Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot tells Northwestern graduates democracy will fail ‘if we do not see the humanity in each other’

Tribune Content Agency

CHICAGO — Drawing on the ongoing coronavirus crisis and continued fallout over the Minneapolis police killing of George Floyd, Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot called on graduating Northwestern University students to engage in public service and remember that people are all connected to each other.

In her speech Friday, Lightfoot acknowledged the “challenging times” posed by a global pandemic and the national conversation about police and racism stemming from Floyd’s death.

But, she said, both momentous activities should be seen as a call to service.

“The events of COVID-19 and the murder of George Floyd speak to the importance of engagement through service in two seemingly separate, but powerful and reinforcing ways,” Lightfoot said.

The coronavirus “forced us to rethink and redefine the very notion of public service, to move it beyond its traditional governmental realm, and expand into every role we play,” Lightfoot said. It also reinforced just how connected we all are, she said.

Floyd’s killing, she said, emphasizes the urgency of getting involved.

“If we are to make our democracy thrive, we all have to do more to engage in our political process. We are at our core a participatory democracy, and thus engagement is our life blood,” Lightfoot said. “So in addition to my challenge to you, I also have a personal request: Spend some time in your life serving government itself.”

Referring to graduates from Northwestern’s journalism school, Lightfoot also tweaked The Washington Post’s slogan, “Democracy dies in darkness,” to call for people to get involved in public service.

“Democracy dies in disengagement,” Lightfoot said. “Disengagement from the public. Disengagement from facts. Disengagement from reality. And disengagement from ourselves.”

The graduation ceremony was held completely online to adhere to social distancing guidelines. Lightfoot attended the University of Michigan as an undergraduate and went to the University of Chicago for law school. Both schools have rivalries with Northwestern, which she briefly addressed.

“I am a partisan when it comes to my undergraduate alma mater,” Lightfoot said. “But I have come to embrace the purple pride.”

Northwestern announced Lightfoot as its graduation speaker in April, touting her as an emerging national leader during the coronavirus pandemic and the “ideal” speaker to mark 150 years since women were first admitted to the university.

But, in the weeks following that announcement, the world witnessed the police killing of Floyd, and Chicago, along with cities across the country, erupted in protest. Lightfoot has been criticized for her response to the protests, as well as for her record on police accountability issues.

In response, Northwestern students released an online petition earlier this month calling on the university to remove Lightfoot as their commencement speaker. The petition was written in solidarity with black students and organizers at Northwestern, who were calling on the university to invest in its black community and divest from police.

“We recognize that there are many steps that Northwestern as an institution and all members of its community must take in order to ensure the physical and emotional safety of Black students and begin to dismantle the white supremacy we uphold,” the petition said. “One of those steps is cutting our ties with those who actively harm Black individuals within our city — including Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot.”

The petition has since received over 800 online signatures.

Northwestern stood by its decision to have Lightfoot deliver the commencement address. Ahead of graduation, university spokesman Jon Yates said the school was proud to have Lightfoot as a speaker and looked forward to her joining the Northwestern community.

The protest against Lightfoot isn’t unusual. Northwestern students also criticized Mayor Richard M. Daley as a commencement speaker in 2008.

This year’s ceremony fell on Juneteenth, a holiday marking the end of slavery in the United States, which Lightfoot also noted.

“It is fitting, too, that we are meeting on Juneteenth, the annual celebration marking the end of slavery in America,” Lightfoot said. “But more than that, this day stands as a watershed moment in our nation’s long and still incomplete journey toward full equality and justice that we are feeling so vividly in this moment.”

Lightfoot also spoke against social media and the practice of demonizing political opponents.

“Being engaged doesn’t mean screaming the loudest. It doesn’t mean issuing a set of demands and then villainizing anyone who doesn’t immediately pledge allegiance to your favorite manifesto,” Lightfoot said. “The public square should be about robust debate, working to muster the facts and arguments to persuade. Building coalitions, finding common ground and of course leaning into what you believe — yes, that’s all part of what makes this continuing, evolving American experiment with democracy great and enduring.”

But, she warned, “it is premised upon breaking down barriers that would otherwise separate us. Democracy will fail, it will utterly fail if we do not see the humanity in each other.”


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