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The criminal-justice crusade of Kim Foxx

The candidate's plan to transform the Cook County state's attorney's office starts with lessons from her childhood in Cabrini Green.


Foxx is staking her campaign on the notion that marginalized people deserve a say in how the system treats them. - JEFFREY MARINI
  • Jeffrey Marini
  • Foxx is staking her campaign on the notion that marginalized people deserve a say in how the system treats them.

Eating kale chips in a downtown tea shop after a day of campaigning, Kim Foxx described the overhaul she wants to give the Cook County state's attorney's office if she wins the March 15 Democratic primary election against two-term incumbent Anita Alvarez, then the general election in November.

Her plan for the 900-attorney office, which oversees and prosecutes everything from juvenile justice to drug and gang crimes to robberies and murders, ranges from prosecuting police misconduct charges more vigorously to keeping fewer nonviolent offenders in jail. Some of these changes, I suggest, sound radical.

She pondered on the word for a moment, then smiled. "Let's go with 'transformative.' "

Whatever the proper adjective, Foxx, a 43-year-old former assistant state's attorney, chief of staff to Cook County Board president Toni Preckwinkle, and Alvarez's leading challenger, wants to end what she has called "the tough-on-crime boogeyman approach" to criminal justice that has led to a massive increase in the number of people, particularly blacks and Latinos, ensnared in the system "without making our communities safer."

Her campaign comes at a time of crisis for Alvarez and Chicago's criminal justice system as a whole. The death of 17-year-old Laquan McDonald, caught on video in October 2014 and released to the public last November, brought international attention to a police department long plagued by accusations of brutality and racism. The incident eventually prompted Mayor Rahm Emanuel to fire police superintendent Garry McCarthy and appoint a new leader for the Independent Police Review Authority as he tried to head off calls for his own resignation. Alvarez, whose office has the ability to prosecute police accused of misconduct, was heavily criticized for waiting 13 months before bringing first-degree murder charges against officer Jason Van Dyke, who fatally shot the black teenager 16 times.

As protesters in Chicago and around the country decry high-profile police killings of blacks and racial inequities in imprisonment and sentencing, Foxx has emerged as a serious contender who speaks to many of their concerns—based in part on her upbringing in the kind of poor African-American communities that many say have been failed by the criminal justice system. Raised in poverty by a single mother in Chicago's public housing projects and, at one point, in homeless shelters, she says she is committed to a shift away from the punitive style of policing and prosecuting that has helped produce an era of mass incarceration.

"You cannot look at the criminal justice system in a vacuum. We need a broader and more holistic view of how we prevent crime and how we keep communities safer," a view to which the state's attorney must be held accountable, she says. "The public has to hold feet to the fire on these issues. And Anita Alvarez's feet have not been held to the fire."

Foxx, pictured in this campaign video still as a young adult, lived with her mother and brother in the Cabrini Green public housing complex until she was eight years old. - COURTESY OF KIM FOXX
  • Courtesy of Kim Foxx
  • Foxx, pictured in this campaign video still as a young adult, lived with her mother and brother in the Cabrini Green public housing complex until
    she was eight years old.

A kid in Cabrini Green

Foxx is tall and slender, with straight black hair falling just below her shoulders. She has an unforced, conversational tone in interviews and a relaxed air at public events; if she dislikes shaking hands and working a room, she doesn't show it. She speaks freely of her childhood in Chicago, and with good reason: her biography is the stuff of pull-yourself-up-by-your-bootstraps legends.

Foxx's mother, Gennell Wilson, had already given birth to a son, Stephen Anderson, while in high school. She dropped out in 1972, her senior year, after daughter Kim Anderson was born. (Foxx is her married name.) Wilson raised her two children on the eighth floor of a building in the Cabrini Green public housing complex until Foxx was eight years old, mostly without her children's father.

"He just wasn't around," says Anderson, who eventually went on to study acting at Juilliard and is now a successful commercial actor. (He appeared in a Superman-themed Turkish Airlines commercial during this year's Super Bowl.) "[Our father] would reach out for the holidays or birthdays, but there wasn't a day-in, day-out relationship." Anderson remembers his mother sitting him down several times and saying, "I'm sorry you don't have a father. But I'm doing the best I can."

The absence of their father was mitigated by an otherwise tight-knit community. Nearly their entire extended family, including aunts, cousins, and their maternal grandmother, lived in the projects with them. But the rest of the world seemed remote.

"We were really isolated—our entire world was this island," Anderson says. "We didn't know too much about the outside neighborhoods. Even going to Jewel, at Clark and Division, was an extraordinary event." That island was further isolated by segregation. "We saw them on television, but we never actually thought we would know white people," Anderson says.

Cabrini Green became synonymous in those years with crippling poverty and extreme violence. Fear often hung thick in the air. Foxx remembers a group of Cabrini residents gathering in an apartment to watch the premiere of Michael Jackson's "Thriller" on MTV. They giddily discussed the video afterwards—until shots rang out from another floor of the building.

"Our high of watching this Michael Jackson video was crushed by [shouts of] 'Everybody get in the back!' " Foxx recalls.

Wilson eventually decided the family had to leave. She had resolved to live somewhere in Old Town or Lincoln Park—anywhere, as long as it was within the boundaries of the LaSalle Language Academy magnet school. The move was unprecedented.

"No one in our family had a history of getting out of Cabrini Green," Anderson says. "There was no script for that."

But the family could barely afford to stay in the area. Often unable to make rent or seeking cheaper accommodations, the family moved constantly—five times between third and eighth grade, Foxx says. She recalled a recent driving tour of her old apartments that she gave her younger daughter, in which she recounted stories of her family's deprivations. Because her mother's income was limited, some of the apartments lacked refrigerators or stoves. Unable to afford enough bedrooms for everyone, her mother sometimes slept on the couch. Foxx remembers one apartment at North and Larrabee as "so roach infested it was awful." But Wilson managed to keep the family within the boundaries of LaSalle, and then, when the kids were old enough, Lincoln Park High School.

During this time Wilson took jobs as a telephone operator, a Better Business Bureau agent, and a waitress, finally securing a position as a communicable disease investigator for the city's Department of Public Health, Anderson says. Wilson got that job, Foxx says, by lying about her qualifications, telling the city she had earned an associate's degree despite dropping out of high school—a lie that would come back to haunt both Wilson and Foxx years later.

The position was a "good city job," Foxx remembers, and the family's finances stabilized. But during her junior year of high school, a confrontation between Wilson and a coworker led to her being suspended for six weeks without pay. Wilson, who has since died, was already living paycheck to paycheck; the suspension forced the family into homelessness.

Anderson refers to that period—the first time that he and his sister had ever lived apart—as "the horror." Wilson and her children first stayed with friends and family, then Anderson moved in with a friend while Foxx and her mother rotated through a series of friends' and family's houses and north-side homeless shelters. Although the suspension lasted just six weeks, it took the family six months to save up enough money for a security deposit and first month's rent for a new apartment. Foxx contributed too. She had worked since her sophomore year at the now-closed Color Me Coffee in Lakeview (she paused from telling this story to claim hipster cred for being a barista "before it was a thing"). While she and her mother lived in shelters, Foxx put her wages "into the kitty" to help pull the family out of homelessness.

Both Anderson and Foxx now say they look back on their mother's sacrifices with a sense of awe. But one night, when Foxx and her mother were living in a Salvation Army shelter, the frustrations of poverty won out over such gratitude.

Foxx wanted to go to a friend's birthday party. The shelter, however, required her to be in for dinner. Her frustration at months of homelessness finally boiled over. She flew into what she now calls a "teenage rage," screaming at her mother about how tired she was of the family's predicament. She stormed out of the shelter, determined to find housing somewhere else.

Later that night, Foxx received a call from a north-side hospital. Her mother had been found unconscious on a bench in Lincoln Park after attempting suicide by swallowing a large number of pills. Foxx was devastated. She visited her in the hospital the next day and was shocked to see her mother, sitting in her hospital bed, so vulnerable.

"She told me they took her shoelaces. And I didn't get it. She said, 'They think I'm going to hurt myself with my shoelaces.' "

"Her having to explain to me that she seriously attempted to end her life . . . " Foxx trailed off, brushing away a tear. "I was like, 'Wait a minute—did you just try to leave me?' "

Foxx had been unaware of her mother's own frailties. "This is a woman who was, despite everything, a model of strength for me," Foxx recalls.

Those frailties surfaced few times in Foxx's life, but they reemerged around 2011 when, after a decade and a half of work in law and politics, she began weighing a run against Alvarez. As she mulled her options, she encountered opposition from an unlikely source: her mother.

Wilson became terrified of what opposition researchers for Foxx's opponent might find about her—most seriously, the fact that she had lied about holding an associate's degree. " 'Kim's gonna get me fired! They're gonna dig up all this dirt on me!' " Foxx remembers her saying.

Wilson may have feared she would be forced back into a homeless shelter.

"She called me selfish," Foxx recalls. "She threw everything but the kitchen sink at me to convince me." Eventually, Foxx acquiesced to her mother's fears and chose not to run. Her desire to reform the criminal justice system was strong, but her desire to protect her mother proved stronger.

Foxx, pictured in 2010 during her time time as a Cook County assistant state’s attorney, comforts Esperanza Medina, the victim of an acid attack. - DOM NAJOLIA/CHICAGO SUN-TIMES
  • Dom Najolia/Chicago Sun-Times
  • Foxx, pictured in 2010 during her time time as a Cook County assistant state’s attorney, comforts Esperanza Medina, the victim of an acid attack.

A prosecutorand a survivor

Foxx's upbringing makes for a compelling story in ads and speeches—one recent TV spot features her daughter, Kendall, reciting the Lord's Prayer, while Foxx recalls her mother's ritual of putting her and her brother into the bathtub whenever gunshots rang out in Cabrini Green. But these highly personal stories also seem like her natural frame of reference. Speaking at the City Club on February 18, Foxx recalled the horror she felt after hearing that her mother had repeated this ritual when her own children visited their grandmother in Englewood one New Year's Eve. Gunshots and fireworks rang out, and Wilson couldn't tell which was which. The two little girls went into the tub.

"My experience was being repeated with this generation," Foxx said.

When asked about the scandal over false confessions from mostly black men in Chicago that drew national headlines in 2012, Foxx immediately recalled a high school classmate who she says spent years in jail for a crime he didn't commit.

But she also believes that there are victims and there are perpetrators—and perpetrators need to be punished.

For example, Foxx used to fear for her grandmother's safety as she walked to a Washington Park currency exchange to pay her bills.

"I don't want to worry about someone knocking down my grandmother and taking her money order," she told me. "I don't want people afraid to send their children outside. I don't want elderly people afraid to walk to the grocery store." While she aims to ensure that young black and Latino men are not being unjustly incarcerated, she also wants "to make sure that people aren't being victimized. We can care about both."

To a young Foxx, those dual concerns seemed embedded in the legal system—at least under the right circumstances and in the right hands. And from an early age, Foxx's family felt certain that she was destined to become a lawyer.

"Kim was the mediator, the litigator," Anderson recalls. "She wasn't bossy, she just had the wherewithal. She was that girl."

For years, Foxx has said, her mother introduced her to strangers by saying, in essence, This is Kim, she's going to be a lawyer. And Foxx internalized her mother's vision, setting out to make this delicate balance of protection and prosecution her life's work.

Foxx attended Southern Illinois University, studying political science—and sending portions of her financial aid checks back home to her mother. She attended law school there too, and there met her husband, Kelley Foxx. They have two daughters, Kendall, 10, and Kai, 13.

After a brief stint doing insurance defense for Cigna, Foxx landed a job at the Cook County Public Guardian's office, the agency tasked with representing vulnerable children and adults. Foxx was an assistant public guardian, representing children in custody struggles or in foster care cases alongside public defenders, who represent parents, and the state's attorney's office, which prosecutes parents. Many of the children who came through Foxx's door were victims of sexual or physical abuse, or had parents who were incarcerated or addicted to drugs.

"These kids' conditions read like my life," she told the City Club.

"What would have happened to me at age eight if someone had said to me, 'This isn’t your fault. You can recover from this. This does not define you' ?"

—Kim Foxx­

That's because Foxx was also sexually assaulted as a child. Starting at age five she was abused by a teenage family member over a period of several years. Foxx says the matter was "dealt with internally." (In an October interview with Chicago magazine, she said, "My mother beat the [daylights out] of him.") Another time, at age seven, she was raped by two older boys while walking home from school.

Through working with abused and neglected children in the foster care system, Foxx says, she was finally able to talk openly about that aspect of her own history. Hearing her clients' stories helped her realize that discussing her own traumatic experiences could help both her and the children she represented.

"What would have happened to me at age eight if someone had said to me, 'This isn't your fault. You can recover from this. This does not define you'?" she asked. "It gave me a chance to deal with my own issues and advocate for them more zealously."

Foxx spent three years as an assistant public guardian before moving to the state's attorney's office, first under Richard Devine, then later under Alvarez, where she continued to work with juveniles. She quickly realized that many of the foster children she represented through the guardian's office ended up in juvenile detention only a short time later. The experience made her think about how to stem the flow of juveniles from foster care into the criminal courts.

"If we don't intervene, we are guaranteeing ourselves to see you down the line," she told Internet radio host Ria Rai Harris of The Straight No Chaser in February.

Foxx spent 12 years as an assistant state's attorney, prosecuting child abuse. She says she prosecuted sex crimes and became an expert on prosecuting shaken baby syndrome. But she eventually found the "hopelessness" of much of her work suffocating.

Foxx was then recruited to Preckwinkle's office, where she eventually became chief of staff. She was drawn to work with Preckwinkle, she says, because of the county president's attempts to reform the criminal justice system and its vast racial disparities. Foxx speaks frequently of the Cook County jail's overwhelmingly black and Latino population. ("Eighty-six percent." She repeats the number twice. "What are we doing?") She also decries the jail's use as a "warehouse" for those suffering from mental health issues.

"How dare you cut mental health services," Foxx said at a candidates' forum at Chicago State University in early February, referring to recent city- and state-level cuts. "Those people are showing up to our jails! . . . Pigeonholing people into our courtrooms is not a good use of our resources."

Both Alvarez and Donna More, the attorney and former state and federal prosecutor also running in the primary, have attacked Foxx over her ties to Preckwinkle. (A $25,000 donation from Preckwinkle's political fund in February 2015 was flagged by the Sun-Times as improperly disclosed; the Illinois State Board of Elections later agreed, and subsequently fined the Foxx campaign. Foxx spokesman Robert Foley said in a statement the campaign disagrees with the ruling.)

But Foxx shrugs off the attacks based on her ties to Preckwinkle. "The notion that I'm the insider . . . " She trails off, laughing. "The things I'm talking about are so far from 'the inside.'"

Rather, Foxx is staking her campaign on the notion that marginalized people—people like the kind of person she used to be—deserve a say in how the system treats them.

"Those people have to be at the table," she says, "and push the agenda."

A still from a police dashcam video shows officer Jason Van Dyke fatally shooting Laquan McDonald in October 2014. - CHICAGO POLICE DEPARTMENT VIA AP, FILE
  • Chicago Police Department via AP, File
  • A still from a police dashcam video shows officer Jason Van Dyke fatally shooting Laquan McDonald in October 2014.

Campaigning in a post-Laquan McDonald world

When Foxx began her campaign in August 2015, two things had changed since the last state's attorney's race three years before: First, her mother had died of lung cancer in 2012, at age 58 (she was buried March 15, just days before the primary), so Foxx no longer had to worry her campaign would cost her mother a job. Second, the nation was mired in a painful and heated debate over police brutality and racism in the criminal justice system.

The Laquan McDonald footage, taken from the dashcam of a CPD squad car, would not be released for another three months. But high-profile police killings of African-Americans like Eric Garner in New York and Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, had pushed the Black Lives Matter movement into the headlines around the country. And locally, the killing of Rekia Boyd by off-duty officer Dante Servin, the announcement of reparations to be paid to the torture victims of former police commander Jon Burge, and the Guardian's report of a CPD "black site" in Homan Square had made racism and policing a hot-button issue long before the McDonald tape came out.

In November, a judge ordered the tape released in response to a Freedom of Information Act request; immediately afterwards, Alvarez announced murder charges against Van Dyke. But 13 months had passed since McDonald's death. Activists flooded the streets, shutting down sections of the Loop and the Magnificent Mile on multiple occasions, including Black Friday. Joined by local and national calls from activists and writers, from Reverend Jesse Jackson to the New York Times op-ed page, protesters demanded the state's attorney's resignation.

It was exactly the kind of criminal justice scandal that had led Foxx to run in the first place. She immediately went on the attack, and continues to speak about the case at nearly every public engagement. "What's happened in the Laquan McDonald case is an indicator of a pattern of a lack of prosecutions for this type of misconduct [by] the state's attorney's office," Foxx said during a January debate on WBEZ. She says that if she had been state's attorney, she would not have waited nearly as long to bring charges against Van Dyke as Alvarez did. Foxx is also the only candidate in the state's attorney race calling for an independent prosecutor for every police shooting case, including McDonald's. Because the state's attorney's office's day-to-day work relies on a close relationship with the CPD, "an inherent conflict exists whenever the state's attorney has to prosecute a police-involved shooting," Foxx recently wrote in Crain's Chicago Business.

Foxx also opposes mandatory minimums for gun crimes (​though she wants stiffer penalties for repeat gun offenders and felons) and says she wants to end the "school-to-prison pipeline," in part by decriminalizing actions she says never should have been considered crimes in the first place, like fighting on school grounds.

She suggests she would deal with officer misconduct more aggressively too. DNAinfo Chicago recently reported that 80 percent of CPD squad car dashcams and other recorders "had not been activated or were 'intentionally defeated' by police personnel," leaving the department without potential evidence for some cases.

Foxx appeared incredulous that Alvarez has not brought charges against those officers:

"To simply say, 'Oh, we have no audio. Oh well . . . Why are we finding out later, after you have not charged cases, that they are deliberately destroying evidence and you did nothing about it? If you present a case to me where audio or other evidence has been altered, it's my responsibility to do something about you. Because it damages the credibility of the cases and threatens public safety when I don't have my police officers handling evidence in the appropriate way."

I asked Foxx if she is worried about opponents of criminal justice reform blocking her agenda. The Fraternal Order of Police, for example, endorsed Alvarez in 2008 and 2012, and has gone to great lengths to protect officers accused of misconduct. In New York last year, police appeared to be in near revolt against Mayor Bill de Blasio over his perceived lack of support.

"I think Foxx knows that the space that we’ve carved out has given her campaign a stable foundation. It made Alvarez’s foundation unstable and made Foxx’s stable."

—Timothy Bradford, Black Youth Project 100 organizer­

Foxx said she isn't worried. "People have been so cautious in their approach," she said. "And that's how our systems have been allowed to stagnate and become so dysfunctional."

As she discusses what she sees as that dysfunction, Foxx uses the rhetoric of the social movements demanding racial justice and police accountability. She can talk at length about the Atlantic's Ta-Nehisi Coates (she says his article on reparations that cites Chicago's history of racist housing practices was revelatory for her) and the effect of Michelle Alexander's best seller The New Jim Crow on both her views of race and mass incarceration and the national discussion around them.

Although Foxx's camp says she has not actively courted support from groups like Black Lives Matter, the day before we spoke, Foxx met with Martinez Sutton, the brother of Rekia Boyd. He attends nearly every Chicago Police Board meeting to speak out about his sister's killing.

"He refuses to allow it to go away," Foxx says. "The unrelenting pressure that [he and other activists] have put on the CPD—that's what kept her name out there." Foxx insists she would interact with activists like Sutton differently than Alvarez—or nearly any other top prosecutor in America—has. She says she would view credible advocacy groups like the Chicago Innocence Center, which works to free wrongfully convicted prisoners, as partners rather than antagonists. "You should not find it inherently suspicious every time someone wants to make sure the conviction is sound," she says.

Many activist groups have maintained more of an anti-Alvarez than pro-Foxx stance as the race has heated up. Black Youth Project 100 has been one of the principal organizers of protests after CPD killings, including those of Laquan McDonald and Rekia Boyd. Timothy Bradford, a 32-year-old organizer with BYP 100, charged Alvarez with doing "irreparable harm to the black community in Chicago." He said the traction the Foxx campaign has gained against Alvarez would not be possible without activists' agitation.

"I think Foxx knows that the space that we've carved out has given her campaign a stable foundation," he said. "It made Alvarez's foundation unstable and made Foxx's stable."

Foxx is capitalizing on these outside attacks against her opponent even as she tries to articulate how her platform would be a radical departure from Alvarez's. For example, she wants active collaboration between public hospitals and mental health facilities and other agencies beyond the courthouse and the jailhouse, and she highlights drug arrests as a particular problem.

Right now, "We're not arresting and locking up a bunch of drug dealers. We're arresting and locking up a bunch of drug users." The approach is "like Whack-a-Mole": arresting addicts, locking them up, letting them back out to their communities where "quality of life is diminished" for residents. Then the cycle repeats itself.

Foxx has a different vision. She says nearly 200,000 people now have health-care coverage under the Affordable Care Act's Medicaid expansion. Preckwinkle's office has tried "to sign up young African-American males" because "the population that qualifies for Medicaid expansion is the same population that comes through our jails." Her aim: to work hospital and health systems "to get people the treatment they need in the community.

  • Jeffrey Marini

"It's a net gain for us at the jail—because we're not having people just sit there—and for our health and hospital systems," as overdose and other addiction-related cases are often addressed at the hospital.

This approach would require close cooperation between public hospitals, police—who could oversee a "diversion program that starts at the station house"—the county board, and other agencies. She has similar ideas for dealing with prisoners with mental health concerns.

"You cannot do it alone," Foxx said. "That's a broader and more holistic view of how we prevent crime and how we keep communities safer."

Alvarez has responded to criticism by highlighting several dozen "smart on crime" programs she has rolled out since taking office. "I have been the most innovative state's attorney in history," she told the Cook County Democratic Party's leaders in August 2015. Party leadership, however, opted not to endorse anyone in the race. Foxx, meanwhile, has racked up an impressive number of other endorsements.

Are voters interested in electing a self-proclaimed criminal justice reformer who grew up in Cabrini Green? A black woman who talks about having been homeless, and whose breakthrough is owed in part to anger in the streets? A state's attorney whose proposals, if implemented, would make Cook County a national leader in progressive prosecuting? An early February Tribune poll suggested a toss-up, finding Alvarez ahead of Foxx and More, 34 to 27 to 12 percent, respectively—but with a huge portion, 26 percent, undecided.

Foxx says she is ready to change the state's attorney's office, even if it costs her for being seen as too radical. After all, she believes in holding feet to the fire. And she and her family made innumerable sacrifices to get her
this far.

"The things I'm talking about—some people might not want to [re]elect me after one term," Foxx said. "I want people to hold me accountable for that." v

Micah Uetricht is the associate editor of In These Times magazine. 

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