Kahari Black

In the coming months before the February municipal elections, the Weekly will be profiling not only the candidates for public office, but also the grassroots movements that shape the political landscape in Chicago communities. Over the next few months, we will be asking mayoral and aldermanic candidates about their positions on each of these movements.

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Movement Overview

In Chicago, and around the country, police departments are increasingly using databases to log and track purported gang members. The practice has long been criticized by civil rights groups and defense attorneys as discriminatory, but in recent years it has come under fire from a growing coalition of Chicago organizers working at the intersection of criminal justice reform and immigrant justice.

Conceived in the summer of 2017 in the wake of the election of Donald Trump, the #EraseTheDatabase campaign is a collaborative effort between Black- and brown-led organizations, including Organized Communities Against Deportations (OCAD), Black Youth Project 100 (BYP100) and Mijente, and later grew to include the Brighton Park Neighborhood Council (BPNC), Blocks Together, and the Latino Union. The long-term goal of the campaign is to eliminate the Chicago Police Department’s gang database, which organizers say is unconstitutional, inaccurate and disproportionately targets Black and Latinx individuals.  The campaign works to educate communities about the database, meet with elected officials, and work alongside those wrongly included in the database to seek justice.

The database can have a significant impact on undocumented communities in Chicago. Though Chicago has passed “sanctuary city” legislation, most recently in 2012, it contains “carve-outs” allowing the CPD to cooperate with Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE). The gang database is one of those carve outs, allowing CPD to share whether an undocumented immigrant ICE is seeking is a listed gang member.  

But as OCAD organizer Reyna Wences points out, “This campaign doesn’t just cover immigrants, but it covers different communities, such as the Black community, the LGBTQ community,” Wences said. “We believe in a time when we’re getting attacked at the federal level, there are opportunities to come out and organize and create an alternative solution, and… that’s what we’re doing.”

The #EraseTheDatabase campaign gained traction following the filing of lawsuits against the city by civil rights attorneys at Northwestern University School of Law’s MacArthur Justice Center on behalf of two undocumented men—Wilmer Catalan-Ramirez and Luis Pedrote-Salinas—who say that they were targeted and detained by ICE because they were incorrectly logged in the database. Catalan-Ramirez was released after the Chicago Police Department admitted that his inclusion in the database was an error; a federal judge granted the city’s motion to dismiss Pedrote-Salinas’ lawsuit in May due to a statute of limitations on his claims.

The city Office of the Inspector General (OIG) also launched an investigation of the database in March, with stated goals of determining CPD’s criteria for adding people to the database and evaluating the program’s accuracy.

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About the Database

The gang database is actually contained within CPD’s larger data system: Citizen and Law Enforcement Analysis and Reporting (CLEAR). Police officers log people in the database during traffic stops and other routine searches — even when no arrest has been made — if an officer notices certain tattoos, piercings or colors that might hint at possible gang-affiliation. A person also might be logged if they self-admit, if another source tells police that they are gang-affiliated, or if they are stopped while in gang territory.

Seventy percent of the 128,000 adults in the CPD’s database are Black, twenty-five percent are Latinx, and less than five percent are white, according to a June report from the UIC Policing in Chicago Research Group, of which #EraseTheDatabase organizer Janaé Bonsu is a member. The CPD does not release information about minors within the database, but the report estimates that the number of minors is between 28,000 and 68,000. Researchers also found that in three predominantly Black community areas—Pullman, Englewood, and West Englewood—over ten percent of the total population is represented in the gang database. #EraseTheDatabase organizers say this new report confirms what they already knew: that the gang database specifically targets Black and Latinx Chicagoans.

Speaking at a June teach-in for the campaign, Bonsu, also an organizer with BYP, noted that inclusion on the gang databasecan have terrible consequences.” These include “anything from losing your job, or not being able to have access to a job, or being subjected to heightened harassment by police,” she said. However, once a CPD officer adds an individual to the database, they are neither notified nor given a means to challenge their inclusion, making it nearly impossible to be removed.

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The Movement Tactics

In collaboration with the UIC Policing in Chicago Research Group, the coalition has published two reports in 2018 detailing many of the disparities discovered throughout the gang database. The first report was published in February of 2018 and provided an in-depth overview of the gang database itself, how it is used, who it is shared with, and the minority groups targeted and affected by its usage. The second report, released in June, detailed errors found in the database based on newer data that ProPublica Illinois successfully obtained from CPD, through a public records request, and shared with the public.

Educating the public is an important part of the campaign. The coalition believes that in order to successfully organize, individuals must understand what the database is, what it does, and who it primarily affects within their communities. Along with releasing the two reports, the coalition has held public teach-ins during which organizers highlight their published data, and explain why the gang database needs to be abolished. Organizers also present the audience with best practices for contacting their elected officials regarding the campaign, such as: meeting with aldermen in large groups, and being ready to educate them if they’re not already knowledgeable about the database

Since its inception last year, the campaign has grown and joined with even more organizations, including the Brighton Park Neighborhood Council (BPNC), Blocks Together and the Latino Union. This larger group formed a separate coalition, Chicagoans for an End to the Gang Database, for the purposes of taking legal action against the city. The coalition, along with four individual plaintiffs (including Pedrote-Salinas) who say they were wrongfully entered into the system and suffered harassment by police as a result, filed a class-action lawsuit against the city in June.

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How Elected Officials are Involved

The lawsuit requests that a federal judge require the city to make the following changes to its use of the gang database: strengthen criteria for logging individuals in the database, require police to notify individuals when they’ve been added, and provide a fair process to contest their inclusion. The lawsuit also requests an order that would also prohibit the CPD from sharing gang database data with federal and statewide law enforcement, including ICE.

These are smaller steps that organizers hope will eventually lead to the elimination of the database as a whole.

According to Tania Unzueta, the policy director for Mijente, the coalition has also drafted an ordinance it hopes the city adopts, regardless of the outcome of the lawsuit. “We’re trying to minimize the harm the gang database does to our community,” Unzueta said. “We took a lot of care to write an ordinance that will get us to safer communities.” The drafted ordinance calls for the city to temporarily stop adding people to the gang database until the OIG completes its investigation. It also requires the city to notify anyone who has been added to the database in the last 20 years.

In July, 22nd Ward Alderman and potential mayoral candidate Ricardo Muñoz, who represents much of predominantly Mexican Little Village and is an admitted former gang member, proposed a version of the coalition’s ordinance to City Council, which, despite being signed by forty-three of his colleagues, has stalled in the Committee on Public Safety since being introduced. State Senator Patricia Van Pelt, who represents a wide swath of the West Side, introduced similar, statewide legislation during the General Assembly’s Spring session, which passed the Senate in May and has since been pending in the House of Representatives.

In recent months, mayoral candidate and CPS principals union head Troy LaRaviere (who has contributed to the Weekly) announced his support for the database’s abolishment, and fellow candidate and former Police Board president Lori Lightfoot put forward some reforms of the system in her public safety plan after previously committing to its abolishment to ThinkProgress. (On the other end, candidate and former CPD superintendent Garry McCarthy’s campaign website says he would continue using “non-enforcement strategies such as using data to track gang activity.”)

In the upcoming mayoral and aldermanic elections in 2019, candidates’ stances on the gang database could be a deciding factor for constituents choosing between a crowded field. Wences pointed out that police reform is already top of mind for many Chicago voters and that “what’s happening with the gang database is also connected to the larger issue around policing in Chicago.”

Wences says that the people she encounters in her work believe questions about the gang database should be at the forefront of the election, and that not enough candidates are openly discussing the topic. “We know for our communities, it is a big issue,” she said.

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Key Players in the #EraseTheDatabase Campaign

Organized Communities Against Deportation (OCAD)

OCAD is an undocumented immigrant-led organization that fights against the deportation, criminalization and incarceration of Black, brown and immigrant communities by challenging oppressive institutions head-on with grassroots organizing, rallying and public policy work. It is a member of the #EraseTheDatabase coalition.

Black Youth Project 100 (BYP100)

Following the 2012 trial of George Zimmerman, BYP100 was founded in 2013 as a member-based youth organization committed to fighting for justice for Black individuals, with numerous chapters throughout the nation. Like OCAD, BYP100 pursues its goals through direct action organizing and advocacy as well as through leadership development. It is a member of the #EraseTheDatabase coalition.


Mijente is a grassroots organization that brings Latinx and Chicanx organizers together to encourage involvement in social justice campaigns that affect their communities, including racial, economic and gender equality. It is a member of the #EraseTheDatabase coalition.

Brighton Park Neighborhood Coalition

A grassroots organization founded in 1997, the Brighton Park Neighborhood Coalition aims to advocate for its inhabitants by increasing accessibility to resources like affordable healthcare, working to eliminate violent crime, encouraging youth to speak out against injustice and to protect the rights of immigrants in their community. It is a member of the #EraseTheDatabase coalition.

Blocks Together

Blocks Together is an organization based in Humboldt Park that works collectively toward enforce racial, social and economic equality on the West Side. It is a member of the #EraseTheDatabase coalition.

Latino Union of Chicago

Founded in 2000, the Latino Union of Chicago is a group that actively advocates for the rights of low-wage workers. It is a member of the #EraseTheDatabase coalition.

UIC Policing In Chicago Research Group

Led by associate University of Illinois at Chicago sociology professor Dr. Andy Clarno, the Policing In Chicago Research Group connects students and faculty at UIC to study the use of advanced data analysis by law enforcement in Chicago and the sharing of that data between local and federal agencies. It works with the #EraseTheDatabase coalition on research and education around the gang database.

MacArthur Justice Center

The MacArthur Justice Center is a civil rights clinic at Northwestern University’s law school that represents those who have had their civil rights violated by the criminal justice system. The MacArthur Justice Center attorneys filed the class-action lawsuit against the city with the Chicagoans for and End to the Gang Database in June. It provides legal assistance to the campaign and represents the Coalition to End the Gang Database’s lawsuit.

Chicago’s Office of the Inspector General

The Office of the Inspector General is an independent city agency that investigates and audits the performance of city services and operations, and determines whether standards are being effectively upheld. In March, it announced its evaluation of the database due to growing public concern and allegations surrounding data inconsistencies and the disproportionate number of individuals of color included in the database.

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April Lane is a Bronzeville-based writer. She spends a sizeable chunk of her free time attending poetry readings and visiting quirky candy stores throughout the city. She last wrote about the Bridgeport neighborhood for the Weekly’s Best of the South Side issue.

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