With Chicago facing a spike in gun violence, community activists and clergy gathered Thursday morning outside the Cook County Jail to demand state funding for summer youth employment programs.
Youth advocates from the Kenwood Oakland Community Organization (KOCO) and other groups urged the governor to immediately address the lack of state funding going toward summer jobs during the budget impasse.
Summer jobs, the advocates say, are a key to combating violence. So far this year, the city of Chicago has recorded roughly 1,800 shootings and more than 300 homicides.
"Governor Rauner, this is not about politics. This is about life or death," said Parrish Brown, 20, a KOCO youth leader. "About 1,800 people have already been shot -- and it's June. Something has to be done with the violence in our communities. ... There is evidence that shows that violence decreases amongst youth when they have summer jobs and resources in their communities."
LaFrance Lucas, 19, is a youth mentor at the Westside Health Authority. He lives on Chicago's West Side in the Austin community, where gun violence is common.
"We face death every day. Seeing destruction out here on the streets is the norm for us," he said. "We want to change the norm so that we can live."
He said summer job opportunities have helped him and other youths stay out of trouble.
"With these programs, we're trying to better ourself," he said.
Youth unemployment programs have gone unfunded during the nearly yearlong state budget impasse.
"We're here at the Cook County Jail because Governor Rauner appears to be tone deaf when it comes to the needs of low-income communities across the state," said KOCO's Executive Director Jawanza Malone. "We have a situation where we're in crisis. We have 1,800 people who have been shot in the city of Chicago, and, for whatever reason, the governor has decided that he's not going to support summer jobs this year. So we're here to encourage him to do the right thing. The state is gonna pay one way or the other. Either we're gonna pay to bury households, bury kids, or to lock up kids, or give them an opportunity for a future."
According to those at today's press conference, $19 million in summer youth employment funding was included in a nearly $3.9 billion spending package, backed by Democrats, that would have funded social services and higher education in Illinois. Rauner vetoed the spending measure earlier this month, saying it was an "empty promise."
"The bill purports to appropriate $3.89 billion, including more than $3 billion in general funds that the state does not have, for higher education and social service providers, but provides no source of funding," Rauner wrote in his veto message. "Students, universities, community colleges, social service agencies, and our most vulnerable residents need real solutions and real funding, which Senate Bill 2046 does not provide."
Malone claimed that the Democrat-backed spending measure included "money that exists currently" that could have been used to "fund summer jobs as well as other safety net programs across the state."
"Money that would provide summer jobs for these and other young people in the community, (the governor) vetoed," Malone said. "So what he's saying to our community is you don't matter, and we have an issue with that. ... Because there's money that exists right now that can be used to make sure that young people get summer jobs, those dollars need to be released."
Faith leaders, including the Rev. Jeffrey Campbell with the Lugenia Burns Hope Center, spoke at today's press conference.
Campbell said African Americans make up the largest share of the Cook County Jail population and face higher rates of unemployment in the city than other racial groups.
"What's going on Mr. Governor? Why is it that you won't address this situation?" he said. "We need the governor to release the funds that are necessary for this."
The governor's office did not return a request for comment by deadline.
The community activists and clergy spoke out the same day congressional Democrats ended an unprecedented 26-hour sit-in on the House floor for action on gun control measures. The sit-in was led by civil rights icon and U.S. Rep. John Lewis (D-GA,5) and several Illinois congressmen participated in the action, including U.S. Reps. Robin Kelly (D-IL,2), Danny Davis (D-IL,7), Luis Gutierrez (D-IL,4), Mike Quigley (D-IL,5), Jan Schakowsky (D-IL,9), Cheri Bustos (D-IL,17), and Bill Foster (D-IL,11). U.S. Sen. Dick Durbin also supported the House members in their sit-in calling for a vote on gun control legislation.
As House Democrats staged their sit-in, at least 16 people were shot and wounded in Chicago.
Lewis pledged to continue the sit-in once federal lawmakers return from recess after the Fourth of July holiday.
"When we come back in July, we will start all over again," Lewis stressed.
Congressional Republicans blasted the Democrats' protest as a publicity stunt.
"Democrats can continue to talk, but the reality is that they have no end-game strategy," a spokeswoman for House Speaker Paul Ryan said in a statement. "The Senate has already defeated the measure they're calling for. The House is focused on eliminating terrorists, not constitutional rights of law-abiding citizens. And no stunts on the floor will change that."
Malone, with KOCO, weighed in on the sit-in. Congressional Democrats, he said, "are taking a stand the same way that we're taking a stand here to say that, 'Enough is enough.'"
"What we find is that there are moneyed interests that are moving forward an agenda throughout the government," he explained. "So you have people with significant financial backing who are attempting to move forward an agenda, and that agenda is destabilizing communities that have little to no means."