Transcript: Into the Federal Response to Chicago's Violence

The full episode transcript for Into the Federal Response to Chicago’s Violence.

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Into America

Into the Federal Response to Chicago’s Violence

Trymaine Lee: Maybe you've seen the videos. Federal officers in camo and riot gear standing off against protesters in Portland, Oregon. Tear gas and rubber bullets spraying across the crowds. People being pulled off the streets into unmarked vans.

Archival Recording: What is going on? Who are you?

Lee: Earlier this month, the federal government sent Department of Homeland Security officers to Portland to protect federal buildings from protesters. Instead, chaos erupted.

Archival Recording: Tear gas has been deployed here in Portland. But there is some 500 people in the crowd shaking the reinforced fencing that has been put into place by federal agents as we're hearing yet another dispersement announcement. They've made several throughout the night.

Lee: So when President Donald Trump threatened to send federal law enforcement to other cities led by Democrats, not to deal with the protests, but to help with the spike in violent crime, that was concerning to a lot of people. People like Chicago Mayor, Lori Lightfoot.

Lori Lightfoot: What we do not welcome, and what we will not tolerate, and we will fight against, is the deployment of unnamed federal special secret agents onto our streets to detain people without cause. And effectively take away their civil rights and their civil liberties without any due process.

Lee: On Wednesday, the president followed through on his plan.

Donald Trump: This rampage of violence shocks the conscience of our nation. And we will not stand by and watch it happen. Can't do that. The citizens of Chicago are citizens of America. And they have the same right as every other America to live in safety, dignity, and peace.

Lee: Chicago is confronting a spike in violence this summer. According to the Chicago Police Department, homicides are up 51% compared to this time last year. And the day before the president's announcement 15 people were shot outside of a funeral home on the city's south side.

Trump: For this reason today I am announcing that the Department of Justice will immediately surge federal law enforcement to the city of Chicago. The F.B.I., A.T.F., D.E.A., U.S. Marshal Service, and Homeland Security will together be sending hundreds of skilled law enforcement officers to Chicago to help drive down violent crime.

Lee: This move is part of what's being called Operation Legend. Attorney General Bill Barr was careful to say that this operation will not replicate what we saw in Portland.

Bill Barr: This is a different kind of operation obviously than the tactical teams we used to defend against riots and mob violence.

Lee: But some people in Chicago aren't so sure about that.

Kimberly Foxx: For anyone to be naive to say, oh, that can't happen here. We don't want it to happen here. We want to be vigilant. We need the help where it is appropriate. But there's no one here in Chicago who naively believes that that is not possible.

Lee: I'm Trymaine Lee, and this is Into America. Today, what an influx of federal officers means for the city of Chicago. Kimberly Foxx is the Cook County State's Attorney, the county's top prosecutor. Her office will be working with these federal officers. But this new assignment is arriving on the doorstep of a city on edge.

Foxx: I'm absolutely skeptical. This is a president who, over the last four years, has used Chicago as a whipping post. Has used Chicago as a model for discussions not about public safety, not about racial justice, but as an excuse to talk about big cities. And when we talk about big cities we're talking about cities that are largely dominated by communities of color.

And so after witnessing what happened in Portland, and just how egregious, how atrocious, how un-American it was that they were literally scooping people and putting them in unmarked vehicles, to then be told, "Oh, we want to come help you in Chicago," given everything with this man's history, his policies, and what he has unapologetically shown us, yeah. We have every right to be skeptical.

Lee: I know at first Mayor Lightfoot pushed back at the notion that Trump would send some folks to Chicago. But then her tone has softened a bit. And I wonder what the conversations have been like between your office, the mayor's office, and P.D.

Foxx: Part of it is we've been working with federal law enforcement partners over the years. And we've had a healthy, strong working relationship with the U.S. Attorney, the F.B.I. here, the D.E.A. Relationships that preexisted the current occupant of the White House.

And so I think part of it has been based on those relationships and partnerships that we've had before. And I believe what she believes have been reassurances from the U.S. Attorney, that the people who are coming in are to enhance the work that's already been done.

To provide logistical support for existing task force. Versus what we've seen in Portland. I don't think that she has lost or softened her skepticism. But also recognizes that the president has not aided the city of Chicago in the way that he has talked about before.

And those supports could absolutely be helpful. So I think that's where we are. Is a healthy dose of, "We're looking at you. We want to see what you're doing." But also a realization that we need those partnerships to work as they were designed to do.

Lee: Donald Trump has certainly politicized some of the struggles with gun violence and violence in major cities. These quote-unquote Democrat-led cities. But Chicago is among a number of cities that have seen a spike in violence. And, you know, Chicago to me is also like New Orleans. These wonderful cities that break your heart every single day. But what is actually happening in the city right now in terms of the violence? And would this help in some way be welcomed if it's actually in good faith?

Foxx: Yeah. Listen, I'm a born and bred Chicagoan. And so when you talk about the heartbreak, you know, I feel that deep in my soul. I come from the projects of Chicago. I've seen in my life, you know, growing up people lost to the streets, lost to the penitentiary, who had so much potential.

What we're seeing this summer is an anomaly from where we've been in the last several years. I think the president would want the narrative to be that we've been this out of control city forever. We have a stubborn gun violence problem. But the last three years violent crime been down year over year. Much like the rest of the country.

And so what we've seen this summer I think has to be taken into account. Where we are in the world right now. We're in the middle of a global pandemic. We were on a shutdown for months. We have record job loss. And what we know is when the rest of the country has job losses the way we've seen them, particularly poor Black and brown communities are devastated, you know, infinitely worse.

And then you throw on top of that the unrest related to the George Floyd murder. And Breonna Taylor. And Ahmaud Arbery. Not just that they died. That we were seeing it in real time over and over 'cause we had no place to go. And what looks like an explosion of all of that.

And not just here. But in New Orleans. In Baton Rouge. In New York. And L.A. Across the country. For a city that has been trying and trying for the last several years to get our arms around the gun violence, this summer has been exceptionally heartbreaking. But I don't think we can talk about this summer absent where we are in the world right now.

Lee: I want to back up just a little bit to talk about President Trump's announcement along with Bill Barr that Operation Legend would be expanding to Chicago and Albuquerque. And that's the surge in officers to quote-unquote help fight crime. How did you hear about this? Like, how did you get the news? How does this actually work? Like, the pipeline or the grapevine I should say?

Foxx: I heard about it through the news. I heard about it through, you know, his proclamation. It's fair to say William Barr is not going to call me (LAUGH) and share what their plans are. William Barr has made is abundantly clear that he finds prosecutors like myself to be an aberration.

The reality is when you talk about federal assistance, we haven't needed law enforcement officers for the last four years. We've needed real investment in these neighborhoods that have been economically devastated. That have not had the resources that they need.

And we've had a president that has dangled those resources over people's heads and threatened to take them away if we don't have draconian policies. You know, we're not a place where they would come and say, "We wanna actually work with you." Because we've been a political football for them.

And I want to be abundantly clear. I don't believe for a single second that when we talk about the heartbreak and the loss of these lives that are dying in our streets, that when the president or his press secretary use their names, that they give a damn about who those people are.

Who their families are. Who their communities are. Because when they talk about thugs taking over our streets, they're talking about those very neighborhoods where those young people live. And that level of compassion and empathy that they show when they simply say their names to denigrate our city, they don't show that same level of passion and empathy outside of that.

Lee: How do you navigate that space? To try to get the resources you need while recognizing that this may be in bad faith?

Foxx: Listen, the bottom line is we have to stop the murders and the shootings here, right? That should never be politicized. We had a mass shooting outside of a funeral home where 15 people were shot. Ten women. Five men. That's unacceptable.

And what we know is that a lot of that is related to a lack of resources in communities. Not just policing. And I want to be fundamentally clear. While we can certainly use the law enforcement help, that is just a part of the puzzle. What has been missing for example is this acceptance that we have of an overflow of guns in our communities, and the A.T.F. not being fully resourced to go after those who are trafficking guns in our community.

My job as a state prosecutor? I tend to get the end user of that gun. The person who last had it. My question is why do we have 6,000 guns taken off the streets of Chicago at the mid-year point? We know that there are people who are trafficking in guns.

We know that there are people who are trafficking in these deaths. There's been very little done at the federal level to do anything about it. And so this influx of help now is but a piece of it. And I think if we solely focus on the law enforcement response at the end we're gonna continue to be in this cycle.

Our number one priority is public safety. Our number objective is to stop the shootings and the killings. And so wherever we can get help on this all hands on deck, we'll take it. But with a skepticism which will allow us to have checks and balances on those who come to help.

Lee: This is kind of piggybacking off what you just said about the kind of resources that are needed. There are a lot of people that say, you know, in this political moment, calls for the abolition of police, or defunding of police, and the vilification of police, is adding to the lawlessness in the streets. When you hear that, does that make any sense to you?

Foxx: I think it's absolutely absurd. I think if you look at what's been happening in the streets and the calls that are being called for, when they're talking about defunding or abolition it is in the context of we've put so many of our resources on the response.

And people want to prevent this from happening. Every criminologist will tell you that if you wanna get to violence reduction, healthy, thriving communities are safe communities. Neighborhoods in Chicago that see very little violence like we see on the South and West Sides aren't because the people are inherently better.

It's because they are flush with resources. It's because they can go get the things that they need to provide for themselves. The neighborhoods where we see and increase in violence, people are trying to survive. There's a survivalist mentality.

There's a difference between surviving and thriving. Thriving communities, more safe. Surviving communities, doing what they need to do to get by. And so when the conversation removes that, removes talking about what actually drives violence, and only talks about a response to it, what it tells you is that you're not really invested in keeping communities safe. You're more invested in suppressing communities with a law enforcement response.

Lee: What do you say to those critics who would say, you know what, it's not Donald Trump who's making this a political issue. It's local folks. They say the C.P.D. isn't doing enough. Mayor Lightfoot isn't doing enough. Perhaps you're too light on crime. What's your response to those folks who say, you know, the bodies are dropping in Chicago.

Foxx: Because the bodies will continue to drop in Chicago if we only focus on a law enforcement response. We do want this to stop. We do want to be able to make sure that young people can go outside and play now that we've loosened the restrictions.

But tell me the difference between how neighborhoods on the South and West Side that have been impacted by violence are any different than they were in 1968. Tell me how we justify to a community that is seeing widespread economic disinvestment, based on structural racism, that none of those things are changing.

Except we're gonna give you more police. The war on drugs devastated communities on the South and West Sides of Chicago. The increase in incarceration rates have a generational effect. If your father, grandfather were in prison and you don't have the ability to have upward mobility because of what we did with that war on drugs, and you say to me 20, 30 years later, "Well, that's on them."

That's wrong. And so what we've tried to do in Chicago is tackle all of it. Tackle the economic disinvestment. Tackle trauma. These kids living in these neighborhoods are dealing with trauma. And an absence of resources to deal with that. What do you do when you see a childhood friend murdered?

And you don't have a therapist to talk to. What do you do? And so we're talking about a holistic approach to dealing what has been decades-long systemic racism, structural racism, that has continued to hold these communities down. And the violence is a response to that. And for the people who view violence as not a reaction to all these other failures then, yes, I can see how you would think that the only response would be a law enforcement response.

Lee: Stick with us. We'll be right back.

Lee: You know, these regional task forces and the city task force that include the F.B.I., D.E.A., A.T.F., and local police, it's not new, right? And I wonder what does that kind of partnership and relationship actually look like in practice when it's working?

Foxx: So when it's working it actually is very helpful. One of the things that we've established in our office is our Gun Crimes Strategies Unit. Where we have assistant state's attorneys in our office working with the U.S. Attorney's Office, working with the A.T.F.

We cross-designate our assistants as Assistant U.S. Attorneys as well. You know, people watch on television. Is there a fight between the feds and the state of where a case is gonna go? Ninety percent of these cases are gonna end up in state court.

But what we wanna make sure is that we have a full brunt of those resources to help us in state court. And the expertise that we have that we can help in federal court. And it also allows us to focus in on who are the drivers. Everybody who is out there in these neighborhoods aren't drivers of violence.

Everyone who carries a gun isn't out there ready to do the next mass shooting. Some of these neighborhoods, people legitimately believe that they need a gun to protect themselves. Because if you watch the news you will see that violence is prevalent.

And so these task forces allow for us to focus our attention on those who are drivers of violence. Focus our resources on how we can target those. And how do we make sure that the people who don't need to be caught up in the system aren't unnecessarily entangled.

Lee: You know, in some ways what we saw in Portland which is kind of par for the course but still shocking, right? There was this moment in one of these videos where the D.H.S. guys are across the street, you know, guarding this building. And another guy across the holds up a radio.

And they shoot him right in his face with a rubber bullet. And we see the mothers who are protecting the protesters. And we see them being gassed. And obviously there's been some conflation of what we saw in Portland. And what is expected to happen in Chicago and Albuquerque, Kansas City, et cetera. But is there a legitimate concern that what we saw there could possibly happen in Chicago with an influx of the federal hand?

Foxx: Absolutely. No one expected what we saw in Portland. That's not America. Well, I shouldn't say that. We did see this in the '60s. I--

Lee: (LAUGH) Yeah, that is very much America actually. Sadly.

Foxx: Forgive me. Just it wasn't Portland. You know what I mean? Like, the cities were different. The demographics of Portland, very different than where we had seen the unleashing of that type of brutality and terror. And that we had I think lulled ourself into a belief that we wouldn't return to such a period of just abject public brutality.

To think that our government would use its military strength, it's law enforcement policing strength against its own citizens who were out there talking about systemic and institutional racism, and crying out for equality. That we would use that level of brute force. And that level of just indifference to constitutional principles. It should make all of our blood cold.

So having see that, having seen that they were literally scooping people and putting in them in unmarked vehicles in 2020, there's no reasons whatsoever to say, "Oh, that's just Portland." We don't want it to happen here. We want to be vigilant. We need the help where it is appropriate. But there's no one here in Chicago who naively believes that that is not possible.

Lee: So what's being done in terms of planning now? Now that we know that there will be some federal officers or agents sent to Chicago, how's your office laying out the framework for this or planning? What does it look like?

Foxx: Well, our office is very engaged with the U.S. Attorney's Office as well as the special agents in charge of the other federal agencies that are looking to have increased agents work with them. We're also in constant communication with the city.

We have all been in agreement that what we have seen in Portland will not be tolerated here. And what is then our response to that. Whether that's a legal response in filings in the court. Whether that's a criminal justice response if people engage in unlawful behavior. What is the prosecutor's role in holding people accountable for that?

And so there's a lot of contingency planning going on. We certainly want to focus most of our time, energy, and effort to dealing with violent crime. But the fact that this element has been introduced by this government means that we can't take our eye off that ball either.

Lee: Do you have a sense at this point whether it'll be, you know, muscle in terms of intelligence? Or are we talking about feet on the ground? Patrolling neighborhoods? Apprehending suspects? Like, what do you think this will actually look like on the ground?

Foxx: With that they are saying is that this will be intelligence gathering assist particularly as it relates to guns in our most violent districts. Being able to be more thoughtful about tracing where these guns are coming from. So the narrative that we are hearing is not that it is going to be a bunch of boots on the ground, patrolling neighborhoods. That it will be far more strategic in targeting those who they believe are drivers of violence. That's what they're saying.

Lee: And do you have a sense of when these officers will arrive?

Foxx: It's my understanding in the coming days. There's some who are here. And the rest should be here in the coming days.

Lee: How do you prepare you constituents saying, "Here's what's happening, here's the deal, this will be a good thing hopefully"?

Foxx: Yeah. I think you have to keep talking to people. And I think one thing that is also missing from this conversation, if you go to the neighborhood that just had the 15 people who were shot coming out of a funeral, a lot of those people are terrified.

Terrified not of the president and troops. Of the neighborhood. And I don't want that lost in here. In some neighborhoods it has gotten so desperate that people might even want people stationed outside to scare that element away. And so it's not just, you know, people saying, "Oh, this is really awful."

The education is also, "Listen, this isn't the whole response." The education is let us not be lulled into believing that the only way that we can deal with what happened outside of that funeral home is to have men in fatigues stationed in our neighborhoods.

That's not it either. And so I think the education is not even just, "Hey, don't be afraid." But for those who are welcoming that. Who are welcoming an increased presence. To remind them that this is not how healthy, thriving neighborhoods exist. With an increased military presence. Not in Chicago.

Lee: Kim, I want to ask you just one last question. Obviously there's a lot still to work through in the city of Chicago and cities all across the country. But in your time there, what has been working?

Foxx: I think listening to the neighborhoods that have been impacted. And having now a real strategy of what are we doing about poverty? How are we going to make sure that these neighborhoods are invested in? The city of Chicago has a plan laid out, INVEST South/West, which is about bringing businesses and an infusion of resources into those neighborhoods.

It's about understanding trauma. It has been a move away from this just tough on crime, law and order conversation about meeting the needs of the people that we serve. And I think that's worked. Because we've now seen more cooperation from those communities. And that is why my fear is we try to build the credibility of our institutions back where people trust us. That we don't deteriorate that by having a perversion of those institutions once again by what we've seen in Portland.

Lee: Kim Foxx, thank you so much for your time. You are certainly a special kind of prosecutor. There are not many out there like you. So I applaud you and your efforts. Thank you again.

Foxx: Thank you, Trymaine.

Kimberly Foxx is the Cook County State's Attorney. Into America is produced by Isabel Angel, Allison Bailey, Aaron Dalton, Max Jacobs, Barbara Raab, Claire Tighe, Aisha Turner, and Preeti Varathan. Original music by Hannis Brown. Our executive producer is Ellen Frankman. Steven Lickteig is executive producer of audio. I'm Trymaine Lee. We'll be back on Monday.