“Have you experienced harassment or been hurt by the police?”
That question kickstarted a day of personal testimonies and discussion on the relationship between young people in some of Chicago’s most marginalized communities and police. Dozens of young people under the age of 25 gathered Saturday afternoon at Roosevelt University to speak about their encounters with police, which, they say, were often based on racial profiling and many times ended with violent treatment by officers.
The gathering, put together by an organization called We Charge Genocide, focused on creating a “safe space” for young people to not only share their experiences, but also work together to create alternatives to policing in communities affected by what they say is unfair treatment. Organizers of the volunteer-run group say they are “putting the system of police violence on trial” by providing a platform for youth to discuss, what they allege is, an unfair system targeting low-income people of color.
“People don’t believe young people when they say things happen to them,” said Malcolm London, a 21 year-old originally from the Austin neighborhood who now lives in Garfield Park. London, who emceed the event is part of several community organizing groups, including the Black Youth Project 100 and the Young Chicago Authors.
“There needs to be spaces where young people feel safe enough to say ‘this happened to me by the police’ and not feel like it has to be routine or like nothing can change,” said London.
Speaking to the group, Ethan Viets VanLear described two of what he said were his first encounters as a young man with police officers, both before he hit the age of 16.
“I was at freshman orientation at school,” said VanLear, who is part of a Rogers Park-based organization called Circles and Ciphers, a leadership training program for young men going through the juvenile justice system. “We’re doing silly team building stuff outside at my school. Two police officers pulled up onto the grass at the school, came up with their guns drawn, put me in handcuffs and put me in the car.”
VanLear said two weeks prior he and a friend had given their information to police after a bicycling accident, and that information was later used to interrogate several young men after a crime had been committed in the area.
“There was no evidence, they just found five brown kids that they knew were around and had their names and went and picked them up,” he added
Organizers of the event and affiliated groups say stories like VanLear’s are an all too common part of a systemic problem unfairly targeting people of color.
“If you are black or Latino or a person of color, [just] being itself is policed,” said Sara Wild from the Chicago Alliance Against Racist and Political Oppression. “When we look at the rate of incarceration, we’re looking at 2.4 million in the U.S. prisons. How are they getting there? They focus on young African American and Latino males and females.”
According to the NAACP, African Americans make up nearly half of the U.S. prison population, represent 26 percent of juvenile arrests, and 58 percent of black youths are admitted to state prisons.
Jeff, a recent graduate from Western Illinois University in Macomb, described an encounter he had with an officer while walking home from a party one summer evening.
“He jumped out of his car and put his gun in my face and I said ‘whoa, what is going on.’ His response was ‘you look like someone who just committed an armed robbery in the neighborhood.’ I [said I] did nothing, why did you pull up on me? And he said it’s because I looked like somebody who committed that crime," the recent college grad recalled. "What progress have we made if I, as a black man, have to walk down the street with my identification on me just in case somebody pulls me over so they can identify me so that I’m not linked to a crime?”
According to a report provided to the People’s Law Office by the Independent Police Review Authority (IPRA), of the 50 shootings involving police in 2012, 57 individuals were injured and 8 were killed. Of those shootings, 87.72 percent were black. According to the PLO, outside of that statistical information, little contextual information is made available. Due to this lack of information, organizers say, it’s difficult to hold police accountable in situations of wrongdoing.
“The IPRA is supposed to be independently operating to allow citizens to report police violence, but they report police violence for police to investigate,” said London.
According to that same report, the majority of police shootings happen in districts on the South Side. The high rates of police shootings in areas blighted by high crime rates and poverty contribute to a narrative that the majority of people living in those neighborhoods are criminals, said organizers.
“You see more police in these neighborhoods in a militarized fashion. What ends up happening is [people] get arrested, they get brutalized and it’s okay because we have this idea that everyone that lives there is a bad person,” said London.
VanLear’s second story highlighted the alleged militarized fashion of police raids in some neighborhoods.
“A year later, the same young people I was arrested with were sitting in a house playing video games. We hear a banging on the door. Before we know it, the door is kicked down and there’s five special ops officers with their huge M-16’s pointed at us, three fifteen year old’s playing video games," said VanLear. "They don’t find anything, let us all go, they laugh, try to joke with us and apologize. We sat there asking ‘what just happened?’”
Organizers and attendees said one of the first steps that should be taken is for both politicians and police to consult the communities affected by the alleged mistreatment by police.
“I think the first step is people need to start listening to people who look like me,” said London. “To actually listen to people and not have politicians who have never been to these neighborhoods except to maybe cut a ribbon or show up at a crime scene trying to come up with ideas on how to solve the issues in these communities without first consulting the community.”
Wild made note of a piece of legislation the Chicago Alliance Against Racist and Political Oppression is looking to get introduced in the Chicago City Council. The proposed legislation would replace the IPRA with an elected “Civilian Police Accountability Council,” which would investigate and prosecute claims of crimes by police. Currently, the petition to introduce the ordinance has nearly 6,000 signatures.
“Part of the legislation allows communities to decide the policies and practices of the CPD,” said Wild.
Read more about the push for a civialian-elected police accountability board here.