Carlos Ballesteros: ‘Communities come together in ways that aren’t marches, too’

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Carlos Ballesteros joined Injustice Watch as our newest reporter at the beginning of June. He comes to us from the Chicago Sun-Times, where he spent two years as a Report for America fellow covering the South and West sides.

He’s hit the ground running with stories about the ballooning Chicago Police budget and the racial disparities in who benefited from early release from prison due to COVID-19.

He has a lot more in the works. But before too much time passes, we wanted to give Carlos the opportunity to introduce himself in his own words and to talk about his approach to reporting.

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You were born in Chicago and you’ve been a reporter here now for several years. How does your experience growing up in this city affect the way you report on it?

The mainstream press has historically not been too interested in allowing Black and Latinx communities to tell their own stories. When I joined the Sun-Times, I did my best to amplify the voices and lived experiences of people who live in those communities and make space for their ideas on how they think this city could work better for them.

Rich Hein/Sun-Times

Carlos Ballesteros

What do you think people get wrong about Chicago?

Perhaps the most boneheaded thing I’ve heard people say about this town is that people in Chicago don’t care about their communities. This argument often comes up at times of unrest and rebellion, like the one we’re living in today. People will say, “Why don’t people protest when people shoot each other on the South Side or the West Side?”

What those naysayers don’t know — and maybe don’t care to know — is that there are leaders who’ve dedicated their lives to bring peace and justice to their communities. I know because I’ve interviewed them. Communities come together in ways that aren’t marches, too, and are often invisible to (or ignored by) the press. It’s our job as journalists to seek out those stories.

You started at Injustice Watch amid a global pandemic that’s disproportionately killing Black and Brown people and a national uprising against police brutality and systemic racism. What do you see as your role as a journalist at this particular moment in history?

I think the role of any journalist worth their salt is to synthesize the truth and deliver it in a way that’s accessible, useful, and accurate. That mission is particularly important today as people try to imagine a future that isn’t defined by police violence and the carceral state. Part of my job is to find people on the ground who are already doing the work to make that future a reality.

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Chicago has nearly tripled per capita police spending since 1964, data show

For activists and city leaders calling on Mayor Lori Lightfoot to cut the police budget, it’s clear that the money could be better spent elsewhere.

For example, for my first story on the rising spending on policing in Chicago, I wanted to include someone who could speak to how the money that currently goes to policing could be better spent on community programs that reduce crime. I reached out to Tamar Manasseh, founder of Mothers Against Senseless Killings, or MASK, an anti-violence group in Englewood run by community residents who keep the peace without getting the police involved. MASK pays some of those residents a stipend for their work and also pays for a handful of neighborhood youths to attend a trade school.

“We’re not asking the city to do anything that we haven’t experimented with — we know it works, and all you have to do is pay people to police their own communities and guess what? Everything will change,” she told me.

When it comes to COVID-19, it’s important we don’t lose sight of the communities facing the most hardship. I’m especially interested in reporting on how the pandemic is affecting prisons and the organizing happening both inside and outside to get as many people out as possible before it’s too late.

At the Sun-Times, you reported extensively on immigration enforcement. What parallels do you see between the immigration court system and the criminal justice system?

Immigration courts, much like criminal courts, are filled with poor people. And oftentimes what brings immigrants to immigration court are charges and sentences they’ve faced in criminal court. That overlap speaks to how Black and immigrant communities in Chicago are overpoliced, underfunded, and neglected.

But unlike those in criminal court, immigrants aren’t afforded the right to public counsel. That means immigrants have to either navigate the courts on their own or hire a private attorney, which are often prohibitively expensive.

Judges in immigration court are also appointed by the U.S. Attorney General, which opens the door for nepotism and politics to seep in what’s supposed to be a fair and unbiased process.

Regardless of whether President Trump wins a second term, his administration has already changed how the court operates, making it harder for immigrants to stay in the country, potentially for years to come.

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