Candidates in both the general and municipal elections found themselves on the hot seat Oct. 28 as Austin youths grilled them on a variety of issues, including expungement, teen homelessness, police intimidation, and jobs.
The Westside Health Authority and the League of Young African-American Voters of Change co-sponsored the youth-led forum at Hope Community Church, 5900 W. Iowa. The league is a coalition of West Side youth groups that includes WHA’s youth council.
Julia Wright, 21 and a registered voter, said she was a little disappointed that she got vague answers to some questions because candidates sent their representatives instead.
“I think there were a lot of questions not answered due to politicians not being here,” said the Austin resident and WHA youth council member.
“I was surprised that they didn’t have all the answers that I thought they should have,” she said. “Even as representatives, you are supposed to know all the issues concerning an area that you want to vote for you.”
A lot of young adults, Wright added, came because they wanted guidance on what and who they are voting for.
WHA sent out 15 requests to top-tier candidates seeking political office, including the governor and U.S. senate races, among others, to participate in the forum, which drew more than 50 youth people. And though each came late, U.S. Rep. Danny Davis (7th) and Ald. Emma Mitts (37th) were the only two candidates in attendance.
State Comptroller Judy Baar-Topinka, who is running for re-election in November, and Ald. Deborah Graham (29th) who’s running in February’s municipal election, both sent representatives. State Rep. LaShawn Ford agreed to come but canceled due to family emergency.
Better relations with the police, as well as youth violence topped the questions asked of candidates. On youth violence, Mitts said the Austin area needs a youth center that offers recreational activities to keep kids off the streets. Allowing young people to work at a younger age, she added, could impact violence.
“I think young people should be able to work at age 14-years-old. I think we need to move that age limit and give young people an opportunity to be able to work. We shouldn’t have…to wait until we are 18, 19 years old,” Mitts, who also co-sponsored the forum, said.
On police-youth relations, Mitts admitted that relationships between the two sides are far apart. “But I do feel that we need to work on it from both angles,” Mitts said.
The police, she stressed, need to understand that they are dealing with human beings, and youth need to understand police duties and responsibilities. The police should be friendlier during traffic stops, Mitts said, adding that youth must conduct themselves appropriately when stopped by police.
Davis added that fear of the police is something shared by both young and older adults. He said older Blacks who see a police cruiser behind them “start shaking… although they are not doing anything except driving their car.” The police are there to protect and serve, not oppress or repress, Davis stressed.
“It should not be that way. But that is the way it is, said the congressman, who in 2007 alleged he was racially-profiled by Chicago cops who pulled him over for “driving left of center.”
He urged more blacks to vote to demand more police accountability. When blacks don’t vote “we don’t have enough control nor do we have enough influence over the forces that determine how we live and what we do,” Davis said.
When questioned about building a state of the art neighborhood high school, everyone agreed one was needed.
Mitts said there have been discussions of turning AustinHigh School, 231 N. Pine Ave., back into a single-neighborhood school. Currently, the school houses three small schools. Mitts said she will support what the community wants, but urged youth feedback on the matter, adding: “I would certainly like to have your opinion.”
Davis, however, was more pragmatic. Austin’s elected officials have not been able to convince other lawmakers to support building a new school — moving political will in one’s favor takes consensus building, Davis insisted.
“If the mayor was to say, ‘I agree with you all,’ construction could start next month,” the congressman said.
Not yet able to vote, 16-year-old Deandre Austin found the forum “cool,” but he too wanted to hear from Graham. For him, his main concern was expungement for young offenders.
Austin said he was arrested for a crime he didn’t commit, and though the case was thrown out he still has a criminal record. He liked Mitts’ idea to have those cases automatically expunged; Mitts will be holding City Council hearings on the subject after the November election.
Mitts also announced during the forum that the 37th, 28th and 29th wards will have the city’s “Dollar-A-Lot” program starting Dec. 1. Under that program, ward residents can buy city owned vacant lots for just $1.
WHA youth council member Anthony Hill, 20, said expungement, high youth unemployment and police harassment are critical issues for youths, but such issues are overlooked during the election. This forum, he said, hopes to change that.
“What this candidate’s forum is doing is trying to get us empowered to be heard and have a voice. We see a lot of things that need changing in the community,” Hill said. “We, as the youth, feel that this is our opportunity to make it happen.”