We won’t stop until this building is a fucking community center.”
Gesturing furiously toward the headquarters of the Chicago Police Department looming behind him at 3510 South Michigan, Ethan Viets-VanLear, an organizer with We Charge Genocide, spat out the words to a crowd of around 500 people who had gathered to protest police brutality last Tuesday, April 28. The event was an “emergency action” in support of Freddie Gray, a twenty-five-year-old black man killed by Baltimore Police officers after being arrested last month, and the protesters who have since rallied in response to his death, as well as the many Chicagoans who have been killed by police.
This included Rekia Boyd, a twenty-two year old killed by Chicago police officer Dante Servin in March 2012. The recent acquittal of Servin was the focal point of the rally; furious speeches calling for his dismissal were made in front of a regiment of stone-faced police officers. As the evening wore on, however, it became clear that the disaffection felt by the protesters encompassed something greater than simply a single event, or even a single political issue. It was impossible to attend the rally or march south to Hyde Park that night and not sense a number of issues—the South Side’s lack of a trauma center, minimum wage, divestment in black communities, and, yes, police brutality—intersecting and coming to a head.
Boyd’s brother, Martinez Sutton, was one of the first to speak at the rally. When he first stood up, Sutton was drowned out for more than a minute by the cheers from the crowd; several times during his speech, he tearfully had to pause, remarking, “I’m an emotional person.”
He gave insight into the process behind the trial, revealing that the office of Anita Alvarez, state’s attorney for Cook County, had initially told Boyd’s family that the Servin would be charged with second-degree murder, only to surprise them later with an involuntary manslaughter charge. Ultimately, Judge Dennis Porter dismissed the trial because, he said, the shooting had been intentional, not involuntary, and that he could only have considered a murder charge.
“We have no remorse for him,” Sutton said of Servin, in response to Servin’s claim, made in a documentary about violence in the city, that he felt no remorse for what he’d done. Sutton added that the family had not given up hope that justice would still be administered in some form.
“There’s twelve rounds in a heavy-weight bout, and we’re just getting started.”
Along with Sutton, the mothers of Ronald Johnson and Dakota Bright—two other young black people killed by police—also spoke, in front of posters carrying their sons’ black-and-white pictures next to the words “Impeach Anita Alvarez.” Together, they presented a stark picture of the mix of grief and anger felt by those who witness loved ones killed at the hands of the law.
Malcolm London and Page May, young, energetic organizers with We Charge Genocide, led the speaking portion of the event, bounding up between speakers to lead the crowd in chants—“Hands up, don’t shoot,” “No justice, no peace”—no less powerful for their familiarity. In their moderation of older civil rights activists (Emmett Till’s sister was in attendance), grieving relatives, and intersectional activist groups, the pair were the face of the nascent, blossoming brand of black activism: channeling the legacy of the civil rights movement—including its more disruptive facets—in order to confront the many problems black communities face currently.
May and London both told stories of surprising contact with police brutality in their everyday lives. May recalled a recent conversation she’d had with an Uber driver (the mention of the company elicited a few snickers from the crowd), in which he recounted to her his own experience growing up with police in the 1960s in Hyde Park, when they would pick him and his friends up at night and drive them into rival gang territory. There, the police would drop them off and shout out the name of the rival gang. May used the anecdote as an example of how pervasive and long-standing the culture of police abuse was in the city.
Almost two hours after the rally began, the group readied to march. “I’m not gonna tell you where we’re going,” London said, presumably in an effort to prevent the police from cutting off the route. “It’s a surprise.”
Initially, police officers on bikes attempted to keep protesters confined to the sidewalks; the result was a long sinuous line stretching down 35th Street, in which demonstrators and cops continuously jostled at one another. Eventually, the protesters succeeded in breaking into the street, and the march soon spread across both lanes, cutting off traffic. One person was wrestled to the ground and arrested by five or six policemen; a crowd, phones out and filming, gathered around the scene, almost all of them chanting “shame on you” at the officers in question.
The protest turned south along Cottage Grove. Cries of “come outside” were directed at residents waving from their windows and balconies, asking them to join. A few obliged. As the crowd neared Hyde Park, there was a brief stop at a McDonald’s in support of those pressuring the fast-food giant to raise its minimum wage to fifteen dollars. Soon after, a group of officers from the University of Chicago Police Department (UCPD) joined the CPD force. The police cut off eastward streets, firmly cordoning the march away from the University of Chicago.
When the protesters finally managed to break eastward it was on the Midway Plaisance, a piece of parkland in between 59th and 60th Streets. They gathered, arms linked, in a circle.
“They worked tirelessly to keep us from this property,” said London, standing in the middle. “That’s the only shit they care about.” Then he invited Veronica Morris-Moore, a community organizer with Fearless Leading for the Youth, to speak on the lack of a trauma center on the South Side, which culminated in her leading the crowd in a chant of “UofC is wack, bring our trauma center back.”
It was yet another reminder that the anger fueling the night stretched further than the deaths of Freddie Gray or Rekia Boyd. And while protests of this sort have been conducted before in the wake of events such as those in Baltimore, the quick and extremely effective mobilization of this one—organized on social media the night before—suggests that such demonstrations in Chicago may be on the rise. As protesters dispersed from the grounds of the UofC, many still chanting as they walked toward the Cottage Grove Green Line, it was clear that the night had not brought closure or peace to anyone, but perhaps it had created a renewed awareness and energy around the range of issues affecting Chicago’s, and America’s, black communities.