On January 14 I attended a rally to tax Amazon in my Chicago neighborhood of Pilsen. The rally was sponsored by 25th Ward alderperson Byron Sigcho-Lopez, one of the DSA electeds, and Socialist Alternative. At the last minute, the rally was expanded to include supporters of food vendors in Pilsen and Little Village, a neighboring Latino community, who have been repeatedly preyed upon by criminal gangs in the early morning hours.
Byron plans to introduce his Tax Amazon ordinance in the Chicago City Council on January 18. According to Socialist Alternative, the tax would target “Chicago’s biggest businesses and is estimated to raise more than half a billion dollars a year to fund public education, permanently-affordable social housing, violence prevention programs, and mental health programs.” It is modeled on Seattle City Council member Kshama Sawant and Socialist Alternative’s successful tax initiative in Seattle a few years ago.
About 100 people attended the rally and march that followed. A few things stood out. Many of the people who came to the rally, including media workers, came to primarily support the vendors. A much smaller number showed up to support the Tax Amazon initiative. While most people who spoke were vendors and supporters, a few, including Byron and Socialist Alternative’s Stephen Thompson, spoke about the Amazon Tax.
In this election year in Chicago, Mayor Lori Lightfoot and all fifty alderpersons are up for reelection. Whether the Tax Amazon ordinance will make it through committee and be put up to vote remains to be seen. Crime and taxes are huge issues right now. Property tax increases have hit working-class homeowners very hard, especially in Pilsen and Little Village. Pilsen has been transformed by gentrification for two decades now, and the property tax increases are likely to force many long-term residents to sell and move.
Byron was elected in 2019 in a small but important wave of election victories in several Chicago wards. Dubbed “Red Chicago,” it led to the formation of a largely dysfunctional Socialist Caucus and an accommodation to the Democratic political establishment in city politics, as I discussed in a previous article for Tempest. Byron’s record is better than most of the DSA electeds but not completely solid. He voted, for example, to retain the current threshold for issuing speeding tickets that disproportionately penalizes Black and Latino drivers.
Socialist Alternative has had a long working relationship with Byron. Sawant, for example, publicly endorsed Byron for reelection and spoke at one of his fundraisers. Byron also publicly welcomed Socialist Alternative’s endorsement, a rarity among DSA electeds. The Socialist Alternative branch had about twenty people at the rally. It struck me as a pretty healthy branch from this one encounter, but they have taken some positions, particularly in the Chicago Teachers Union that were wrong, like supporting the REAL Caucus in the last union election.
Byron has earned powerful political enemies, including Lightfoot, who targeted him in a screaming match in the City Council last year over the casino vote. He is also opposed by Jesus “Chuy” Garcia, the mayoral candidate and sitting congressman embroiled in an embarrassing crypto-currency scandal with con artist Sam Bankman-Fried. Byron had faced two challengers: Aida Flores, who pretty clearly is fronting for real estate interests, anti-teacher union foundations, and waste management companies, and Danny Montes, a Chicago Fire Department EMT, who has struck me as a Trump-like candidate. Fire Department politics in Chicago is a nightmare. Montes dropped out of the race on January 14th and endorsed Flores.
Byron, a long time community activist with the Pilsen Alliance, victory in the election 2019 with 29 percent of the vote, was greatly helped by the self-immolation of his predecessor, Danny Solis, whose biggest crime in the eyes of most alderpersons was wearing a wire for the Fed for two years. It’s unclear who is going to win the ward election, but Byron has done a pretty good job at putting himself on the right side of the most issues—much to the annoyance of the Chicago police. Several off-duty Chicago cops went undercover to one of Byron’s community meetings last year, and heckled a longtime neighborhood activist who spoke about police violence.
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Joe Allen is a long-time labor activist and writer. His latest book is The Package King: A Rank and File History of UPS.