In the February 28 municipal election, more than 100 candidates are running for the city’s newly created Police District Councils (PDCs). The councils were created by the 2021 Empowering Communities for Public Safety (ECPS) ordinance, which came after decades of organizing, and are the first time Chicago will have elected civilian oversight of the police. Each of Chicago’s 22 Police Districts will have a three-member PDC, and the ordinance also created a citywide Community Commission for Public Safety Administration (CCPSA).
The candidates in these races have varying backgrounds. More than half of the candidates worked with the ECPS coalition that pushed to get the ordinance passed, and support greater accountability for police. Many of them are survivors of police brutality or have family members who were brutalized or killed by police. About a dozen candidates are ex-cops or are backed by the Fraternal Order of Police (FOP), which spent at least $25,000 on the race.
Most of the candidates are middle-aged or older. A few, however, are younger than 25. On February 1, the Reader interviewed four of the youngest candidates at the 25th Ward IPO office in Pilsen. William “The Kid” Guerrero, a candidate in the 12th District, is 21 years old. Fourteenth District candidate Ashley Vargas is 23, as is Anthony Michael Tamez, who is running in the 17th. Saul Arellano is a 24-year-old candidate in the 25th District.
All four agreed that policing disproportionately impacts youth, and Black and Brown youth in particular. They pointed to the city’s gang database, the prevalence of police in public schools, particularly in schools that predominantly serve Black and Brown neighborhoods, and the curfew Mayor Lori Lightfoot imposed on Millenium Park as examples. All four also discussed the importance of having youth in public office and the perspectives they can bring that older candidates may not be able to.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Daley: Why is it important to have youth representation on the PDCs and in government generally?
Guerrero: There’s a lack of representation in government, and we barely see young people have a say. Oftentimes we’re limited: we don’t know where the table is at, or if we do, we have to demand to be at the table. The PDC position is unique. It’s a great start to our political careers, and a way to understand how we can hold the police and public servants and elected officials accountable. We’re making sure the young people have a say in what public safety should look like.
Arellano: We’ve done a lot of public service. For many years, we’ve worked with organizations fighting for immigration rights, for housing rights, for affordable housing and for different things. Our movement right now, what we’re doing in the 25th District, is a youth-led movement. There were three of us who said we needed to do something, and I was the one who was like, “I need to run.” I’ve worked at the Boys and Girls Club, and I’ve learned how to love kids and how successful they can become, but they need mentorship and guidance, they need programs that are going to be there to help them. When you truly invest in those kids, they will be successful. And that’s why I decided to run.
We always get told the youth are the future. Well, we’re telling people “we are the now, we are here, and it’s time for us.” Our time is now. We’re gonna put ourselves out there and keep doing the work, because we believe our families must be invested in, and we want our communities to be invested in.
Vargas: I grew up in Logan Square, and in high school I had the privilege to see Carlos Ramirez-Rosa govern at a very young age himself. I saw how one young person can create a whole progressive movement in the northwest side and on the City Council. I’m very inspired by that. I was recruited to run by Carlos. I’m glad I’m running, because I feel this is a moment in time where the people are taking over Chicago. We’re here, we’re present, and we’re taking over Chicago.
Tamez: When we look at the people who are most affected by police brutality or police violence, it’s mainly youth. It’s the younger generation. It’s Black, Brown, and Indigenous people. You know, I graduated from Von Steuben in 2018. My school had little-to-no police presence when we would get released at the end of the day. But Roosevelt, which was a few blocks away from my school, was lined with police officers. They would have kids up against the building, sitting on the sidewalk, up against the police cars. And it was very telling to me, just how the police treat children who go to a different school.
What unique perspectives can people younger than 25 bring to the Police District Councils?
Vargas: I think that we bring passion. I’m a product of the Chicago Public Schools. High school was tough for me. We had cops in the schools; I would see my friends, 14-year-old boys, be tackled by cops, 40-year-old men, just because they smelled like weed or had red eyes. That’s not the solution, fighting 14-year-old kids with violence. Through ECPS we can fight institutional racism, and hence internalized racism. Every single day, a young Black kid, a young Mexican kid walks through those [school] doors, they’re taking off their shoes, taking off their backpack [to be searched], and it’s all very militarized. It feels like we’re being attacked, and every single day we’re internalizing this and normalizing this behavior towards us.
So, I would love to see cops out of schools, and instead of investing in police to be in schools, we need to be taking care of our kids. We need to invest in counselors and librarians and nurses and different programs, just not the police, because that’s not the answer.
Arellano: And from a young age, Black and Brown children have been criminalized. From the beginning, if they make a mistake, they’re penalized so harshly. And their white counterparts don’t receive such punishment. We just want to be treated fairly, and we just want to be treated like we’re humans, and we deserve a second chance.
Guerrero: I’ve said time and time again, there’s gotta be someone young in this position. When they announced the candidates in the 12th Police District, I didn’t see no one young running. When [candidates] claimed they were doing the work and supporting young people, I was like “Hm, I’ve never seen you guys. I’ve never seen you guys at all here.” So, it’s about putting the work in before you take a position. Personally, I’m tired of all these elected officials and their false promises. I think this position can serve accountability. And we bring so much energy and passion to this. Not only that, we’re not corrupt. I think the older generations can value and see that, and be like, “You know what? Let’s give these kids a chance.”
Tamez: We need to stop criminalizing youth. We need to bring them to the table and make sure they’re able to talk about their experiences. When you’re going to a school that is in a police state constantly, you’re going to feel a type of way, and maybe even feel scorned. I don’t think that’s how we should treat our youth. We should make sure that our schools are safe spaces. That is why we need youth in district councils, but youth in government as well. We see a generation coming up and leading movements, and we see them coming into their positions, and we need to make sure we’re supporting them.
What do you hope to accomplish on the PDCs, both in your home districts and in the way you interact with the Community Commission on Public Safety and Accountability (CCPSA)?
Guerrero: Youth-led public safety meetings. There’s safety meetings being held by elected officials, but I very rarely see young individuals in the room. When I speak to young people, they’re like, “At the end of the day, they don’t listen.” We see the same things happening over and over again, the same corruption. No mayoral candidate has said anything in the forums about the ECPS position and how we can use that to help police transparency and accountability.
I want a youth-led coalition in the city of Chicago when it comes to public safety, holding the police accountable, and making sure that our voices are at the table. We’re just four people, but imagine if we could put more seats at the table because of one young elected official. I’m not afraid to call people out. I value transparency, I value respect and trust. Because at the end of the day, that’s what gives you peace of mind.
Vargas: Most definitely I’m running to change some laws to make some permanent change, and to inspire the youth to run for office. We need more people to have that power in our hands, and not rely on corrupt individuals with family dynasties that go way back. We need new fresh faces who are homegrown, who come from the Chicago streets. We’ve got the people power, and it’s just about organizing and educating.
Of course I will collect data with my constituents, organize those meetings, and help them visualize a world where we don’t invest in police, but invest in community care, community-centered organizations, things that stem from the love of the community. Community heals what the police create. The police create trauma. We’ve got to get rid of that trauma, stop investing in that trauma.
Arellano: I second everything they’ve said. We need to look at what those alternatives are. For many kids, whether it’s a boxing club or something different, they need places where they can feel safe and secure. We need to reimagine: what does that look like? So we can ensure that our youth are finding different ways that they can feel heard and feel like they’re releasing all that trauma. And additionally, we need to change certain laws. We will do that alongside people like Carlos Ramirez-Rosa, Byron Sigcho-Lopez, and Rosanna Rodriguez, because they’re pushing for Treatment Not Trauma, and we want to reopen the mental health clinics.
I want to be making sure that we’re also being advocates and working together to create laws and maybe fortify the ECPS ordinance so it becomes stronger, because we understand that it was watered down by [Mayor Lori] Lightfoot. We want to make sure now that we’re pushing them and making our power stronger, because we know we can create so much change. And we know the FOP wants to get their hands on this, because they want to make sure that the people are not [on the PDCs]. In the 25th District, Jacob Arena, Angelica Green, and myself are fighting against an FOP candidate [Perry Abbasi] and another candidate [Edgar Esparza] who does not have the people’s perspective. That’s why we took a stand, because we’re ready.
Tamez: Myself, having worked in two alderpersons’ offices, I’ve come to the realization that there are people who have inherent access to government, who know how to utilize an alderperson’s office, who know where and when to call when their garbage cans are broken, or there’s too many rats in the street, or a street light is out. We know that those aren’t our communities, that those aren’t Black, Brown, and Indigenous people, we know that those aren’t youth.
And so one thing I hope to accomplish is to actively seek out those people, and bring them to the table and bring them to meetings. Do I think that that’s going to be very hard? Yes. And I think that’s going to be hard because they don’t trust government. They don’t trust the city of Chicago. And rightfully so. Why would you trust a city that actively criminalizes you, that is actively defunding your schools, that is not actively funding after school programs?
Beyond that, I think that investing in and focusing on our youth — I’ve seen the power of what youth councils can do. I have a large number of schools in my district, and so making sure I’m connecting with those schools and having a representative from each one of those schools to give feedback to the district council, so we’re able to pass it to the CCPSA. One thing all the district councils can do is make sure we have a very strong citywide commission.
The PDCs are a reform. How do you see the district councils fitting into the larger goal of liberation, and if you support it, the movement towards police abolition?
Tamez: We can look at the most recent conversation around the gang database. The police turned what was a general order on the gang database into a special order [because] the PDCs and the CCPSA have no control over [special orders]. So they essentially just skirted accountability. We need to make sure they’re not able to do that. There is no point in having these district councils or the CCPSA if every time we try to hold them accountable, they’re just going to sidestep us and find a loophole or a way around it.
I come from a family of abolitionists. We’re a Native family in the city of Chicago, so we can dream of and we know of a time when our communities didn’t have any police. When we look at the history of the Chicago police, one of the very first people the Chicago police killed were a group of natives. And so for me, it’s very important to look at the history of how things started and where they’ve come to today. It’s not a coincidence that we had the Indian Removal Act signed [in 1825] and then the Chicago Police Department was created [Editor’s note: Constable Archibald Clybourn became the first law enforcement officer in the Chicago area in the 1820s]. So our police department was founded on the forced removal of Native people. How can you fix a system that is inherently racist and anti-native?
We need to focus on community-based, evidence-based solutions that are going to keep our community safe. And that’s funding schools, funding after school programs, summer jobs for youth, that’s investing in our city’s mental health crisis. And then we can have a safer city.
Arellano: And the thing is, we have not invested in people. It’s close to $2 billion that is going to the police, and the only thing they can say is that the city’s gotten more violent. So we need to be able to take that leap to fund our communities, because we know that is the solution. We need to trust it, and we need to work as a community to push toward it.
Obviously, using the words “defund” and “abolition,” people get scared. But the world that we can see with defunding and getting to abolition will be very beautiful. What we have right now is horrible, and it’s destroying our youth. Our youth have been criminalized forever. And so that is why we took our opportunity. It’s time for us to be listened to, and that’s why we’re here. Don’t get caught up on the defunding or abolition. The main idea we’re trying to bring is that we want to invest in our communities, we want to invest in people. That world will be a lot more beautiful.
Vargas: A step towards abolition is definitely reallocating the City budget. Investing in community healing will strengthen our families and our people. We just see that people are ready for a change. People know that cops don’t need a new car every year, or machine guns. It’s just about organizing and voting people in who won’t give more money to the cops. And we have a lot of work to do, but it’s starting with ECPS. Our task is to help people visualize a future without police.
Guerrero: There’s different definitions of public safety right now. It’s a tug of war. I think that obviously, the first step is meeting in the middle ground, because we’re not gonna be able to abolish the CPD tomorrow. I wish CPD never existed. But it’s about finding a middle ground and working with any and all definitions of public safety, and just making sure that slowly and surely we reeducate those who think CPD is the answer to safety, that it’s not. It’s reinvesting in communities, reinvesting in our youth, and making sure they have the proper education when it comes to different ways to safety, and CPD is not the main one. They haven’t provided a sense of safety in my lifetime, 21 years. How many cases have CPD solved in the last 50 years?
When someone gets shot, we have to wait 20, 30 minutes. Where’s the response time? So we need to be making sure we have violence interrupters, peacekeepers in the community, and making sure they’re EMS-trained and know how to use a tourniquet. Imagine if we all have EMS certificates, we’d be the first line of defense. We’re already there in the community.
I think ECPS is a great first step toward abolishing the CPD. We got to put a good, concrete understanding of that definition because people get scared, like, “abolishing, are you going to take away my safety?” No, we’re creating a different safety.
What’s one of the most important things voters should know about this election?
Arellano: I have never been this excited, because there are 15 aldermanic seats up for grabs, and that is historic. Most of them have been corrupt people who were part of the machine. And now, this is the time where people have to be excited. I understand that they’re tired of the corruption. But today, we can make history, and we can definitely make our city progressive, and our city can truly make real change.
I encourage everyone to come out to vote. This election is really going to determine a lot of things and the direction we’re heading. We want to elect all the alderpersons who are going to fight for ECPS and who are going to be here with us.
Vargas: The first few years for this position are for community control of police. So hopefully we’ll build a strong sense of community who won’t take that long to create a more permanent change. I’m hopeful.
Guerrero: This next generation of voters, I hope they do the research. I hope people don’t vote based on identity politics, and vote for the person who is really for the community. In the last election, I think the majority of voters voted on identity politics, and look where it got us. This new generation of voters is going to save us. And if the FOP takes over this election, we just gave up the biggest opportunity for transparency and accountability.
Tamez: I’m also really excited, and I hope the younger generation is too. One thing I’ve seen while knocking on doors is that people don’t really know what this [PDC] position is. And that’s a little concerning. But it’s also very exciting to be able to tell my neighbors about this new position and that I’m one of the people running for it.
I think at the end of the day, the CCPSA and our district councils are only going to be as strong as our community and neighbors make them. And so we need to make sure that we’re bringing everyone to the table when we’re having our monthly meetings. I hope that having young people on the ballot excites other young people, but I hope it excites the older generation as well. The younger generation and elders are two groups that aren’t listened to. I think we come from the same place where we just want to be heard, and we just want our ideas to be implemented and addressed. And I hope people can see that we’re coming to the table open to talking with everyone to figure out what safety means for all of us.
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