#NoCopAcademy vs. City Hall

By the time I arrived at City Hall the Friday afternoon before Memorial Day, the second floor was already packed with some 200 supporters of the #NoCopAcademy campaign. It was obscenely hot (especially for an air-conditioned building), and the whole long hallway was packed to the brim. The noise echoing loud, the organizers cycled through different chants in a call and response routine with the crowd. “We know the truth, we have the facts; if the city’s so broke then where the money at?”

It was the warm-up act to a special session of the city council, and the vote on an ordinance to allocate $20 million to help pay for the new police and fire training facility to be built in West Garfield Park, the second in a series of many votes to come related to the $95 million cop academy. The #NoCopAcademy campaign against the development was launched last September by a coalition led by black youth from groups like Assata’s Daughters, BYP100, Black Lives Matter Chicago, and backing by some 70 local organizations including Chicago DSA.

The campaign’s official statement of opposition reads:

“We demand a redirecting of this $95 million into Chicago’s most marginalized communities instead. Real community safety comes from fully-funded schools and mental health centers, robust after-school and job- training programs, and social and economic justice. We want investment in our communities, not expanded resources for police.”

35th Ward Alderman (and DSA member) Carlos Ramirez-Rosa, who had two days earlier successfully delayed the vote on the ordinance, spoke to the crowd at a press conference before the start of Friday’s meeting, saying, “despite all the harm that’s been done by that man three floors above us, we the people are rising up. Our movement is growing. And it’s not about me, it’s about us.”

After Rosa’s move at Wednesday’s city council session, mayor Rahm Emanuel concluded the meeting abruptly, to be resumed Friday. Later that day, Rosa was voted out of the City Council’s Latino Caucus in an act of retaliation.

Earlier on Tuesday, members of the campaign had attended the Committee on Budget and Government Operations with a handful of the organizers completing witness slips to speak in opposition of the ordinance. Despite this, the committee chair Alderman Carrie Austin held a vote on the funds allocation without allowing public comment. The campaign then mobilized their supporters to attend the City Council meeting the next day.

But another group was also converging on City Hall on that Wednesday: the Fraternal Order of Police, which had gathered members to pressure Rahm and the city council to move forward with FOP’s contract renewal and to sidestep proposed police accountability measures. The off-duty Chicago police officers picketed outside with Blue Lives Matter signs and shouts of “Back the blue” and “Rahm must go.” And while #NoCopAcademy supporters had showed up to City Hall at 7:30 a.m. to attend the council meeting, it was the members of the FOP (who came in closer to 9 a.m.) that were then actually permitted into the council chambers.

In retaliation, the #NoCopAcademy organizers filed a complaint that Thursday in the Cook County circuit court to further delay the City Council vote on the funding ordinance till the next official City Council meeting set for June. One of the attorneys representing the campaign, Attorney Brendan Shiller, remarked that the city had “engaged in a series of acts designed to tamp down dissent, eliminate debate, and avoid discussion on funding issues related to this particular police facility.” The complaint charged the City with violating the Open Meetings Act.

But at the hearing Friday morning a judge denied the motion for an injunction, and #NoCopAcademy headed back to City Hall.

If you look at any of the photos or videos from that Friday afternoon’s meeting you’ll see that are a number of empty seats in the council chamber. We were told it was full. And so, many of us instead watched the meeting from the third-floor gallery. Most of the speakers were out of my line of vision, but I had a direct view of Rahm, who was more focused on checking his phone, fiddling with his pen, or taking sips of water than he was listening to the public comment.

But whether or not Rahm was listening he was addressed directly by many of the speakers against the academy. “Mayor Rahm Emanuel says this academy is a response to the Department of Justice report,” said Maria Hernandez. “Mr. Mayor you are a liar. Our FOIAs have shown you started planning this academy before the DOB report came out.”

Others spoke out against the Alderman rubber stamping the academy vote. “Right now I want to have a moment with the Black Caucus,” said Tonni Magitt. “I want to say how y’all have failed your people and failed the people that put you up here—how you failed us and continue to disregard our input.”

Next up to speak were members of the City Council reporting from their various committees. One after another, aldermen stood up and spoke in favor of building the academy, disparaged #NoCopAcademy, and dismissed their concerns as illegitimate. And one after another, the aldermen stood up and were booed and shouted down with deafening volume by the public they claim to represent. They did not seem to appreciate the civic interest.

Alderman Emma Mitts of the 37th Ward, referring to the organizers sitting just a few rows behind her, said, “If anyone wants to get media attention for themselves or make a political point over a public safety academy that’s your god-given right.”

“But frankly, and I’m being honest here, a lot of these folks have no idea what they’re talking about. Their heart might be in the right place, but they’re following an empty hashtag. There’s nothing there. Respectfully the public safety training academy is not no cop academy.”

About halfway through her speech someone started shouting “shut this down, shut this down” and was escorted out. She continued:

“I look forward to the day when investment in my neighborhood is not met with misdirection and phony outrage. But If you want to help to build a better tomorrow I’m ready. Meet me at my ward office. Any day. Any time. How about tomorrow? There’s plenty of work to do. But if you want to follow some hashtag. Let the young people say. Just like they say, ‘I ain’t got a… time for that’ [sic]. No I don’t have time for it either…. I suppose there’s a time and place for political posturing, but this is not the time.”

27th Ward Alderman Walter Burnett Jr., continuing the condescension, thanked the young activists for being there and “appreciated the spirit of it”, but that the campaign was “misdirected.” Like Mitts, Burnett implied that those against the academy didn’t actually live where it’s set to be built. “I don’t know what y’all are talking about, and I don’t know where y’all live. But on the west side it’s about life or death.”

Burnett then continued to say that his ward residents in the West Loop didn’t want the current academy to move because they like watching the cops jogging up and down the streets every day. It was at around that point that a number of the crowd started shouting “shame” repeatedly in unison. Burnett replied back:

“Shame on you! Shame on you all for not being concerned about the elders in our community. Shame on you for not being concerned about the people who don’t live up north like y’all live up north, where it’s safe at. Shame on you all.”

The last to speak before the vote Alderman Rosa, who arose to cheers. His comments are repeated here in full:

I want to make one thing clear. We are not here today because I acted alongside my colleague Alderman David Moore to defer a measure that would allocate $29 million towards the design and construction of a new $95 million dollar cop academy. We are here today because black youth and working-class chicagoans of all backgrounds are raising their voices for real neighborhood investment. They are raising their voices for a city council that engages in meaningful democratic debate on the expense of our public funds, and meaningful measures to end racist policing and stop police violence in our neighborhoods.

The city of Chicago spends 300 percent more on policing than we do on family and support services, public health, pedestrian and traffic safety, and affordable housing. Our poor and working-class neighborhoods suffered as a result of this administration’s closure of six mental health clinics and 50 public schools. Police violence has cost Chicagoans $662 million in settlements since 2004. And that’s on top of the $4 million dollars per day, 1.5 billion per year, our city spends on police. Chicago spends 40 percent of budget on our policing, one percent on homeless services, and one-tenth of one percent on after school programs.

Now I just read a bunch of numbers to you about money. But I want to uplift the thing that’s most important of all: police violence and racist policing has cost Chicagoans the lives of our sons and daughters. Our precious black youth like Laquan McDonald and Rekia Boyd. The loss of Laquan and Rekia, the harm caused by police violence and racist policing, cannot be quantified in any amount of green paper or gold. So what is clear is that the Chicago police department is not lacking in resources, it is lacking in accountability and oversight. Accountability and oversight that would be provided by the Civilian Police Accountability Council. An ordinance currently in the Public Safety Committee that counts with the support of a mass movement of 50,000 plus Chicagoans demanding democratic control of the police.

A lot has been said on the DOJ report, but that report has 88,264 words. References to the CPD training facility make up less than .01 percent of the report. Claims that this facility seeks to implement the Department of Justice recommendations ring false given that this administration began planning this facility before the report was even issued. And that very DOJ report recommends, and police misconduct experts agree, that accountability and police department culture change must be prioritized before a new facility and training.

Our working families are not crying out for a new shooting range and swimming pool for cops. They’re crying out for democratic control of the police, they’re crying out for social, racial, and economic justice in our communities. I agree with the black youth and the thousands and thousands of Chicagoans that have raised their voice. The $95 million this administration ultimately estimates that it will cost to build this facility should instead be invested in jobs, education, youth programs, and mental health services in our communities.

There’s also a matter here we’re not really discussing, and that’s that city hall has a long history of using the placement of public institutions as drivers and anchors and engines of of gentrification.

In the definitive review of Mayor Richard J. Daley’s mayoralship and his use of public building and infrastructure—the book is called American Pharoah—we see how the mayor used the University of Illinois at Chicago to place “a racial barrier” between the Loop and a nearby concentration of poor blacks. The existing cop academy was built near Jackson and Ashland in 1976 near the site of facilities that were burned down during the uprising after the assassination of Martin Luther King, and that was then a heavily black and working-class neighborhood. It was then called the Near West Side. Some today are calling it the West Loop.

So the existing cop academy having played a role in gentrifying the West Loop, it appears that this administration now seeks to build a cop academy further west, continuing the displacement of black people from our city, while allowing the mayor to sell this land and the existing academy to a connected developer.

The last thing I want to say is that at Tuesday’s budget committee hearing, black youth were denied the right to testify in opposition of the cop academy. At Wednesday’s council meeting we spent about two hours on honorary resolutions. And as a city Its important we honor our residents when they do extraordinary things. But it appeared we were not prepared to spend even five seconds on the allocation of this money. We were not prepared to spend five seconds or any seconds on debate on what it would cost to renovate the existing facility as opposed to building a new one, or if renovating and addressing the facility should take precedence over accountability and oversight, or whether investing that money in a police academy should take precedence over investing in re-opening our schools and re-opening mental health clinics and constructing and building our communities.

So I want to say that today, Chicagoans are raising their voices for an end to police misconduct. They’re raising their voices for real investment to address poverty and crime in our neighborhoods. They’re raising their voices for the black youth like Laquan and Rekia who  couldn’t be here with us today. They’re saying no to racist policing, no to the displacement of poor Chicagoans, yes to black youth, yes to real neighborhood investment on the West Side, yes to a city hall that stands for the many and not the few.

Despite today’s expected passage of the allocation of this money, our movement is growing. Our fight to put the working-class neighborhoods of the city of Chicago first, our fight to end racist policing in the city, is far from over. Sisters and brothers, it has just begun. Thank you.

Despite Rahm’s comment on that Wednesday that no vote would change between then and Friday’s session of the city council, one vote did. The call for the vote, which we were escorted out of the chambers ahead of, was 39-2, with Alderman Ricardo Munoz of the 22nd ward joining Alderman Rosa in dissent.

The day after the second session at City Hall I attended Chicago DSA’s Electoral Vision Forum put on by on by our Electoral Working Group. Are electoral politics the be-all, end-all of DSA’s mission? No, but there’s no better argument for electoral work than the power having even one seat at the table can, as with Rosa.

CDSA hopes to endorse anywhere between three and five Aldermanic candidates in February’s election, with announcements to come by the end of the summer. These elections are not only an opportunity for Chicago DSA but for our coalition more broadly to fight to elect candidates who stand for the people of their ward, not just big donors and not just the mayor. It’s a long road ahead, but one filled with enormous opportunities for our movement to grow and take power. And if we can do that in a city as historically corrupt as Chicago, we can do it anywhere.