Twenty-one-year-old Rosa Chacon’s family knew something was wrong when she didn’t come home one day in mid-January. Rosa had a history of alcohol and drug abuse and would drift in and out of her parents’ house in Little Village, a predominantly Hispanic neighborhood on the southwest side of Chicago, sometimes disappearing for days at a time. But she always called home to let them know she was safe. Her sister, Elizabeth Bello, said Rosa might have called drunk, slurring her words, but she always called. It was inconceivable that she would go days, then weeks, then more than a month without checking in.
On January 18, Rosa had left the house to attend a party in the neighborhood. Grainy footage from a neighbor’s security camera shows her getting in an Uber. She left her ID at home and took no coat or jacket, since it was an unusually mild day for a Chicago winter. In the morning, she called home asking for a ride back, but the call cut off abruptly. The family called back and got no answer, again and again. When she didn’t come home, her parents filed a police report.
The police, inundated with hundreds of missing-persons reports, didn’t consider Rosa a priority. Desperate, her family hired a private investigator and reached out to Uber, though the company couldn’t provide information due to privacy concerns. Local news coverage led to a slow trickle of tips. A Chicago Transit Authority employee reported seeing Rosa, but detectives couldn’t access CTA footage without a subpoena, and the video was deleted without ever being seen.
Such supposed sightings only served to further deprioritize the case. Detectives received tips that Rosa had been spotted at restaurants and nail salons and so didn’t believe her to be in any danger, even though such tips are often misleading. Someone claimed to have seen Rosa at the Dollar Tree, but when the family reviewed the footage, it wasn’t her.
Detectives only started taking the case seriously after Rosa was found two months later. The family happened across a post in a local Facebook group. The body of a young woman had been dumped in an alley near where Rosa went missing. The victim had been tied and wrapped up in white sheets and abandoned in a shopping cart. The coroner identified Rosa by her tattoos.
At this point, the Chicago Police Department began putting resources into the case and reviewing evidence with the family. Though the autopsy and rape kit haven’t been released, and the police haven’t yet classified the death as a homicide, the family is convinced Rosa was murdered. Another woman, a twenty-year-old Guatemalan migrant, was found shot dead and dumped in a nearby alley in Little Village late February. In March, a 15-year-old girl went missing in the neighborhood.
Stories like Rosa’s aren’t unique to Little Village, nor to Chicago, in recent years. Violent crime and certain property crimes spiked sharply in 2020 and continued to rise throughout the pandemic. While the trend has perhaps begun to abate in recent months, murder rates and other violent and property crimes remain far above pre-pandemic levels. This is true across virtually all jurisdictions, not just major cities, but Chicago’s crime problem is particularly severe. The murder rate in the city is at a 30-year high; motor-vehicle theft has doubled in the last year, while carjackings have tripled in the city since 2019.
These trends have had a profound impact on local politics. When incumbent Lori Lightfoot, a black lesbian, lost her reelection bid in the first round of Chicago’s mayoral election in February, she blamed this result on racism and misogyny, but among the voters who had elected her in a landslide four years ago, public safety was likely the determining factor. In early polling of expected voters, nearly half cited crime and public safety as their top concern, and 2 in 3 reported feeling unsafe in the city.
Having presented herself as a moderate throughout the primary, Lightfoot was outflanked on criminal-justice issues from both the left and the right. Former CEO of Chicago Public Schools Paul Vallas, who won a plurality but not the necessary majority, will face off against Brandon Johnson, a former teacher-turned-Chicago Teachers Union organizer and county commissioner, in an April 4 runoff that has taken on national significance as a bellwether for Democratic politics.
The candidates represent a stark contrast in their approach to public safety. Vallas, running on the kind of law-and-order platform that proved successful for New York City Mayor Eric Adams in 2021, is promising to expand the police force and restore order in Chicago. While he previously advocated defunding the police, Johnson has walked back such language during the campaign and now talks about tackling the “root causes” of crime by investing in communities and public services.
Johnson, who has promised to tax “big businesses” and “the ultra-rich” to better fund schools and neighborhoods, is the favorite of progressives. He has received endorsements from the CTU and progressive luminaries like Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders. Vallas is, according to whom you ask, either a centrist or a crypto-Republican. The Republican Party rejects such claims, and Vallas’s Democratic credentials are indisputable: He was tapped as a running mate by former Illinois Gov. Pat Quinn, a Democrat, in 2013.
But, in a Democratic stronghold like Chicago, with nonpartisan municipal elections, partisan affiliations have limited meaning. Vallas is the preferred candidate of conservatives, moderates, and business and corporate interests, as well as police, firefighter, and trade unions now more associated with conservative politics, but he has garnered endorsements from politicos on both sides of the aisle. Progressive media is hammering Vallas for receiving endorsements from Chicago Fraternal Order of Police President and avowed Trump supporter John Catanzara and conservative talk-show host and Turning Point USA founder Charlie Kirk, but he also has the backing of much of the Democratic establishment. Illinois Sen. Dick Durbin has endorsed Vallas, as has former Secretary of State Jesse White, an influential black figure in state Democratic politics. So have many Obama administration veterans.
As his bipartisan support base suggests, Vallas isn’t so much a conservative as the candidate of the neoliberal consensus. He has promised to draw on his experience as the city’s former budget director to slash public expenditures by targeting inefficiencies. As a career superintendent, he worked to advance the privatization of public schools in a number of major American cities. Critics have blamed choices Vallas made as CEO of Chicago Public Schools from 1995 to 2001 for a subsequent $1 billion budget crisis that forced his successors to close a number of public schools. In Philadelphia, Vallas oversaw what was then the largest privatization of any public-school system in the country. Vallas then headed up the school district in New Orleans following Hurricane Katrina. By the time he left, three-quarters of the city’s schools had been converted to charter schools. New Orleans is now the first American school district without any traditional public schools, which progressive commentators have described as a disaster for certain disadvantaged students and communities.
Though Vallas’s critics worry the same thing will happen to Chicago if he becomes mayor, they have been cautious about attacking him on this front. The CTU, which has essentially bankrolled Johnson’s campaign, has taken a hit in popularity in recent years after initiating a series of work stoppages and blocking the reopening of schools as the pandemic dragged on, leaving working parents—especially those who couldn’t work remotely—scrambling for scarce and unaffordable childcare. According to polling, CTU favorability has dropped to 48 percent, down from 62 percent in January 2019. On the debate stage, Johnson has faced tough questions about his ability to negotiate a contract with the teacher’s union where he currently works as a paid organizer. Critics, and some voters, have expressed worries about CTU effectively being on both sides of the bargaining table.
To avoid calling too much attention to Johnson's association with the increasingly unpopular CTU, progressives have preferred to target Vallas’s stances on social issues. They have pointed to past social-media engagement with posts deemed bigoted or right-wing, and to a speaking engagement he did for Awake Illinois, a conservative advocacy group. Attack ads have featured clips from a 2009 interview in which Vallas says, “I’m more of a Republican than a Democrat,” and, “Fundamentally, I oppose abortion.” Such ads omit that Vallas went on to say he was “personally pro-choice,” and “I don’t think we should legislate against a woman’s right to choose,” which would put his position in line with President Biden and other mainstream Democrats. Regardless, this avenue of attack suggests that progressives understand that many Chicago liberals find such cultural positions and political associations far less acceptable than tax cuts or the closing of public schools in economically distressed neighborhoods.
Crime is no mere “cultural” issue, but in recent years, it has been subsumed into the culture war: Just as conservatives are expected to “back the blue,” progressives are now obliged to take a negative stance on policing. Johnson is on the record in support of defunding the police, which has been a liability for him during the mayoral campaign. In July 2020, roughly a month after the killing of George Floyd sparked nationwide protests and riots, Johnson introduced a nonbinding resolution to the Cook County Board of Commissioners to divert funds from law enforcement to social services. Johnson hasn’t always managed to retract this support so deftly. When pressed on his 2020 statement that defunding the police wasn’t just a slogan but “a real political goal,” Johnson replied, “I said it was a political goal…. I never said it was mine.”
Given the shift in the political climate around public safety, Johnson may well find such statements harder to shake than any of Vallas’s statements or associations. While the race is too close to call, recent polling gives Vallas a slight edge. It is entirely possible that Johnson’s political baggage will sink his campaign. Johnson would never have made it into the runoff without local progressive organizations coalescing around him. A relative unknown, Johnson squeaked into the second round thanks to a crowded primary and liberals and progressives who had soured on their other options.
Lightfoot wasn’t the favorite of progressive organizations in the 2019 mayoral election, but she won the runoff against her CTU-backed opponent by peeling off many progressive and liberal voters by dint of being a black lesbian running on police reform in the wake of Rahm Emanuel’s cover-up of the Laquan MacDonald police killing and mounting calls for racial justice. But these voters turned on Lightfoot once she was forced to make difficult choices inherent to running America’s third largest city, especially amid Covid and the racial turmoil of 2020.
While she displayed an uncanny ability to alienate political allies, Lightfoot really was beset from all sides. Conservatives characterized the modest cuts she proposed to the police budget in response to a pandemic-induced fiscal crisis as “defunding” the police, even though she had the political sense to repudiate the defund movement right from the start. Nonetheless, Chicago police literally turned their backs against Lightfoot after the 2021 fatal shooting of an officer, blaming her “progressive politics” for the officer’s death. But progressives had also assailed her for supporting the police during the 2020 protests, and for her decision to raise bridges over the Chicago River in an attempt to keep looters and rioters out of the downtown business and shopping districts.
Threading the needle between appeasing activists and effectively running the city has been a perennial problem for progressives seeking higher office in Chicago. In his failed 2015 mayoral bid against Rahm Emanuel, progressive challenger Chuy Garcia ruffled feathers among his left-wing supporters by promising to hire 1,000 police officers during his campaign. Progressive organizations subsequently abandoned Garcia, accounting for his poor showing in this year’s mayoral primary.
Parallels between Garcia and Johnson are now becoming apparent. Despite criticizing Garcia’s plan for public safety as indistinct from that of Lightfoot’s approach, Johnson is now starting to sound a lot like Garcia did on the 2015 campaign trail. After months as the only candidate who wouldn’t promise to fill 1,000 vacancies on the police force, Johnson reversed course last week and indicated that he always had planned to fill the vacancies.
Johnson is correct that Garcia wouldn’t have handled public safety any differently from Lightfoot—but neither will he. If Johnson becomes mayor, we can expect progressive activists to become disenchanted when—to no one’s shock—he doesn’t, in fact, defund the police. If history is any guide, once in office, Johnson will find himself alienated from the progressive base that once supported him. He is already keeping the more radical elements of his base at an arm’s length. Johnson’s campaign has quietly declined any offer of endorsement or recommendation from the Democratic Socialists of America, whose local chapter made defunding the Chicago Police Department a priority, even as DSA organizers knocked doors for him across the city.
If Vallas prevails, progressives—Brandon Johnson among them—will have themselves to blame for pushing unworkable and politically toxic demands. Such a defeat is in no way preordained, given how close the race remains. But should it come to pass, the post-mortems write themselves.
The radioactivity of the defund movement was evident from the start, which is why mainstream liberal outlets and institutions such as Vox, The Guardian, and the Brookings Institute quickly sought to redefine the slogan as a call to fund services other than policing—even as prominent police and prison abolitionists insisted, to the contrary, that “we literally mean abolish the police.” There is considerable public support for investing in public services, but not at the expense of policing, which makes “defund” an unfortunate word choice either way.
But this isn’t simply a matter of sloganeering or political expediency. Given that crime is devastating to the poor and minority communities they claim to represent, progressives need a workable approach to criminal justice and public safety. But acknowledging the reality of—much less condemning and punishing—criminality has become antithetical to left-wing sensibilities and beliefs. Police and prison abolitionism are only the most radical manifestation of a naïve and utopian approach to lawless and antisocial behavior. The progressive approach to criminal justice has long been far more concerned with perpetrators than victims. In recent years, progressives have pushed for sentencing reform, an end to cash bail, decarceration, lenient prosecution, and a moratorium on trying teens as adults.
Why are such policies so popular on the left? Good progressives have come to understand criminality as the result of circumstances and socioeconomic conditions, not individual choices. Movement leaders like Brandon Johnson embody this worldview when they insist on tackling what they see as the root causes of crime, such as poverty and inequality. In this view, crime is the result of hardship that requires “treatment, not trauma,” to borrow the words of a Chicago social-justice campaign.
In reality, the relationship between crime and poverty is neither simple nor predictable. And regardless, we can’t simply absolve individuals of all responsibility for their actions, as social-justice zealots sometimes advocate. Crime committed by minorities is often chalked up to “structural racism” and thus excused, sometimes even celebrated, as in Vicky Osterweil’s book In Defense of Looting, which was promoted on NPR and elsewhere during the 2020 unrest.
Permissive attitudes to criminality are wildly unpopular across most of the public, but many progressives and liberals feel obliged to play along. Shadi Hamid described this tendency in The Atlantic last summer, noting that “in certain circles on the left, an orthodoxy has taken hold: To complain about ostensibly minor crime and other urban disorder, when so many people endure much worse, is to flaunt your privilege.” Good progressives avoid acknowledging rising crime for fear of being deemed reactionary, and they certainly don’t want to suggest that perpetrators be punished.
Such social pressures help explain why rank-and-file progressives are so quick to accept claims that we don’t have a crime problem so much as a perception-of-crime problem, a theory cynically invoked by those in power hoping to absolve themselves of responsibility for crime rates going up on their watch. Many die-hard left-wingers and Democratic partisans still insist that crime isn’t really rising, despite ample evidence to the contrary, and assert that the public “misperception” of rising crime rates is the fault of sensationalist media.
But rising crime rates, especially in affluent areas not as accustomed to violence or flagrant lawlessness, are fomenting backlash among liberals. If bodycam and cell-phone footage of police brutality galvanized many Americans around progressive criminal-justice reforms, scenes of mass looting, flagrant shoplifting, and brazen carjackings in the news have many reversing course. Progressive prosecutors deemed soft on crime are facing challenges and recalls, notably the one that ousted San Francisco District Attorney Chesa Boudin last year. In Illinois, Cook County State’s Attorney Kim Foxx, who has been criticized for not prosecuting violent criminals and her handling of the Jussie Smollett scandal, has been the target of legislation that would allow for her recall. And, of course, a number of mayoral candidates in liberal cities are finding success rejecting progressive dogma on criminal justice in favor of tough-on-crime platforms.
Such a correction is probably for the best. Progressives aren’t wrong that poverty and social conditions drive crime, and more policing is clearly no silver bullet for greater social cohesion and order, but neither is an expansion of welfare and social services. Medicare for All and a universal basic income might improve conditions that lead to crime, but they won’t magically put an end to rape, theft, murder, and assault—we will, obviously, always need some form of community policing and corrections system. The notion that shoring up social services will remedy, say, cold-blooded murderers leaving dead women in alleyways is frankly insulting. To make such claims is to invite political backlash from crime victims and survivors and the growing number of citizens whose legitimate safety concerns, though borne out by data, are often dismissed or denied.
Elizabeth Bello can’t say exactly what is driving violent crime in her neighborhood or why women like her sister keep turning up dead in Chicago. But she insists defunding the police isn’t the answer. “If anything,” she told me, “we need more officers and a better justice system to hold these criminals accountable.” Progressives might counter—with little evidence—that investment in social services would have somehow prevented her sister from ending up dead in the first place, but it’s hard to imagine they will convince someone like Bello that cutting the budget of the short-staffed police department finally mustering the resources to work her sister’s case is the way forward.
The backlash isn’t just coming—it’s here. Prior to the recent spike in crime and the Democratic Party’s disastrous flirtation with police abolitionism, real progress on criminal-justice form was being made at every level of government. The country had finally reached a bipartisan consensus around sentencing reform and decarceration, which culminated in the 2018 First Step Act. Incarceration rates were falling, even as crime—for the time—remained down. Crime denialism and antisocial attitudes about public safety threaten to doom such reforms, as well as the entire progressive agenda.