Originally published December 3, 2015
“Do you think police officers who violate the rights of homeless people should be punished, yes or no?”
To this simple question, put to him several times during a November 8th demonstration at his office, Alderman Cappleman refused to give a direct answer. Instead he kept repeating that the homeless should file complaints with IPRA, the City’s notoriously useless police investigating agency.
For several months police have led an escalating campaign of harassment against the homeless in Chicago’s Uptown neighborhood, long a target of gentrifiers. This neighborhood has served as a port of entry for disadvantaged migrants to the city, from Native Americans and poor Appalachians during the 1960s and 70s, to Southeast Asians in the 1990s, to African immigrants today. It has a proud history of social justice activism.
But Uptown’s long-standing racial and economic diversity has been under siege from Alderman Cappleman and the gentrifying real estate developers who fund his campaigns. One of newly-elected Cappleman’s first acts in 2011 was to “confront violence” by announcing the removal of basketball hoops from playlots in the ward, including one a half block from my apartment, which were seen as attracting Black youth.
Outcry over the ugly racial subtext of this move prompted a quick reversal. But a few years later he was back at it again, trying to drive Salvation Army food trucks that give food to the poor out of the ward. Again, outcry over Cappleman’s crass attempt to “purify” the ward and lay the groundwork for gentrifiers prompted an outcry, and he was forced to reverse course again.
But these victories have not deterred Cappleman in his relentless campaign to turn Uptown into Lincoln Park North:
** He has overseen the loss of over 1000 units of low income housing in the Ward during his term, more than the rest of the city combined, and has not replaced one of them;
** He organized demonstrations against a TIFF that brought the last chunk of low income housing to the ward under his predecessor;
** He steered millions in TIFF funds to luxury developments, in the case of the former Maryville Academy site, $15.8 million;
Not content to attack the homeless in his own ward alone, he has also voted with the mayor to shut half of the city’s mental health clinics and has opposed the mild Single Room Occupancy (SRO) preservation ordinance that even our infamously pro-1% mayor supported.
After taking heat for being seen as a tool of wealthy real estate interests, arch-hypocrite James Cappleman tried to burnish his image by participating in a Nov. 20th charity “sleep out” at Cricket Hill, billed as raising funds for agencies serving homeless LGBT youths. That the event was taking place literally yards away from where Chicago police, apparently at Cappleman’s behest, have for months been illegally harassing the homeless, threatening them with false arrest, struck many of us as the worst form of irony.
We have filmed several instances of brazenly illegal, unconstitutional police action against the homeless. But we live in a city that can’t seem to fire its officers when they shoot an unarmed Rekia Boyd in the back of the head, or bring legal action for thirteen months against a cop caught on police dash-cam murdering Laquan McDonald, except when forced to. So the notion that Rahm Emanuel or Police Superintendent Garry McCarthy, on their own, will discipline police who merely violate the rights of the homeless is at best hopelessly naïve if not willfully stupid. Only massive public pressure works on those two.
In advance of the Nov. 20th “Sleep Out Chicago,” we urged the many social service agencies benefiting from it publicly to denounce the illegal police sweeps, as well as Cappleman, who from the stage, boasted he signed the permit for the event and expressed his great concern for homeless youth.
But the agencies’ silence was near total. Apparently keeping in the Mayor’s and Alderman’s good graces, and keeping funding for their offices and Executive Directorships, were more important than truly helping the homeless.
Of course, they will spin it differently. But it shouldn’t take a ton of empathy to understand that if homeless people are constantly being forced from location to location and threatened with fines that they cannot pay, it not only causes them undue stress in an already stressful time of their lives, it makes them more difficult to reach with the very services the agencies purport to deliver. Nor does it take a degree in social work to grasp that using City resources for police harassment wastes resources that could instead be spent on lockers for homeless people’s possessions and “housing first,” programs that the November 20th event was set up to support.
Unfortunately, what often goes unremarked is that Alderman Cappleman’s attack on the homeless harms LGBT people as well, and not just because many homeless people are also LGBT. We owe LGBT gains over the past few decades, from forcing rational and compassionate approaches to fighting AIDS to equal marriage rights, not only to our own efforts, but also to the often heroic support non-LGBT people of every racial and cultural background have provided.
When a gay leader like Alderman Cappleman tries to ethnically cleanse a neighborhood and telegraphs that the only interests that count in his ward and the city are those of wealthy people, gay and non-gay – screw everyone else – his actions sabotage efforts to get the support of non-LGBTs for our future struggles. They promote backlash. They foster homophobia.
When a prominent LGBT leader attacks another disadvantaged group, in this case the homeless, in effect playing the two groups against each other, it becomes particularly incumbent upon other LGBTs to loudly say,“You do NOT represent us!”
This column appeared in the Windy City Times