What Does a Real Sanctuary City Look Like?
By Jerry Boyle
As the Trump administration’s crackdown on immigrants kicks in, the subject of “sanctuary cities” is much discussed on both right and left. But remember: the subject is merely a concept—there is no agreed definition, legal or otherwise, of what constitutes a sanctuary city.
Republicans denounce sanctuary cities as violent urban enclaves run by outlaw Democratic regimes that flout and obstruct enforcement of federal immigration laws to support a voting base of criminals. Democrats, in contrast, laud themselves for providing refuge to persecuted immigrants seeking nothing more than a chance to achieve the American Dream.
Both definitions are peddling propaganda. The Republicans are using draconian immigration enforcement to Make America White Again. And the Democrats are selling phony sanctuary schemes that sound nice to voters sympathetic to the cause, but are so riddled with exceptions as to be virtually useless.
Chicago provides a perfect example of this dynamic. On the one hand, Trump is so universally reviled here that’s he now afraid to return to the town that humiliated him by forcing him to cancel his 2016 campaign rally here. So he continuously vents his rage at Chicago and threatens to cut off federal funds to the city. On the other, we have Rahm Emanuel, an ostensibly Democratic Mayor who, in his prior incarnations as a Washington power broker, advised Democratic Presidents to adopt tough immigration policies, hopefully neutralizing the sanctuary with swing voters. Now a national disgrace, Rahm pretends to be a friend to immigrants—but only because his voting base has shrunk in an immigrant town where Trump’s xenophobia is politically toxic. Rahm’s commitment to immigrants is pure spin, a cynical charade designed to fool his voters. People are being deported every day because of Rahm Emanuel’s covert connivance with Immigrations and Customs Enforcement (ICE), the federal agency with principal responsibility for immigration enforcement.
The ambiguity embedded in the term “sanctuary city” leaves both sides plenty of room for equivocation and disingenuity, so we need to get back to basics.
Sanctuary: A Place to Hide
Can you give me sanctuary?
I must find a place to hide
A place for me to hide.
– The Doors
Sanctuary is an ecclesiastical term with an ancient history. Derived from the Latin, it literally means “a place holding the sacred,” but generally it’s used to refer to a church, temple, mosque, etc. In the West, sanctuaries were, legally, solely within the jurisdiction of clerical authority, which trumped all civil authority. But although the legal distinction was eliminated centuries ago, the concept is so embedded in the culture that to this day, civil authorities are extremely reluctant to enter a religious institution to make an arrest—for one, the optics are terrible. Recent examples of this include celebrated cases of immigrants avoiding deportation by holing up in Chicago churches, as well as the masses of protesters who slept in church basements for the duration of the NATO Summit in 2012—there is no safer space than the sanctuary of a religious institution.
Chicago’s Welcoming City Ordinance: A Soft Parade for Rahm
Can you find me soft asylum?
I can’t make it anymore
The Man is at the door.
– The Doors
The Chicago Welcoming City Ordinance ostensibly commits to non-cooperation by city agencies in the enforcement of immigration laws. But excepted from the ordinance are those convicted of felonies, those charged with certain crimes, and those stigmatized as allegedly belonging to gangs. There is no meaningful enforcement mechanism, and immigrants are left to the tender mercies of the infamously violent, racist, and unaccountable Chicago Police Department, which acts with effective impunity.
Any Chicago police officer can place an immigrant at risk of deportation merely by choosing to arrest them for a crime, whether or not a crime was committed. And hundreds of thousands of Chicago residents are, rightly or wrongly, identified as gang members or “strategic subjects” in the massive surveillance databases maintained at Homan Square, Chicago’s infamous Black Site, which are shared with federal authorities. Any immigrant picked up on a bad rap on at the whim of a dirty cop can be summarily whisked away and deported by ICE—before their first court date.
Coupled with Rahm’s mass incarceration strategy, which sweeps people off the streets on pretexts, ICE serves as just another means by which Rahm can rid himself of people who are not included in his vision for a city of white, affluent consumers for the bankers he serves.
A real sanctuary city would begin with a new concept of policing. First, it’s important to remember that the Chicago Police Department was not founded to fight crime—quite the contrary. The Chicago Police Department was founded to persecute immigrants. In the nineteenth century, Chicago elected a bigoted Know-Nothing Mayor who attacked immigrants. When the immigrants rebelled (in the so-called “Lager Beer Riots”), monied interests insisted that the city adopt a professional force of uniformed officers modeled on the British police, which were founded for the very same purpose—to put down civil disturbances by persecuted Irish Catholic immigrants.
Current Chicago police policy still follows a paramilitary model, with cops as warriors waging a counter-insurgency campaign against groups that pose a political threat to established power. In the wake of the notorious police misconduct scandals that destroyed his career, Rahm now trumpets his commitment to “reform” in a desperate effort to recover some measure of political credibility. But like every such initiative ever undertaken by him, Rahm’s promises of police reform are a teasing illusion, a munificent bequest in a pauper’s will. His reforms are tweaks, adopting minor tactical changes that pay only lip service to remedying particular techniques that generated bad headlines. Our police are still paramilitary warriors waging a counter-insurgency campaign.
There is a better way. In the wake of civil disturbances in London in 2011, the British adopted a new model for policing, and replaced the Warrior Model with a Guardian Model. Whereas the Warrior Model focuses on control, with cops always escalating the use of force one step ahead of citizens, the Guardian Model emphasizes alternatives to force—de-escalation, with police officers focusing on working with communities to find alternatives to violence for solving problems. The contrast is illustrated by the graphic representations of the models:
But the Guardian Model is not just some fantasy from overseas. It has been adopted by a number of American jurisdictions, and it’s recognized as the best practice by the Police Executive Research Forum (PERF), considered the premier private sector consultant by most responsible law enforcement executives.
Rahm Emanuel: The Devil in the White City
Rahm Emanuel made a conscious and deliberate decision to maintain the Warrior Model because he is committed to control and neutralize potential political threats by mass incarceration. His strategy is nothing less than genocidal—deprive Black and Brown communities of resources, and then wage low-intensity warfare on those communities to intern them en masse or induce them to move somewhere else. It is no accident that the vast bulk of Chicago’s population loss in recent years has consisted of Black citizens (who first came here as refugees from the Jim Crow South), and that the other immigrant populations are kept under the heel of an oppressive force, thus ensuring their swelling numbers never amount to a meaningful political threat. Rahm is White Flight’s Revenge, driving gentrification in a neo-colonial campaign of ethnic cleansing. There is no sincere commitment to reform on the fifth floor of City Hall. We have to look elsewhere.
Hope Lives in the City of Neighborhoods
When the government fails, we have no choice but to return to our roots: to our communities. They are the ultimate source of political power. It’s up to us to make Chicago a real sanctuary city. And that work is being done every day by the people and the organizations they form in their neighborhoods, where bonds of trust and kinship tie us to a common purpose.
In the long run, campaigns to resist mass incarceration—which would ultimately eliminate police and prisons—have the answer. Again, abolition is the ultimate goal. But in the mean time, we can work, in meaningful ways, to limit the damage inflicted by the state apparatus. And to some extent, we already have. We replaced a fascist State’s Attorney with Kim Foxx, a reformer who’s taken meaningful steps to frustrate the police department’s mass incarceration strategies. Foxx just declines to prosecute many petty offenses, minor property crimes, and absurd parole violations, and she does that because community groups campaigned for years to defeat her fascist predecessor. Politicians pay attention when a fascist takes a fall. Similar campaigns led to the election of a County Board President committed to reducing the inmate population at the infamous Cook County Jail, a massive internment camp for innocent people who don’t have the money to make bail. Supporting legislation to decriminalize innocuous behavior and mitigate or abolish cash bail, will help to keep our people on the streets where we need them.
And now, with Trump ramping up his assault on immigrants, community groups are organizing to resist. Sure, the big money NGOs do useful work, but it’s the small, hyper-local groups in every neighborhood which form the backbone of the resistance. Leadership must come from those most threatened by the oppression. And more secure allies should take their direction from them.
We already know how to do it. On March 12, 2016, Donald Trump brought his parade of horribles here—to the UIC Pavilion: on the campus of our most diverse university, in the center of this immigrant town. Groups from every community in the city, led by those targeted by Trump’s politics of hate, descended on that building and drove that bigot out of town merely by showing up and speaking out forcefully. The action at UIC is the template for our resistance.
Trump’s not afraid of Rahm Emanuel. They get along fine. He’s not afraid of our Governor, a fellow finance capitalist. But Trump’s afraid of us. And we keep him afraid by working with churches and NGOs in our neighborhoods, forming immigrant support networks; joining Black Lives Matter protests; marching with women, LGBTQs, scientists, and others resisting Trump’s assaults on us; and counter-protesting hate groups that attack our people. For those who can’t take to the streets, there is plenty of work online, where opinions are formed, policy is shaped, and street actions are organized. And those of us with cash to spare can focus our donations on local groups doing the work on the ground here—as opposed to national NGOs which, although they do useful work, are not our first line of defense.
Sanctuary: Keeping Chicago Trump-Free
Trump needs to be shown that he can’t come back here, and that if he sends in his thugs, they will be met with massive, persistent resistance by people in every neighborhood.
Although we must force Rahm to adopt meaningful police reform and adopt a meaningful Welcoming City Ordinance, with no exceptions and real enforcement mechanisms, it is up to us to make Chicago a real Sanctuary City. Every one of us can help by refusing to participate, adopting Bartleby’s passive-aggressive motto: “I prefer not to.” The simple expedient of not calling 911 will keep our people out of the maw of the criminal injustice system, which also serves as a pipeline to deportation. Solving our problems ourselves, with the help of our neighbors, is always preferable to siccing a gang of armed, racist thugs in blue uniforms on our neighbors. Don’t dial 911. Put down the damn phone, and go talk to your neighbors.
The law will not protect us. We will protect ourselves. Churches no longer have de jure sanctuary status, but they have de facto sanctuary status because the authorities fear provoking the wrath of we the people by attacking them. We have to make each and every neighborhood a de facto sanctuary for those threatened by the Trump regime. We have our work cut out for us.