Chicago mayor Lori Lightfoot has fully embraced her role as a meme. How does this tough-but-fair image square with the job she’s done handling the COVID-19 pandemic?
On March 26 — just days after Illinois Gov. J.B. Pritzker ordered residents in his state to stay home in an effort to combat the spread of COVID-19 — Chicago’s 606 trail and Lakefront trail became crowded with hundreds of pedestrians eager for a slice of normality. After learning of the public areas becoming crowded, Chicago’s mayor, Lori Lightfoot, issued a stern reprimand. “Folks, we can’t mess around with this one second longer,” Lightfoot said. “We’ve seen around the world example after example of what happens when communities don’t take this threat seriously.” Lightfoot issued a public health order that swiftly closed the trails and Lakefront, noting the possibility to reopen off the table “..until the public health commissioner determines that this threat of our lives is over.”
Her somber demeanor, coupled with the warning message, made for a viral meme. The “Where’s Lightfoot” meme features different versions of a stern Lightfoot encouraging people to stay at home. The images spread across social media as Chicago residents created their own versions of it. From Batman signals to Lightfoot’s face appearing in the Crown Fountain, the meme took off. An Instagram account called “whereslighfoot” launched; the account currently has close to 60,000 followers. Some have gone as far as to create their own cardboard cutout of the mayor, whose clipboard and grey suit became synonymous with “stay at home” messaging.
Ok, who did this? https://t.co/q6weof9Aiu
— Mayor Lori Lightfoot (@chicagosmayor) April 4, 2020
Lightfoot’s reaction to the meme has been lighthearted, even asking “Who did this?” in references to the cutout of her that appeared outside of a home in Chicago’s Portage Park neighborhood. The meme gained steam and spurned its own merchandise, and has been used by the mayor herself.
And yet, with Chicago currently in phase 4 of its reopening plan, and the weather much warmer, concerns such as staying six feet apart seem to be waning, despite Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot’s virality.
Lightfoot’s initial stance on social distancing does not fit with her current image as the stern disciplinarian enforcing the rules. Lightfoot acknowledged that she and Governor Pritzker “..haven’t always agreed on every issue,” in regards to how they are facing coronavirus. Chicagoans felt the earlier impact of social distancing when Lightfoot canceled the annual St. Patrick’s day parade. The Chicago Sun-Times reported the two also differed on when to close schools, with Lightfoot initially vowing to keep them open. This has not gone unnoticed by grassroots activists like Kelly Hayes, a queer indigenous organizer and nonviolent direct action trainer, who worked with health care professionals and scientists to create demands that could be used to address the lack of a more robust response to coronavirus.
“Organizers from as far away as Ireland used the original list as a framework when drafting their own demands. Some used language from the framework when working with lawmakers to draft legislation,” Hayes said. “I know a number of people, including myself, discussed the demands with members of the Chicago City Council who raised those concerns with the mayor’s office. But Lightfoot has acted pretty unilaterally in her responses to the crisis.”
Since the initial stay at home order was issued by Pritzker on March 20, Lightfoot appears to have doubled-down on her efforts to keep coronavirus numbers down, and with good reason. As of July 21, Cook County has gone on to accumulate more than 160,000 cases of coronavirus and over 7,000 deaths. With so many affected by the virus, some applaud Lightfoot’s approach, one that at times has had her driving around different neighborhoods and encouraging large gatherings of people to go home.
The power of the Lightfoot memes
But do her current efforts align with her earlier stance on the pandemic? How have the memes helped Lightfoot aside from creating a positive image of her?
“The memes gave her a new narrative to embrace. When she emulated the meme by popping up unexpectedly to enforce distancing, she displaced reality with a narrative that would be replicated so many times that it would become indistinguishable from the truth,” Hayes said. “It was great damage control. The reality of the Lightfoot administration is that she was in denial mode when she could have been saving lives.”
The damage is Lightfoot’s perceived slow uptake on fully embracing social distancing measures. With Chicago’s coronavirus cases trending higher than many places in the U.S., finding sources of positivity can be difficult. Political figures adopting the use of popular culture to aid in their appearance is not a new phenomenon. Mike Bloomberg hired some of the internet’s most noted meme creators to create memes for his presidential campaign. The New York Times reported that the Bloomberg campaign worked with Meme 2020, a company made up of heavy-hitting meme makers, and spent more than $1 million on the campaign, according to Forbes. The message of Bloomberg’s memes, however, often came across as confusing as some responded that they assumed they were satirical in nature.
Lightfoot’s approach to memes, instead, has created a cultural norm of social distancing, with the acceptance of her stern stance on maintaining social distancing deemed as easier to swallow in meme format. Some applaud the memes, with responses across social media ranging from amusement to a contributor in the amount of respect they have for her. Others wish that she further her efforts in enforcing social distance measures.
“I want to see her living that meme life, not just tweeting,” Rae, a Chicago resident, said.
Nonetheless, these lighthearted attempts at relevancy can miss their mark. Originally reported in Block Club Chicago, a local artist made their own iteration of Lightfoot meme merchandise. Caroline Moody created a “Our Lady of Quarantine” prayer candle that depicted lightfoot as a patron saint of staying home. People were quick to point out that while this was yet another jest at Lightfoot’s stern reprimand, it lacked cultural sensitivity to those who use the candles religiously. In the editor’s note, Block Club Chicago acknowledged that “Many of our readers reached out to tell us the satirical depiction of a religious and cultural figure is hurtful and inappropriate, especially given how disproportionately Black and Brown communities are affected by this pandemic,” and have updated their story.
Hispanic and Black communities are being disproportionately affected by the pandemic, a fact that the CDC says is based on “…economic and social conditions that are more common among some racial and ethnic minorities than whites. In public health emergencies, these conditions can also isolate people from the resources they need to prepare for and respond to outbreaks.” Not only are ethnic minorities impacted at a higher rate by the coronavirus, they are also more likely to be arrested for violating social distancing orders, as is evident in a report ProPublica conducted on court records in Ohio.
“ProPublica analyzed court records for the city of Toledo and for the counties that include Columbus and Cincinnati, three of the most populous jurisdictions in Ohio,” the website reported. “In all of them, ProPublica found, Black people were at least four times as likely to be charged with violating the stay-at-home order as white people.”
Impact in Chicago
Chicago residents have also noticed the disparities in who is cited for violating social distancing rules.
“I thought the memes were funny, to be honest, but now I’m kind of over them because of the disparity in who’s getting cited or arrested for not following the guidelines,” Maya, an Uptown resident, said.
Back in May, a large party in the Englewood neighborhood was broken up by Chicago Police and captured on video. Viewers expressed their frustration with the amount of policing done in Black neighborhoods. Chance the Rapper even shared the video, along with his frustration with the enforcement of social distancing orders, on Twitter.
Yo I seen HUNDREDS of ppl at millennium park and and pics of even more at the parks on the north side. Outside, no masks, no social distancing, enjoying themselves. Please stop sending large groups of militarized police into our neighborhoods exclusively https://t.co/mnAUSCsevy
— Chance The Rapper (@chancetherapper) May 25, 2020
“I’ve seen hundreds of people at Millennium Park and pictures of even more at the parks on the North Side,” he said. “No masks, no social distancing, and enjoying themselves. Please stop sending large groups of militarized police into our neighborhoods exclusively.” The Chicago Police department posted a response in a tweet that read, “The Chicago Police Department strives to ensure any enforcement of the statewide stay-at-home order is universal regardless of neighborhood, community or district.”
As the “Where’s Lightfoot” meme shows no sign of slowing down — and as Mayor Lightfoot uses memes for other campaigns — some are not swayed by her adoption of a tough but fair image. In one response to her memes, a Facebook user declared, “I do not like her or her memes. Will gladly vote against her and her pro-cop ass like I did the last time.” Others see the value in the humor but can separate it from her overall image, with another user writing, “I still get a minor chuckle if there is an especially good meme, but overall my disappointment in Lightfoot took some of the fun out.”
While the adoption of memes by politicians is not a new tactic, many have found the novelty in them. With all political content, it is up to the public to provide the final decision on how they choose to discern the narratives that are being told. While entertaining, memes cannot be the measure by which we hold those in power accountable.
Sarah (She/hers) is a queer Black woman and writer based in Chicago, IL. Her work covers the intersections of Black culture, current events and sexuality. She firmly believes that all Black lives matter and that inclusive sex education can change the world. You can find her latest work at komyu.online.