Chicago’s Cease-Fire Vote Is a Warning to Joe Biden

Yesterday Chicago became the largest US city to call for a cease-fire in Gaza, issuing a challenge to Joe Biden from a Democratic stronghold. It's an omen for what could be a turbulent election season.

Pro-Palestine demonstrators rally outside of city hall after the city council passed a resolution calling for a cease-fire in Gaza on January 31, 2024, in Chicago, Illinois. (Scott Olson / Getty Images)

Yesterday the Democratic stronghold of Chicago become the largest US city yet to call for a cease-fire in Gaza, heaping further pressure on President Joe Biden’s administration to force an end to the brutal, nearly four-month-long Israeli military campaign.

The razor-thin vote on the resolution — authored by Rossana Rodriguez-Sanchez, one of the city council’s six socialist alderpeople — ended in a tie that had to be broken by progressive mayor Brandon Johnson, who was elected last year in a shock victory on the back of union and left-wing support. Chicago now joins the at least forty-eight, largely Democratic cities that have passed resolutions urging an end to the war, including San Francisco, Detroit, and Biden’s hometown of Wilmington, Delaware.

After a sometimes-contentious city council meeting — the chambers overflowed with keffiyeh-clad pro-Palestinian protesters, whom Johnson ordered out halfway through the proceedings — things ended in a dramatic vote that saw cease-fire opponents close the five-tally lead by supporters, leaving the council deadlocked 23-23. That put Johnson, who just a week earlier had come out in favor of the cease-fire, in the position to cast the tiebreaker, setting off rapturous celebrations in the city hall lobby.

“We Got Outworked”

Wednesday’s vote came on the heels of months of organizing by Palestinian and antiwar activists in Chicago, home to the country’s largest Palestinian population and the site of weekly protests against the Israeli war. The day before the city council meeting, hundreds of Chicago students across more than fifteen schools staged a walkout and marched on city hall, demanding a cease-fire, accusing the president of backing a genocide, and at one point sitting in the road outside. The prior Sunday, hundreds of protesters demonstrated down Michigan Avenue in the city’s downtown, where organizers urged attendees to pack city hall for the vote.

Sure enough, supporters of the resolution showed up en masse early yesterday morning, lining up for hours to make it into the city chambers. They arrived in such large numbers that the snaking queue, which went out the doors and down the street, had barely budged half an hour into the council meeting. The overwhelmingly pro-Palestinian crowd clogged city hall with chants of “Cease-fire now!” and “Free, free Palestine,” occasionally butting heads with a small group of pro-Israel attendees wedged within the coiled line.

The massive pro-Palestinian attendance made for an occasionally fractious meeting, as onlookers at times booed, jeered, and laughed at cease-fire opponents’ arguments, prompting Johnson to warn them he would clear the chamber. “I do not want to do that, but you will leave me no choice,” he said, eventually making good on the threat. Despite being kicked out, the overflowing crowd remained in the city hall lobby for hours, until the fate of the resolution was finally decided.

The vote had been preceded by a mass pressure campaign organized by a coalition of groups that included local branches of Jewish Voice for Peace (JVP) and Students for Justice in Palestine, who organized Chicagoans to contact their alderpeople. Also involved was the Rainbow PUSH Coalition, which sent alderpeople a letter urging them to vote yes, and whose founder, Rev. Jesse Jackson, turned up to the meeting yesterday carrying a keffiyeh.

The campaign clearly had an effect. “An overwhelming number of my constituents have approached me about this issue, desperately wanting a cease-fire,” said Alderperson Nicole Lee, explaining why she would back the resolution despite what she considered its flaws. Maybe the most surprising voice in favor was the scandal-plagued Jim Gardiner, representing a conservative-leaning ward, who months ago had spoken out against a pro-Israel resolution before the council, because “if Palestinian members of our community are not in support, I cannot be in support.”

“I don’t want only to commend the Palestinians who have reached out to me, and Muslims in general, but also Jewish people,” he said yesterday. “I tip my hat to the amount of Jewish people who have reached out to me to say, ‘Vote in favor of this. We want this to stop.’”

“Unfortunately, I know where the vote’s going,” lamented Alderperson Nicholas Sposato, who voted against the measure. “We got outworked. They beat us.”

Still, pro-Palestinian forces had an uphill climb. City hall has been a distinctly unfriendly place for antiwar voices since the start of Israel’s war, with the council on October 13 approving a resolution backing Israel’s war effort, whose death toll had already eclipsed the number of lives taken in Hamas’s atrocities. An earlier version of the measure had been sent to languish in the rules committee, and a full city council vote on the resolution that passed yesterday was meant to have taken place last week, but was delayed. The Chicago Tribune editorial board charged that the resolution “encourages antisemitism.”

Just weeks before, Rodriguez-Sanchez had come under fire for using the phrase “from the river to the sea” in a tweet. One attendee spoke in yesterday’s public comment period about how she had had a job offer rescinded for her pro-Palestinian activism, including speaking out against the October 13 measure.

According to Alderperson Carlos Ramirez-Rosa, one of the resolution’s key backers who helped draft the language, there was also furious behind-the-scenes lobbying against the measure, including from Chicago hedge fund manager Michael Sacks, a major Democratic donor, and Illinois governor J. B. Pritzker. “You also had Palestinian activists reaching out to the council, thousands of emails saying, ‘Please vote for a cease-fire,’” says Ramirez-Rosa, who credits Rodriguez-Sanchez with “calling people around the clock” in advance of the vote. Meanwhile, Mayor Johnson played a pivotal role in reportedly persuading two allies to “take a walk” if they couldn’t get behind the resolution; they were among the four councilmembers absent in the final tally.

Opponents cited a litany of complaints, both familiar and not. They questioned why the council was busying itself with an issue it had no control over, insisted that Israel had the right to defend itself, charged that Hamas would never stop its attacks, and griped that the resolution didn’t condemn Hamas, demand that it stop its violence, or express sympathy for Israeli hostages. (The text of the resolution explicitly mentions the Israelis killed and taken hostage and concludes that “a lasting ceasefire is critical to the release of all hostages.”) Others objected that the resolution contradicted US foreign policy and undermined the Biden administration, insisted that it would derail cease-fire negotiations, and, perhaps most cynically, implied that it was motivated by antisemitism.

Those voting in favor pointed to the horror that Palestinians in Gaza had already suffered, with a death toll roughly half the population of the average Chicago ward. JVP member Martin Levine, former CEO of Jewish Community Centers of Chicago, said that it was precisely because of his Jewish heritage and the lessons of the Holocaust that he backed a cease-fire. “Never again is not for some people, but for all,” he said.

While some cease-fire foes charged that the council should focus on Chicago’s problems instead of far-off conflicts, backers saw the two as interlinked. “Socialists have long understood that all of our struggles are interconnected,” says Ramirez-Rosa. “That when we fight for the liberation of one oppressed people, we fight for all of them.

One public commenter, Jennifer Husbands, complained that public money was being used to “carpet bomb civilians and force Palestinians out of their homes” while housing, education, health care, and gun violence prevention went underfunded in the city. She quoted one of the high school students who had walked out the day before: “We’re seeing now how much money our government spends on war and we’re all scared about college debt, and we’re scared about health care, and we feel the government should be helping us.”

Solidarity and Pressure

The council’s cease-fire supporters, made up largely of the coalition of socialists and progressives that have notched victories at the municipal level in recent years, were under no illusions that the resolution will end the war. But they viewed the measure as an act of solidarity, and as a way to push the Biden administration to use the immense US leverage over Israel to make it halt its campaign. The resolution, said Alderperson Byron Sigcho-Lopez, would “encourage President Biden to work on a commitment to reach a cease-fire.”

“The only way to achieve [a cease-fire] is to demonstrate consensus in this country,” said Rodriguez-Sanchez. “I don’t want this city that I love so deeply to go down in history as one of those that was silent as a whole nation of people was being destroyed and innocent people were being bombed.”

The war is unlikely to end without the president putting his foot down. One of Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s far-right coalition partners recently threatened to pull support for his government if a cease-fire deal is struck — thus plunging Netanyahu into both political and legal peril — and many other members of Netanyahu’s cabinet are similarly personally invested in keeping the war going.

But the vote in Chicago may prove an omen for Biden about the political peril he, too, may face for continuing to reject calls to stop underwriting the war. Chicago is the host of this year’s Democratic National Convention, and what took place Wednesday will fuel further concern that the event could end up a 1968-style debacle that embarrasses the president in an election year, with angry pro-Palestinian protesters having already serially interrupted Biden campaign events in recent weeks. Cease-fire opponents were not entirely wrong when they charged that the resolution would undercut the president: the successful vote, narrow as it was, signals the growing chasm between the views of his own party base on this issue and the position his administration is clinging to.

That the resolution triumphed despite the powerful pressure in a Democratic-run city to back the president is a testament to the political shifts wrought by movement-building in Chicago. Yet despite this victory, the Left nationwide will have to continue organizing to push a White House that seems hell-bent on resisting the moral and political logic of halting the war.