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Starving The Beast: Chicago’s Fight Against Police Expansion is Everyone’s Fight

Joshua Lott/Getty

Starving The Beast: Chicago’s Fight Against Police Expansion is Everyone’s Fight

On November 7th, Chicago’s City Council voted for the city to buy a 30-acre plot of land where a new $95 million dollar police and fire academy will be built. However, intense opposition against the academy — including an impassioned speech by Chicago’s own Chance The Rapper — has come to symbolize a broader battle by youth activists to curtail police power.

Brianna Hampton-Murff, a 17-year old senior at Chicago’s Intrinsic High School, says that the proposed academy, which includes a shooting range and even a swimming pool, “seemed to be a secret.” Her group, Assata’s Daughters, which provides resources and political and educational programming for young Black girls in Chicago, found out about the project relatively late in the process. Still, they were able to launch an organizing effort earlier this year to protest the academy in part through social media using the #NoCopAcademy hashtag.

The campaign does not simply oppose the creation of another police academy (Chicago already has one), it also calls for the funding of services and programs that Chicago youth say they actually need. This type of disinvest-reinvest approach isn’t new. Youth and grassroots organizers across the country have launched like-minded efforts. Los Angeles-based Youth Justice Coalition spearheaded the “LA for Youth” — or the 1% campaign — in 2012 to demand that city officials redirect $100 million (about 1% of the law enforcement budget) to youth programs. Similarly, in 2015, New York City activists (myself included) fought the increase of over 1,000 extra officers to the NYPD under the #NoNewNYPD hashtag and called for funding community needs instead — the Safety Beyond Policing campaign.

Hampton-Murff lives on the west side of Chicago, close to where the academy would stand. She notes that the fight over the academy is the result of lingering frustration from the fatal police shooting of Laquan McDonald, a young black man who was killed by Chicago police in 2014. Over a year after the shooting, video of McDonald being shot 16 times sparked protests, a Justice Department investigation and led to the eventual ouster of the police superintendent. After that, Hampton-Murff says, “we decided enough was enough.”

The man behind the academy plan is Chicago mayor Rahm Emanuel. Emanuel, a Democrat, came under scrutiny after it became known that he’d seen the McDonald video months before it was released and tried to keep it from the public. He has defended the new academy by claiming it will be an “investment” in Chicago’s economy. #NoCopAcademy activists have countered by arguing that money for the academy, which is assumed to be partly funded through the sale of city land to developers, should instead be spent on public education.

In 2013, Emanuel oversaw the largest round of school closures in American history. Benji Hart, an activist with the Chicago BTGNC Collective, a network of Black trans and gender nonconforming people, notes that community members “understand that it is unjust to spend millions on the irrefutably-racist Chicago Police Department while schools and clinics are constantly closing.” He says that support for the campaign, which has included train takeovers, “has been surprisingly sweeping.”

While anti-police brutality organizing often centers around protests in response to specific tragedies or efforts to criminally charge brutal cops, a challenge to public spending presents a straightforward question about priorities. Bloated police department budgets — like Boston, where cops are tops in public salaries, or Baltimore, where overtime spending has doubled, and of course New York, where the police budget (over $5 billion annually) tops the GDP of some countries — already point to the answer: politicians love to spend money on police. In fact, even when police departments are demonstrably abusive and discriminatory, like the Chicago Police Department, “reforms” can mean even more spending for training, or “community policing.”

For Hart and others, #NoCopAcademy builds power to challenge policing’s budget superiority. “So much of what we imagine to be politically possible,” he says, “is predetermined by what we believe to be attainable through the electoral system.” The campaign, he explains, “flips this paradigm on it its head” and reaches beyond Chicago politics by highlighting “long-term visions for a just world” by placing “the power for that envisioning back in communities’ hands.”

That, of course, is no easy task. Chicago, unlike other urban cities where violence has plunged, saw record shootings and murders in 2016 (though those numbers have declined this year). The knee-jerk reaction to rising crime is often to pump more money into cops. Indeed, President Trump often points to Chicago as a symbol of big cities overrun with violence in need of an aggressive law enforcement response.

Hart points out that that Trump, who he says is “devoted to cutting social services and upping funding for law enforcement,” is only a sliver of the problem. After all, it’s not Trump that Chicago activists are fighting, but an Obama-endorsed Democrat who has been described as part of the local “resistance” to Trumpism. In fact, Mayor Emanuel, even after the McDonald controversy and a critical DOJ report, has mirrored Trump on criminal justice, swelling the Chicago police ranks. The city, already deploying the most cops per capita in the country, last year committed to adding 1,000 more cops.

Debbie Southorn, a member of the War Resisters League, a #NoCopAcademy group, connects police expansion to a militaristic mindset at the national level: “It’s no coincidence that police spending in departments across the country continue to rise, alongside the largest boost to military spending in years that the Senate approved earlier this year.” Chicago police certainly deploy resources like an occupying army, disappearing thousands at Homan Square, a controversial CPD “black site”, as well as attempting to predict criminality with an orwellian “heat list” of likely offenders as well as what is by early accounts a flawed and racially-biased gang database.

Juanita Tennyson, a 19-year old Assata’s Daughters leader, says several of her friends have been killed by police and that she doesn’t want more cops in Chicago. “More resources need to be put in the community,” she says. “More money needs to be spent on the reconstruction [of] communities.” Mental health clinics and hospitals with trauma centers are desperately needed, organizers say. In fact, organizers say, addressing many of Chicago’s widespread, unmet social needs would help alleviate crime. “We want somewhere for children to go, to be productive with their time,” Hampton-Murff says.

Whether or not Emanuel’s police academy is eventually built, Chi-town activists have made it clear that having more “‘trust”’ in an ever-growing police force — a common talking point of elected officials and criminal justice think tanks — isn’t what Chicago needs. “‘Trust”’ between the public and police didn’t unearth the tragic McDonald video. “‘Trust”’ didn’t help recently exonerate 15 men framed by Chicago cops. Community members in Chicago, particularly young people, want money dedicated to the police department to be rerouted into programs that will uplift the community that its officers target.

Tennyson says residents are “tired of the mistreatment of their communities by a force being paid to ‘protect’ them.”

Josmar Trujillo is writer and activist based in East Harlem. He organizes with the Coalition to End Broken Windows, a coalition of grassroots groups based in New York. The views and opinions expressed in this article are his and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Fair Punishment Project.