While students across the country were attending school as usual on March 28, dozens of Chicago’s South and West Side students were pressing their bodies against the smooth floor of City Hall, simulating the death that many people in their community had experienced as a result of gun violence. The teens were protesting the construction of a $95 million police academy in West Garfield Park, a neighborhood that has seen controversy over school closures in recent years.
The planned police academy, announced on July 3, 2017 by Mayor Rahm Emanuel, will be named after Commander Paul Bauer, who was shot and killed while pursuing a suspect on February 13. Although the academy has faced criticism for its high price tag and location in an underserved community, it was conceived as a way to improve police response as a result of an investigation by the US Justice Department that found the Chicago Police Department (CPD) was using deadly force in violation of the Fourth Amendment. The new facility, which will train both police and fire officers, will have resources for officers to receive specialized training, improve their collaboration in emergency response, and receive hands-on practice. It will replace three buildings, the CPD Police Academy, the Fire Prevention training facility, and the Fire Academy South, constructed in 1976, 1950, and 1965, respectively.
In response to the creation of the new training facility, a variety of organizations from around the city have joined together to form No Cop Academy, a coalition that is calling for the city to end its plans to build the academy and instead invest the $95 million back into the community. Although they agree that there are flaws in CPD’s operation, these activists feel that “the problem is about accountability, not training,” according to their website, and argue instead for community oversight of the police.
For Geraldo Chacon, a sixteen-year-old student at Back of the Yards College Prep, the biggest objection to the police academy is the price tag. “It’s mostly about the $95 million that can be invested back into the communities, into the schools, into our future,” he told The Gate. Chacon has been working with the Brighton Park Neighborhood Council (BPNC), one of the organizations that has endorsed No Cop Academy, to speak out about the troubles he sees in his community. On March 14, he helped to lead students in walking out of class and marching to Daley Plaza for a press conference calling for reinvestment in their communities. Their demands centered around providing mental health and education resources and channelling funding and attention to communities of color.
The walkout and press conference, which preceded the No Cop Academy protest by two weeks, occurred on the same day as the national student walkout planned by the survivors of the February 14 shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida. However, Chacon said, “I personally feel like they just opened the door for us to be actually seen. But I feel like we had been voicing this up until . . . with that tragedy, it’s when people started really opening their eyes and listening.”
To Chacon and Michelle Pantoja, the Development and Communications Manager at BPNC, the issues of the police academy, under-investment in communities of color, and gun violence are all related. Organizers from Brighton Park, a predominantly Hispanic neighborhood, have been working with organizers from nearby predominantly Black neighborhoods, such as Englewood, to call for reforms in policing and community investment through the reallocation of the $95 million designated for the training center.
Alongside the No Cop Academy movement, many Black and Hispanic organizations are united in calling for an end to the gang database that the CPD uses in order to keep track of people they consider to likely to be in a gang. Many cities use similar databases to track gang membership, but according to Chacon, Pantoja, and other activists, the database is overinclusive and disproportionately includes people of African-American and Hispanic descent. The only way an individual can find out if they are on the gang database is by filing a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request, which is a difficult and inaccessible process for many people. Gesturing to Chacon, Pantoja noted, “he could be in it without even knowing.”
The implications of being in the CPD’s gang database are severe, especially for undocumented immigrants. Pantoja pointed to a case in March of 2017, in which Wilmer Catalan-Ramirez, an undocumented immigrant who lawyers say was never in a gang, was violently arrested by Immigration and Customs Enforcement officials outside his home. He alleges that ICE relied on the incorrect information in the gang database to identify him as a gang member and therefore arrest him. After Catalan-Ramirez’s lawyers filed a lawsuit to that effect, the city of Chicago agreed to modify the gang database to reflect that he is not a gang member and to write a letter of support for his visa application.
The gang database is one of many ways the activists involved in No Cop Academy feel underserved by the CPD and the city, and why they oppose the training facility. The mayor has argued that the new facility will create jobs for residents of the area; however, they argue that a hundred or so jobs for $95 million is nothing compared to the public school programs, mental health clinics, wages, and after school and job training programs that the money could be used for.
During the March 28 No Cop Academy protest at City Hall, one organizer took to the microphone in a public meeting in city hall to inform politicians that, when surveyed, the majority of people wanted the $95 million to go to police accountability, community oversight, and resources for formerly incarcerated people. Meanwhile, in the lobby outside, student protesters were not permitted to use the restrooms or eat the food that was delivered to them, having instead to take turns standing outside the building to get a few bites of pizza before returning to the protest.
For Chacon and students like him, these issues—the police academy, gun violence, community disinvestment, and the gang database—intersect. Many of the youth activists involved in No Cop Academy extend their activism throughout the city. Seventeen-year-old Kenwood Academy student Alycia Moaron attended both the No Cop Academy sit-in and a rally at the University of Chicago in response to the shooting of fourth-year student Charles Thomas. Moaron said that the students at her school are often harassed by both the University of Chicago Police Department and the Chicago Police Department, and that she wants police to be held accountable for their actions and the city to provide education and health resources for her and her community.
Jerry Chacon, too, experiences the complications of violence and police presence in his day-to-day life. He lives near his school, but many of his friends have to cross gang lines in order to come to school every day, exposing them to violence that is only partly mitigated by BPNC’s safe passage program. As a result, his friends lean on him for support, and the relative lack of mental health resources in the community means they have few other places to turn.
“With the violence surrounding [my friends], I have to make sure that it doesn’t affect them mentally and emotionally,” Chacon said. “So a big part of my job as being me is being a support system. And that’s very draining. It’s a lot, especially when they’re so open and then they just flood you with their emotions and then you can’t help but feel it and feel that weight on top of your shoulders.”
The featured image is courtesy of the author.
Kaeli Subberwal is a fourth-year majoring in political science and minoring in physics. She has spent her summers working in local journalism at the Summit Daily News and national journalism at HuffPost, and doing archival research through the College Summer Institute in the Arts, Humanities, and Social Sciences. In her free time, Kaeli enjoys reading, hiking in the Rocky Mountains, and doing crossword puzzles instead of studying.