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Activists call for alternative Cook County ‘Budget for Black Lives’

Groups, clergy want $157 million slashed from Cook County Sheriff Tom Dart’s budget.

Black Lives Matter Chicago activist Amika Tendaji calls for a “Budgete for Black Lives” outside Stroger Hospital on Wednesday, Sept. 9, 2020.
Black Lives Matter Chicago activist Amika Tendaji on Wednesday urged Cook County commissioners to slash $157 million from the Cook County sheriff’s budget.
Stefano Esposito/Sun-Times

As Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle and the board grapple with how to pay for services with drastically depleted funds, a group of activists say they know a good place to start: Slash funding for Cook County Jail.

Groups such as Black Lives Matter Chicago and several South Side pastors want $157 million cut from Cook County Sheriff Tom Dart’s budget. But they want the majority of the money funneled toward health services and housing in the city’s poorest communities.

“We need a budget that reflects that we aren’t actually trying to jail all of our problems away,” said Amika Tendaji, an activist with Black Lives Matter Chicago, who spoke to reporters in front of Stroger Hospital on Wednesday.

About $47 million — the single largest portion of the proposed “Budget for Black LIves” — would go toward increasing rental assistance subsidies already provided by the Housing Authority of Cook County. Another $39.7 million would be added to the county’s health system budget, to offset $55 million in proposed cuts, the activists say. About $10.5 million would fund restorative justice and violence prevention programs.

“We have two choices: Either we believe that Black people deserve public health, mental health, the resources that communities need, or you believe that Black people are just inherently criminal and should be jailed and that’s how we’re going solve our problems,” Tendaji said. “And in that case, you are on the wrong side of history, and when we win, we will make sure that people know you are on the wrong side of history.”

Dart’s office issued a statement Wednesday, saying, among other things, that he has “long been a leader in the effort to end unnecessary and unjust incarceration.”

“We will continue to expand our investment in innovative, thoughtful alternatives that provide assistance to our most vulnerable citizens,” according to the statement.

Preckwinkle said in June the county is facing the largest budget gap in almost a decade because of the fallout from COVID-19. She said “everything is on the table.” The county could be looking at a budget gap of $409 million in the 2021 fiscal year, officials have said.

In July, the County Board approved the Justice for Black Lives resolution that says the county should redirect money from arresting people and locking them up to housing, health care and job creation “especially in Black and Brown communities most impacted by violence and incarceration.”

Some activists said it’s time to do away with the jail entirely. Frank Chapman, executive director of the National Alliance Against Racist Repression, said “our prison system amounts to penal slavery.”

“That jail should be closed down because it’s an insult to our humanity,” Chapman said. “It’s a death trap right now for COVID-19 infections.”