Chicago Activist Says Last Summer’s ‘Racial Reckoning’ Was Everyday Life For Black People

Black Lives Matter sign
In this file photo, a Black Lives Matter sign is displayed at the final meeting point of a rally that drew an estimated 1,000 protesters who marched from Wrigleyville to the intersection of Larrabee and Division streets in the Near North Side community area. Manuel Martinez / WBEZ News
Black Lives Matter sign
In this file photo, a Black Lives Matter sign is displayed at the final meeting point of a rally that drew an estimated 1,000 protesters who marched from Wrigleyville to the intersection of Larrabee and Division streets in the Near North Side community area. Manuel Martinez / WBEZ News

Chicago Activist Says Last Summer’s ‘Racial Reckoning’ Was Everyday Life For Black People

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The murder of George Floyd by Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin set off a wave of protests and launched what many call a “racial reckoning” in the United States. Activists who have been organizing against police violence and systemic racism, however, say the ebb and flow of support for the Black Lives Matter movement reflects a common historical pattern — and that little change has been made.

On the anniversary of Floyd’s death, WBEZ’s Esther Yoon-Ji Kang spoke with Aislinn Pulley, co-founder of Black Lives Matter Chicago and co-executive director of the Chicago Torture Justice Center. Pulley discussed the groundswell and waning of support for the movement, her reaction to Chauvin’s conviction, the shift in media coverage of police violence and more. Below is a transcript of the conversation, edited for clarity and brevity.

In the early days after George Floyd was killed, national support for the Black Lives Matter movement swelled to levels we’ve never seen before. But in later months, especially in the run-up to the election, there was a backlash. There were more “Back the Blue” protests, and anti-BLM activists were more visible and vocal. What have those ups and downs meant for organizing during this past year?

One, I think it’s to be expected. Historically, we’ve seen in times of particularly heightened organizing, where we’ve seen a swing in public opinion to support it, and then there’s quickly kind of a backlash — [that] is a predictable response of how power and tension work and how the powers that be also organize to respond to these moments. There are plans to quell protests, there are plans to repress dissent, there are plans that are carefully orchestrated and choreographed in order to turn and sway public opinion away from something that seems threatening to the current status quo.

And then I think what we’re also seeing, which is separate from how the state responds to that particular historical pressure, is also a deepening analysis occurring within the movement. So we’ve seen some moms speak out against the kind of national valorization of who has been identified as spokespeople for the movement, most famously Samaria Rice, Tamir Rice’s mom, who has come out very, very publicly and criticized a number of people and organizations, including the BLM Global Network.

And then there’s the other political crystallization that is happening, where initially 10 chapters, it’s now more like 20, publicly separated from the BLM Global Network in November. And so that’s also a maturing of clearly identifying who we are, what we stand for and how we’re going to organize around this work.

What did the conviction of officer Derek Chauvin mean for you personally, and also to the movement?

You know, that day was a really, really complicated and hard day, because Chauvin was convicted, and on all counts, which I hadn’t seen before. We know that convictions on police officers who kill are rare. So it was very interesting to witness that it took a global, organized effort to get a conviction of one single cop who murdered on camera. It was a statement of how insidious police violence is to the system and how normalized it is. And then immediately after that, we hear about the murder of the 16 year old in Ohio, Ma’Khia Bryant. [Chauvin’s] conviction happened right when Ma’Khia was being killed [by a police officer in Columbus, Ohio] because that is how the system operates.

When it comes to policing, where are you seeing areas of hope or opportunity here in Chicago?

In Chicago, we have some really innovative ordinances that are sitting in city council right now. So we have the “Treatment, Not Trauma” ordinance, which would require a non policing response to mental health crises. And then we have the “End the Gang Database” ordinance, which is critically important. Gang databases — and there are many of them in Chicago — allow for a particular type of surveillance, and harassment of people, and particularly young people, and especially black and Latinx young people. And then there’s the Peace Book ordinance that Good Kids Mad City has, which would invest up to $2 million in diversionary programs for young folks, and that is extraordinarily needed.

[These] are areas that require public pressure and organizing, and they won’t get passed without massive pressure. They will only happen and only be passed through city council as a result of movement organizing. If we don’t organize to push these through to demand that these go through, then what we will see is watered-down ordinances that have, perhaps, a radical name … but really, it’s just window dressing for continuing business as usual.

What’s your assessment of the media coverage of police brutality and of the Black Lives Matter movement this past year?

Media coverage has definitely changed as a result of the uprising. Certainly local coverage has really deepened. There’s regular stories that are part of a larger project that many publications and media entities are doing that are chronicling what’s happening, which gives the public an opportunity to really have a trajectory of information to look back on and study, and that’s extraordinarily helpful. That didn’t exist 10 years ago in this way. This is new. The narratives when police shoot people and kill people — that has changed. Previously, the narrative was just a cookie cutter, copy-and-paste from the police statement. Now there’s actual investigative journalism happening in a way that we didn’t see before.

There’s, of course, still work to do — on the narrative of uprising, and understanding the political response to massive anger and rage that coverage still needs to deepen. For an overwhelming majority of at least the mainstream big [media outlets], their framing was based on property destruction, which was infuriating, but also a logical response because that’s how the shaping of what is important has been over the past 40 years, which has always been in prioritizing property over the actual causal effects of what is underlying that. We saw that with the Rodney King riots back in the early 90s. Instead of focusing on the anger that millions of people were having, and witnessing an episode of state violence that went unchecked, the focus was on people destroying property. We saw that with Katrina. Instead of focusing on the fact that hundreds of thousands of people were abandoned and struggling to fight for their lives … the focus was on property, which is so completely enraging. It’s an example of prioritizing property over people.

Many have called the past year a time of “racial reckoning.” Would you agree with that? Has real progress been made?

No. I mean, I don’t know what that means, I guess. [Laughs] My instinct is to say no, but also, what does that mean? Racial reckoning for whom? For white people? [For] Black people, people of color, this is not a reckoning; this is the life that we are living. These are the realities that we are living. Perhaps — and I guess it’s true for large segments of the population — they are actually seeing what we have been talking about for years. So maybe that’s true in that sense. But usually a reckoning means that there’s deep change underway, and that is not happening.

The measures that we’re seeing in corporate work cultures that are around creating a commitment to diversity or tackling white supremacy within are direct consequences of the movements. And so by that extension, I am concerned that they will be momentary explorations in this, and not permanent alterations. It’s a societal consequence. It’s a ripple effect of the movement, but it’s dependent on the movement. We’ve seen this before, in the uprisings in the ‘60s in the ‘70s. New internal workplace dynamics were at play, we saw affirmative action practices really deepened. For the first time we saw the promotion and positioning of Black workers, of women. And then we also saw as the movement waned in the ‘80s, with Reaganomics … and an organized backlash and efforts to remove affirmative action practices. So that can happen again.

I will say that we have not progressed in any substantial way. In terms of the systems that caused George Floyd to be murdered, there has been no change there at all. But what we have is the knowledge that people from all corners of this land took part in protests and demonstrations. And that is a lived memory and historical memory that millions of people will keep in their bodies and in their psyches. They now know, those 27 million people who participated in protests, that they can take to the streets and they can voice their outrage. And so it can happen again, and it can be bigger — until we force the creation of the type of world that will allow George Floyd and Ma’Khia Bryant and the Rekia Boyd and “Ronnie Man” Johnson and the plethora of other folks who have been killed by police to be alive and live fully dignified lives.

What has self-care looked like for you as you’ve done this work this past year?

Well, I meditate — or I try to meditate regularly. And I bullet journal, which may really sound superficial, but it has actually helped me identify and create space to track specific things about myself, like, how am I sleeping? What is my mood each day? What is my digestive system doing? Because our digestive systems respond to stress. So really tracking what’s happening in my body throughout the month has also been really, really helpful.

With my work at the Chicago Torture Justice Center, we are deepening our modality, our politicized healing lens, and really understanding and further defining our unique approach to healing. Because we are the first — and currently the only — center in the United States dedicated to treating domestic torture survivors, that means that we are also spearheading this particular field. As someone who’s deeply involved in this particular type of work, which is largely organized around both grief and trauma, healing and understanding how we heal, both individually and collectively, has really been a core component of my work. And that knowledge is also being replicated within my own soul, my own body.

Esther Yoon-Ji Kang is a reporter for WBEZ’s Race, Class and Communities desk. Follow her on Twitter @estheryjkang.