On Tuesday, I went to Chicago’s first ever mayoral candidates forum on violence against women and LGBTQ people. All of the candidates for Mayor of Chicago were invited to answer questions and outline their plans for addressing issues of domestic violence, sexual assault, human trafficking, and hate crimes. Interpersonal violence is an extremely important issue for political candidates anywhere because it’s a widespread social and public health problem – in fact, Chicago women are five times more likely to experience domestic violence than any of the most prevalent communicable diseases. Moreover, violence prevention and intervention are deeply entwined with the policies and practices of municipal systems like public education, law enforcement, and government funding.
Candidates Patricia Van Pelt-Watkins, Carol Moseley Braun, William “Dock” Walls III, and Miguel Del Valle addressed a packed auditorium of concerned citizens and local experts. Unfortunately, mayoral candidates Gery Chico and former White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel didn’t bother to show up. This despite the fact that the Chicago Public School Board recently called domestic violence and sexual assault “top agenda items” that the future mayor should address. I guess Rahm and Chico don’t agree. Or anyway, their scorecards from Gender JUST certainly indicate that’s the case.
I’m not sure what I was expecting going into this historic event, but I left feeling disenchanted with the game of politics and thinking about how much work goes into bringing awareness to interpersonal violence. In the first place, the candidates didn’t exactly speak to their audience, many of whom were seasoned experts from Chicago’s most respected anti-violence organizations. With a couple exceptions, it was pretty clear that they were uninformed and uncomfortable speaking to the topic specifically, especially where the LGBTQ community was concerned.
Carol Moseley Braun referred to “non-traditional people,” and Walls ruffled the audience when he said “violence against people with unusual lifestyles,” then bizarrely insisted that he was referring to panhandlers (slightly NSFW for the ads). Moseley Braun also suggested (inexplicably) that the abundance of crisis hotlines providing services in the Chicago area poses a “barrier to access” because victims don’t know which one to call. That was especially obtuse considering the obvious advantage to having specialized crisis services since everyone experiences violence and trauma differently. Add to that the fact that Chicago enjoys a huge queer population but still does not have a rape crisis hotline meeting the specific needs of LGBTQ victims or a single emergency shelter for men who are abused by male partners, and Moseley Braun’s proposal to “reduce redundancy in services” seems a little imprudent.
The candidates veered off topic to make broad strokes about economic policy, spoke exclusively about street crime rather than the more common violence that happens behind closed doors, reiterated a “zero tolerance” policy for violence (a loaded phrase that makes some activists squirm for its roots in the prison-industrial complex), and favored vague generalizations to clear, pragmatic solution strategies.
Like most first-times, it was awkward and unsatisfying. But there were a couple of thought-provoking highlights.
Patricia Van Pelt-Watkins, who has a strong background in community organizing, proposed using evidence-based models like Cease Fire to engage communities in preventing violence before-the-fact. She said that violence against any group is everyone’s problem.
Miguelle Del Valle pointed out that an annual spending package of $275,000 for every rape crisis center across all of Cook County is “not enough, not even close, that’s a tiny drop in the bucket,” and promised to advocate for better funding as mayor. He also suggested that a cultural change needs to start by embracing diversity, and as long as Chicago is racially segregated, our 77 communities cannot unite as one city to end violence.
In light of February as Teen Dating Violence Awareness Month, the candidates were asked if they agreed with the Chicago Taskforce on Violence Against Girls and Young Women’s recommendation to require public schools to develop lesson plans in dating and sexual violence prevention education. All of the candidates agreed that this should be a requirement, except Carol Moseley Braun. She suggested that parents be allowed to let their kids “opt out” of programming and noted that the lack of sex education in general and the current rate of 1 nurse for every 725 public school students are more urgent matters. Patricia Van Pelt-Watkins poignantly suggested that the message of nonviolence be completely integrated into each school’s lifestyle, not just limited to one class requirement. “If you put the students in a room and give them a dose, they won’t absorb it,” she explained. “It needs to be part of their lifestyle, so it sticks with them.”
While attendants may not have been completely satisfied by some of the candidates’ answers on Tuesday, one thing’s for sure. Everyone recognized that this forum was absolutely essential in the ongoing effort to educate the public and engage community leaders in open, honest discussions about violence. I’m very grateful to the candidates who took the time to address this issue and the anti-violence groups who organized this important event. What is your city doing to create a nonviolent environment? Do public forums like this happen where you live?