2020, a year to remember, in review

A month-by-month recap of some of the biggest West Side news in 2020

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Michael Romain, Kelly Milan & Igor Studenkov

January | On Jan 1, recreational marijuana for adults over the age of 21 became legal in Illinois. The law was passed by the Illinois General Assembly on May 21, 2019 before it took effect in 2020.

Illinois allows possession of 30 grams of weed, five grams of cannabis concentrate and/or 500 milligrams of THC (Tetrahydrocannabinol, which is one of 113 cannabinoids and counting identified in cannabis) in edibles (a maximum of 100 milligrams each)

With the legalization of weed came pardons for those convicted of possessing 30 grams of marijuana or less prior to the legalization. Pardons are only granted if those convicted records reviewed by the Prison Review Board and Gov. Pritzker are granted. According to Cook County State's Attorney's Kim Foxx's Office, those convicted in 2019 (at least a year ago) of possessing 30 grams or less, Foxx's office will automatically expunge your record.

Illinois forbids smoking in public and you may not. With the exception of medical marijuana patients, you may not grow marijuana at home. Patients prescribed medical marijuana treatment may only grow up to five plants.

Most law enforcement experts will tell you to think about smoking weed the same way you think about drinking alcohol.

February | Rev. John H. Crawford Jr., a West Side civil rights activist and trailblazer, died at 80. He was the co-founder of the West Side organization and bodyguard for Martin Luther King Jr.

Crawford was a licensed minister and established FAITH, Inc., (For Action in Togetherness Holdfast), a community organization dedicated to helping ex-offenders on the West Side secure state ID cards.

According to Crawford, he was part of a legislative effort to require IDOC to provide ex-offenders with temporary ID cards and other critical resources when they are released.

March | The COVID-19 pandemic prompted Gov. J.B. Pritzker to shut down large gatherings and all non-essential activities across the state, leaving many West Siders hurrying to adapt to the new normal.

Students across the West Side were forced to do learning online. On March 15, Chicago Public School officials announced that they would provide meals to all students in need.

April | As the pandemic raged, West Side politicians and activists began speaking out about the disproportionate impact of COVID-19 on Blacks.

First District Cook County Commissioner Brandon Johnson joined a group of activists and elected officials to push for a series of measures designed to address the racial divide brought on by the pandemic.

By April, according to the Illinois Department of Public Health, Blacks, who are roughly 14 percent of the population, comprised 28 percent of the confirmed positive COVID-19 cases and accounted for around 43 percent of confirmed COVID-19-related deaths.

According to Johnson, the package of reforms, called the Right to Recovery legislation, was a series of progressive proposals that at that point had not gotten much traction, but whose significance was more relevant than ever in light of the pandemic.

The proposals included 20 days of paid emergency leave for all workers who need it, a moratorium on evictions, foreclosures, rent and mortgage collections, housing for homeless and lease extensions for tenants. They also included weekly payments of $750 to "all families with school children and all workers facing furloughs, layoff and reduction in hours," among other measures.  

May | On May 2, Mayor Lori Lightfoot held a press conference in West Humboldt Park to address the problem of crowded house parties held in defiance of state and city stay-at-home restrictions.

The press conference happened after video footage of a crowded house party in Galewood went viral after one of the participants, Tink Purcell, of West Garfield Park, live-streamed it for 24 minutes, capturing a crowd of over 100 people. According to Chicago Sun-Times, the party was organized by Janeal Wright, the 26-year-old son of the building's owner, Chicago Fire Department Commander Christine Matthews.

During a West Garfield Park COVID-19 awareness virtual town hall on May 14, Charles Levy, of the Garfield Park Behavioral Hospital, said that he understood why youth would engage in that kind of risky behavior.

"Young people are scared," he said. "They are. It's like they're in jail. And that causes them to start feeling a sense of hopelessness, because they don't know when they're going to get out. And that tends to bring on depression."

June | The month was dominated by the fallout from the shooting of George Floyd. On May 31, a wave of looting swept through the South and West sides, hitting the Madison/Pulaski commercial corridor in West Garfield Park, as well as several business corridors along Madison Street in Austin.

Vanessa Stokes, a community activist and head of the Special Service Area 72, which encompasses the Cicero/Chicago corridor, saw what was happening within two blocks of Madison and Pulaski.

"It was just insane," she recalled at the time. "And then seeing people driving up and down the street with boxes of [goods] in their cars, and people walking with obvious new clothes and what not, it was scary."

The West Side was deeply affected by the losing, because the area doesn't have many grocery stores and pharmacies in the first place. The Walmart in Austin was closed for months, and Walgreens closed all of its West Side locations, including the ones that weren't looted, for weeks.

The month also saw several peaceful protests, including the June 4 march from Oak Park Village Hall, to the 15th Police District headquarters in Austin, and the June 13 march from Oak Park to West Garfield Park.

July | On July 17, SEIU Illinois and Loretto Hospital agreed to a new contract, avoiding a strike scheduled for July 20.

The previous contract expired in December 2019, so the new contract took effect retroactively for the entire year of 2020. It will last for another two and a half years. Major changes included a $15 an hour starting wage for all workers and regular pay increases based on seniority. Some higher-level positions, such as behavioral health workers, would have a starting wages of $18 to $22 an hour. The contract also stipulates that employees with too many patients get paid extra, a mechanism designed to ensure the hospital maintains better levels of staffing.

August |  On Aug. 26, the Chicago Board of Education voted 4-2 to approve the new one-year, $12 million School Resource Officer contract with the Chicago Police Department, capping a summer of protests and attempts to end the contract early.

The program had been controversial for years. While supporters claimed that it provides security, there had been growing concerns that police officers wind up needlessly arresting students. There were also several high-profile incidents where officers used force against relatively minor infractions.

The Chicago Inspector General told the Chicago City Council's Committee on Public Safety on July 2 that, since 2015, out of all incidents where SROs used force, 81 percent involved African-American students and 14 percent involved Latinx students. And out of all arrests made since January 2017, 72.8 percent involved African-Americans.

Following the Aug. 26 vote, Ald. Michael Scott (24th), who chairs the city council's Committee on Education, said that, although CPS needed more counselors and support services, removing the police officers altogether could potentially make some school communities feel less safe.

For the time being, all Chicago public schools continue to teach remotely, so resource officers are not in use, but the issue may resurface if the city proceeds with its plans to switch to hybrid learning in February 2021.

September | By September, nearly all of the signs that once bore the Douglas Park name had been removed, the culmination of tireless work by the students at the Village Leadership Academy, who had been organizing to rename the park since 2017.

The students were able to pressure the Chicago Park District Board to vote to strip North Lawndale largest park of its original namesake — Stephen A. Douglas, the Civil War-era U.S. senator who supported expanding slavery across the country — in order to rename it Douglass Park, after the famous Black abolitionist Frederick Douglass and his wife Anna. 

October | After the pandemic touched down in March, construction work on the old Sears at North and Harlem in Galewood Park slowed to a halt. In October, Novak Construction, the new owner of the former Sears store, announced that it was looking to build more retail, while keeping some of the residential components outlined in an earlier redevelopment plan.

As previously reported, Seritage Holdings, which inherited the ownership of the site when it was spun off from Sears, sold several of its Chicago properties to Novak Construction. Seritage had previously worked with Chicago-based Tucker Development to turn the Sears complex into a mixed-use development with retail space and upscale apartments.

Novak now proposes to demolish the Sears building altogether and build a new grocery store, two retail buildings and a drive-through restaurant, while keeping the apartment plans for the site's east parking lot the same as Tucker's.

November | West Siders reacted to the Nov. 3 Presidential Election with a collective sigh of relief that it was finally over and that President Donald Trump might be on his way out of office.

Most West Siders Austin Weekly News interviewed before and after the election expressed exasperation with both political parties and the political process, but said they were even more tired of Trump's character.

"It feels like I'm not voting for my political beliefs," Lou Maheffy said. "I'm voting more for a person, for the behavior of the current president. His behavior overshadows his politics. Whether you agree with his positions or not. You can't agree with his behavior as a leader." 

Carlos Ortega, of Galewood, said that the choice, for him was clear.

"It's a historic election, you know?" I voted Democratic," he said. "You know what, it's hard to say good things about the other candidate. Just based on integrity, I had to go with Biden."

December | In December, administrators at Loretto Hospital in Austin announced that they were selected to be among the sites that will test individuals taking the first wave of COVID-19 vaccines. 

The hospital is one of a few dozen safety-net community hospitals in Chicago, serving primarily low-income and uninsured patients.

"Too often in our past, we've seen vaccines or drug regimens come to market that didn't work as expected on minority populations, because they weren't appropriately tested on these groups," according to a statement Crain's obtained by Dr. Lois Clarke, Loretto's director of clinical research. "If we, as a community, want to benefit from a COVID-19 vaccine, it's time to step up and make sure we're being representatively included in the trials."

The news of Loretto's status as a test site came as community leaders were demanding that the federal government prioritize Black communities in the process of distributing the COVID-19 vaccine.

In November,, a group of West Side faith leaders convened a press conference at the JLM Abundant Life Center, 2622 W. Jackson Blvd.

The leaders were particularly referencing the distribution of the initial batches of the COVID-19 vaccine that will soon be given to essential healthcare workers and people working and living in long-term care facilities.

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