- Interview by
- Spencer Chan
Ugo Okere is a Nigerian immigrant and democratic socialist running for Chicago City Council in the city’s Fortieth Ward, located on the far north side. One of five candidates in the race, Okere is vying to unseat Alderman Patrick O’Connor, who has been in office since 1983.
O’Connor’s legacy on the city council is one marked by racism. In his first term, O’Connor joined a group of twenty-nine nearly all white aldermen who organized in opposition Harold Washington, Chicago’s first black mayor. More recently, O’Connor has painted Okere as an outsider in the community, referencing a flyer for a campaign fundraiser Okere attended that was hosted by Nigerian immigrants.
At twenty-two years old, Okere is one of the youngest aldermanic candidates in the city. He is running on a platform of fully funded public schools, affordable housing, lifting the statewide ban on rent control, and establishing a Civilian Police Accountability Council. He has been endorsed by the Chicago chapter of Democratic Socialists of America (DSA).
DSA member Spencer Chan recently caught up with Okere to talk about his background in organizing, the aims of his campaign, and why Chicago needs more democratic socialists in office.
You’re one of the youngest candidates running for city council. How did you get involved in activism, and what made you decide to run now?
Social justice was not a part of my life, activism wasn’t a part of my life, until I got to college. I had always cared about politics, but I cared about electoral politics. I saw it as different from activism — rather than how I view activism and electoral politics now, as part of the same apparatus for achieving the liberation of black, brown, and working-class people.
My freshman year of college was when the Black Lives Matter movement began. It was the first time that social justice became proximal to me. I knew that if I wasn’t taking part in the Black Lives Matter movement that [it could be] me that was in the grave with my parents crying over it on the 5 o’clock news. I knew I had to be a part of the struggle.
When you’re on a college campus and you get into these kinds of spaces, you also get pulled into all of the other activism that is going on. Because of that, I learned more and more about the movement for BDS on our campus, I learned about the wider realm of social justice. I knew I had to be part of the greater struggle for liberation for all marginalized people: “We ain’t free until we’re all free.”
I joined up with Anakbayan Chicago, which is an organization dedicated to the liberation of the Filipino people here in United States and in the Philippines. That was where I learned even deeper about the struggle for international solidarity and how a lot of the capitalist forces that subjugate us in the United States subjugate people across the world. After that, I became the chairman of Fuente del Sol, which is an organization on the Southwest Side of Chicago that [fights] for violence prevention and immigrant rights. In all that time, I was also gaining government experience. I was working in the Chicago City Clerk’s office, working for a congressional office.
After the  election was over, I was with someone who was undocumented at the time. She was on the phone with me that night. She was crying, because she wasn’t sure about the future of her family and her siblings, who were also undocumented. I knew that it wasn’t enough for me to continue telling people to go out to vote. It wasn’t enough for me to continue to organize. We needed to have a government filled with people who care about workers — activists, organizers, nurses, teachers — so that government isn’t this thing where the people who are at the bottom are fighting with government to get the things that they need, but are working alongside government to make the world a better place.
And so I decided [to run], listening to Bernie Sanders’s call for people of color and young people and progressives to run for office at all levels of governments, not just president, Senate, or US representative. I wanted to make a change in my community and fight at the ground level to bring socialism from the bottom up.
The Fortieth Ward, where you’re running, is whiter and wealthier than many other communities in the city. How do the issues that are facing the Fortieth Ward relate to issues in less affluent parts of the city?
The biggest issue in the Fortieth Ward is affordable housing. That might surprise some folks because this is a more affluent area, a whiter area. But we also have to understand that the issue of class struggle, the issue of poverty, of the forces of capitalism weighing down on working people, hits all of us regardless of race. It is inequitable in the way it hits us, but it hits all of us.
In the Fortieth Ward, there’s a complete lack of affordable housing; the majority of the North Side has a complete lack of affordable housing. That has been allowed to happen because of the way we view affordable housing. We see affordable housing as something that should be relegated to the places where poverty is concentrated. I reject that notion. The reason that affordable housing is an issue in the Fortieth Ward is because rents are skyrocketing. People are being pushed out. We need to have affordable housing in all parts of the city.
In addition to housing, you also talk a lot about racial and immigration justice. Do you find it difficult to get voters in your ward to care about these issues? If so, how do you get these issues to resonate with people?”
Immigration and issues of race are very much in the news now in a way that they haven’t been before, because of how destructive the federal government’s policies are toward families that are black and brown and working class. That gives candidates at all levels the opportunity to hone in on that narrative and offer a vision for our immigration system and for how we treat people based on race.
What movement candidates need to do is use their campaigns as a vehicle to change the narrative of politics to one that fights for a city, a country, and a world that works for everyone. So, that is my charge on this campaign. That’s what I’ve been trying to do, regardless of how difficult it is. I will continue to do it, because that is what needs to be done.
Your opponent, Pat O’Connor, is no stranger to Chicago politics: he’s been in office for over three decades now. What has his record been like during his tenure?
Alderman Patrick O’Connor is the mayor’s floor leader. He has been floor leader for every single mayoral administration except for one, and that was Mayor Harold Washington, the first black, progressive [mayor] in Chicago.
The incumbent’s record is a record of doing the bidding of the capitalist class, of the 1 percent and the ultrawealthy, because the mayors who have served here have always been in support of a status quo where the rich are getting richer and the poor are getting poorer. His role in that has been being the mover and shaker for these kinds of policies, whether it was selling off our parking meters or fighting to bring a $95 million police academy — talking about how great it’s going to be for the city, when residents know that it is not how our money should be spent. It should be invested in our public schools and our infrastructure and our economy.
His legacy has been one of constant investment in the rich and an ignorance of the struggles of black, brown, and working people.
The race you’re in is a crowded race. There’s five candidates total. I’ve watched several of the candidate forums, and it seems like O’Connor has gone out of his way to attack only you: once at a forum back in October, about your fundraising within Chicago’s Nigerian community, and most recently in an interview with the Sun-Times, where he contrasted his experience with yours, who he claims “has no work history, and lives in [his] parents’ basement.” Can you respond to his remarks, and why do you think he is singling you out?
It is disgusting to me that a sitting alderman would take pot shots at his constituents’ living situations. He also said in that Sun Times interview that I “know nothing.” What I do know is that Alderman O’Connor understands nothing of the plight of black, brown, and working-class people. If he did, he would understand that he is the reason that I can’t at this moment move out of my parents’ basement — because we don’t have affordable housing in our ward. It is clear to that Alderman O’Connor is completely blind to the economic situation that he has created in Chicago.
Why do I think he is attacking me? It’s because he sees the writing on the wall: one of the first interviews he did with the Sun Times, he talked about how now it’s popular to say that you’re a democratic socialist. He knows that his days are numbered. He knows there is a growing movement in this country that is not focused on any one political savior. It’s focused on a movement that is here to build a world that works for everybody.
O’Connor’s brand of politics has never been about working for everyone. It’s always been about enriching those who are already rich. And he’s scared. He’s scared that the power he has held through machine politics is going to crumble. And with the power of the people who are on the side of this campaign, I know that it is going to happen.
You’re running as an open democratic socialist. How do you define democratic socialism?
Democratic socialism, to me, is about democratic control of every single facet of our life. Government is led by the people, not by big corporations, not by multibillionaires, and working people actually have control over who we elect to be our politicians, over how elections work, and over how our government is structured. People have the power.
It’s also about how our economy is structured. In a democratic-socialist society, the economy does not allow for profits to be concentrated in a few companies, in the hands of a few people, while everyone else is struggling. A socialist economy doesn’t allow for workers to work in unsafe working conditions and not be paid well enough and not be able to get paid sick time off.
Democratic socialism even extends to our relationships and how we treat each other. [It looks] at the world through a socialist-feminist lens, in how we treat people who are black, who are brown, who are femme, who are non-binary, who are gender-nonconforming, and who are working class.
To me, we’ll have achieved democratic socialism not when there is no conflict in the world, but when our societies are not governed based on power, but are governed based on the mutual understanding that everybody deserves a decent and quality life.
In your view, what are the differences in the goals of a socialist from a progressive?
Those distinctions are real. They’re real, because one part of the Left wants to reform the existing society that we have now. They want to make changes that will make life easier, that will make life not so bad.
But there’s another side of the Left that wants to radically transform the way the world works — not simply say that we can make some changes here and there and that things will be alright.
I mentioned earlier that the race you’re in is fairly crowded. How do you distinguish yourself from the other candidates? Do you use democratic socialism as a way to distinguish yourself?
Not necessarily as a way to distinguish myself from everyone else, but as a way to talk about why I push the policies I do and why I care about the polices that I do. I think our endorsement by the [Democratic Socialists of America] is enough of a distinguishing factor from the rest of the field.
DSA endorsed our campaign because of our commitment to fighting for a quality education for every single person in this city, because we want to make sure that every single person is housed and has a quality living situation, and because we want to make sure that every single person — whether you are an immigrant, whether you are black, you are brown, you are working class — has true sanctuary in this city.
How did you become involved with DSA? And what role is DSA playing on your campaign?
I joined the [Chicago DSA] Housing Working Group, which is working on larger campaigns like lifting the ban on rent control. That was my connection to DSA, and that is why housing is such a major center of our campaign platform.
One of the things I am proud of is that we didn’t just want an endorsement, we wanted to use our campaign as an apparatus to build democratic socialism in the Fortieth Ward and the city of Chicago and across the country. DSA is a comrade in that vision.
And I’m extremely proud that this campaign is quite literally bringing people into DSA who were not interested in being a part of the organization before. This campaign is literally making socialists, and I’m proud of that.
One of the most difficult things about having Alderman Ramírez-Rosa on the city council as the lone democratic-socialist voice is that it is a lot harder to build coalitions in the city. It makes it a lot more difficult for us to pass legislation that we want to see, and it makes it a lot more difficult for us to build power.
My relationship to the other candidates that have been endorsed is we are working to build power in our communities, to build power citywide and on the city council. I think that we have a unique opportunity to hold each other accountable to the issues that our movement is fighting for. It is not easy in the halls of city council to push back against the weight of the capitalist class, to push back against the strength of mega-corporations and the ultrawealthy, but with us all being there, it’s going to make every day on city council that much easier.