By AARON GETTINGER
State Sen. Robert Peters (D-13th) hosted representatives from the South Shore Chamber of Commerce, labor and voting rights organizations on March 2, at the last of his district-wide community meetings held following his January appointment to the General Assembly.
Tyree Johnson, a seven-year organizer with Fight for $15, which seeks to raise the minimum wage, said he has worked at McDonald’s for 27 years. “Because McDonald’s don’t pay me enough, I had to take a job at 7-Eleven,” he said, adding that he makes more money there after five years than he does at the fast food chain.
“McDonald’s is a billion-dollar corporation, but they’re stingy,” he continued. “But we won a major victory when J.B. Pritzker signed that bill,” referring to the just-passed statewide increase in the minimum wage, a key component of the Democrats’ platform last year. Johnson said the wage increase will make it easier for him to pay his bills.
Rudy Garrett, a deputy director at Chicago Votes, said her nonprofit works to get people of color involved in municipal politics through voter registration, education and get-out-the-vote efforts.
Chicago Votes also works to increase voter turnout among incarcerated people, and Johnson said Peters is forwarding legislation, the Returning Citizens Civic Education Act, that will allow nonprofits to train peer leaders within the criminal justice system to train soon-to-be-released prisoners about their voting rights.
“Sen. Peters agreed to help take HB 2441 into the Senate and fight diligently for folks that’d be able to have peer-led civic education opportunities so that, when they do come back to our communities, they’re ready to mobilize and vote and get their community out to vote, too,” Garrett said.
She added that Peters, who got his political start in progressive organizing, had trained her. “I’m really proud that I can say that somebody who comes from the Chicago Votes family, who’s committed to young people and young people’s voice now has a voice in the Illinois State Senate,” Garrett said.
In brief remarks before meeting individually with constituents, Peters referenced his Hyde Park upbringing, admitting that he had been a troublemaker and empathizing with the youths involved in the unrest in the neighborhood last Halloween. When he was a teenager, however, Peters said he had a community of neighbors and educators supporting him.
“That really drives me for what I want to do as a state senator, and that is to rebuild and reimagine community in the 21st century,” he said. “Everywhere in Illinois — and in this country and in this world right now — we need to fight to strengthen the bonds of community.”
Peters touted efforts to prevent prisoners from incurring debts while they were incarcerated, an elected Chicago Public Schools board and increased funding for education and social services over policing. He said he toured Stateville Correctional Center in Crest Hill, Illinois, last Thursday.
He said the prison’s panopticon “can get extremely loud,” describing it as akin to a “torture chamber.” Former Gov. Bruce Rauner (R) closed it, though it still stands, and Peters said authorities are pressuring to reopen it.
“I think about that’s the struggle we’re in: it’s either more punishment or it’s thinking about 40,000 people as human beings,” Peters said, referring to the number of incarcerated Illinoisans. “And we have to make sure that when they come out into the world, that they’re being lifted up, that they’re being provided services. To come out of the trauma of incarceration and come into world, we must lift folks up.”