When asked by a Northwestern student why they should get involved with the Evanston community Tuesday night, Evanston Mayor Daniel Biss encouraged students to find a cause that they are passionate about.
“For example, there’s climate activism,” Biss said. “There’s a lot of passion for climate activism on campus and in Evanston. All that stuff functions more effectively in moments of partnership and collaboration.”
At the event co-hosted by the Daily Northwestern and the Northwestern University Political Union in Harris Hall, Biss talked to an audience of around thirty students about environmental justice, police violence and the relationship of Northwestern students to Evanston.
Climate activism and issues of environmentalism were prevalent subjects during the conversation. Biss was asked about his commitments to advancing environmental justice and Evanston’s Climate Action and Resilience Plan, or CARP, which aims to have Evanston achieve carbon neutrality by 205o as well as outlines strategies for ensuring that Evanston is prepared to deal with the effects of climate change.
Biss noted that many climate activists in Evanston are frustrated with the lack of progress in implementing CARP, and that he shares their disappointment.
“Our climate commitments need to govern every action we take in our city," Biss said. "Every time another program is designed or a building investment is made, we have to ask ourselves how does this potentially align or not align with CARP.”
After admitting that work for environmental justice is still underway, he described how the city would identify areas that are subject to environmental injustice and highlighted the need for remediation.
“We’ve made a commitment to what our values are, and now we have to live up to them, the part that matters most,” Biss said.
Biss was also asked to speak about the priorities and future actions of the Reimagining Public Safety Committee. The committee was created as one of Biss' first acts as mayor with the intention of analyzing Evanston's public safety efforts, which includes the Evanston Police Department. He explained that the the committee is composed of seventeen people with diverse backgrounds, meeting every two weeks and split into three working groups.
“One of the working groups, which is maybe the most ambitious, is really asking me about the fundamental question, which is what if we got to rebuild our police department, or more broadly, the mechanism by which the city provides public safety, what would that look like?” Biss said.
The second working group in the committee focuses on the reduction of violence through a trauma-informed approach. This approach, which centers survivors and community outreach, is important to combatting cycles of violence, according to Biss. Biss himself participates in the third working group, which works with data.
“One thing we learned was that there’s definitely racial disparity in traffic stops in Evanston,” Biss said. “Traffic stops that occur from equipment violations, such as a busted taillight or a registration lapsed, have a massive racial disparity.”
Biss observes that while driving under the influence necessitates getting the driver immediately off the road, drivers with equipment violations don’t pose as much of a threat to public safety because they are still able to drive home. As a result, the group’s recommendation was to stop doing traffic stops for certain violations and to communicate them through mail instead.
A student pressed Biss on this solution, pointing out that the racial bias found within the police force would still be reflected in people who received traffic violation notices in the mail.
Biss explained that he is not attributing the cause of the racial disparity entirely to racial bias.
“I’m not alleging bias, I’m ignorant as to what the cause of this disparity is,” Biss said. “There are a number of solutions, but I don’t think it’s clear that this disparity is entirely about racial bias.”
He argued that the situation was more complicated than that, stating that the goal of this solution was "simply to acknowledge that the interaction between the resident and the police officer in the context of the traffic stop" is often not a great scenario and that this change aims to avoid the "worst case scenarios."
Biss highlighted that the city’s historically harmful actions did not happen around racial segregation but helped actively perpetuate it. He listed the city’s collaboration with racist homeowners associations and accommodation of redlining as examples.
“Every time we create a program or authorize expenditure, we need to ask ourselves the question of how it is repairing this harm, and if it’s actually creating true equity of public services,” Biss said.
His mention of the city’s reparations program inspired a student to ask about reparations for the descendants of Indigenous peoples affected by the occupation of their land by settlers. Biss discussed Evanston’s history of violence against Native Americans, but did not give a definitive answer.
“I don’t feel that I, at this moment, have a clear answer on how to allocate the responsibility for redress, who ought to do that and how it ought to be done,” Biss said.
Another student, who is also a longtime Evanston resident, asked if the city was processing any data on how Evanston businesses were functioning and how the city would support local businesses.
Biss focused on various businesses that closed over the past year but emphasized that public health comes first. He also discussed how Evanston’s business prospects could be improved even from its pre-pandemic state by, bringing up making Evanston more pedestrian-friendly, which could encourage people to spend more time downtown, according to Biss.
“We can utilize this moment to rethink what it’s going to take to make our business districts places that people really want to be. That’s going to be a really important part of the puzzle,” Biss said.
However, he concluded that “We’re looking at a small, gradual, multi-year recovery.”