One of the public faces of the successful campaign to create an elected board for civilian oversight of the Chicago Police Department, Desmon Yancy is running to be the next alderman of the 5th Ward.
Yancy, who co-founded and is the spokesperson of the Grassroots Alliance for Police Accountability (GAPA) and the subsequent Empowering Communities for Public Safety (ECPS) coalitions, has long been involved in work around police accountability and public safety.
"We've still got a long way to go in a city that's had issues around policing on paper since the 1960s and, with this current consent decree and the failures of the city to meet these deadlines, it's clear that it's a big boat to turn around,” said Yancy. “But I'm happy to do my part."
Born in the 8th Ward and a 1989 graduate from Kenwood Academy, Yancy is the son of a Chicago policeman who worked on Harold Washington’s mayoral campaign and a mother who did medical billing and was an active volunteer with their church. After spending a year at DeVry University, he worked in sales and served in AmeriCorps VISTA, as a teacher's assistant at Ariel Community Academy, 1119 E. 46th St., in the mid-1990s. He said the experience showed him the difficulties schools face when they are not adequately funded.
In 2007, he got into union organizing with SEIU Healthcare and eventually created a program there that taught labor leadership and organizing.
"The gist of it was really to make sure that union workers could go home to their communities and provide the same leadership," Yancy said. "When you're thinking about the housing crisis, when banks abandoned homes in formerly great neighborhoods, or fighting to raise the minimum wage across the city, these leaders played often-key roles in organizing their own community outside of the union work."
He worked with SEIU until 2013, leading canvassing teams with the union in support of both of Barack Obama's presidential campaigns in Chicago, Northwest Indiana and Wisconsin. In 2014, he worked on a local voter registration project with 13 coalition partners, which he described as both challenging and "a first taste of how important it is for organizations to work across the city in order to have change."
Following the police murder and coverup of 17-year-old Laquan McDoanld in fall 2014, a coalition of community organizations came together to form Grassroots Alliance for Police Accountability in 2016. Yancy was a co-founding member of the coalition, and would become its policy coordinator.
Over the years GAPA, in partnership with groups like the Chicago Alliance Against Racist and Political Repression (CAARPR), other public safety coalitions and community organizations, would push for the City Council to create a platform for civilian oversight of the police. In July 2021, City Council created the citywide Community Commission for Public Safety and Accountability (CCPSA) and 22 district councils, elected for each of the city’s police districts.
"A lot of it was 'slow and steady winning the race' and being true to your convictions, especially when we ran up against opposition from Mayor Lightfoot,” Yancy said. “She was fully in support of our proposal for police oversight in Chicago and then at a point got cold feet, because she thought that district councils would have too much power… But we stayed true to what we felt was really a key principle of the work that we were doing, which was transparency and accountability.”
Should he be elected alderman, Yancy would like to push the city towards creating more policy accountability and oversight, which he said is still lacking even after the commission and councils' creation. He named outgoing Alds. Sophia King (4th), Leslie Hairston (5th), Roderick Sawyer (6th) and Harry Osterman (48th) as well as Ald. Jeanette Taylor (20th) and North Side Ald. Andre Vasquez (40th) as particularly hard workers behind the July 2021 measure. But Yancy said more needs to be done to support it behind the scenes.
"Like I said, I'm the son of a police officer, but at the same time I've been working on police accountability for the last six years,” Yancy said. “I certainly understand the work that needs to be done and look forward to being able to support that work on council."
Lightfoot appointed seven interim commissioners in August; Yancy said he has been working with them to develop talking points about issues like the police budget. He said the interim CCPSA is looking to make an immediate impact. It will eventually play a role in hiring and removing a police superintendent, Police Board members and the Civilian Office of Police Accountability (COPA) chief administrator, as well as approving departmental general orders, enacting its own policies and supervising the department, COPA and the Police Board.
Asked how he would work with law enforcement in the 5th Ward, Yancy noted that he worked with the CPD in passing the oversight ordinance. "Those conversations aren't easy, but they're important," he said. "It's a slow process to get the police department bought into police reform efforts."
He said police are largely responding to rhetoric like "defund the police" but he can work with them, with his personal background and his perspective that law enforcement is a partner in public safety that should not be othered.
Neighborhood safety — residents' safety and police officers' safety — should be paramount as individuals in either group do not currently feel safe, Yancy said.
"It is helpful when police officers hear issues from people who have families deeply impacted by police misconduct," he said. "One officer I was talking to who was in leadership at the time told me about how he, as a teenager, was assaulted by a police officer, which motivated him to become a police officer.
“There's more to it, and as long as we look at it from our polls and don't look at it in terms of what the actual goal is, which is public safety, then we're going to have a much more difficult time."
He wants to have the authority of an aldermanic office to motivate those conversations with more people, to do away with fear and build community support "for the right efforts."
Yancy is currently directing organizing and advocacy for the Inner-City Muslim Action Network, overseeing and facilitating the organization's policy and advocacy agenda. He continues to live in South Shore and is the father of an 8 year old.
Promontory Point is one of their favorite places to walk, and Yancy is concerned about South Shore lakefront property owners affected by the lake's erosion and flooding. He called Hairston's July-passed South Shore Condo Preservation Pilot Program, which will give $5 million yearly in grants to owner-occupants for repairs and loans to homeowner associations for maintenance, "a great start." He said more programs like it are needed, especially ones that are easily accessible to everyday people.
Asked about constituent services, Yancy talked about modernizing the 5th Ward office. He would seek to hire young staffers to engage youth around things like political education, aiming to decrease distrust in government, as well as longtime 5th Ward residents, to add credibility to the office. He also talked of creating an "office-on-wheels" to bring constituent services to all four neighborhoods the ward covers.
"There's some level-setting that needs to be done with constituents," he said, setting the goal to under-promise and over-deliver. "I think there are many constituents who think that alderpeople have particular power in their wards that they don't."
Hyde Park's commercial corridors look different than South Shore's, which are beset by empty lots. "As we look at that and look at the lack of employment, there's a direct correlation," he said. "I would love to see grants or funding to small businesses, to capitalize them."
As construction continues on the Obama Presidential Center, Yancy said he would like to see a mix of national and local businesses flourish along Stony Island Avenue, similar to 53rd Street's commercial mixture.
"I would just love for South Shore, Woodlawn and Greater Grand Crossing to feel like the same sort of community," he said. "I know it's not anything that's going to be achieved in one, two or even three terms. However, I think setting the groundwork legislatively to ensure that those funds are there to capitalize businesses, offer some business support and use the weight of the office to encourage economic development will be important."
Yancy wants to ensure the ward is attractive to new families and college graduates as well as longtime residents. He called for a balance between affordable housing and transit-oriented developments to curb runaway inflation in housing costs. He would like to see something like Hairston and Taylor's Woodlawn Housing Preservation Ordinance for South Shore.
Mental health is another issue of importance to Yancy. He said more resources should go into homelessness prevention, particularly in Woodlawn and South Shore. That call for equity would also include funneling resources to the ward's schools, so that, as he put it, Revere Elementary School, 1010 E. 72nd St., and Murray Language Academy, 5335 S. Kenwood Ave., could perform at the same level.