Janaé Bonsu took over as co-director of the Black Youth Project 100 in January.
The Chicago-based activist group seeks to create freedom and justice for all black people through political education, direct action, organizing campaigns and what Bonsu calls “transformative leadership development.”
Hours before Illinois Attorney General Kwame Raoul and Joseph McMahon, the special prosecutor in the trial of Jason Van Dyke, announced they are challenging Van Dyke’s 81-month sentence, Morning Shift checked in with Bonsu about that sentence, the Chicago mayor’s race, and what BYP100 has planned for 2019.
On Jason Van Dyke’s sentence of 81 months
Janaé Bonsu: My initial reaction was that the sentencing reflected a sort of leniency or a pat on the back that would not have been afforded to someone who was not a white police officer. A couple of weeks ago, BYP100 in collaboration with organizations like Black Lives Matter Chicago and the Chicago Alliance Against Racial and Political Repression took over King Drive from 51st to 61st street responding to this indefensible 81-month sentence. Subsequently, along with Laquan McDonald’s family representative urged Attorney General Kwame Raoul and the Kane County state’s attorney Joseph McMahon to ask the Cook County judge to take legal action to re-sentence Van Dyke because his sentence doesn’t reflect even just being in accordance with Illinois law. With the sentencing on aggravated battery in particular, the judge chose to basically ignore this sentencing rule of one act, one crime. So the sentence that Van Dyke could have been sentenced to was no less than 18 years.
Jenn White: I’m curious about how you place that case, and also the case of the three officers we saw cleared of charges to cover up what happened the night of the shooting in the larger context of police reform in the city.
Bonsu: I think it shows that we have a lot of work to do, and that the culture of the blue code of silence extends beyond the police department itself. You know, it extends into the courtroom. This slap on the wrist with Van Dyke and the vacation of the three officers just shows that the court system is reinforcing that blue code of silence. So, issues that organizers have been talking about for years, that include community oversight over the Chicago Police Department, reforms to the Fraternal Order Of Police union contract, and just really paying attention to the judges on the ballots when they’re up for election, those are all really important things that people should keep in mind when they head to the polls.
On the Chicago mayor’s race
White: We’re 15 days away from the municipal election. Are you hearing the kinds of things that you want to hear from the 14 people who are going to be on the ballot for Chicago mayor? Anyone standing out to you at this moment?
Bonsu: While we haven’t as an organization made an endorsement for a candidate in the mayor’s race, we have been paying attention to where candidates stand on issues that we care about, so for example, candidates like Amara Enyia and Toni Preckwinkle have supported ending the gang database, for example, and removing carve-outs in the welcoming city ordinance. Also, just thinking about the alderman in the 5th and 20th wards, we’ve fought to get a referendum on the ballot in the 5th and 20th wards to get aldermen to support a community benefits agreement, so I urge folks living in those wards to vote “yes.” The ordinance would prevent the displacement of residents from the area surrounding the forthcoming Obama Center.
On BYP100’s mission and goals for 2019
White: One thing that stands out to me about BYP100 is that you are intentionally inclusive when you talk about all black people. In your mission statement, you really lay out what you mean by that. Talk about that.
Bonsu: When you talk about black people in general, I don’t think anyone would argue that the oppressions and inequalities that we face on a range of issues, it’s not debatable. But within the marginalized demographic of black folks, there’s even more marginalized people within that, so we’re talking about black trans folks, queer folks, undocumented immigrants, incarcerated and formerly incarcerated, black women, non-binary people, and so if you really go to the margins of the margins of black communities and really focus your stories and solutions on that, then everyone benefits.
White: Talk about what’s going to happen in 2019 for BYP100. What are the priorities?
Bonsu: One priority for us, particularly in Chicago, is fighting the displacement of black people on Chicago’s South Side through a community benefits agreement. Another major priority for us is creating a safer Chicago, especially for black women, girls, femmes, and gender non-conforming people by working to increase interventions to gender-based violence that don’t rely on contact with police. And that might sound confusing to people because when you’re talking about domestic violence, 911 is really the first resource that you think of when you’re experiencing that, but so much of media, surveys, and other documented reports suggests that state violence, particularly police violence against black women, and other women of color happens in the context of police responses to domestic violence. And this is especially true for survivors who are poor, queer, immigrant, trans, mothers. And so, really taking on this black, queer, feminist lens to what does it mean to create safer communities, we’re taking it upon ourselves as part of a national initiative to really increase alternative options to safety, to community-determined needs and responses that don’t rely on police contact.
On what ‘abolition’ means in 2019
White: One issue I want to dig into is this idea of ‘abolition.’ You describe yourself as an activist, organizer and abolitionist. What does ‘abolition’ mean in this day and age, and why is it so central to your work?
Bonsu: Abolition to me is a political vision with the goal to eliminate imprisonment, policing and surveillance, and creating lasting alternatives to punishment and imprisonment. Abolition is not just about getting rid of brick-and-mortar buildings full of cages. It’s also about undoing the society we live in because the prison industrial complex both feeds on and maintains oppression and inequalities, so our prison abolitionist framework entails more specifically, developing and implementing other positive, substitutive social projects, institutions and conceptions of regulating our social lives and redressing shared problems.
This interview has been edited for clarity and brevity. Click play to hear the full conversation.
GUEST: Janaé Bonsu, BYP100 national co-director
LEARN MORE: Activist. Scholar. Organizer. (Personal website)