Hello again from Chicago!
The first day of Netroots Nation 2023 is drawing to a close. Following the adjournment of today’s breakout sessions, attendees gathered in the Hilton’s large and ornate International Ballroom for the opening keynote to hear from speakers like Chicago Mayor Brandon Johnson, Illinois State Senator Robert Peters, AFT President Randi Weingarten, Cook County Public Defender Sharone Mitchell, Jr., Chicago organizer Emma Tai, and the Working Families Party’s Maurice Mitchell.
Mitchell led off the program, telling the crowd that his appearance felt like a homecoming, because he had just begun leading the Working Families Party the last time he spoke at the conference. Mitchell exhorted attendees to remember the why, a refrain that has been uttered throughout the day at panels and trainings. He observed that we’re living in a time when destructive forces are mounting an all-out attack on democracy, human rights, and freedom.
The stakes of our work are, consequently, as high as they could be. Millions of Americans are counting on the progressive movement to be successful to have a chance at living freely and safely. The promise of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness can’t be realized unless we defeat the evil of neofascism.
Mitchell was followed by Cook County Public Defender Sharone Mitchell, Jr., a prominent figure in the fight for criminal justice reform.
Recognizing the inequities and injustices perpetuated by the cash bail system, Mitchell has been a staunch advocate for its abolition. Through his tireless efforts, Mitchell has worked to dismantle the discriminatory practice of cash bail that disproportionately affects low-income individuals and communities of color.
Mitchell Jr. has championed alternatives, such as pretrial services and risk assessment tools, to ensure fairness and equal treatment under the law. His laudable commitment to ending cash bail has made him a leading voice for transformative change in the criminal justice system.
Attendees were then treated to a multi-part JustUs performance from Motus Theater’s DA Tour. Trailblazing Cook County State’s Attorney Kim Foxx joined Colette Payne, JustUs’ monologist & Director at Women’s Justice Institute Reclamation Project, to read a monologue created by Payne about the hurtful impact of the criminal legal system on her and her family. Standing side by side, they shared Payne’s riveting story with the Netroots Nation audience.
After the reading, the ReMINDers, a dynamic musical duo, took to the stage to transform Payne’s story into music. NPR Music’s Live Sessions archive poetically describes the pair, consisting of emcee Big Samir and Queens-born emcee/vocalist Aja Black, as “a rare and remarkable musical duo seamlessly blending soulful sounds and roots music with insightful messages and thoughtful lyrics.”
It is hard to put into words how enchanting the performance was — it really must be seen and heard to be fully appreciated. It was a beautiful, moving response to Payne’s monologue, and it brought the audience to their feet.
The JustUs project, now four years old, “was developed by Motus Theater in 2019 and premiered as a keynote at the National Association of Community and Restorative Justice Conference in front of 1,600 stakeholders,” Netroots Nation says. “Since then, JustUs monologues have served as keynotes for eleven national and international conferences and have been read by law enforcement, district attorneys, DOC staff, and legislators. Motus Theater’s mission is to create original theater to facilitate dialogue on critical issues of our time.”
The JustUs monologues are something you truly don’t see every day: formerly incarcerated people sharing their stories on stage alongside district attorneys. The goal is to “inspire thoughtful dialogue on the impact the criminal legal system has on our country.” You can’t not be moved by watching one of these performances. People who don’t appreciate the harm caused by systemic racism and discriminatory systems really ought to hear the stories of people like Colette.
Illinois State Senator Robert Peters spoke next.
Peters, a dedicated advocate for social and economic justice, referred repeatedly to his home state as “flyover country” to drive home the point that what happens in the Midwest often doesn’t receive the attention of goings-on at the coasts.
With a focus on uplifting marginalized communities, Peters has been instrumental in pushing for progressive policies and reforms. He has actively worked to address issues such as criminal justice reform, affordable housing, healthcare access, and educational equity. Like Mitchell Jr., he has been vocal in calling for an end to cash bail in Illinois, recognizing its disproportionate impact on low-income individuals and communities of color. He touted that work in his remarks.
Organizer Emma Tai followed Peters. She recounted the days when Rahm Emanuel was in the mayor’s office and undermining the city’s public schools.
“We struggled for justice and for the public good at a time when austerity and privatization ruled the day,” Tai told the convention. “Erecting a political alternative. Means we use every tool in our tool set strikes and occupations, negotiating for legislative concessions when we can get them introducing legislation that we know won’t pass because we need an alternative.”
Randi Weingarten, the longtime President of the American Federation of Teachers, then took to the stage to introduce new Chicago Mayor Brandon Johnson, who recently succeeded his embattled predecessor Lori Lightfoot. Weingarten denounced the right wing’s war on public education, decrying efforts in places like Florida by ultra MAGA Republicans like Ron DeSantis to impose a regime of fear, censorship, discrimination, and absurd restrictions on what teachers can teach.
“Extremists try to divide Americans,” said Weingarten. “They know public schools are trying to unite us. They wage culture wars in schools, even though parents know that we have our kids’ best interests at heart, not some other bizarro agenda that I don’t even understand what they’re talking about.”
“What do we do? We present facts. We help young people learn how to think, to discern fact from fiction, to be curious to lean into their potential and their passion. We try to address learning loss and the disconnection and alienation people still feel. And because of that, that’s why ninety percent of parents send their kids to public schools, and that’s why a large majority of parents want to see schools strengthened… but, as the extremists continue this to unleash this vitriol, you’ll notice they don’t offer one single idea as to how to strengthen public schools because they don’t wanna improve public schools.”
“They wanna end public schools. And they’re not shy about telling us.”
“I often say our job is to be activists, aspiration agents, hope bringers,” Weingarten said a little later. “Our job is to help lift all to make the middle class cool again. To ensure that everyone gets to their God-given potential. But perhaps there’s no better example of the personification of that than our next speaker, Chicago Mayor — I love saying that! — Chicago Mayor Brandon Johnson.”
Johnson’s recent victory in the 2023 Chicago mayoral race was a big moment for the progressive movement in America. Chicago may be a heavily Democratic city, but that doesn’t mean it has had the benefit of authentic progressive leadership. Johnson, a former teacher, was not considered by pundits or the media to be the likely victor. But he ran a compelling campaign, organized effectively, and secured the support needed to win in a local election year with lower turnout.
Johnson demonstrated in his remarks why he was able to connect with voters, mixing jokes with passionate calls to action and engaging the audience.
“Isn’t it great to be in the greatest freaking city in the entire world, the city of Chicago?” Johnson said. “I have to tell you, though… being here today, you know, reminds me of, of why we do this work. And, quite frankly, this is home. To be in a room full of individuals who love people, who are willing to invest your time in organizing to make sure that we do everything in our power to bring people up out of poverty, and to ensure that those of us who are part of the working class have a real shot at the dream that our ancestors could only imagine.”
“Now, I have to be honest with you all. I know some of you are not used to seeing me in a suit. I’ve always been this cute though, make no mistake about it. Just didn’t always have to dress up as much — not used to having armed guards surround me and take me from place to place. And, quite frankly, I’m not sure if I’ll ever get used to that, because one of the most important decisions I’ve ever made in my life was becoming a Chicago public school teacher teaching seventh and eighth graders, and it taught me an awful lot about what’s possible when we actually spend time helping young people see and know their value.”
Johnson devoted a significant amount of his speech to reflecting on his remarkable campaign victory. He got in a good dig at Rupert Murdoch’s FNC and got the audience cheering as he called for greater equity and broad prosperity.
“No one should be too poor to live in one of the richest cities — Chicago — in one of the richest countries — America — at the richest time in the history of the world,” said Johnson. “There is literally more than enough for everybody. Everybody. No one should lose at the expense of someone else winning.”
The ballroom roared in agreement.
“Now, the soul of Chicago was on full display tonight because you see, and you can feel it in the air. This multicultural intergenerational movement that has propelled us into this moment where we don’t have to shrink and we don’t have to hide from our values. We can actually run on our principles and values and win.”
“We get to transform this country with the very people in this room, and for those who wish to divide us at this time, we’re not gonna allow them to do it,” Johnson said in closing. “We’re gonna look each other in the eyes and we’re gonna live out the full manifestation of those who only can dream of this moment.”
“We will not cower. We will not flinch in this moment, but we will swing back with the full authority of the ancestors that made this moment possible.”
“God bless you all, Netroots. Let’s build a better, stronger, safer Chicago. Let’s build a better, stronger, safer America.”