Credit: Erik Davis

A day after dropping her challenge to Illinois comptroller and fellow mayoral candidate Susana Mendoza’s petition signatures, Cook County board president and county Democratic Party chair Toni Preckwinkle pivoted to fund-raising. In an e-mail sent at 9:33 this morning, Preckwinkle asks supporters to give her money after decrying the injustice of the incarceration of Tennessee woman Cyntoia Brown.

“She was a victim of sex-trafficking. She killed her assaulter. Now she might serve 51 years in prison,” reads the subject line of Preckwinkle’s email. The text inside begins: “We have a chance, right now, to help a sex-trafficking victim avoid a life sentence in prison. Her name is Cyntoia Brown.” But no information is provided about how the recipients could help Brown other than by giving the Preckwinkle campaign money.

Further, the e-mail breezes over the circumstances surrounding Brown’s conviction for killing a 43-year-old man who’d solicited her for sex when she was 16 years old in 2004. “This isn’t just a failing of Tennessee’s criminal justice system,” Preckwinkle writes. “It also paints a harrowing picture of systemic white supremacy in America.” She points to famous recent examples of white men getting away with crimes—”Stanford rapist” Brock Turner and “affluenza” drunk driver Ethan Couch. The intended point appears to be that the criminal justice system is racist and unfair.

Next a hyperlinked section of the e-mail reads: “We can’t fix this system by electing candidates who refuse to see the problem. Rahm Emanuel was a menace for Black communities. I won’t be. Please donate $3 to my campaign today and let’s build a Chicago that can serve as a shining example of how local governments can AND SHOULD take care of criminal justice.”

The ActBlue landing page to which the link leads proposes donations ranging from $5 to $500, with a write-in box where, one assumes, the requested $3 donations can be entered.

Preckwinkle’s e-mail concludes with a few more musings about the need for criminal justice reform. “Maybe young Black women like Cyntoia aren’t the problem—maybe it’s the policies we’ve put in place that set them up for failure,” she writes. “We can no longer stand by and allow this to happen to people like Cyntoia who’ve been silenced and betrayed by a broken judicial system. And I vow to do everything in my power to fix it. But the truth is, I can’t do it alone. We need to get elected first, then we need to continue building our movement.” Brown herself isn’t quoted anywhere in the e-mail. 

This fund-raising ploy immediately drew scrutiny from local advocates for criminalized survivors of sexual violence.

“It’s distasteful to see a candidate who is running for mayor use Cyntoia Brown’s case as leverage for political gain,” says Claudia Garcia-Rojas, a codirector of the Chicago Taskforce on Violence Against Girls & Young Women and a member of Love & Protect, a grassroots organization devoted to supporting incarcerated and criminalized women, trans, and gender nonconforming people of color. “I think if Preckwinkle cared about Brown she’d fund-raise for Brown’s campaign directly instead of requesting money for her own mayoral campaign.”

Garcia-Rojas also says there are plenty of cases of similarly criminalized survivors of sexual violence locally that Preckwinkle could focus attention on if she actually cared about the unfair treatment of sex workers and marginalized people who defend themselves against violent aggression. She pointed to the case of Alisha Walker as an example. Walker is currently serving a 15-year sentence at Decatur Correctional Center for killing a man she says tried to force her to have unprotected sex and threatened her with a knife when she was doing sex work as a 19-year-old in 2014.

“By turning our attention to a case in Tennessee she lets us know she’s not aware of campaigns supporting criminalized survivors in her own backyard, in the city she’s running to represent as mayor,” Garcia-Rojas adds.

In addition to leveraging Brown for “political fodder,” as Garcia-Rojas puts it, Preckwinkle’s e-mail mischaracterizes elements of Brown’s case, perpetuating misconceptions about her that she has tried to correct even from behind bars. Preckwinkle’s first mistake, as Garcia-Rojas describes it, is referring to Brown as a “victim of sex-trafficking.”

Brown herself has rejected this label, insisting instead that she was engaged in “survival sex work or teenage prostitution for an adult pimp.” While in many places the law defines sex work by people under the age of 18 as trafficking, sex workers themselves and their advocates have consistently rejected this blanket descriptor because it undermines the nuances of people’s life circumstances and decisions—nuances that need to be understood if we’re serious about combating violence and making the criminal justice system more fair.

Garcia-Rojas also said that Preckwinkle referring to Brown as a “child” promotes a narrative that has “infantilized ” Brown since her case suddenly and inexplicably caught the attention of celebrities like Rihanna and LeBron James last year. Rather than being a helpless child, Brown was a “young teen” figuring out how best to survive in challenging circumstances, Garcia-Rojas explains. And she’s a 30-year-old woman now who’s actively working for her liberation by requesting clemency from the governor of Tennessee.

“Painting her as a child reinforces the idea that young black women and older black women aren’t deemed worthy of public empathy and support and helps to further justify their criminalization,” Garcia-Rojas says. “This reinforces the idea of who gets to be a perfect victim when we know there’s no such thing as as perfect victim.”

The Reader reached out to Preckwinkle’s campaign with questions about why she chose to use Brown’s case to raise funds for her mayoral war chest, which currently stands at more than $1.7 million. Several hours after this story was initially published, Preckwinkle campaign spokesperson Monica Trevino e-mailed a statement saying, “We apologize for the content of the e-mail, which was careless and does not reflect Toni’s values or work to reform the criminal justice system.”

Garcia-Rojas suggests that those who are interested in contributing to local efforts to help criminalized survivors of various forms of violence can donate to Love & Protect’s Sustaining Survivors campaign, which has raised about $3,000 since July to help incarcerated survivors with daily needs like hygiene products and undergarments as well as with housing and transportation costs once they’re released from prison and jail.  v