What Do We Want?: Deciding what Justice Means in Chicago

Some of my friends don’t like going to protests. They say, “I believe in this one thing, but when I get there, all of these other causes are there and I don’t want anyone to think I’m marching as a communist or an anarchist or saying we should get rid of the police.” Protests have a tendency to swell–to begin with one issue and then cascade into a pounding waterfall of grievances. What do we want? Justice? That’s such a big, abstract word.

Every protest is a little bit different. Some of the people are the same–Lamon Reccord, staring down police and running up and down the protest line; or the guy with the communist newspaper–but every protest is different. The first protest I went to this fall, the hearing where activist Malcolm London’s charges were dropped, was a celebration. A crowd of young black protesters gathered in a circle, singing a song of their own rhythm, dancing and shouting, “I love being black! I said, I love being black!” That protest felt like a party. What did we want? Justice. A very narrow, specific justice–for the judicial system to admit the felony charges against Malcolm London were trumped up and targeted.

Then there are protest like last night’s, something between a memorial service and a classroom. As commuters swelled down the block, we stood in the December weather, gathered around a portable speaker system so small they held two microphones up to each person offering their testimony. For an hour, we stood there and strained to listen; sometimes we gave up. They weren’t speaking for us–they spoke for the cameras. It’s just that the cameras wouldn’t have showed up if we weren’t willing to stand there.


The protest I thought I was going to.

So we stood, and one mother after another came up and told the story of her son’s death; her son’s torture; the false convictions police had leveled against him to justify their murders. Each one told her story. A mother whose son would have been 19 today. Sandra Bland’s sister spoke. A mustached man with a heavy accent got up and shared his encounter with Chicago police. Halfway through his call-and-response speech, he switched to Spanish. “Que queremos?” “Justicia!” the crowd yelled, not missing a beat. I caught myself thinking, “this is what church should be.” A crowd bilingual enough to keep yelling when the language changes. A crowd compassionate enough to stop yelling when someone steps to the mic.

A young Latina, younger than me, stood up and told of her brother’s shooting. She finished her speech to the cameras, saying, “I promise you Rahm, this is not the last time you will see my face on TV.” The emcee brought up person after person. He announced the next one, “We have a special guest tonight from the Arab-American Action Network.” A wiry man with long, curly hair stood up. He spoke passionately, first about police brutality, racism in Chicago, across the nation, then he was speaking of Islam and anti-Muslim violence and profiling. He spoke of everything. I thought of my friends who don’t like to protest, for fear of being mistaken for the wrong causes. Here, all the causes had begun to mingle.

An older black man stood up, vigorously waving his arms, telling us about the police torture he endured under the authority of Commander Jon Burge, who tortured false confessions out of black men for decades. He talked of the 28 years he spent in prison before his charges were cleared. And then he talked of the men still in prison, over 100 of them, sentenced after Burge’s torture tactics.

This isn’t what I’d come to march for. But in order to begin the march, he said, here was the banner we would carry–a long, plain banner with the names of all the men still in prison, some of them for three decades, awaiting retrial or pardon. It wasn’t a sign for #ResignRahm. It wasn’t about the Department of Justice’s newly-announced investigation of Chicago police. But in the coming together of 300 strangers, lifting up a banner that stretched all the way across the block-long Federal Plaza, in that moment, strangers turned to companions.


The march I actually attended.

But what did we want? Justice. Justice for Laquan, for Rekia, for Ronniman, and the list goes on and on. And justice for them means justice in the mental health system; means reforming and refunding Chicago Public Schools; means changing the culture of policing in Chicago. We want justice. Rahm’s resignation will not bring transparency for the Chicago police department.


What is justice? Justice is many things. There are so, so many wrongs to be righted.  To march for just one thing is to simplify the nature of God’s love for the poor and oppressed. As the speaker from the Arab American Action Neetwork concluded, “Oppression is intersectional and so our resistance must be intersectional.”

This is why I march, even when I’m uncertain if the marchers and the cause as a whole will meet all of my ethical criteria and no more, no less. It’s not about my ethical criteria–it’s about this broader project of asking this impossible theological question, “What do we want? Justice.”

I arrived with my definition of justice–and I learned something new about justice. Justice means fixing Homan Square. Means educating ourselves because Chicago’s problems are bigger than Laquan. Justice means taking seriously the demands of BYP 100’s Fund Black Futures. Justice means asking for more than the prosecution of Jason Van Dyke or Dante Servin; true justice is sticking around to change the institution. Justice is intersectional. It is so complicated sometimes I can’t stand to list all the pieces of it. But this idea of intersectional justice, it’s not new. Throughout the prophetic books, there’s the idea that injustice is the scissors cutting through many cloths. Isaiah 10:1-2:
“Ah, you who make iniquitous decrees
who write oppressive statues,
to turn aside the needy from justice
and to rob the poor of my people of their right,
that widows may be your spoil,
and that you may make the orphans your pray!”

This is it–justice. It’s intersectional. It’s for the widows, and the orphans, and the poor, and the immigrant, and the legal system, all of it put together made injustice. All of it taken apart will create space for justice.

Justice means I’m still angry that Rahm has found enough money to build a bigger Ferris Wheel on Navy Pier but not found the resources to reduce the five-year wait for affordable housing. I recall the words of Haggai, “Is it a time for you yourselves to live in paneled houses while this house lies in ruins?” This is what I’m marching for, not just Rahm’s exit but Chicago’s recovery from a corrupt oligarchy who thought they were entitled to impunity. I realize that’s a tall order. Justice seems to be, these days.

There are marches in Chicago now almost every day, sometimes two a day. There are common threads, like Rahm’s resignation, but this one is focused on one thing, that one on another, all coming to justice from their own angle. Justice in Chicago has a long, long way to go. But justice is what we want. It’s the reason I march. Even if I’m not sure–exactly–where the depth of my demand will take me.

I had to leave the protest before the peak of the march. As I ducked away, walking toward my train, the cries followed me, “What do we want? Justice! ” The sweetest Christmas carol I’d ever heard this city sing.


One protest, many causes. One justice.

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