Christopher Evans recently defeated two primary challengers to become the Democratic nominee for Urbana City Council Ward 2. Ward 2, which covers a relatively small geographical area just west of U of I's campus, has had a bit of turnover. Eric Jacobssen vacated the seat last summer, and Julie Laut was appointed to fulfill the remainder of the term. Laut stepped down in December, and Erik Sacks was appointed to the seat. Evans ran against Sacks and CheckCu.org founder Christopher Hansen, and now faces Party for Socialism and Liberation candidate Colin Dodson in the April 6th election.


Smile Politely: Tell me a little about yourself and your background.

Christopher Evans: I went to high school over at Centennial, attended Parkland College, and eventually got a degree in Fine Arts from the University of Illinois. With no prior experience, I was given a job at a cabinet making business and spent three years working wood. I sketched a lot of local landscapes for a time and sold prints of my work. I served on the City of Champaign's Homeless Task Force where we established the TIMES emergency shelter back in 1995. I worked as a radio producer for an afternoon talk show on a commercial radio station. In the early 2000's, U of I Professor Emeritus Christiane Martens gave me a job as her teaching assistant for the Arts in Public Places class where students built large outdoor sculptures out of cardboard. I joined the Urbana-Champaign Independent Media Center in 2005 and worked as the building coordinator and had a radio show on the IMC's WRFU 104.5 FM radio station. Most applicable to city council was my participation for ten years in a local grassroots activist group, Champaign-Urbana Citizens for Peace and Justice. We met every Saturday at the IMC and worked on issues about videotaping the police, police brutality, racial profiling, effective legal representation, felony disenfranchisement, use of force, ending The Drug War, and opposing the expansion of the county jail, to name a few. It is my experience with CUCPJ that has informed me the most politically. I have written articles for Smile Politely and have lived in Urbana since 1993. 
 
SP: What motivated you to run for alderman?
 
Evans: Watching the rise of Ronald Reagan, John Piland, Jerry Schweighart, Rodney Davis, Mike Madigan, Bruce Rauner, and Donald Trump has had me for a very long time disgusted with politics and politicians. Running for office was something I never expected to do. But lately, there have been signs of hope. Aaron and Carol Ammons have been a shining example of how, after 25 years of consistent hard work, they have been able to convert protest into policy. Progressives like Kyle Patterson, Jen Straub, Emily Rodriguez, Chaundra Bishop, Stephanie Fortado, Cameron Raab, Jordon Humphrey, Leah Taylor, Alicia Beck, Mary King, Titianna Ammons, and many others have shown it's possible for regular people who care to get a seat at the table. My past experiences with government have always been the cranky guy who shows up to meetings to complain. It's easy to complain. What's not so easy is to roll up the sleeves, work, and help. It just seemed about time I help out for a change. Also, very important in my decision to run was my 10 year-old friend Ezra Chynoweth who, when asked if I should run for council, replied, "Yeah, I guess so, Chris is probably smart enough." 
 
SP: You define yourself as a progressive Democrat. What does that mean to you?
 
Evans: I chose to run as a local Democrat because my values most align with people I know in the local Democratic party. I am less keen about the statewide Democrats, although the Illinois Legislative Black Caucus in Springfield gives me hope change can be possible. I am probably opposed to the corporate controlled Democrats in Washington D.C., especially after what they did to Bernie Sanders, twice. The most important part of that description is progressive, and that I definitely strive to be. When thinking about government, I wrote this in 2013: 
 
"Somehow, we are told there are no tax dollars available to spend on water fountains, bike paths, museums, libraries, good teachers and schools, petting zoos, universities, swimming pools, sculpture parks, trains, scholarships, quality daycare, street musicians, healthcare, electric cars, small business loans, fruit trees, public showers, hospitals, theaters, parks, renewable energy sources, murals, ice cream trucks, trade schools, quality nursing homes, public transportation, carnivals, solar apartments, gymnasiums, and victory gardens- stuff that would do the planet and body good; and instead, we are lectured that the only available tax dollars must be spent for more government employees, more government employee pensions, more sports stadiums, more jails, more cops, more prisons, more squad cars, more fire trucks, and a posh Courthouse."
 
I realize that "pollyanna fruitloop" wish list is probably unrealistic. There is no such thing as endless tax money to do everything. But those are my kind of priorities. I see government as a possible force for good: a government that actually makes progress in improving our quality of life. I'd rather leave behind a skateboard park for Ezra, than a damn jail. 
 
SP: What is something that you think is working well in Urbana city government?
 
Evans: The everyday existence we take for granted always amazes me. When you consider every traffic light is always working everywhere, most every street light works, there's electricity to just about every building with heat and air conditioning, there's clean water from every tap and shower head, most of the sewers and rain water drainage work every day, the vast majority of roads are smooth and well marked for traffic safety, just about every building is safe for occupancy, the snow is cleared from all the streets within the day, our garbage is hauled away every week, restaurants and grocery stores never sell us outright poison, car accidents and fires are responded to within minutes, if we have a medical emergency we are whisked to the hospital immediately, we can go to a library for free and check out books, movies, and all kinds of things, and for most of us, we are free to wake up and do whatever we want (assuming it doesn't hurt other people.) All this for 42,214 people.
 
I understand this modern condition is not entirely the City of Urbana's doing, and none of this is perfect. Overall though, we have it pretty good. It's worth taking care of. 
 
SP: What are the three most important reforms you would like to see?

Evans:

Police Reform- poor communities and communities of color are sick and tired of resolving every social problem with an arrest, a prosecution, and an incarceration. And rightfully, poor communities and communities of color are asking their government for a financial investment into their communities like governments have in the white suburbs, the downtown business area, and the Campustown business area. It can't just be that the only thing government has to offer poor communities is a free car ride to the county jail. Serious investment into education and housing will be needed. This will be a longer conversation and require continued public pressure at all levels of government. 

In the short term, here is what the City of Urbana could do: 
 
Transparency- 
  • set clear standards for how the city honors FOIA requests.
  • make procedures, policies, and directives available for public review

Accountability-

  • reform police contracts that unreasonably restrict police terminations or erase police complaints or disciplinary records.
  • enact a "duty to intervene" policy requiring officers on scene to attempt to stop fellow officers from applying excessive force and report misconduct to superior officers. 
  • equip Urbana's Civilian Police Review Board with subpoena power to monitor discipline and internal investigations of police shootings.
  • establish civilian governance boards to guide police policy according to local priorities. 
Practices-
  • prohibit the use of no-knock warrants for drug searches and other police functions where they are not essential to protect public safety.
  • avoid using military equipment and military-style uniforms for nonessential purposes.

Alternatives-

  • wherever possible, remove policing of social issues from the scope of police responsibilities. Promote funding of social service agencies and implement evidence-based interventions to address substance           use, mental health crisis, and homelessness.
  • provide academy in-service de-escalation, communication, and mindfulness training.
  • address officer mental health to prevent self-harm and trauma-related escalation.
None of the above are my ideas. These are the recommendations I plagiarized from police officers, prosecutors, judges, and correctional officers who are members of the Law Enforcement Action Partnership, a non-profit group of law enforcement officials dedicated since 2002 to improving public safety.
 
End the drug war- Again, to quote the Law Enforcement Action Partnership: "We believe that adult drug abuse is a public health problem and not a law enforcement matter." The Drug War should have been ended decades ago. Its effects have been well documented by many, most notably by Michelle Alexander in her seminal book, The New Jim Crow. Reversing this policy would be better addressed at the state and federal level. In the meantime, what the City of Urbana could do is pass a resolution, (similar to its directive to prohibit the Urbana Police Department from participating in ICE raids,) for the Urbana police to stop participating in the Street Crimes Task Force Unit, stop engaging in controlled drug buys, and stop arresting citizens of Urbana for possession and selling of drugs. In 2013, the Champaign County Community Justice Task Force recommended to the entire county we open a community-based behavioral health crisis center for persons with mental health and substance abuse disorders. The City of Urbana cannot do this alone. Urbana could lead a collaboration with the City of Champaign, the University of Illinois School of Social Work, The Champaign County Board, the two hospitals, Champaign County Healthcare Consumers, and the C-U Public Health District toward funding a first-class treatment center that would address the demand for drugs for those without health insurance.
 
Redefine where opportunity zones are and end housing discrimination- Opportunity Zones were part of the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act from 2017 and were supposed to spur investment in undercapitalized communities. These communities were characterized as having residents with lower incomes, higher poverty rates, and higher unemployment rates. Instead, we have local developers engaged in a scam, where they build expensive, luxurious apartments for U of I students in areas nowhere near low-income neighborhoods with absolutely no benefits for the poor. We need the Urbana City Council to adopt a policy that it will not designate any development in the campus area as eligible for an Opportunity Zone. In addition, the Cunningham Township identified 22 Urbana landlords as advertising illegal preferences for students, people without children, or people without a history of arrest or conviction. Some openly state: "We don't take Section 8." We must enforce our laws and eliminate this type of discrimination. 
 
SP: Why do you feel you are the more qualified candidate?
 
Evans: I don't compare myself to Colin Dodson. If voters were to elect Colin, Urbana would be in great shape. In fact, all the candidates for Ward 2 this year have been excellent choices. All I can say is I do feel I'm qualified for city council because I have lived in Urbana for a long time, I love the city of Urbana, I know a fair amount of local history, I enjoy doing research, I enjoy looking for solutions and crafting policy; and as a poor person myself, I recognize the needs that if met, can reduce crime, can give everyone an opportunity to become the best they can be, and we can design a sustainable future. I'm optimistic we can do this. I am at a point in my life that I have the time to be a city council person. I lost my two part-time jobs to the pandemic so I am readily available to do the work. Thank you Smile Politely for taking an interest in local politics and giving the candidates a chance to speak. 

You can find information about all candidates on the ballot at Champaign County Voters Alliance.

Top photo from Christopher Evans Progressive Democrat for Ward 2 Facebook page.