This story was a finalist for the 2017 “Best in-depth Reporting in a Community Newspaper” Peter Lisagor Award from the Chicago Headline Club
The heart of Mount Greenwood, where I grew up, is 111th Street.
The neighborhood’s Irish Catholic pride beams through the shamrocks and Irish flags painted on the front doors of bars on almost every other block. During the day, small storefronts owned by generations of neighbors welcome shoppers looking for comic books, shoes for your first day of school, floral arrangements, hardware, and even sweaters and jewelry imported from Ireland. Two churches provide the street’s most imposing architecture and its most regular gathering places. If you sit in your backyard, you can hear their bells for Sunday Mass echoing across the whole neighborhood.
The road draws a straight line between a pair of cemeteries whose business helped bring Mt. Greenwood to economic life in the nineteenth century. As de facto borders, they insulate the neighborhood from the southwestern suburbs to the west and the Morgan Park neighborhood to the east.
Mount Greenwood is eighty-nine percent white and eight percent black. More than ninety-five percent of residents at least graduate from high school, and the median household income is nearly double the city average, according to 2012 census data. The neighborhood also bleeds Chicago Police Department (CPD) blue and Chicago Fire Department (CFD) red: because Chicago law dictates that city workers must live within city limits, Mt. Greenwood, which is the city’s southwestern-most community area, is full of police officers and firefighters. Their families line its suburb-like streets, and have done so for decades. Many of those families take pride in the “quietness” of the neighborhood; crime in Mt. Greenwood is nearly nonexistent, but the area is also frequently described as unfriendly to racial minorities. It’s also the only community area in Chicago where a majority of voters chose Donald Trump last Tuesday.
It was here, two weeks ago, that Joshua Beal, a twenty-five-year-old black man from Indianapolis who was in town for a funeral, was shot and killed by an off-duty CPD officer. Since then, Black Lives Matter protestors have clashed with pro-cop, “anti-crime” Blue Lives Matter supporters three times, in a series of events that has disrupted the usual calm of the neighborhood.
The details of what happened on Saturday, November 5 are hazy. The incident is still under official investigation by the city’s Independent Police Review Authority, but, by all accounts, Beal was part of a group of cars leaving a funeral and passing by a fire station on 111th Street. CPD Superintendent Eddie Johnson, who held a press conference near the scene Saturday evening, called it a “road rage incident.”
According to Beal’s family, an off-duty officer in an unmarked car cut off part of the group of cars, leading to the confrontation. Beal’s relatives filmed the encounter and later said that an officer pulled a woman out of one of the cars and pushed her to the ground and put a gun in her face, causing family members to get out of their cars to object. The police report differs, stating that Beal’s car was parked in the way of the firehouse and a firefighter asked him to move before the situation escalated.
Hearing the commotion, an off-duty CPD officer exited a barbershop near the firehouse to see what was going on. Screenshots from a video recorded during the incident appear to show Beal pointing a gun toward the off-duty cop and a sergeant in uniform who had stopped on his way to work. Beal’s family says Beal, of Indianapolis, had a concealed carry permit, but that claim has not been substantiated. Details later emerged that up to four off-duty officers had stopped to monitor the situation and that Beal had a prior road rage-related conviction in Indiana.
Minutes later, Beal was dead after being shot by the off-duty officer. His brother Michael struggled with a cop to gain control of Beal’s gun, allegedly putting him in a headlock. 111th Street was closed for CPD to process the scene. One way or another, there was blood on the street.
“Chicago police gunned my baby down like a vicious animal,” Tiffaney Boxley, Beal’s mother, told reporters through tears.
“It’s unfortunate this incident happened,” said Alderman Matt O’Shea of the 19th Ward, which includes Mt. Greenwood, a few days later. “I believe everyone has seen the photographs. People have seen the video out there. People’s lives were in danger, and unfortunately the officer felt deadly force was needed.”
Organizers with Black Lives Matter Chicago came to Mt. Greenwood Saturday evening, saying they wanted to meet with Beal’s family at the 110th Street & Kedzie Avenue Burger King down the street from the shooting. But Mt. Greenwood residents turned out in droves, largely organized through the community Facebook group “Mt. Greenwood Watch.”
The Black Lives Matter group stayed at the Burger King until police officers asked the manager to close early. Mt. Greenwood residents stood in the parking lot across the street holding American flags. Some passersby heckled the organizers.
This was the first time Black Lives Matter, which has protested police brutality and other racial injustices across the country since 2014, had ever come to Mt. Greenwood. But to residents’ dismay, it wouldn’t be the last.
On Sunday, the conflict continued. Chicago activist Ja’Mal Green held a press conference in front of the Burger King at 110th and Kedzie with Beal’s relatives and approximately twenty-five members of Black Lives Matter Chicago. In response, about 300 Mt. Greenwood community members filled up Mt. Greenwood Plaza at 111th and Kedzie, milling about the stone “Welcome to Mount Greenwood” sign.
This time they held black-and-white American flags with a single blue stripe, the symbol of the Blue Lives Matter police supporter movement, which was formed in New York City in 2014 after two cops were fatally shot. They cheered motorcyclists who drowned out the press conference with their engines. A handful of pit bulls and German shepherds paced in the crowd alongside their owners. One person with a Donald Trump mask carried a baseball bat down the street by the neighborhood’s public library branch.
Some Mt. Greenwood residents nonchalantly stood in the back and talked to each other, as casually as if they were at an early November block party. Why did they come?
“To make sure they don’t loot our stores,” a community member named Laura told me. She only let me record our interview after I mentioned that I was from the neighborhood. “That’s what usually happens when they have their protests. To protect our neighborhood, that’s why. Our businesses, okay? That’s why.”
Several residents I talked to expressed concern over what they’ve seen or heard Black Lives Matter supporters do during their protests, as depicted by many media outlets. While several admitted they’ve never talked to a Black Lives Matter protester, they said they didn’t want any violence or vandalism to happen on their streets, or threats of what they call “CPDK,” or “CPD Killers.” And they thought it was hypocritical of Black Lives Matter to only respond to incidents of whites shooting blacks rather than black-on-black crime.
But overwhelmingly, over the next three hours, that protecting turned into harassing.
As police officers and Chicago Alternative Policing Strategy (CAPS) representatives spoke to Beal’s family members across the street, the crowd shouted out insults and slurs while chanting in support of the police.
“We got some bus money for you here,” a man with the Blue Lives Matter crowd bellowed across the street. “Get on 111th and go east.”
“Over three thousand shot in the city of Chicago! Thank you for your service!” another white man with a red megaphone hollered at a protester carrying a laminated poster with pictures of people killed by Chicago police.
“C’mon, we gotta get home! NASCAR is on!”
“Why don’t you stay out of Mt. Greenwood?”
“Take it to the fucking ghetto!”
Yet another man with a Toys for Tots shirt leaned into a wall of police officers escorting the protesters toward the intersection and sarcastically shouted, “Have a good day, son! You take it easy! Watch your ass!”
Though the crowd was mostly grown white men, I could hear a boy somewhere in the crowd excitedly echoing the residents’ heckling calls of “Goodbye!” to the protesters.
Beal’s relatives shouted at police officers and the Mt. Greenwood residents as tensions escalated precipitously between the groups. One of the relatives, a female teenager, yelled over and over, “Justice for Joshua!”
In response, a white woman leaning on the wrought-iron fence between the two groups replied, “We got justice! He’s fucking dead!”
Michael Tyler, a twenty-nine-year-old student at the University of Illinois at Chicago and a frequent participant in Black Lives Matter protests, said that the group had prepared for the emotional intensity of their visit.
“I never knew it harbored so much hate, so many people who were against diversity, who were with police brutality,” he said as a motorcycle roared beside him on the street. “They say ‘all lives matter’ but I don’t see any black people over there.”
A few feet away, one of Beal’s relatives yelled out, “No one is intimidating me. No. One. So get your motherfucking ass back to where you came from.”
“This is my neighborhood. You go back to where you came from,” Laura, the community member I had spoken to earlier, called back.
Some Mt. Greenwood residents came to 111th and Kedzie just to observe and reflect. “There’s a lot of hate out here,” said Cervante Nicks, who lives down 111th in the suburb of Oak Lawn. “I’m just soaking it in. We’re all people.” Nicks, who is black, said he came out to make sure the protests went peacefully. He didn’t know Beal.
A white woman from the crowd approached him. “I’m sorry that that man got shot,” she said. The two talked about how the woman’s relatives are recently retired CPD officers and how Nicks’s best friends are cops.
“Thank god it’s America and we can all protest peacefully,” the woman said. “We wanted to show an example as Chicagoans supporting our Chicago police. I feel bad for the guy that got shot and killed, too. I talked to his sister.”
Nicks sighed. “It goes too far,” he said. “This is my neighborhood too.”
Now, many neighbors and protestors are wondering what happens next.
“It’ll get worse,” said Tyler, the UIC student. “Activists are gathering. They’re planning rallies. They’ll be here. Once the word gets out what they’re dealing with, they’ll address it accordingly.”
“This feels like shit. It’s going to tear the neighborhood apart,” said Brandon, a thirty-four-year-old white man who’s lived in Mt. Greenwood for his entire life. He was on his front porch listening to the yells and shouts from a few blocks away. “Racist comments ain’t gonna solve shit…. It seemed like Mt. Greenwood was the last safe place to raise a kid.”
In an attempt to diffuse tensions, Alderman O’Shea sent an email to constituents the following day, on November 7. “I urge all 19th Ward residents not to further burden law enforcement by spreading rumors, engaging in speculation, or using divisive rhetoric,” he wrote. “Engaging in any type of dispute with protesters will only fuel conflict and make it more difficult for the police to maintain peace.”
Before the protests, Mt. Greenwood prided itself in being a quiet—some would even say boring—place.
“There’s an old Chinese curse where a person wishes that you live in interesting times,” said Tim Davis, who has owned the comic book store Alternate Reality on the corner of 111th and Kedzie for over 20 years. “Interesting times usually aren’t good times. Boring times usually end up being good times.”
The only other controversy in Mt. Greenwood’s recent history took place a few weeks ago, when O’Shea introduced a plan to reorganize the public schools in the ward. Amid backlash from parents, he quickly dropped the idea.
“People in Mt. Greenwood get upset when they think their kids are going to get threatened, whether it’s someone waving a gun in the middle of the street on a Saturday afternoon…or wanting to bus their kids to another school,” Davis explained.
For Mt. Greenwood residents, boring means stable. Many neighborhood residents are Chicago police officers or firefighters and see plenty of action while they’re on the job. At home, boring can be good.
This version of Mt. Greenwood is the one I grew up in. Over half of the people on my block were city workers, and almost everyone went to the Catholic elementary school, and then graduated from one of the local Catholic high schools. Some of my own relatives are CPD officers. The street next to Mt. Greenwood Park was renamed in honor of a police officer who was shot and killed in the line of duty in 1999 (Honorary Officer John C. Knight Way). Colored ribbons frequently decorate street poles in support of local children battling cancer, a symbol of how tightly bound together the community is.
For almost all who live there, Mt. Greenwood is family.
“I’ve lived on the same three blocks my whole life,” said Pat, a thirty-two-year-old Chicago police officer whom I spoke with while he was waiting for his kids to get out of school. “Everybody gets along and knows each other’s names…. I found a good home and that’s why I stayed. I still know my neighbors from when I grew up.”
“Mt. Greenwood is just a lot of hardworking people trying to mind their own business and get along,” said Peggy Hederman, who will soon celebrate the twenty-fifth anniversary of her Lindy’s Chili & Gertie’s Ice Cream shop on 110th and Kedzie.
“We just don’t want to see any trouble around here,” she added. “I’m sorry that guy died, but I don’t know if it was at his own hands or not.”
But my upbringing in this Mt. Greenwood was just one version of childhood in a neighborhood where racism has persevered over the years.
In high school, I met a girl who grew up on the other side of the cemetery, in Morgan Park. We became close friends but I was surprised I’d never seen her around the neighborhood before. Eventually she told me that her parents had chosen to homeschool her because of the hostility she might find as a black person in Mt. Greenwood schools. Unlike me, she did not go to Mt. Greenwood Park: the last time she had gone, she had been called a “n——”, and the white people she was with had been called “n—— lovers.”
Although this was news to me, it wasn’t new to the neighborhood. A New York Times piece by Isabel Wilkerson from 1992 showcases the contrast between Mt. Greenwood and Roseland, a majority-black neighborhood two miles east on 111th Street.
“I don’t mind them, but I don’t want them living next to me,” said Peggy O’Connor, a waitress and wife of a police officer. “I don’t want to be too close to them. I think they’ve been whining too long, and I’m sick of it.”
Like other Mount Greenwood residents, Mrs. O’Connor is rarely around black people to hear the “whining” personally or to see what the trouble might be. It infuriates her that “blacks buy porterhouse steaks with food stamps, while we eat hamburgers,” she said. She said she had never actually seen any blacks do this. But she has heard and read stories, and that is enough.
But not all Mt. Greenwood residents felt that way about black people: Wilkerson also interviewed William Knepper Sr., who taught eighth grade at my elementary school.
Mr. Knepper…said he never had a bad experience with blacks, and feels sympathetic toward them. “From my experience with them, they’re like us,” the elder Mr. Knepper said. “They have the same goals, the same aspirations, the same fears. When they blame something on racism, I tend to agree with them.”
When Mr. Knepper suddenly passed away, just weeks before our graduation, the community rallied around his family and us, his students. We mourned, but we also soon moved on to high school. Many people ended up at Marist High School, the local co-educational Catholic school.
Now, in the aftermath of Beal’s death, students from that same high school are immersed in their own controversy. After a screenshot of racist text messages sent between senior girls at Marist was posted on a Black Lives Matter activist’s Twitter, BLM Youth organizers planned a demonstration in front of Marist for last Friday afternoon. CPD and Marist security planned to meet them there. (BLM Youth is a different organization than Black Lives Matter Chicago, which staged the original protests the day after Beal’s death.)
Archbishop Blase Cupich, who leads the Archdiocese of Chicago that includes Marist and the city’s other Catholic schools, responded in a statement that, “racism is a sin and has no place in the Church, including the Archdiocese of Chicago.”
Marist officials said they were “devastated” by the behavior of the students and disciplinary action would be taken. They also announced that the school would have comprehensive discussions and trainings in response to the situation.
“This is an education-able moment for the whole community,” Marist principal Larry Tucker told the Tribune. “I think that becomes a reaffirmation of what it means to be Marist, what it means to be a Catholic school.” More than 5,500 signatures have been collected on an online petition asking for the repeal of five students’ expulsion related to the incident, arguing that the girls regretted their messages and that the school should forgive them in the Catholic spirit. Marist officials haven’t said what sort of disciplinary action was taken.
The demonstration didn’t happen, though: Marist administrators cancelled Friday classes and the BLM Youth group called off the event, both citing safety concerns. Instead O’Shea, CPD Superintendent Eddie Johnson, Tucker, and leaders of the BLM Youth group met on Friday to discuss the issues.
“Today, we came one step closer to achieving our goals to confront the injustice seen at Marist High School, but more importantly, the Mt. Greenwood community as a whole,” the BLM Youth organizers said in a statement. “We demanded monthly, transparent meetings for youth so that youth would have a forum for holding police accountable for the promises they make.”
But the organizers of the larger and separate Black Lives Matter Chicago group denounced BLM Youth’s plans. “History has made it perfectly clear that police are designed to enforce Black subjugation,” they said in a statement. On Twitter, the organization said it had “respectfully requested that @BLMYouth cease using the BLM name.”
We respectfully requested that @BLMYouth cease using the BLM name. The continued conflation is dangerous for our work.
— BLMChicago (@BLMChi) November 12, 2016
Election Day marked the start of an era of uncertainty for the nation, but also for Mt. Greenwood. On the evening of Tuesday, November 8, Blue Lives Matter and Black Lives Matter protesters gathered yet again at the corner of 111th Street and Kedzie Avenue. Activist Jedidiah Brown led a Black Lives Matter demonstration and streamed it on Facebook Live, while Blue Lives Matter supporters turned out by the hundreds and shared the video on their own Facebook pages. They clashed in the intersection, with police officers dividing the hostile groups down the middle.
Earlier that morning, I stopped by the polling place at Mt. Greenwood Park to talk to voters. The 19th Ward is known for being home to stalwart down-ballot Democratic voters, but Mt. Greenwood has voted for the Republican presidential nominee in the past few elections. They delivered this year as well: nineteen out of the twenty voting precincts in Mt. Greenwood went for Donald Trump.
A longtime Mt. Greenwood white resident who wished to remain anonymous explained why she voted for Trump. “I think of my pocketbook,” she said. “I don’t trust Clinton, I don’t like her. I’m less ‘Government take care of you,’ more about ‘Take care of yourself.’” Both the national leadership and Chicago chapter of the Fraternal Order of Police, the police union, had endorsed Trump, who called himself the “law and order candidate.” As CPD officers, many Mt. Greenwood residents belong to the FOP.
“When I was knocking on doors, I didn’t get into any higher-office politics,” said Fran Hurley, the incumbent state representative for the 35th District who handily won re-election on Tuesday. She’s white, a Democrat, and has lived in the area her entire life.
When I talked to the business owners whose stores I grew up shopping in and the parents waiting outside the school where I spent my childhood learning, I asked them what they thought Mt. Greenwood’s strengths and weaknesses were. The strengths were overwhelmingly family-oriented: at least three people told me that it’s a great place to raise your kids, with quality schools and affordable housing. Only one person cited the lack of diversity as a potential problem.
“Because of where we live, kids aren’t exposed to diversity as much as they should be,” said Mary Pat Magliano, who’s lived in Mt. Greenwood for the past twenty years.
She was the only resident who brought up diversity to me then, but for the first time the conversation seems to be growing.
After meeting with BLM Youth on Friday, Alderman O’Shea pledged to hold community meetings, prayer vigils, and workshops in Mt. Greenwood to improve “race relations.” Two area churches have already held prayer services to reflect on the situation as a community.
But it’s not a clear path: “Something has to break the spell,” Rev. Tom Conde, the pastor of St. Christina Church on 111th Street, said at a service on Saturday night. “To a certain extent, nobody really knows what to do.”
Marist officials said they have hired professionals to help the school community process the incident and provide training on diversity awareness. Johnson said he would meet regularly with the youth leaders as well as facilitate a Black Lives Matter workshop for the CPD if BLM Youth planned the curriculum.
But for the activists who aided Beal’s family, successfully raised money for his brother’s bond after his arrest for allegedly putting the officer in a headlock, and organized the first protests in Mt. Greenwood, these promises do not represent real change. Black Lives Matter Chicago said in its statement that “freedom cannot be gained by working with our oppressors,” and called BLM Youth’s monthly meetings with Superintendent Johnson “dangerous for the movement.”
It’s hard to say that change will indeed come as a result of some of the aforementioned organizational efforts, let alone for the neighborhood as a whole. As someone who still calls Mt. Greenwood home, I see how comfortable residents are with the neighborhood’s status quo. But as someone shocked by how some of the community responded in the aftermath of Beal’s killing, I have also seen that a move toward changing the racism that permeates Mt. Greenwood might need to start on the individual level.
Jedidiah Brown, who led the Black Lives Matter protest on Election Day, shared a post on his Facebook the next day: “I met a family while in Mt. Greenwood last night who expressed support for CPD and for PEACE. They are joining me for dinner tonight.”
The heart of Mt. Greenwood is still 111th Street. This Sunday, activist and Catholic priest Michael Pfleger and Beal’s cousin will gather with representatives from churches across Chicago at 111th and Kedzie in a protest to “oppose white supremacy [and] stand up against racist mob threats in Mt. Greenwood.”
Community members have already made plans to show up in response, with the Mt. Greenwood Watch Facebook page sharing the event and commenting, “Delusional: Maintaining fixed false beliefs even when confronted with facts, usually as a result of mental illness.”
It’s up to residents to decide whether and how they want to move on, or move forward, from here.