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Chicago Activists, Community Leaders Struggle With ‘Very Polarizing’ Deployment of Federal Agents

6 minute read

As gun violence continues to plague Chicago, President Donald Trump has announced that federal agents will be deployed to the city to “help drive down violent crime.” But while some community leaders say they welcome any attempts to make their city safer, other activists worry that the presence of federal law enforcement will only bring more chaos during a time of already great stresses.

“This deployment seems very cursory and not very sustainable,” Cinaiya Stubbs, the Executive Director of Chicago Youth Programs tells TIME. “It seems far more political and more like an appeasement than an actual step in the right direction.”

There have been over 1,000 shooting incidents in Chicago so far this year, and at least 414 murders — a number that’s more than 50 percent higher than 2019’s murder rate.

On Wednesday, President Trump announced that hundreds of members of agencies including the FBI, the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms (ATF) and the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) will be sent to Chicago. Though no concrete date for their deployment has been confirmed, it’s believed their arrival could be as soon as this week.

The Chicago deployment is part of “Operation LeGend,” which began in Kansas City, Missouri on July 8 after 4-year-old LeGend Taliferro was shot and killed as a result of gunfire outside his apartment. Federal gents were sent into Kansas City to respond to violent crime; so far, over 200 people have been arrested as a result of the operation.

In recent weeks, federal agents have also been deployed in Portland, Ore. in response to the widespread protests against the killing of George Floyd, police brutality and systemic racism Citing viral footage of people being tear-gassed by agents, assaulted and, in a number of distressing clips shared on social media, dragged by men in camouflage into unmarked cars, many in Chicago do not want to see the same behaviors brought to their city.

City community leaders also fear the real reason for the deployment to Chicago is also to clamp down on civil rights and racial equity protests, rather than address the wider issues of violence and crime levels.

Read more: Trump’s Use of Federal Agents in Portland May Go Beyond What Is Lawful. Here’s How We Can Get Answers About What’s Going On

“Are they really being honest about the reason they’re doing this? If not, then you’re just victimizing the 400 people who have been killed this year all over again,” Stubbs says. “If the real reason is clamping down on the protests and clamping down on the movement then you’re making decisions to infringe upon people’s rights.”

On June 26, Trump wrote a letter to Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot and Illinois Governor J.B. Pritzker, criticizing their handling of gun violence in the city. Arguing that both the Mayor and Governor were “[putting] your own political interests ahead of the lives, safety, and fortunes of your own citizen,” Trump offered to “help devise a plan to make Chicago safe.”

Mayor Lightfoot responded with her own letter detailing what she believes the federal government should do to combat gun violence in the city, citing tougher gun laws and investment in disenfranchised communities as examples.

Activists in Chicago agree that the violence is hurting the city, but also want to see more long-term and comprehensive solutions.

“I would rather see a coordinated response to the problem,” Stubbs says. “We’ve not done a good job of building the local economy, we’ve not done a good job of building the educational infrastructure. We’ve had time to address these problems but we have not done that.”

Mayor Lightfoot initially expressed concern over the presence of “secret, federal agents” but, after speaking with the President, has agreed to allow federal agents into the city — as long as the agents work in conjunction with local law enforcement. (Many in Chicago, though, have very little faith in the police department as it stands, let alone as relates to any expanded presence.)

Some activists say this kind of response is expected of Lightfoot, who was previously an Assistant U.S. Attorney in Illinois. They believe she is following her “law and order” background, and that this is an opportunity for her to lock up as many people as she can.

“[Mayor Lightfoot] has been part of mass incarceration. This is not new,” Mark Carter, a local community activist says. “Her plan is always to lock up [Black people].”

“That is not the solution. The solution has got to be one of economic inclusion,” Carter continues.

However, there are others in the city who say violence has reached a point where a federal response is necessary, and agree with the deployment.

Read more: ‘We’re Catching It Double.’ Amid Coronavirus Lockdowns, Gun Violence Continues to Plague Chicago

“The fact that we’re seeing so many young people dying due to gun violence, and the fact that we have no control over it means we need all the possible help we can get,” Corey Brooks, an activist and the Executive Director of Project HOOD says. “I would ask people who are concerned: which one are you more afraid of? The people killing our young kids on the streets or individuals from the [federal government]?”

Brooks and others in agreement with the deployment hope that the agents focus on areas where shootings have often been concentrated, pointing out that a lot of gun violence typically happens in the same neighborhoods. But despite assurances from Mayor Lightfoot and the President that federal agents will be focused on criminal behavior, activists and community leaders — in these neighborhoods and across the city as a whole — are recommending that people attending protests are mindful of any federal presence, watch where they’re going and take any precautions they can.

“If I could say something to the [federal agents] I would tell them to approach the people they encounter as if they were members of their own family. You can’t come in with preconceived notions about what Chicago is or isn’t,” Stubbs says.

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Write to Josiah Bates at josiah.bates@time.com