On August 3, 2019, I published a blog about how local civic life at the official level is reflecting national tensions. The heart of my blog (now Part 1 of Public Trust in Evanston, IL: National Cracks being Exposed in Chicago Suburb) is this paragraph:
“On July 12, 2019, Evanston’s Mayor put a stake in the ground that caused some of Evanston’s cracks to become even more exposed. Unfortunately, the July 15th City Council discussion and vote to table the Mayor’s resolution to censure the City Clerk was just another stonewalling of the public’s need for information. It took a whistleblower, leaking a draft memorandum later that night, to force officials to notice the cracks in the public trust. As of today, August 3, the aftershocks have not stopped. My thanks to the whistleblower.”
The biggest and most public aftershock was the Mayor’s July 26th letter to the Cook County Sheriff requesting a criminal investigation into the leaked memorandum. With that letter, the original stake was pounded deeper into the hardpan of Evanston’s public process, exposing more cracks in the public trust (and creating new ones). So far, there has been no response from the Sheriff’s office or further developments from the City. It is likely that many officials have been on vacation during August.The next City Council meeting is Sept. 9.
However, as of August 20, an additional aftershock from the July 15th meeting has been surfacing and spreading, again thanks to watchful citizens. During the Call of the Wards (the end of every Council meeting), these dedicated citizens heard (and now have shared publicly) a city official castigate “white folks” for using the word “racism” in public.
“I really sit here and have a difficult time when I hear white folks admonishing me and using the word racism like it’s some coined phrase that you just came up with. Unless you’ve walked in my shoes or any one of us blacks sitting back here. I suggest you keep that to yourself. You want to have that conversation internally, I’m a big fan of that, internal versus external conversations. Do that.
—Intimidation by a public official
The hearing will begin on Sept. 17, 2019 (7:00 PM) at the Civic Center. For the record, citizens presenting the complaint at the Board of Ethics meeting on August 20 affirm that no one citing civic racism at the July 15th meeting targeted any individual official. I watched the entire Citizen Comment period of the July 15th meeting live and I heard numerous charges of racism leveled at City government as a whole (and possibly the city as a population of 75,000 people). This is what is meant by “structural” racism. I heard no charges of racism against any single or specific officials.
The complaint before the Board of Ethics seems to cite only the first paragraph of Ald. Braithwaite’s remarks. I am equally concerned about the second paragraph, for the following reasons:
1. Ald. Braithwaite is confused if he thinks that white people (or anyone) accusing the “City of Evanston” (or the city of Evanston) of racism is identical to accusing him personally (as a Black alderman) of racism. If he thinks that there is no structural racism within the City of Evanston (or hasn’t been structural racism within the City of Evanston), maybe we don’t need an Equity & Empowerment Commission or a discussion of reparations. Or an MWBE (minority & women business) initiative. Or any other initiatives that seek to redress past and on-going structural inequities (which are not limited to biased behavior against Black people).
2. Ald. Braithwaite is incorrect in calling the current divisiveness about the proposal to censure the City Clerk “racial”. The core of this current divisiveness is not racial, per the following two points:
a. The core of the current divisiveness within the City of Evanston (public process) and the city of Evanston (the community at large) is about shared power (democratic process) and access to information (transparency). It is also about public trust, specifically who has the authority to make the rules and who has the authority to break the rules. Current tensions at City Council meetings are not falling along racial lines, but between officials and elites, on the one hand, and grassroots voters, on the other–in other words, along power lines.
—a developing grassroots interracial coalition that prioritizes open and participatory government, in contrast to Evanston’s North Shore traditions of insider and “dais” decision-making
b. If I recall correctly, the charges of racism against the City of Evanston at the July 15th Citizen Comment were not only made by “white” people. Numerous people commented on the seemingly racist nature of (1) the motion to censure the City Clerk (and proceedings that led up to it), (2) the City of Evanston’s treatment of the City Clerk since before he was elected, and/or (3) the behavior of other City officials (elected and staff) during the past two years (more or less).
c. mature and loving citizenship as specifically inclusive of the mandate to criticize (when necessary)
Numerous national events have recently provided extensive opportunity for this kind of learning, in many media outlets and various formats. Two recent and relevant discussions come to mind:
a. Ald. Braithwaite’s mistaken conflation of the City of Evanston and himself as a person is similar to the current and on-going conflation of the current government of Israel with all Jewish people.
b. Ald. Braithwaite’s words encouraging people who criticize the City of Evanston to “Go” resonates negatively with the U.S. president’s July 14th Tweet to four sitting Congresswomen (and U.S. citizens) to “go back” where they came from.
As I said in Part 1 of this blog, “Evanston public officials (and other Evanston residents) who think that the only problem regarding public trust is “civility” should consider working to (a) redress the injustices, and (b) invite everyone to sit down together to rewrite the rules by which we ALL agree to live in 2019.”
Working on one specific rule here or there is not going to address the deeper issues of elite power structures and injustices embedded in City of Evanston government (and city of Evanston community), as well as at the levels of Cook County, State of Illinois, and U.S. government. A meaningful conversation might be to review ALL of the rules that we live by, starting wtih the U.S. Constitution (my recommendation) and including the Evanston municipal code.
But a first conversation should probably start with: What is the basis for our rules, laws, and protocols in 2019? We know that protecting “white Christian land-owning men” is not working for most of us, including non-humans. As food for thought, I personally would be excited to participate in a “truth & conciliation conversation about race, gender, and class”. This is the idea of an independent candidate for president, Mark Charles (Navajo/Dutch). I am not endorsing him or supporting him directly, but I agree with his formulation that our foundations are cracked. We need to replace the foundation—not only in Evanston but nationally.
Comments by Ald. Peter Braithwaite
Complaint to Board of Ethics
by Albert Gibbs and Trisha Connolly
—Decision by Board confirming its jurisdiction over the complaint (55-minute mark)