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Chicago Activists Organize Against Massive Police Training Academy to Be Built As Schools Close

March 28, 2017 at Chicago City Hall
Kevin Gosztola

Chicago Activists Organize Against Massive Police Training Academy to Be Built As Schools Close

Late last month, local students and community members participated in a sit-in at Chicago City Hall to oppose a massive new police and fire training academy on the West Side of Chicago. Protesters set up tombstones labeled with the names of closed public schools, mental health clinics, and people killed by the police.

It was one of several actions since September 2017, organized by a campaign called No Cop Academy, to halt the construction of the $95 million facility, which the group says prioritizes the education of police and fire fighters over the education of the city’s kids. After a February vote by Chicago Public Schools, five schools are slated to be closed on the South Side of Chicago, an area with large communities of color. This follows the closure of nearly 50 Chicago schools by Mayor Rahm Emanuel five years ago, who described consolidating the schools as a necessary cost-saving measure.

But many community activists opposed those closures and resent seeing tens of millions of dollars poured into the training center. “You’re happy to close schools,” said Erin Glasco, a local activist working with No Cop Academy. “You deny students a chance to get the kind of education they need, but you’re happy to use this for a police facility or ways for police to get more training.”

A survey of about 500 West Side residents by No Cop Academy organizers revealed that 88 percent were opposed to the training academy and collected 877 recommendations for how $95 million could otherwise be spent, including on schools, substance abuse clinics and reducing homelessness.

The mayor’s press office unveiled the plans for the proposed training academy in July 2017. It would span 30.4 acres, and is intended to help first responders “receive specialized training, to improve collaboration in emergency response, and receive hands-on practice in real-world situations,” the mayor’s press release explained. It is part of the Chicago Police Department’s Next Steps for Reform, a multi-year plan to “strengthen community policing, officer training, manpower, supervision, and public accountability.”

City Alderman Emma Mitts said the center would be a welcome addition to Chicago’s West Garfield Park neighborhood. “The community feels that it’ll make it much more safe,” she told the Chicago Sun Times. “They’re just so excited about that. They’ll see police and fireman moving in the area doing training. You’re gonna have a lot more police there.”

The city’s 2018 budget plan includes a $27.4 million investment in police reform and commitments to hire hundreds of new law enforcement officers. According to a report by the Center for Popular Democracy, Law for Black Lives, and Black Youth Project 100, Chicago spent 38 percent of its general fund expenditures on policing last year, and has the second-largest police force in the nation.

No Cop Academy questions the logic of flooding areas already affected by heavy policing with more law enforcement. Hesna Bokoum, a community organizer for Southsiders Organizers for Unity and Liberation, who has worked with No Cop Academy since January 2018, elaborated: “A lot of people actually think that they want more police, they want more policing, but it really comes to wanting these different community resources and feeling safe. When it comes down to it, having more police in our communities is not equivalent to feeling safe or being safe.”

In fact, it may be just the opposite. A Department of Justice investigation prompted by the 2014 shooting of 17-year-old Laquan McDonald found that the Chicago Police Department has a pattern of unconstitutional use of force and officer misconduct. In 2016, the city paid $52 million in police misconduct lawsuits and outside lawyers to litigate cases.

Bokoum said the campaign is taking an intergenerational approach that allows for people from different backgrounds and age groups to advocate for their needs, including older community members seeking a voice in city policy decisions and students who don’t want to feel profiled by police as they walk around in their neighborhoods.

“So many people, like myself, have become immune to hearing gunshots, have learned to immediately learn to place our hands up in the sight of law, even when we are innocent, which we usually are,” said Alycia Kamil Moaton, a Kenwood Academy High School student, during the Chicago City Hall sit-in.

Despite opposition, plans for the academy seem to be moving forward. The City Council approved the purchase of land for the facility in November, and Chicago Infrastructure Trust is still in the process of deciding which companies will build the academy.

No Cop Academy says much of the planning has happened behind closed doors, with little community input, and the group has been demanding more transparency. In March, the coalition filed a Freedom of Information Act lawsuit against the Chicago Mayor’s Office “for refusing to disclose crucial emails and records” regarding the early planning of the facility.

The mayor’s office did not respond to requests for comment about the lawsuit or the broader issues raised by No Cop Academy. But Mayor Emanuel has suggested in the past that the academy is part of a “much needed overhaul” of police training.

Alex S. Vitale, professor of sociology at Brooklyn College and author of The End of Policing, said the push for more police funding for training and facilities in Chicago is misplaced, even if it’s part of a reform effort. “Whenever there is that kind of crisis moment [around policing in the United States] that we’re in, you’ll hear from police and politicians about the need for additional resources for training. I think that that’s a part of what is driving these requests,” Vitale said. “The question is whether or not that serves an important public interest given the tremendous costs involved.”

Rather than invest in law enforcement, Vitale suggests, cities should invest in their communities. Juanita Tennyson of the activist group Assata’s Daughters, part of No Cop Academy, made a similar point at the City Hall sit-in.

“If I had $86 million [the remaining cost of the academy after the land purchase] for my community, I would open up mental health clinics, a suitable grocery store, and put better quality into the education of the schools in my community,” Tennyson said. “The mayor needs to be held accountable for all the money being pulled from the resources for the Black and brown youth around Chicago.”

Advocates Fight Texas Statute Delaying Transgender Prisoners’ Ability to Change Their Names

Graphic promoting Trans Pride Initiative’s campaign to expanding access to affirming name and gender corrections in Texas

Advocates Fight Texas Statute Delaying Transgender Prisoners’ Ability to Change Their Names

Marius Mason is a transgender man incarcerated at FMC Carswell, a federal women’s prison located in Fort Worth, Texas. Since at least 2014, Mason has wanted to change his legal name to his chosen name, an important step in the transition process for many transgender people.

Section 45.103 of the Texas Family Code, however, prevents anyone in Texas with a felony conviction from changing their legal name until two years after completing all of the terms of their sentence. For Mason, whose expected release date according to the federal Bureau of Prisons is October 2027, that means being forced to answer to his legal name whenever he uses the phone, receives a letter, or is called by correctional officers over the intercom which he says exacerbates the gender dysphoria he struggles with every day.

It’s a statute that advocates have recently set out to change. On March 28, the Texas-based Trans Pride Initiative, along with the Austin Community Law Center and New York City-based civil rights attorney Moira Meltzer-Cohen, announced their intention to challenge the constitutionality of Section 45.103, which they say violates the rights of transgender inmates. The lawsuit will be filed in federal court in Texas on behalf of Mason and two other transgender prisoners housed in federal facilities in Texas.

“For transgender persons, [this statute] extends the term of their sentence by two more years, and places cruel and unnecessary barriers in the way of gaining stability on release,” Nell Gaither, president of the Trans Pride Initiative, said in a statement. “We need to eliminate barriers for trans persons trying to survive, not make issues harder by tacking on additional punishment.”

Advocates argue that denying trans people the right to change their legal name, or the gender marker on their identity documents, poses substantial barriers to their safety and well-being. For currently incarcerated trans people, the continued use of their birth name by guards and other prison officials may contribute to a climate of violence and harassment. According to the Bureau of Justice Statistics, one-third of trans prisoners have experienced sexual violence while incarcerated, the highest rate of any demographic group studied.

Subsection 103 of the Texas Family Code also impedes trans people from re-integrating into society once they’re released. Trans people who do not have identification that matches their chosen name or gender identity may encounter significant difficulties with law enforcement if, for example, they are asked to present a driver’s license during a traffic stop. And trans persons who are unable to change their identity documents may be forcibly outed when engaging in activities crucial to their survival, such as renting an apartment or accessing medical care.

The prohibition on name changes in the Texas Family Code may also violate a prisoner’s right to medical care by impeding access to a healthcare necessity. In a policy statement, the World Professional Association for Transgender Health maintains that the ability of transgender people to change their name or gender marker on their identity documents is medically necessary.

“According to the medical research done with trans people both in and out of institutional settings, the effects of having a legal names that do not reflect trans people’s gender identities are deeply detrimental,” Ronica Mukerjee, a family nurse practitioner and director of the New York-based Transgender Health Services for Community Healthcare Network, told The Appealin an email. “In order to avoid suffering and cruelty, which clearly lead to anxiety, depression as well as suicidal ideation and attempts, trans prisoners should always be allowed to use a name that reflects their true gender identity.” Similarly, a recent Journal of Adolescent Health study found that transgender youth who were able to use their name in most facets of their everyday lives experienced 71 percent fewer symptoms of depression and a 65 percent decrease in suicide attempts.

“The issue is not that being trans is a mental health risk or condition,” civil rights attorney Meltzer-Cohen told In Justice Today in an email, “but that the lack of access to gender affirmation can give rise to mental health problems where none would otherwise exist.”

Courts are increasingly recognizing that transgender people have a constitutional right to gender-affirming care. In April 2015, Jon Tigar, a federal judge in the Northern District of California, ruled that the state violated the Eighth Amendment right to medical care of transgender prisoner Michelle Norsworthy by refusing to provide her with sex reassignment surgery. California has since begun to offer gender-affirming surgeries to incarcerated people.

The organizations and attorneys seeking to overturn Section 45.103 have dubbed their effort Project 103 and are currently fundraising to cover the estimated $5,000 that will be necessary to cover court-filing fees and other related costs. As the initiative gets off the ground, Mason waits for the day when he is no longer referred to by his birth name.

“[M]y old [name] reminds me every day of the person that I am not anymore,” Mason said in a statement released by Project 103, “and it feels false and humiliating to be constantly reminded that society does not see me as the man I want to be. It feels cruel to me to force me to live in this way.”

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Police Killed Saheed Vassell in a Gentrifying Neighborhood. Did That Make a Difference?

Eric Vassell, Saheed Vassell’s father, makes an appearance at a rally in protest of the police-involved shooting death of his son Saheed Vassell, in the Crown Heights neighborhood of Brooklyn.
Drew Angerer / Getty

Police Killed Saheed Vassell in a Gentrifying Neighborhood. Did That Make a Difference?

Last week, the night after Saheed Vassell was shot and killed by the NYPD, a large crowd gathered for a vigil and a speak-out on the Brooklyn street corner where Vassell died. Several of the speakers asked rhetorically who called 911, summoning the police who shot him. As reporting in the New York Times showed, many of Vassell’s neighbors in Crown Heights were familiar with him. They knew he was harmless and that he had been diagnosed with bipolar disorder. So, was it newcomers to the neighborhood who called the police that day?

The three 911 call transcripts do not provide many clues, and the NYPD does not release identifying information about 911 callers. One caller sounds like a laundromat employee or owner. While it is hard to know in this case if gentrifiers were among the three callers, the aggregate trend is clearer: Calls to the NYPD are higher in gentrifying neighborhoods, and Vassell’s neighborhood was gentrifying.

Requests for service provide one window into this trend. While New York City does not release data on emergency calls, it does release data on non-emergency calls to the NYPD made via 311. These include complaints about noise, drinking, drug activity, urinating in public, and illegal parking.

Last year, the NYPD received 319 non-emergency complaints from the typical neighborhood. The median gentrifying neighborhood, however, generated 386 complaints, and Saheed Vassell’s neighborhood generated 451. As with emergency call data, the identities of 311 callers are not known. But, as these numbers show, as more middle-class, credentialed, and white residents move into New York City’s formerly working-class areas, calls to the police increase.

Saheed Vassell’s Brooklyn neighborhood was, by any metric, gentrifying. A common definition of gentrification includes neighborhoods with below-median incomes in a given year and above-median growth in property values and residents with a bachelor’s degree in subsequent years. Vassell’s neighborhood meets these criteria — and then some. In 2009, the typical household there made less than half the city median income according to Census data. Seven years later, in 2016, real estate prices had gone up 30 percent, median monthly rent increased by $170, and the percent of residents with a B.A. rose over 55 percent. The racial composition also changed, with the white population growing from 9 percent to 14 percent of residents.

The map below shows the number of 311 complaints to the NYPD for New York’s 2,000 census tracts. While it is clear that gentrification is far from the only trend affecting call differences, some neighborhoods commonly understood to be gentrifying experienced high call volume. These included Long Island City, Greenpoint, Williamsburg, and Crown Heights. Wealthier, whiter, more stable neighborhoods experienced few calls, including most of Staten Island, the Upper West Side, the Upper East Side, and low-density Queens. The north shore of Staten Island, where Eric Garner died from an NYPD chokehold in 2017, is another gentrifying neighborhood that experienced high numbers of complaints to the NYPD.

While gentrification often includes changes in a neighborhood’s class composition and housing prices, ethnoracial differences can prove the most salient. A 2016 study by Joscha Legewie and Merlin Schaeffer found 311 complaints increased in the “fuzzy boundary” areas between racially homogeneous neighborhoods. These “transitional areas” are often where gentrification is most acute.

In the context of neighborhood change, conflicts can arise between newer and long-term residents. The groups might disagree about norms for behavior in public space, about appropriate noise levels or parking etiquette. Racial bias by new, white residents might make them fearful of their Black and Latino neighbors. And new residents, no matter their identity, will be less likely to know their neighbors. Any neighborhood experiencing a frequent churn of residents is likely to be a more anonymous neighborhood.

Besides generating more calls to police, does gentrification affect police behavior? A 2017 study by Ayobami Laniyonu found a strong association between gentrification and increased police stops. In an unpublished study, I found police made, on average, more pedestrian stops of Black and Latino people and fewer stops of white people in New York City when a neighborhood’s white population increased. Instances of police killing unarmed Black people are the tip of an iceberg that includes frequent, lower-level police interactions.

The public conversation around gentrification includes discussion of how it can raise housing prices, displace long-time residents, and reshape neighborhood retail options. In addition to rent hikes, evictions, and coffee shops, gentrification might bring more police activity. And as Saheed Vassell’s death shows, the consequences can be severe.

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