Magazine Feature

Trump Said Chicago Is 'A War Zone': Activists Are Worried He Might Make It Worse

Donald Trump
Brian Blanco/Getty Images

Donald Trump speaks to supporters at a rally at the Blumenthal Performing Arts Center's McGlohon Theater on Oct. 26, 2016 in Charlotte, N.C. 

For four straight days after the presidential election, thousands of Chicagoans chanting “Not my president!” marched through the Loop, crossing the river to gather beneath the giant switchblade of the 98-story Trump Tower. Similar protests erupted in other big cities. (Elsewhere, those emboldened by Trump’s victory carried out more than 200 assaults on ethnic and racial minorities, according to the Southern Poverty Law Center.) But it was Chicago — President Obama's hometown, where 84 percent of voters picked Hillary Clinton — that was Donald Trump’s go-to symbol for the inner city throughout his campaign, a place so violent and impoverished, he said, that the people “living in hell” had nothing to lose by electing him. Now we will find out.

“I was woozy to see such a symbol of hatred be put into our nation’s highest office,” says rapper Vic Mensa, recalling election night. “Then, when I woke up the next morning, I realized that this had to happen because we’ve been pacified having Barack Obama in office.” Rhymefest echoes that idea: “Maybe it’s a good thing that the mask fell off — we know for sure that we live in a racist, sexist, xenophobic country.”

Trump’s ascendance could spark new movements for change. “We see an opportunity to push radical and transformative demands,” says Charlene Carruthers, the head of activist group BYP100. That could mean redirecting 40 percent of the Chicago operating budget now spent on policing to job creation or universal childcare instead.

Still, “if Trump’s policies follow his rhetoric, it could be a real issue for people in black and brown and poor communities here,” says Chicago treasurer Kurt Summers. A repeal of Obamacare or cuts to Medicaid would hit a cash-strapped county hospital system that provides uncompensated care to the city’s neediest. Chicago is a sanctuary city — officials here do not have to report undocumented immigrants to the feds. The Trump administration could withhold funding if Chicago doesn’t comply with tougher enforcement.

The troubled Chicago Police Department began to reckon with its past during the last year, as the Department of Justice launched a civil-rights investigation of the force that is ongoing. “Under Trump, the thought of meaningful DOJ oversight of the CPD is absolutely gone,” says Craig Futterman, who runs a police accountability clinic at the University of Chicago Law School. Changes to the First Amendment could also affect how law enforcement whistleblowers report misconduct. And the feds can set standards on how departments report — or don’t report — officer-involved shootings to the FBI and track complaints of police abuse. Amy Campanelli, the Cook County Public Defender, worries that messaging like a “war” on guns, crime or gangs might encourage racial bias in police officers. Will Howell, an expert on separation-of-powers issues at the University of Chicago, says, “A president has a platform like no one else, and we’re going to be looking reflexively to Trump and what he says about things like the legacy of racism.”

Summers says some of the nonspecific proposals in Trump’s “New Deal for Black America” theoretically align with the interests of communities he represents: infrastructure investment, more capital for minority businesses. He says he must fight for these things, whoever is president: “There will be a federal government on Jan. 20, and it will have a direct impact on the city, so I don’t have the luxury of taking my ball and going home.”

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This story originally appeared in the Nov. 26 issue of Billboard.