Last January, the South Side Weekly interviewed Jahmal Cole, an energetic community member and activist, who founded My Block, My Hood, My City, an organization that enables adolescent mentorship. Last week, Cole’s aunt, Bettie Jones, a mother of five, was accidentally shot by a Chicago police officer. In this interview, the Weekly talked with Cole about what this tragedy and the calls for an end to unjustified police violence mean for him, his family, the teens he works with, and the city.
How has the past week been for your family?
It’s been a difficult week, we’ve been in shock. Especially as it was at the hand of a Chicago police officer, a double whammy. You don’t want anyone to go through this. There have just been a lot of tears and pandemonium the past week.
For me personally, I’m an activist. This event made me focus harder; I’m not changing who I am or love, I’m not changing my routine, but I’ll tell you this: seeing it happen to Laquan made me feel like it was my brother getting shot down. Just because it’s my aunt does not mean I have any less sympathy for the other tragic losses that have occurred.
What do you think should be done about this and other recent police shootings in the city?
The integrity of the entire city is being called into question. Protestors are expressing grief toward agony, and they should be allowed to go on protesting. Protests occur when there are inadequacies within institutions with power, which seems to be right now in Chicago. The only way to get mobility and awareness is to protest and speak up in positive ways, like marching.
How do you see your work in M3 being affected by the ongoing protests and violence? How are the kids you work with reacting?
When you’re a child, you feel like a child. When you’re a teen, you feel like a teen; they’re not adults. Lots of kids express that they want justice, they want to get out and yell and scream. I tell them that there need to be solutions behind the screaming though. Primarily, I’m glad they have been calling me up to talk about issues like these.
Explorers in my program come from all over the city. Pullman, Roseland, North Lawndale, Chatham, Englewood, South Shore, Humboldt Park, Little Village. To truly make our city better, we need [teens] to expand their world view and resources. I don’t want their mentors to be drug dealers, I want them to be guided well. I want to guide their frustration, not take it away from them, but guide it into a more positive direction. If I can show them resources to help them, I do. If I can take them to a politician, or news anchor, etc. I will.
We last spoke to you about your project, My Block My Hood, My City, in January. How has it been developing since then?
We recently received 501(c)3 status as an organization, so we are on the road to sustainability. We still sell hoodies and tees to everyone, and we have a big January coming up with some great partnerships. We’re more than just field trips for these kids, it’s about the community and mentorship. I go to their basketball games, and they have access to me at all times. I stay a part of their lives, but it takes five to six months for them to trust me, to communicate. It takes a lot of comfort. But when you’re passionate about what you do, like I am, you need to give yourself.
I hope over the two-year program they can grow to a level of comfort with me that they can be guided. Sometimes, I don’t feel worthy of the fact that they look up to me, but I take it very, very seriously. I was looking at a picture from about two and a half years ago, when I took a group of Explorers for pizza, and one of them now goes to a university. He didn’t go to Robert Morris downtown, but instead went out-of-state, like he told me he wanted. It was the greatest feeling.
What do you want your mentees to take away from incidents like this?
I live in Chatham on the South Side of Chicago. But when a school closes down in Austin that should matter to the people in Chatham. When a 3D printing company opens up in Edgewater that should matter to the people in Englewood. When my aunt is shot down by a police officer in West Garfield Park that should matter to the people in the Gold Coast. There are seventy-seven different community areas but there’s only one Chicago. This was my aunt but could’ve easily been your grandmother.
As an activist, I started a petition the day after my aunt was shot. It already has nearly 45,000 signatures. I will bring these petitions to Springfield. I’m calling on State’s Attorney Anita Alvarez to not send this case to a grand jury and for the Illinois legislature to ban the grand jury process in Illinois police shootings.