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Chicago City Council Members Lash Out At Young Black Activists Opposed To Cop Academy

Multiple elected representatives in the Chicago City Council attacked the No Cop Academy coalition on May 25 before they voted for a funding measure for a $95 million police training complex.

The No Cop Academy coalition, which is led by young black activists, convinced two aldermen—Carlos Ramirez-Rosa and David Moore—to “defer and postpone” a vote on the measure on May 23. An antagonized Mayor Rahm Emanuel took the extraordinary step of having city council members return for a vote before Memorial Day weekend to push through the measure instead of waiting until the next regularly scheduled meeting.

Even though the measure was guaranteed to pass in a lopsided vote, most city council members could not stop themselves from scolding or lecturing activists in the gallery following public comments against the planned academy.

Alderman Emma Mitts, a black representative from the West Garfield Park area where the academy will be built, ranted, “If anyone want to get media attention for themselves or make a political point over this public safety training 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. They’re heart might be in the right place, but they’re following an empty hashtag.”

Referring to the #NoCopAcademy hashtag that has bolstered attention to the city’s plans, Mitts contended activists should come join her in her neighborhood “before they write that next tweet” because “tweeting is easy. Creating a hashtag is easy, simple.”

“I look forward to the day when investment in my neighborhood is not met with misdirection and phony outrage,” Mitts added. And later, she said, “I suppose there is time for political posturing, but this is not the time.”

Her words provoked outrage from the gallery, and Mitts appeared to encourage and enjoy upsetting activists.

Mitts is well-known because her ward was where the first Wal-Mart in Chicago was constructed in 2006. That same year she joined Mayor Richard M. Daley in opposing a union-backed ordinance to ensure “big box” retailers paid a living wage if they were going to have locations in the city, which Daley vetoed.

Alderman Walter Burnett Jr., who represents gentrified areas in the downtown Loop as well as dilapidated areas of the west side, patronized the activist who were in the gallery and commended them for their “passion.”

“I think it’s fantastic. I appreciate the spirit of it, but I think it’s misdirected,” Burnett said.

Then he maligned No Cop Academy. “This is a life and death situation for us on the west side. I don’t know what y’all talking about, and I don’t know where y’all live. But on the west side, it’s about life and death.”

As Burnett spoke about how west side residents supposedly like seeing police jog and ran in place, activists and others in the chamber became incensed. They shouted, “Shame! Shame! Shame!” That led him to launch into quite a tirade.

“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 there,” Burnett bellowed. “Shame on you who don’t have to live with drug dealers and gang bangers. Shame on you all who don’t get your garages burned down if they think that you told the police on them. Shame on you who they don’t put in the sewers after they kill you cause they think that you told the police on them.”

That only provoked more cries of, “Shame! Shame! Shame!”

Burnett suggested those opposed to the academy should come to the neighborhoods in the west side and see what life is like. But then, he cockily insisted they would be afraid and run away.

“We need as many police [in the west side] as we can get over there,” Burnett said. “This is the best thing that could ever happen in our community.”

Burnett mentioned the west side area in his ward was one of the first to have pod surveillance cameras setup by police. He did not bother to address what impact the cameras have had in reducing crime nor did he bother to discuss what officers might do differently in this hyper-policed area after a new multi-million dollar academy is built.

According to a profile of Burnett by the Chicago Reader, Burnett infuriated activists when he advocated for the demolition of Cabrini Green housing. He supported a “widely loathed parking meter deal, tax increment financing handouts to Fortune 500 companies, and city budgets that have drained reserves, raised taxes, and cut services.” He largely refrains from criticizing the mayor.

Alderman Joe Moore accused the No Cop Academy coalition of “cherry-picking” the parts of a Justice Department report on the Chicago Police Department that best suited their agenda.

“The opponents present a fake choice,” Moore argued. “They say we should either spend money on schools or education or on improved police training. We don’t have that luxury. We need to do both.”

After mentioning recent increases in funds for after school programs and allocation of funds by the Board of Education for school facilities, he added, “I urge this council to ignore the few loud voices.”

Activists chanted, “No more Moore! No more Moore! No more Moore!”

Before Alderman Jason Ervin, a black representative from the 11th District, which is near the site of the planned academy, complained, “I’m sick and tired of folks that live in Avondale, that live in other communities, that want to come to the west side and tell us how to live.”

“Nobody from West Garfield Park, nobody from Humboldt Park is saying this, but folks from everywhere else want to tell us how to live,” Ervin said, before calling for a vote on the measure.

The measure passed 39-2.

As the council moved to other business, activists shouted, “You think it’s a game,” and, “We ain’t playing.” The chants grew louder than ever.

“We’re going to wait for them to leave,” Emanuel said, as police removed them. “Don’t touch me!” an activist could be heard yelling.

The city council was back to business as usual.

City council members, especially Ald. Emma Mitts, know there is much more to the No Cop Academy campaign than a hashtag. Suggesting it is only a hashtag is a cheap ploy to marginalize community residents opposed to the police training academy.

Black middle school students and a black elderly resident from her ward tried to speak with Mitts in March. It was “Ward Night,” but according to an update from No Cop Academy, Mitts did not think this was the time or place for her constituents to speak to her about the project.

“Upon learning the subject of the visit, her staff proceeded to tell the middle school students ‘not today’ and interrogate them about their addresses and motives. Her chief of staff and another individual who refused to identify himself told the residents that there were community members who live in the ward with more pressing issues,” the coalition claimed.

Mitts finally gave one student who lives on the same block as her a chance to talk but said a “community meeting had already happened on the issue with 70 people present who supported the plan and so there was no more room for debate.”

Beyond social media, No Cop Academy has mobilized residents to contact city council members and inform them of why they oppose the project. Activists have participated in several public comments at city council meetings, visited city council members’ offices, written hundreds of letters to city council members, collected thousands of signatures on petitions, and engaged in several demonstrations led by black youth to oppose the project.

A common tactic of city council members is to claim the opposition is not from the area where the academy will be located or the districts, which will supposedly benefit the most. However, that conveniently ignores organizers like Maria Hernandez, who is at the forefront of the opposition and is from the west side.

“We need our tax dollars to support our communities,” Hernandez said during a press conference prior to the vote. “You cannot stop crimes of survival without giving people a means to survive. That means jobs programs. If we did not have $2 million for our mental health facilities, why do we have $20 million for the police academy today?”

Alderman Carlos Ramirez-Rosa, the sole opponent of the academy in the city council, and Alderman David Moore deferred the vote forcing the council to reconvene on May 25. It infuriated Mitts.

“When Emma Mitts says that Alderman Rosa and Alderman Moore standing to defer this vote is an act of war, I’m kind of lost,” Hernandez said. “When she says that we kill her dog she’ll kill our cat, I’m kind of threatened. What it does it mean for black aldermen to say they are at war with black youth? What does that mean for our city?”

Another aspect overlooked by city council members is the fact that the No Cop Academy coalition says it conducted a survey of 500 residents in West Garfield Park to gauge their opinion of the project. A majority had no idea of the plans.

In March, Hernandez said when residents were asked if this was the best use of $95 million, 84 percent said no. Seven percent said they needed more information.

Organizers collected 877 community recommendations for how the money should be spent. Fifty-one percent suggested the funds be spent on schools and youth resources. Twenty percent suggested the city invest in community spaces, mental health clinics, or substance abuse clinics. Twenty percent suggested the funds go toward addressing homelessness and reclaiming abandoned properties that are in disrepair.

Nearly 40 percent of the city of Chicago’s budget goes to police. The amount typically spent is around $1.4 billion. In contrast, Emanuel and the city continue to shut down schools in Black and Latino neighborhoods.

Page May, an organizer with the No Cop Academy campaign, previously told Shadowproof that elected representatives like to “act like we don’t have a plan. We don’t know what we’re doing, but we do. We’re talking about filing injunctions, and we sued the city I think twice. We understand how city council works.”

After the budget committee of the city council refused to allow public comment and jammed through the $20 million funding measure in mere minutes so it could go to a full city council vote, residents sued the city for alleged violations of the Open Meetings Act.

Multiple city council members said the energy of activists needs to be present at the polls on Election Day. Many of the same people in the No Cop Academy coalition were responsible for the organizing that led Cook County State’s Attorney Anita Alvarez to lose her job to Kim Foxx because Alvarez was so reluctant to pursue police accountability. They are engaged in all facets of the political process.

Ramirez-Rosa pointed out when he spoke against the funding measure that city hall has a “history of using the placement of public institutions as anchors and engines of gentrification.”

“In the definitive review of Mayor Richard J. Daley’s mayoralship and his use of public buildings and infrastructure—the book is called ‘American Pharaoh’—we see how the mayor used the University of Illinois in Chicago to place a ‘racial barrier’ between the Loop and a ‘nearby concentration of blacks.'”

Ramirez-Rosa continued, “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 Jr. 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 side.”

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

The city of Chicago plans to sell a firehouse for $5 million and other police and fire training buildings for $23 million. But that means the city will need to find $37 million more to pay for the rest of the project. It does not currently know where that money will come from, and it is entirely likely that any additional millions appropriated will come at a cost to low-income or working class Chicagoans who constantly suffer from chronic disinvestment in their communities.

Kevin Gosztola

Kevin Gosztola

Kevin Gosztola is managing editor of Shadowproof. He also produces and co-hosts the weekly podcast, "Unauthorized Disclosure."