Misconceptions about SAFE-T Act led to threats, harm

The tactics may not have worked politically, but the backlash wasn’t surprising.

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State Rep. Jehan Gordon-Booth speaks as Gov. J.B. Pritzker prepares to sign a sweeping criminal justice reform bill during a Feb. 2021 ceremony at Chicago State University on the South Side.

State Rep. Jehan Gordon-Booth speaks as Gov. J.B. Pritzker prepares to sign a sweeping criminal justice reform bill during a Feb. 2021 ceremony at Chicago State University on the South Side.

Ashlee Rezin/Sun-Times

Illinois House Deputy Majority Leader Jehan Gordon-Booth, D-Peoria, headed up her chamber’s efforts to amend the controversial SAFE-T Act this year. The day before the bill came up for a vote, I asked her what were, in her opinion, the largest misconceptions about the 2021 social justice reform law.

Gordon-Booth pointed to the trespassing issue. “I don’t care if you live in rural, urban, suburban. The trespassing [issue] was one that just made a lot of folks incredibly uncomfortable.”

Gordon-Booth got a taste for that last summer, she said, when she sat down with a young, millennial police officer she described as a “cop’s cop.” She also met with her local Peoria police chief and the chief’s top brass.

Their top concern was the perceived inability for police to make trespassing arrests under the existing provisions of the SAFE-T Act. Some of her fellow legislators also expressed that concern, so, Gordon-Booth decided, “we just needed to be far more clear about what our intent was.” That intent, she said, “was obviously not as it was framed,” by opponents. “We just had to be more clear about how we wanted the language to read so that it was interpreted the same way by everybody, by all parties.”

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So, changes were made that now make it explicitly clear that arrests can be made.

I also asked Gordon-Booth to reflect a bit on the opposition to the new law. She said she’d witnessed some major national backlashes throughout her life, so the fact that people would try to gin up another one on this law didn’t surprise her.

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She said she had no illusions “that the SAFE-T Act was going to be used as a tool to fear-monger, to try to get Illinoisans to believe that somehow those of us that are elected officials, many of us who live and represent communities that are also plagued by the violence that we all find abhorrent, many of us also being crime victims. I wasn’t surprised that they used the fear tactic and used the SAFE-T Act as the tool to try to drive the fear.” But, she said, “It still punches you in the gut when you see it play out.”

Even so, Gordon-Booth said, “We knew that we put together a strong body of work that we could stand behind, stand on and not run from,” adding, “it’s a great feeling to know that those fear-mongering tactics did not work.”

The tactics may not have worked politically, but Rep. Maurice West, D-Rockford, wrote a powerful op-ed for the Rockford Register Star about how SAFE-T Act misinformation caused harm.

West, the “only Black legislator in the northern Illinois region,” wrote in his op-ed that the misinformation spread about the legislation, “strategically led people down a path to think of dark-skinned people being let out of jail to destroy our community. Once that bell is rung,” he wrote, “you can’t un-ring it.”

And that, he wrote, is why he is having trouble accepting an attempted walk-back from his local Republican State’s Attorney J. Hanley, who was recently quoted as saying he regretted helping spread that misinformation, which West claimed, “led to confusion and anger in our community and threats to me and my family personally.”

“Because of this misinformation,” West, a church pastor, wrote, “my faith was questioned, my life threatened, and the N-word was used so expressively and easily by some. All while my fellow local elected leaders, on both sides of the aisle, threw me under the bus for their political survival.”

I reached out to West to talk to him directly about his experiences. He said much of the harassment involved calls to his legislative office, “with a quick hang-up after using racist remarks.”

The one that really shook up West and his family was, “a guy who called our office looking to see if the ‘N-word’ was there,” West said. “My office assistant tries to calm him down and tell him that I wasn’t there, but she’s willing to talk to him about the legislation. He calls her a lying c**t and said he doesn’t believe her and he’s coming to the office regardless.” West said he shut the office down for the day.

Legislators’ home addresses are easily accessible online, and because the harassment and threats cause his family so much angst and fear, West said he is now “working on legislation to hide the personal address of each candidate, and the only way to see it is to request copies of the petitions and leave your address as well.”

Rich Miller also publishes Capitol Fax, a daily political newsletter, and CapitolFax.com.

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