Illustration by Shane Tolentino
Illustration by Shane Tolentino

The Campus Bubble on Chicago’s South Side

The University of Chicago has a long history of dividing itself from the community

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On November 9, Shao Xiong ‘Dennis’ Zheng, a recent graduate of the University of Chicago, was tragically shot and killed during a robbery in Hyde Park. The murder of Zheng, who was described as having had an “extraordinary impact,” sparked concerns about safety and the organization of protests and meetings about increased policing. The University held a virtual conference where administrators and officials detailed their new safety plans, but failed to engage local residents. The plans outlined include added surveillance and more police officers among other measures. 

Assistant Vice President for Safety and Security at the University, Eric Heath, was among the University’s leaders that spoke at the virtual conference, along with CPD Superintendent David Brown, and President Paul Alivisatos. They said that the University had increased both University police (UCPD) and CPD vehicle and foot patrols. They also promised improved emergency communication, increased use of security cameras and license-plate reader, and increased “visibility of officers near campus.” The University also extended their Lyft RideShare program to every day of the week for the rest of the calendar year. A full list of these plans can be found on the U of C website.

The University of Chicago campus is located primarily in Hyde Park, nestled among majority-Black neighborhoods like Washington Park and Woodlawn, which have often been subject to lack of resources, over-policing, and crime. 

The UCPD patrol area extends south from 37th to 64th St., and east from Dusable Lake Shore Drive to Cottage Grove Ave., with the exception of Jackson Park.

Hyde Park and surrounding neighborhoods are already heavily surveilled. Technology like ShotSpotter, which uses audio surveillance to detect gunshots, have resulted in several live microphones and cameras being placed around neighborhoods. Hyper-surveillance could not only invade the privacy of community members, community advocates say, it has been shown to heighten police presence as they are frequently falsely alerted. 

These false alarms have led to unnecessary police stops, avenues for residents to be brutalized by the police. Despite the fact that Chicago has one of the largest ShotSpotter systems, these alerts have not lowered crime or led to significant findings. According to a report released in August by the city’s deputy inspector general for public safety, only a little over nine-percent of the 50,000 ShotSpotter alerts from last January to last May have pointed to gun related offenses.

Local residents feel the University has created a divide between its campus and the local community, with the University of Chicago Police and CPD patrolling the campus perimeter. 

Incoming students are oriented to view the South Side as an unsafe place upon leaving the campus. Safiya Johnson, who graduated from the University of Chicago in 2014, grew up in Roseland on the far South Side. She is also the recruitment retention chair of the Chicago Association of Black Alumni. She lived in Hyde Park for ten years, and she recalled that during new-student orientation, students were presented with hypothetical situations with racist undertones. Students were given scenarios such as encountering a person wearing a hoodie at night, she said.

“It’s like okay, is this dark, hooded figure a Black person? Who is this ‘dark figure’? It was a terrible question, the Black students really didn’t like it so the University started to change the question, and I think they no longer ask that question now to incoming students.”

Although the loss of Zheng life was a genuine tragedy, it was not a new occurrence in the area. These neighborhoods have always struggled with gun violence and crime, and community members are not included in the University’s safety plans. 

While some university students are perhaps rallying against gun violence for the first time in their lives as a result of Zheng’s murder, South Side residents have fought for solutions to gun violence that seldom gets support from most U of C students. GoodKids MadCity (GKMC), an anti gun violence organization started by a group of young activists from the South Side, has been fighting for resources to promote community welfare since 2018. GKMC has been demanding that two percent of the Chicago Police Budget of $1.9 billion be reallocated to fund mental health services and other community resources, as well support for their Peacebook Ordinance to oppose the Chicago Crime Commission’s controversial Gang Book

The Peacebook would provide a directory of resources such as jobs, drug treatment centers, and mental health services to decrease gun violence and youth incarceration.

Around the time GKMC was formed, an updated version of the Gang Book was published and distributed to law enforcement and schools. The book, which profiles Chicago gangs with questionable accuracy, now features a section that includes real social media posts as examples, which could cause more constant surveillance of undeserving communities since people’s photos, names, and the entire book itself are publicly available.  

Care Not Cops, an organization also founded in 2018, has been fighting for the abolition of U of C Police as the result of a U of C student, Charles “Soji” Thomas, being shot by UCPD during a mental health crisis. Their demands include the reallocation of funds for the benefit of Black students of the University as well as life saving resources for the neighborhoods surrounding the school.

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Some students, alums, and residents told the Weekly that Zheng’s murder could have been used as a moment to bridge the gap between the university and the community, yet it seems as though campus protesters were rallying against Black residents. At one protest, students held up signs that said “we are here to learn, not to die.” 

Upon seeing a video captioned with this sign, Clarence Okoh, an equal justice works fellow at the NAACP legal defense fund who graduated from the University in 2014, tweeted, “This could’ve been a moment to mourn and grieve in solidarity with Black South Side families that have experienced the dual crisis of police violence and gun violence for generations…”

“Could’ve been a moment to understand that when a city sends police to wage war on Black people, to torture and kill Black children, to close mental health facilities, shut down schools and destory the social fabric-—that no one can escape the consequences even in the ivory tower.” 

Okoh continued in a thread of tweets: “This stopped being about a particular tragedy and quickly transformed into a pageantry of racist propaganda to dehumanize Black communities. As an alum, I cannot express how furious I am at this shit.”

“The university intentionally orients students to see Black people on the South Side as an ‘other,’ a community to be controlled rather than neighbors, as colleagues, as friends,” Okoh said. “So the moment that crisis hits, these narratives are so easily picked up by the student body that what we need now is to punish those people who are outside causing ‘us’ harm, rather than seeing the entire community as one community that has been failed by the University whose history has created these conditions.

Okoh studies the civil-rights implications of emerging technologies such as artificial intelligence and machine learning. “Things like artificial intelligence, machine learning, and looks at it in the criminal legal space as well as in the economic justice context,” he says. “A lot of that revolves around this new surveillance and the ways in which mass surveillance and surveillance redlining are continuing to deny Black people their basic rights and human dignity.” 

“Now, having gone through law school, it’s kind of horrific that you can have a private police force that is not democratically accountable to the jurisdiction that it polices,” Okoh said, adding that a private police department like UCPD may not have the same requirements of transparency public agencies like CPD do.

 The University of Chicago safety and security site shares a daily crime log, traffic stop reports through the Illinois Department of Transportation’s (IDOT) traffic and pedestrian stop study, crime trends, descriptions of taser usage and more. Still, the law enforcement agencies that report to IDOT are solely responsible for the accuracy of that data

U of C’s efforts to be transparent still spoke to the concerns of Okoh and other Black students and community members. For example, looking at the traffic stop report, UCPD will sometimes stop only Black/African-American motorists for weeks at a time, despite the fact that the University has more white and Asian students than Black students. 

“Call it what it is,” Okoh said of the UCPD, “It’s despotism.” 

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Despotism: the exercise of cruel and oppressive absolute power. Robert Johnson, a second-year law student and president of the Black Law Student Association at the U of C, spoke about the fear this sort of despotism can cause for Black students. 

“Immediately [after news broke of the shooting] I saw what seemed to now be a real concern from the administration about what to do about safety translate into the posting of armed officers and security presence in places where they had not been. That made me personally feel uncomfortable,” he said. 

Robert Johnson is from the South Side. His parents lived in Woodlawn, not too far from the University, and Beverly. He recalls that his father felt a sort of safety from the UCPD when they lived in Woodlawn because of frequent robberies that they’d been victims of. Despite this, there was still an understanding that they weren’t welcome on the University campus. 

Having listened to the town hall meeting after the incident, he thought back to the safety measures Superintendent Brown suggested. “Part of one of the things he suggested [was] increasing the communication about suspicious personnel reports,” he said. He said ‘that’s not going to be racial profiling, but it’s going to be increased communication about these things, increased enforcement of these laws that are on the books.’” 

“But we know what that means in practice, right? We know who tends to fit this suspicious character profile. I’ve got twists [in my hair]. If I’m walking around on campus in sweats because I’m tired and it’s finals and I’m just wandering around and it’s dark outside, am I now the suspicious person? That’s my immediate thought.” 

“I’ve seen that even in my own neighborhood growing up in Beverly. I know what that looks like, when it’s your space but it’s not really your space.” He said community members are under a magnifying glass of over-policing as they try to go about their lives.

Just as Okoh and Safiya Johnson remember being oriented in fear of the surrounding neighborhoods, although Robert did not attend the University for undergrad, his friends who did also had a similar experience. They were told, for example, not to go past Cottage Grove or further south than 61st. 

“There seems to be this clear understanding that you don’t take the Red Line, you don’t take the Green Line, and you take the Six [bus] to get back to campus at night. Then U of C started having more shuttles. Now U of C has a Lyft rideshare program.” Safiya said. 

The University also has a portion of its site dedicated to safety advice for students where they offer tips, a Safe Zone at the UCPD headquarters, and barcodes for electronic items so they can be tracked if stolen. The University also offers self-defense classes to students, staff, and faculty, but not community members. 

“I think the University bred this sense of fear amongst students.” Safiya Johnson said. 

Safiya worked in the admissions office during Donald Trump’s presidency and when former President Trump continued to make negative remarks about Chicago, the University saw a decrease in applications. 

“As an admissions counselor, you have Black students coming with different concerns. I had a mother stop me [and] ask me ‘this is my Black son, what can you tell him, how should he navigate safety on campus? This was after the Laquan McDonald video came out, so I knew what this mother was referencing. She was asking how can her son not be another Laquan?” 

Safiya told that her son needed to keep his student I.D. on him at all times. She also advised him to wear U of C clothing and paraphernalia. 

“Even that doesn’t stop you from being harassed by UCPD. I know plenty of Black boys who have been stopped and questioned by UCPD just for being Black in the neighborhood,” Safiya said. “They have had students report them as being suspicious, and now they don’t believe in just sitting outside, they have to always be moving. They prefer to only meet up with you if you’re already at the location because the [way] the University polices them.” 

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Okoh recalls that when he was in student leadership roles, many conversations he had with University administrators were about the need to rethink their relationship with the surrounding communities. “And the University’s talking points were ‘look, we understand the need to be more thoughtful neighbors…we have all of these resources that are designed to try and engage with [the] social problems that plague the South Side…’ and it was just completely ignoring what community folks were telling us.” 

“When I was young the big struggle was around healthcare and access to a level one trauma center.” Okoh said. The U of C trauma center was closed in 1988 because the university was losing money by treating uninsured community members. They did not have a level-one trauma center again until 2018

Lacking a trauma center meant that although members of the surrounding communities were often victims of gunshot wounds, they could not be treated at the University and hospital that occupied a large chunk of their neighborhood. 

“So you had a very clearly articulated community demand, you had young people from the South Side coming to the University, holding these protests, engaging with student groups, talking to us, saying this is what we need of the University of Chicago,” Okoh said. “And it took years.” 

Okoh recalls that, ironically, in 2010 an activist named Damian Turner in 2010 he was shot around the corner from U of C, but the ambulance could not take him there because they did not have a level-one trauma center. Turner  might have lived if he didn’t have to be taken all the way to Northwestern, where he was pronounced dead. Northwestern is roughly eight miles from the U of C Hospital, a drive that can take thirty minutes or more. It can take as little as five minutes for a gunshot wound victim to bleed out. Research shows that a person is over twenty-percent more likely to die if they are shot more than five miles away from a hospital with a trauma center. 

Members of the communities surrounding the University of Chicago could not afford the care they needed when they were victims of the inevitable violence that was out of their hands, so instead they paid for it with their lives for thirty years. Within the first month of opening the trauma center, the University treated 274 adult patients

As these alumni and students share similar thoughts, it may seem the University of Chicago views what is required for safety much differently than its Black students and the members of the surrounding communities. “You’re protecting property, you’re protecting white people, you’re protecting students who pay a lot of money to go here.” Safiya Johnson said. 

Local communities often view U of C as a bubble that insulates itself and has caused others to feel alienated and targeted.

Correction, December 20, 2021: A previous version of this story incorrectly stated that the 2022 CPD budget was 1.9 million, instead of 1.9 billion. We regret this mistake.

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Chima Ikoro is the Community Organizing section editor at the Weekly. She last reported on mutual-aid projects.

4 Comments

  1. Much of this article is frankly quite biased and misleading.
    I don’t know where the claim that the university fails to engage local communities in its new safety measures comes from. Here’s a report on a recent in-person round-table between university leaders, the mayor and community leaders, where they addressed community-level initiatives such as youth programs and mental health resources. The CEO of Urban League was present and their comment at the round-table is literally quoted here (https://news.uchicago.edu/story/university-alivisatos-lori-lightfoot-david-brown-community-south-side-violence-prevention?utm_source=uc_newsletter&utm_medium=email&utm_campaign=UChicago_News_M11_23_2021&mkt_tok=MjUwLUNRSC05MzYAAAGA7LeazS3PAsaHvY-CM11e2AU3cWeANa66JZ_eaD5XyDB67RqhDIUU1VEHOrlWLRTbMXFxGIABNrqX4uSKqmPr_iQJcPgOaYVbsK2jQNDlaxWt).
    In a recent podcast, the director of UChicago’s Crime Lab also pointed out the effectiveness of social programs, such as Becoming A Man by Youth Guidance (a nonprofit in Chicago) in crime prevention and urged more efforts along that direction. The university’s Community Service Center has thousands of students participate in local organizations over the years. The Polsky Center of Entrepreneurship and Innovation also has plenty of projects that help local businesses grow. Neither the student body, nor the rally organizers, ever denied the significance of community-level initiatives. The rally organizers explicitly asked for UCPD accountability.

    For all its denunciation of UCPD, has the South Side Weekly done any survey on whether Hyde Park residents actually want to abolish the UCPD (many of whom are themselves Hyde Park residents)? Do Hyde Park residents believe that everyone will be better off without UCPD’s additional patrol in the neighborhood right now, considering the recent surge of violence in Chicago? This is not to say that problems with policing in this country and this neighborhood should be overlooked, but is UCPD the source of all evil, incapable of reform, and disbanding them IS the solution to rising crime rates, which everyone currently suffers the most from?

    By the way, the CTA bus drivers are also protesting today, demanding more “safety”–their literal words. They are asking to have police or their own security guards on CTA buses, because they are getting attacked and do not feel safe driving around Chicago. Is this protest also laden with “racist undertones” because the protesters fail to mention community resources or Defund in how they voice their most urgent needs–to be safe?

    The root issue here is rising crimes and gun violence in Chicago. These are incredibly challenging socio-political issues that require both rigorous academic studies and community efforts. The university needs the neighboring community just as the neighboring community needs the university. Promoting the rhetoric that the university and its students are the “enemy” and the source of all evil is certainly not going to help solve the problem. I don’t know what the author hopes to accomplish with this article other than further inflaming existing distrust between the university and the south side neighborhoods.

  2. UChicago has always been a part of the hyde park community. I come from 4 generations of black Hyde Parkers and south siders who appreciate all that the University has done for the neighborhood. It’s brought businesses, schools, community centers, arts fairs, and nice parks throughout the area. Most community members are affiliated with or grew up with the university having a big impact on their lives, so I’m not sure where this bubble concept comes from

    In terms of policing, the University seems to be committed to involving the greater southside and community organizations in every recent policy plan for policing. Check their most recent letter from the president about safety for more info about that commitment. I agree with the other commenter about policing— it’s always going to be difficult to balance policing needs with the needs of the black community, and discrimination is nothing to overlook. That being said, UCPD is much better than CPD, and they’re definitely trying to work towards more long term community based solutions for safety

    In regards to transportation, I dont know why it’s considered wrong for the university to warn it’s students about taking the green and red line from garfield. My parents and I both grew up being told not to ride those lines because frankly, they’re not safe. I’ve witnessed multiple muggings and fights on those trains just this past year. There’s a lot of drug use and violence that goes on within the cars, and it’s important students take that into account. The university doesn’t even tell students not to ride those lines, in fact, students get a mandatory U-Pass that only works for trains and buses, and as a student myself, I feel more encouraged to take the CTA because its free. The uchicago buses and lyfts are a necessary safety measure for students when crime is up, and doesn’t wall off students from the rest of the community in any way shape or form. Arguably, it keeps students MORE linked into the community by offering safe ways to get around the area at night

    The university has a legal duty to keep its students safe, and every forum and program they have in place suggests they’re trying very hard to keep the larger community in mind when making policies. It’s not the university’s responsibility to change a decades long trend of high crime on the south side that can be attributed to so many factors beyond university control. All they can do is offer community support (which they do, and are looking to expand), and make sure their students are safe. So much of this article is false or warped information. The university isn’t perfect, but claiming they’re forming some kind of bubble or that they tell students anything racist about the south side is just plain false.

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