Earlier this month, Chicago’s state’s attorney Anita Alvarez was decisively voted out of office.
Her key role—not merely in covering up the murder of Laquan McDonald, but in regularly defending police from punishment while bringing harsh charges against Black women and trans people in cases of self-defense, and trying youth as adults—had been decried by Black activists since she won the position seven years ago. Yet it was an escalated push around her reelection—led primarily by young, Black, queer women organizers under the banner of #ByeAnita—that ultimately ran her out of office.
Despite clearly-articulated and well-disseminated public statements made on multiple occasions, organizers’ message and intent were regularly misinterpreted by media. Important articles critical of Alvarez published during the month of escalation rarely credited organizers for their role in drawing attention to her heinous record of inaction on the part of cops, and trumped-up sentencing for survivors of abuse.
The protests and shutdowns which occurred around Alvarez’s reelection were largely described as sporadic events, failing to paint a portrait of a cohesive and meticulously-maneuvered campaign, led by a small core of Black women. This led many in the wake of #ByeAnita’s staggering success to fail to grasp not only the intense dedication of its organizers, but the implications it raised for radical strategy around electoral politics, and the complex intersection of multiple political philosophies it adeptly straddled.
There were crucial elements of the campaign—largely lost on mainstream media, and by default on those outside of the immediately organized communities—that must be accurately documented for #ByeAnita to be understood. Highlighting these elements can also help illuminate the radical philosophy, and strategic engagement of non-radical systems, that guided the campaign:
The action was non-stop and multi-pronged. Organizers across multiple groups—including FLY, Assata’s Daughters, and BYP100—orchestrated a range of simultaneous strategies for achieving the immediate goal of getting Alvarez out of office. These included more traditional tactics like phone banking and registering voters door-to-door in Black neighborhoods, but also consisted of a host of direct actions that increased in intensity as election day approached.
With mind-boggling consistency, organizers shut down Alvarez’s fundraisers and speeches, at one point derailing three separate events within a twenty-four hour period. They created art, barricaded the freeway in tandem with protests of a Donald Trump rally, and dropped sixteen anti-Anita banners in sixteen locations around the city in remembrance of the sixteen shots that killed Laquan McDonald. The day before polls closed, airplanes with banners calling out the state’s attorney, the mayor, and presidential candidate Hillary Clinton (who was visiting Chicago that week) flew above the city at midday.
The message of #ByeAnita reached an enormous audience because, instead of limiting themselves to one type of strategy, organizers connected with disparate communities in the ways most meaningful to each of them.
Organizers never endorsed a candidate. The #ByeAnita campaign focused on getting Alvarez out of office as a form of accountability for her active coverup of murders by police. The goal was not to elect someone new to the State’s Attorney position, but to get Alvarez out. This meant running a campaign against one violent candidate without offering an endorsement to any other, equally violent candidate—something many critics, themselves longtime organizers, claimed was impossible.
Mainstream media struggled so much with understanding this tactic that their coverage regularly attributed #ByeAnita actions to Kim Foxx and Bernie Sanders supporters, even when interviewing organizers who openly laid out their approach. Though discussions sometimes failed to grasp organizers’ political savvy, the fact remains that the campaign succeeded in its aim without ever endorsing any political candidate, or celebrating any candidate’s victory.
#ByeAnita was a form of mourning and healing for its participants. The relentless action wasn’t just made possible by seasoned organizers pulling together before a fixed deadline. Lifting up the names and stories of those murdered and unjustly incarcerated was, for many, a form of celebrating stolen lives and expressing pain alongside fellow community members. While demanding and dangerous, it was also a means of processing loss.
Participants sought to gain strength from their actions, not merely to expend it on a local election. This was another way in which Black lives, and not electoral politics, were at the center of the effort.
The campaign focused on political education. Organizers stressed to their communities the necessity of booting Alvarez out without sacrificing political complexity. They held weekly public teach-ins—open forums to discuss the particulars of Alvarez’s record, examine specific cases in which police were protected and Black youth, women and queers were charged. Project NIA, working with the For the People Artists Collective, published the Ten Things You Hate About Anita zine and distributed it all over the city. Elementary and middle school students from schools like Village Leadership Academy took to public transportation to hand out information and raise public consciousness.
Organizers saw the value in educating community, using the campaign as an opportunity to build a broader understanding of the state’s attorney’s inherently unjust authority, rather than galvanizing a vote without interrogating the implications of voting.
#ByeAnita connected with other simultaneous campaigns. One of the greatest successes of #ByeAnita was its ability to locate common ground amongst a huge range of activists, community groups and political camps. Youth organizers coordinated efforts with members of the Fight for 15, Action Now and the Chicago Teachers Union, tying the election for state’s attorney in with the abolition of the school-to-prison pipeline, economic justice, and the building of political might in Black communities across the city. This required not just reaching out to other groups, but working to align goals across generations, identities and political values.
#ByeAnita stands as a reminder that the Black Lives Matter movement—like the Black community—is not monolithic. Mass mobilization demands a clear goal, concise messaging, but also the locating of strategies that—though they may differ—support a larger vision for abolition and community power. Organizers expertly sought out ways to unite struggles and align visions without sacrificing their original convictions or radical values.
There was forethought for future organizing. Not only did organizers never throw their support behind a candidate, they were blatant in stating that any prosecutor coming to occupy the state’s attorney’s office should be prepared to be held accountable in precisely the same way Alvarez ultimately was. One of the primary goals of the campaign, then, was not simply to vote out one lone official, but to generate political awareness of the inherent oppressiveness of the state’s attorney position, and to keep longterm focus and pressure on its decision making power.
Moreover, the campaign’s victory did not signal an end for the need to organize. Momentum and connections gained through its immense amount of labor were not lost—as they usually are—at the end of an election, but instead are prepared to be channeled into new battles against future state’s attorneys and well beyond.
The campaign set a new precedent for the radical engaging of electoral politics. By engaging electoral politics not as a solution, but a tool for achieving an immediate political need, organizers shifted the local conversation around how corrupt systems can be strategically manipulated to meet radical goals. By focusing on voting out a violent politician, rather than voting in a lesser evil, #ByeAnita refused a politics of settling, and demonstrated with sobering effectiveness the consequences that can be generated for public figures who defend state violence while incarcerating its victims.
The old adage ‘by any means necessary’ was embodied by the #ByeAnita campaign. The teaching is meant not, as is so often understood, as a threat (necessarily) of violence. Rather, it implies that Black radicals have any given tools at their disposal to achieve their ends. Once those ends have been clearly identified, the political purity of the tactics through which they are attained is not the point. Their final realization is what matters.
The ultimate achievement was the flexing of community power. #ByeAnita drew national attention to a race for public office many were locally unaware of beforehand. It incited criticism of a corrupt official from publications which had hitherto rarely mentioned Chicago politics. It helped flip the results of an election dramatically over the course of weeks.
The strategy of using an election to hold the state accountable for anti-Black violence worked this time around. It may not work again. Future campaigns will have to revisit strategy, reevaluate the goals and tactics of the effected communities. But the major achievement of #ByeAnita was not voter turnout, nor how many new folks registered. The system did not decide this election. Black people did. And this incredible flexing of community power can be redirected into new efforts, attacking different systems with different tactics, rather than entrenching the oppressed in misleading notions of representation. Organizers know this, and are well-equipped to begin these conversations.
Black, queer feminist Ejeris Dixon speaks beautifully about the political camps that divide our communities and impede effective organizing. The radical crowd, she notes, often has lofty visions with no concrete ideas of how to achieve them. On the other side, those with an act-now mentality tend to be good at identifying immediate steps, but have a harder time zooming out to look critically at where those steps are taking them, resulting in actions that contradict and undermine previous actions. Instead of fighting with each other—getting inevitably hung up on whose goals are the most radical, the most realistic, the most effective—we need to learn from each other’s skill sets. We need a radical vision of a world not yet before us, and we need to identify small, immediate steps that can move us in its direction.
The #ByeAnita campaign is a model of this joining of vision and skill. It was not perfect because it was not intended to be perfect. It was meant to unite Black and Brown communities across the city of Chicago in action around a measurable goal—requiring compromise and risk on the part of all those who participated.
Striving for political perfection undermines radical action, as do campaigns and projects that have not asked themselves why they exist, what kind of world they are fighting for, what they are and are not willing to compromise. #ByeAnita is a triumphant example for us to follow of how radical philosophy and immediate action can be brought together, as can the collective force of the organizations and communities who espouse them.