After taking the months since George Floyd’s killing by Minneapolis police to put together an agenda to end systemic racism in Illinois, Black state lawmakers are now calling on their colleagues in the legislature to support their demands for policy changes to four key “pillars.”
“We have an opportunity to leverage this unique moment in time to do good,” state Sen. Kimberly Lightford, D-Maywood, said while tearing up at a Tuesday news conference with her Black Caucus colleagues. “So that other Black women, Black mothers and Black wives just like me can begin to experience peace, justice and hope for our future knowing that our children and our grandchildren will not share the same kind of life experiences that everyone in my generation and every generation before me have had to endure as Black Americans.”
While Lightford says bills with specific policy proposals are forthcoming, the Black Caucus is focusing on four key subject areas: policy accountability and violence reduction, addressing disparities in education, the economy and health care.
Despite the lack of legislation, several Black legislators spoke emphatically of gaining enough support from their non-Black colleagues to approve of their agenda.
“Frederick Douglass once said that power is not going to concede anything without a demand,” state Rep. Chris Welch, D-Hillside, said. “We’re here today to tell you that we have some demands. We have demands in each and every one of those pillars and we’re going to demand that they pass, because it is time for the Black agenda to pass.”
State Rep. Justin Slaughter, D-Chicago, ticked off a litany of issues they want to address in the coming weeks regarding law enforcement practices, saying they have ambitions to be a national model for social justice in the face of “racism that permeates throughout our entire criminal justice system.”
He suggested ending the state’s cash bond system for those awaiting trial, rolling back mandates that those convicted of certain crimes serve at least a certain amount of their prison sentence or reducing penalties for those convicted of drug charges.
Slaughter also spoke at length about police practices, calling for the state to enact policies that would limit an officer’s ability to use force. He also addressed the need for more training on crisis intervention and for more transparency in police data, saying there isn’t much data to look at because lawmakers haven’t demanded it in the past. In addition, Slaughter called on more ways to hold police officers accountable for bad actions.
Earlier this year, Attorney General Kwame Raoul told WBEZ he wanted the state to start licensing police officers in a manner similar to what’s already required of doctors or lawyers. In 2015, Raoul, who was a state senator at the time, negotiated a police practices bill in response to the police killing of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Mo. The bill created a system for police officers to use body cameras, prohibited the use of police chokeholds and created a database of officers who were fired or resigned due to misconduct. But Raoul said he dropped the idea of licensing police officers as an added way of penalizing bad actors, because the concept didn’t have enough legislative support to pass.
While licensing police officers wasn’t addressed at Tuesday’s news conference, Black caucus members said they will be calling special hearings in which all these topics will be discussed with stakeholders over the next three months.
State lawmakers are not scheduled to return to Springfield until November — after the election.
“We do intend on taking up all of veto session to address [our agenda],” Lightford concluded.
In separate statements, Democratic leadership appeared to embrace the concepts raised by the Black Caucus Tuesday.
“I thank the Illinois Legislative Black Caucus (ILBC) for advancing these difficult but necessary discussions. I believe it’s time we build on the legislature’s past efforts to meaningfully explore the issues outlined in the Illinois Legislative Black Caucus’ Policy Agenda, and I will continue to work closely with the ILBC to support their efforts to end systemic racism throughout Illinois,” House Speaker Michael Madigan wrote in a statement.
“The Black Caucus is showing us the path to a better Illinois,” Senate President Don Harmon wrote. “I look forward to being an ally and helping win approval of needed reforms.”
Tony Arnold covers Illinois politics for WBEZ. Follow him @tonyjarnold.