people will see it. So it feeds into this misinformation,” Mitchell explained. “We’ve been trained for years and years and years to think about Chicago in a certain way. And this is a byproduct of that.”
What’s real? What’s fake?
During former Chicago mayor Harold Washington’s election campaign in the 1980s, Cobb remembers that he regularly went on Black-owned radio station WVON to get his message across. Back then, she said, it was more common for Black people to go to their trusted sources for news and information. At the time, those places were the Chicago Defender and WVON.
“I keep saying that if Harold Washington was alive today, he wouldn’t win. Not in this environment,” Cobb said.
Today, with many Black publications being sold to corporations or disinvested from entirely, Cobb explained that it’s hard for Black Chicagoans — and Black people across the country — to find trustworthy news sources.
“All of that has been taken from us. We’ve lost,” Cobb said.
Although a lot of the Black news pillars have been lost, National Association of Black Journalists Chicago chapter president Brandon Pope said this growing age of technology is also an opportunity for more grassroots, independent and digital Black news outlets to fill in the gap.
“But we do have to recognize that you have people that are entering the [journalism] game who don’t understand the rules of the game, who aren’t playing by any sort of code, any sort of rules. And that hurts everybody,” Pope said. “When you’re spreading misinformation, you are really doing a disservice to whoever that misinformation is about.”
Pope encourages people to vet their news sources before sharing and spreading information. Here’s how:
- Check for a byline: “Who wrote this? Who’s reporting this? What other stories have they reported?”
- If you found the news on social media, check for a website: “If they don’t have a website, then they’re definitely not a reputable news organization.”
- Pay attention to language used in the headline: “What is being communicated here? Be careful of headlines that lead you astray.”
Tiffany Walden is the co-founder and editor-in-chief of The TRiiBE.