Inside #CareNotCops’ Teach-In and Campaign to Defund UCPD

 /  Feb. 17, 2021, 2:43 p.m.

visions of safety flyer

On January 29, #CareNotCops, a UChicago campaign to defund and disband the University of Chicago Police Department (UCPD), held a teach-in over Zoom. “Visions of Safety: An Abolitionist Framework” was one of many educational events the campaign will be hosting this quarter in an effort to inform more students on abolitionist ideas and get more students involved in their campaign. 

The event, which garnered twenty-four attendees, began with a discussion of the UCPD’s origins, beginning in the 1940s when Woodlawn began transitioning from a majority white to a majority Black neighborhood. In response, UChicago began to extend its real estate investments, buying up properties before Black residents could move in. 

“In 1952, the University funded and founded the Southeast Chicago Commission to address crime rates and low value housing in the area around the University,” explained Maia Johnson, a second year in the college. “The plan resulted in the destruction of over six hundred buildings and the construction of over two thousand housing units. The plan forced over four thousand low income families out of the area. People of color made up 49 percent of these families.” This process of gentrification was aided by the University’s police force, newly formed in the 1960s. An ordinance passed in 1992 gave UCPD “special police” designation, allowing this private police force to “assume the powers and responsibilities of municipal police.”

As Johnson described how this allowed the UCPD to expand its jurisdiction, the slide switched to a map of UCPD’s current jurisdiction, which expands far beyond campus. The slide showed a quote from Juliet Eldred, a UChicago alum and cartographer: “As the university’s private security forces had a mandate to protect the safety of university students, faculty, and staff, they were able to rationalize the expansion of their policing jurisdiction to areas beyond the campus core under the terms of this mandate.” The UCPD polices sixty-five thousand people, only fifteen thousand of whom are affiliated with the University.

“Policing doesn’t help communities. It creates a system of deprivation, which punishes people for that same deprivation,” Johnson explained. “Policing is restricted to very few tactics. You have intimidation, you have violence, and you have incarceration. These tactics do not support anyone, especially not in situations of mental health crisis, housing insecurity, rape, or substance abuse.” 

What does “safety” look like? 

When parents and students show concern about the safety of Chicago’s South Side, the University’s response is to promote the police department, explained Roma Linares, a third year in the college. This is done despite the fact that “community members and students alike share experiences of being treated by police with greater suspicion or aggression based on race,” continued Linares, and instead of providing resources to these communities to address food or wage insecurity, “by ignoring the differences between the ways affluent white communities and Black, Indigenous and other communities of color view and interact with the police, the University proves that they’re not prioritizing our safety.” 

So, what does safety look like? “When thinking about what safety looks like under an abolitionist framework, at least for me I find it helpful to ask the question: who defines safety and who’s safe under that definition?” explained Lauren Dotson, a first year in the College. “A lot of times the answer is going to be white capitalist society defines safety, and so white people are going to be safe under that definition.” 

Abolition, she explained, is about redefining what safety looks like and understanding that communities are safe when their needs are met. “A lot of this goes into the idea of prevention versus punishment, where it’s prevention through investing in resources rather than punishing people for the effects a lack of resources has on them,” Dotson explained. This could involve reinvesting funds that would normally go to police into schools, housing, mental health resources, and job opportunities. It also means prioritizing community-based safety resources as responsive to specific situations.

“Understanding and knowing all of the neighbors in your community is really important because the stronger the community is, the less vulnerable they are to carceral intervention,” Dotson said. 

In breakout rooms, participants were asked to discuss answers to the questions: “When do you feel ‘unsafe’?” and “What does safety look like to you? How do we get there?” Many responses centered around the idea that feeling unsafe is often due to not knowing who is around us—and this brought the conversation to the idea of communities of care. 

If you don’t want to call the police, plan ahead.

The next breakout room prompts asked participants to discuss how they would respond to two scenarios. In the first scenario, your neighbors are having a loud house party. When participants shared back into the main room, many people emphasized the importance of knowing your neighbors and developing a relationship with them so you’re able to approach them in these situations if you need to. “Sometimes...just mind your business,” someone else wrote in the chat. 

“It’s just noise, or it’s just property, there’s no reason to be bringing potential harm,” another person shared. 

In the next scenario, you are entering a store and someone outside is shouting obscenities and approaching you and others around you. One person shared that it’s important to decide whether or not it’s even necessary to engage at all, and if you do decide to engage, to use de-escalation tactics if that’s a skillset you have. “If you’re calling the police, that’s really only escalating the situation,” they said. Before calling the police, ask yourself—are you feeling fear, or discomfort? 

Alicia Hurtado, a third year in the College, then shared two resources which specifically addressed the two scenarios: “22 Things to do Instead of Calling the Cops” and “5 Ways to Help Someone in a Mental Health Emergency Without Calling the Police.” They shared Chicago specific resources as well, including 2-1-1, a 24/7 service that connects individuals in non-emergency crises to essential communities services, Cure Violence, an intervention team, Teamwork Englewood, a community care organization, and Between Friends, a 24/7 community care.

To close out the session, Hurtado emphasized the importance of making a plan ahead of time that prioritizes your own safety as well as your community’s safety. “Sometimes we have to reckon with the fact that our society right now isn’t built so that there’s easy options instead of calling the police,” they said. “We have to think, do we want to risk bringing violence into this community, where’s my safety in this moment, and how am I dedicating myself to creating the world I want to see?”

A background of #CareNotCops

The #CareNotCops campaign was born out of the organizing and rallies that occurred after a UCPD officer shot student Soji Thomas as he was experiencing a mental health crisis in spring of 2018. From there, students organized a campaign which they called Drop the Charges. 

Their campaign included staging an action at an IOP event that Cook County State’s Attorney Kim Foxx was attending where they told Soji’s story, described the details of his case, and asked her to drop the charges. They worked alongside Soji and his parents to center their needs, especially since when COVID-19 hit he was incarcerated in Cook County jail, which was the U.S.’s top COVID-19 hotspot. They secured a meeting with Foxx, but after she was unwilling to commit to dropping the charges, they put enough pressure on her office through outside actions and email campaigns that one of her lawyers and Soji’s lawyer were able to negotiate to get him out of Cook County Jail. 

“Once we wrapped up our campaign and Soji was in a spot that he was comfortable with and we were able to get him out of a pretty dangerous and unjust situation in general, we saw how even though we were just a group of students on a college campus, it was pretty empowering to be able to use our people power and use organizing tactics to work alongside what was happening in the legal sphere,” Hurtado said. 

“We were able to materially change the outcome of what would’ve happened with his case, which I think was really informative for me, this was the first campaign I’ve ever worked on, and just being able to see that the work that we’re doing could have impacts on real things was pretty instructive to me and pretty amazing.”

Before this campaign, there have been other student campaigns organizing around policing on campus, Hurtado told The Gate. But #CareNotCops was the first one to explicitly organize against the UCPD and call for its defunding and eventual disbanding.

Now, the campaign has around thirty to forty consistent members and is partnered with community organizations including Good Kids Mad City, Assata’s Daughters, and the #LetUsBreathe Collective. Most recently, they began working with Chicago Alliance Against Racists and Political Repression (CAARPR). 

The campaign also works under the UChicago United umbrella with other campaigns on campus including the #EthnicStudiesNow campaign and the #CulturalCentersNow Campaign. Right now, this work involves a care committee looking to teach people transformative justice skills. “Just thinking about how we can make sure that people on our campus are literate in conflict resolution skills, in peer-to-peer healing justice methods, so that people have something to turn to instead of calling police or instead of community harm or violence happening,” Hurtado said. “And also thinking about, okay harm did happen, how could this care committee respond to that or provide some sort of restorative justice models to address that harm.”

This quarter, the campaign is focused primarily on coalition building. This involves connecting with other already organized groups of people (including Graduate Students United and UChicago Against Displacement), setting up community meetings to talk to community organizations, and connecting with campuses across the country that are doing similar work. They also have plans to build up their base on campus, “making sure that people understand or are exposed to at least ideas of abolition,” Hurtado explained. 

Having more people behind them is a way to force the administration or high-level donors to listen to them, Hurtado said. “They have the institutional power, but we can amass people power that is just as or even more influential.”

The campaign is also in the planning process of a Hyde Park mutual aid drive in partnership with the Woodlawn/Kenwood area chapter of #DefundCPD and the other UChicago United campaigns. “This is a badly paraphrased Ruth Wilson Gilmore quote, but abolition is not just about tearing things down, it’s about building things up, and mutual aid is a way to build in where people are failed by these structures that are governing us or are around us,” Hurtado said. 

The planning process for the mutual aid drive involves partnering with UIC organizations who are doing similar work to hear what people from homeless encampments need as well as doing tabling work, which involves sitting in a certain area and asking people what they need. In this way, the campaign is being very intentional about what they ask people to donate. “People have expressed the fact that a lot of folks who are doing mutual aid work will just collect donations without consulting people who they’re giving it to, they actually end up getting a lot of things donated that they don’t need and don’t get a lot of things that they do need,” Hurtado said. 

Everyone is welcome.

Students looking to join the #CareNotCops campaign should reach out over social media at @carenotcops on Instagram and @care_not_cops on Twitter. The campaign wants people to feel welcome—no matter their experience or background knowledge. “When you put organizers up on a pedestal, it can seem like it’s really inaccessible to people,” explained Hurtado. “But something really important that I would tell someone who’s interested in joining CareNotCops is that everybody comes in with a certain capacity, and you don’t have to have the perfect politics or an all-encompassing knowledge of how to organize a campaign and ‘what is abolition.’”

Once a student reaches out by DMing them on Instagram, they are matched with an organizer with whom they have a one-on-one conversation, giving them a chance to ask any questions as well as build a connection so they have a familiar face at their first meeting. 

“I feel like most organizations are really hierarchical, like you have to pay your dues and run for president or whatever,” said Hurtado. “But in terms of #CareNotCops organizationally, we’re building the world internally that we want to see in general, which is one where everyone’s voice is heard, where we’re all learning together. People can bring their expertise and skills, but it’s not like until you have those things you can’t contribute.”

Madeleine Parrish


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