Police | Politics

Questions Without Answers

In a tense public meeting, the young women of Youth for Black Lives question Superintendent Eddie Johnson

J. Michael Eugenio

Mere steps away from this newspaper’s office on Tuesday, January 17, the first of what is supposed to be a series of monthly meetings between leaders of Youth for Black Lives (YBL, formerly Black Lives Matter Youth) and Chicago Police Department superintendent Eddie Johnson took place.

In a room at the Experimental Station on 61st Street and Blackstone Avenue, around forty residents sat in rows of chairs facing the panel-like setup: four of YBL’s members in a line next to Johnson. Outside, CPD cars lined Blackstone. Inside, the audience contained a number of children, each of whom appeared to be no older than ten. Several journalists lined the back wall of the room to record the hour-long public conversation between the teenage organizers and Johnson—a conversation that many of those in attendance criticized afterward as a wasted opportunity, with some noting the rarity of Johnson’s public appearances. Overall, the performance of both the students and Johnson felt lacking, although the latter’s position as a public official makes his performance more concerning and less surprising.

Representatives of the six-member female-led Youth for Black Lives group, which aims to amplify the voices of youth within racial justice organizing, included Maxine Wint, 17, who attends Kenwood Academy; Eva Lewis, 18, who attends Walter Payton College Prep; and Maxine Aguilar, 17, and Yahaira Tarr, 17, who both attend Jones College Prep. During the meeting, which took the form of a Q&A session between the students and Johnson, the superintendent said multiple times, while laughing nervously, that he felt overwhelmed, and that the students were “throwing too much” at him. The questions asked by the students were often scattered, but many were answerable through cursory internet searches.

Nevertheless, Johnson seemed unable or unwilling to answer many of those questions: some focused on the details of disciplinary procedures, training for officers, and accountability protocol, while others cited the horrific findings of the Department of Justice (DOJ)’s recent report detailing their investigation of the CPD. He defended many of his non-answers by saying that the topics he was asked about were either not under his jurisdiction, or not his “responsibility.” In response to questions about the details of the Civilian Office of Police Accountability (COPA), which is slated to replace the Independent Police Review Authority as Chicago’s police oversight agency, Johnson repeatedly said, “I have nothing to do with anything.” After a student organizer mentioned incidents named in the DOJ report of a Taser used against high school students, Johnson said he was not “fully aware” of it.

In a representative exchange, Johnson responded with “we have to hold ourselves accountable” when asked to explain what accountability means to him. In a similar rhetorical flourish, Johnson distinguished “honest mistakes” from “intentional misconduct” by defining “honest mistakes” as “not intentional.”

The meeting was one of the demands made by YBL of the CPD superintendent back in November, after the news surfaced that students at Marist High School in Mount Greenwood exchanged racist text messages in the aftermath of Joshua Beal’s killing in the neighborhood. Beal, a black man, was shot on November 5 by an off-duty CPD officer. Clashes between Black Lives Matter and pro-police groups followed. YBL, at the time called Black Lives Matter Youth, planned a protest for November 11 at Marist over both the text messages and the killing. Johnson agreed to meet with the group to hear their demands; as a result, the planned protest was cancelled, and Johnson agreed to regular public meetings.

The group’s name change happened around the time of the November meeting with Johnson that replaced their scheduled protest. In response to YBL’s initial meeting with the police and scheduling of subsequent meetings, Black Lives Matter Chicago, a local chapter of the national BLM movement, said in a statement that while they believe in youth action, “police are designed to enforce Black subjugation [and] freedom can not be gained by working with our oppressors.” They called for BLM Youth to change their name. On November 18, the group changed their name to Youth for Black Lives in order to “clarify any affiliation with other organizations,” according to a statement.

In the days leading up to the January 17 event, YBL members posted on social media that a CPD officer approached one of them and said Johnson would not show up unless the meeting was made private. The meeting was kept public, however, and Johnson did show up.

About halfway through the hour allotted for last week’s meeting, the YBL students opened up questioning to those in attendance. Perhaps the most poignant part of the night was a question that came from an eight-year-old audience member: “Why do you hurt people who don’t even do anything?”

“Being a police officer is not easy,” Johnson replied. “You have people out there trying to do the job that they’ve sworn an oath to do, and it’s not always a simple thing [to be in] split-second, life-and-death situations.”

It is unclear whether Johnson will follow through on what YBL claims is the commitment he made to hold monthly public meetings. At the conclusion of the meeting, as one of the student organizers announced to the room that they would contact his office to schedule a meeting for next month, Johnson simply stood up and started walking away, as if he didn’t hear a word.

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