Op-Ed: Chicago’s Overpoliced Neighborhoods Will Remain “Occupied” Until the City Defunds CPD

Simon Balto’s history of police in Black Chicago shows why CPD can’t be reformed

This piece is part of a series that explores the various perspectives around defunding the police.

The book Occupied Territory: Policing Black Chicago from Red Summer to Black Power, published last year, details the history of the Chicago Police Department’s quasi-military occupation of the city’s Black communities from the race riots of 1919 through the present day. Author Simon Balto, an assistant professor of African American history at the University of Iowa, demonstrates that “there is not a time in Chicago’s history where the city was home to large percentages of black people, and in which they had a smoothly functioning relationship with the CPD.” While most histories of mass incarceration start around the “War on Drugs” or “War on Crime” eras, Balto shows that those years’ massive investments towards expanding and militarizing America’s police forces had such devastating effects precisely because the police had already gained decades of experience working as the hired enemies of Black people, in the words of James Baldwin

CPD was formally founded in 1853, at a time when local economic and political elites were eager to control the city’s growing population of immigrants who they believed to be unruly and immoral. As labor leaders and progressives organized for better working conditions and economic security throughout the mid-to-late nineteenth century, the police were a tool to suppress these movements and keep people from questioning the socioeconomic and racial status quo—a function that the police continue to serve today, as we saw in the police violence during mass protests in response to the police murders of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Tony McDade, and others. This is even acknowledged in the book by the police themselves—Balto quotes an interview with former CPD Superintendent Leroy Martin in which he said, “What police work does, all over the nation, is to try to protect the city’s economic interests… basically just trying to contain the problems that occur in a geographical area, trying to make sure that the parts of the city that work continue to work, and in those parts that don’t work trying to keep the level of violence down and under control.” 

Further, in the face of obscene white racial terrorism leading up to and including the 1919 race riots, Balto describes how “members of the CPD repeatedly proved themselves to be defenders of whiteness and the color line, rather than protectors of all life and livelihood.” Even though twice as many Black people were killed and injured during the riots (which were started by white people and enabled by police inaction), twice as many Black people were arrested and indicted. Throughout the years that followed, including Prohibition and the Depression, the CPD was rampant with corruption and abuse, criminalizing entire Black neighborhoods and subjecting them to indiscriminate arrests and brutality. 

Throughout the middle part of the century, Chicago’s Black population grew from about 8.2 percent to 32.7 percent. At the same time, from 1945 to 1970, the city’s police budget grew 900 percent and the CPD doubled the number of cops on the streets. Throughout this period, CPD really earns the title Balto gave the book: arrest quotas, “neighborhood saturation,” stop and frisk, and torture systematically terrorized—and through fines and fees, and collateral consequences (legal restrictions on accessing housing, public benefits, jobs, etc. for people with criminal records)—impoverished entire communities. Because policing in Chicago was fundamentally racist from the beginning, as Occupied Territory demonstrates, these huge investments in criminalization had devastating effects for Black and brown Chicagoans. White arrest numbers dropped eighty-eight percent from the 1950s to the 2010s, while Black arrest rates skyrocketed—driving Black/white arrest disparities to rates of around seven-to-one by 1998 in a city with roughly equal proportions of Black and white people.  

The Cook County criminal legal system was not the only feature of racial capitalism that exploited the city’s growing Black population—the real estate industry also made billions through redlining, contract buying, and other public-private partnerships. Further, throughout the “urban crises” of the 1960s and the economic and political crises of the 1970s, Balto details how policymakers at all levels hollowed out essential government services while shoveling money towards death making institutions like police and prisons. He writes that, mirroring the federal government’s spending priorities, “the city threw increasing amounts of money at the police department while declining to invest in programs that would alleviate misery, reduce poverty, and enhance opportunity.”

 The most powerful resistance in this period came from groups like the Black Panthers, whose radical politics and mutual aid programs helped thousands in their communities even as they had to dedicate significant organizational resources to defending themselves from racist repression from the CPD and FBI. The chapters detailing the work of the Panthers throughout the turmoil of the 1960s, including the police riot at the 1968 Democratic convention and the murders of Fred Hampton and Mark Clark in 1969, are Balto’s most prophetic. He details how “the Panthers didn’t have to tell community members to dislike or distrust the police, as if those sorts of sentiments were foreign to the West or South Sides… But what the Panthers did do was lift those grievances high into the public arena, infuse them with a more radical critique of capitalism and exploitation, and formulate specific strategies around them.” Two of the most important of those political strategies were campaigns calling for community control of the police, and for the city to redirect funds from the ballooning police budget towards community resources like schools, housing, healthcare, and jobs programs. Unfortunately, the Panthers were not able to get these policies enacted, but today there are powerful movements in the city for these same demands

One of the many reasons why Balto’s book is so crucial is the way that he demonstrates how Black Chicagoans have resisted CPD repression for as long as it has existed, from the NAACP and Chicago Freedom Movement to the Black Panthers to We Charge Genocide. While we have already experienced the familiar moralizing about “riots” in the wake of the latest uprisings, Balto shows that such direct action has always been political; “Whether black Communists in the 1930s or the Black Panthers in the 1960s and 1970s or Black Lives Matter activists in the 2010s, mainstream opinion-makers have consistently tried to discredit criticisms of the police and the larger socioeconomic system that they protect as hovering at the extreme intellectual and political margins. But then as now, what those activists were doing was not so much telling people what to think about the police as they were channeling opinions that large sections of the community already held.” The fact is that these uprisings will continue for as long as the structural conditions exist that allow police to occupy communities and kill and brutalize with impunity, as Balto’s comprehensive history demonstrates. 

The 2020 CPD budget was appropriated 1.6 billion, which is around forty percent of the city’s general operating budget—many times more than what the city spends on violence prevention programs, housing, healthcare, jobs programs, transportation, or any other of the other essential government services that benefit peoples’ lives. Further, $153 million of that $1.6 billion total was set aside just for police misconduct lawsuits. Consequently, as police continue to oppress primarily Black and brown Chicagoans and miss over seventy percent of the consent decree deadlines, many grassroots groups are calling for the defunding of the Chicago Police Department

In the wake of the protests, the Chicago Torture Justice Center released a statement in which they called for reparations and the divestment of fifty percent of CPD’s budget, with the money reinvested in public health, mental health, education, and housing in Black communities. This demand, called invest-divest by the Movement for Black Lives, is being made across the country, including grassroots groups like Black Visions Collective in Minneapolis who demanded the defunding of the Minneapolis Police Department (MPD) to facilitate investment in community-led safety initiatives—leading to a veto-proof majority of the city council pledging to disband the MPD. In Chicago, the City Council’s Democratic Socialist Caucus has asserted that “cutting funding for police could lead to a better and safer Chicago,” but Mayor Lori Lightfoot has rejected defunding and instead touted incremental reforms, which fail to shift power and resources from policing and imprisonment to communities

In a New York Times op-ed, writer Philip V. McHarris and organizer Thenjiwe McHarris point out that the Minneapolis Police Department is often held up as a model for “procedural justice” and liberal police reform—having implemented implicit bias training, body cameras, and community policing—and yet George Floyd was still murdered by an officer who was able to rack up a lengthy misconduct record with virtual impunity. They assert, “The focus on training, diversity and technology like body cameras shifts focus away from the root cause of police violence and instead gives the police more power and resources. The problem is that the entire criminal justice system gives police officers the power and opportunity to systematically harass and kill with impunity. The solution to ending police violence and cultivating a safer country lies in reducing the power of the police and their contact with the public.” 

As uprisings against police violence have once again erupted in Chicago and throughout the nation, Balto’s book is an essential hundred-plus year history that demonstrates that there is no reforming CPD—the department must be defunded in the immediate term and made obsolete in the long term. As McHarris and McHarris put it, “We need to reimagine public safety in ways that shrink and eventually abolish police and prisons while prioritizing education, housing, economic security, mental health and alternatives to conflict and violence.” Considering the thoroughly and unceasingly racist and oppressive history of CPD that Occupied Territory lays out, and the continuing failures to “reform” the department, the only way forward is to heed the calls to defund the police and invest in community

Simon Balto, Occupied Territory: Policing Black Chicago from Red Summer to Black Power. $29.95. The University of North Carolina Press. 360 pages

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Bobby Vanecko is a contributor to the Weekly. He is a law student at Loyola University Chicago. He last wrote in May about the Bring Chicago Home and Right to Recovery movements.

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