On the night of April 3, an officer of the University of Chicago Police Department (UCPD) shot a student in the grips of a mental health crisis. Charles Thomas, who had been wielding a metal pole and smashing windows, and who the officer identified as undergoing a mental health crisis before shooting him in the shoulder, was taken to Northwestern Memorial Hospital in Streeterville to receive treatment. Over the following two weeks, he was charged with eight felonies, including assaulting a police officer.
The shooting reignited efforts by student activists at the University of Chicago (UofC) and other groups to demand changes to the UCPD’s policies and practices, and to bring adequate mental health care to the school and surrounding areas. While previous attempts, headed by the Campaign for Equitable Policing, were reformist in nature and called for increased transparency and accountability, some organizers are now asking for what many have wanted for the last five years: to disarm, defund, and disband the UCPD.
UChicago United and UChicago Student Action, two campus student activist groups, joined under umbrella movement #CareNotCops and organized a list of demands and a series of rallies which culminated in a twenty-hour action on June 1-2, when over one hundred people marched, chanted, and occupied campus space. Organizers achieved one of their goals—meeting with UofC Provost Daniel Diermeier—on June 12, but came away from the meeting disappointed; UofC spokesperson Marielle Sainvilus, meanwhile, described the meeting as “productive.”
Beyond pushing for specific demands, organizers focused on placing the shooting and a troubled UCPD history within the broader context of police violence in Chicago and across the country—a connection more relevant than ever in light of a Portland State University police officer’s recent fatal shooting of a Black Navy veteran who was trying to break up a fight. PSU’s board of trustees voted to arm the campus police force four years ago, and its students are calling for disarmament.
While members of the Hyde Park, Kenwood, Woodlawn, and Bronzeville communities have long debated and questioned the practices and even purpose of the UCPD, the campus police force has increased in size and jurisdiction over time. The recent shooting and the response by campus and community organizations have rallied students and residents to question what creating a safe community really means—and whether the police should have anything to do with it.
A BRIEF HISTORY OF UCPD REFORM
The UCPD is the one of the largest private police forces in the country, with ninety-five officers, $5.5 million in annual funding according to a 2012 Chicago Maroon article (Sainvilus said the number is not “reliable” but declined to provide any further information), and a jurisdiction that extends from South Cottage Grove Avenue to the west to South Lake Shore Drive to the east, reaching from 37th Street to 64th Street. To the 65,000 people that live in this area—the vast majority of whom are not affiliated with the UofC—the UCPD has become a daily presence.
But it was not always so. The UCPD was formed in the 1960s, when the university upgraded its fledgling security department into a real police force. The UCPD and its earlier iterations were tasked with stopping and preventing crimes around campus to make the school more appealing for students and their parents, especially after a string of high-profile sexual assaults in the late 60s and early 70s, according to a 2014 report in the Gate, a publication of the UofC’s Institute of Politics.
The UCPD has long been viewed as a function of the urban renewal agenda the UofC has employed since the 1950s. To shape Hyde Park and its surrounding neighborhoods, the UofC created and funded organizations to encourage and discourage different groups of people to live in its sphere of influence, such as the South East Chicago Commission—the actions of which displaced thousands of Black Hyde Park, Kenwood, and Woodlawn residents—as well as the UCPD.
To some, the UCPD has played a role in creating a barrier between the majority-white student population and the majority-Black surrounding communities. As early as the 1960s, university officials were aware of the community’s sense that the UCPD was racially biased in who it stopped. The push to decrease crime came at the cost of exclusion and trauma for Black residents, especially young people who were more likely to be considered suspicious.
In 2013, Ava Benezra, then a student at UofC who led workshops at Hyde Park Career Academy through the Invisible Institute’s Youth/Police Program, heard from some of her students that they were being routinely stopped and harassed by the UCPD. Upon introducing these complaints to the student activism group South Side Solidarity Network (SSN), now UChicago Student Action (UCSA), Benezra and others began hearing stories of the UCPD’s harassment of community members and students, particularly Black students, on campus.
Frustration with these practices led to the founding of the Coalition for Equitable Policing (CEP) in 2013, later changed to Campaign for Equitable Policing, a collection of UofC students and community members who wanted to bring attention to the perceived injustice of UCPD practices. For its first event, CEP hosted a “Speak Out” on campus where students shared their experiences with the UCPD—many of them unpleasant.
CEP soon began pushing for increased transparency and accountability. While the Illinois Private Campus Police Act of 1992 grants private universities the power to create campus police departments with similar powers as municipal police forces, it does not extend to those private police forces the same mechanisms of public accountability. The UCPD is not subject to the Illinois Freedom of Information Act (FOIA), allowing it to keep information about complaints against officers and uses of force secret, and to tightly control the release of information about its operating policies. To obtain arrest records, inquirers have to mail in a form or bring one in person.
“These people are being policed [by] something they have no control over,” said Octavia Shaw, a former member of CEP, about the tens of thousands of people who fall under the UCPD’s jurisdiction but live outside campus boundaries.
In 2014, CEP circulated a petition with demands for better transparency and accountability around the UCPD and demanded to meet with university officials. CEP called on UofC to “establish a process for the release of information” that would mirror the processes outlined in FOIA, to release the UCPD’s “current policies and any subsequent changes to these policies, as they may occur,” and to reform the complaint process overseen by the Independent Review Committee (IRC), a group of students, faculty, and community members appointed by the provost tasked since 2005 with reviewing complaints made about the UCPD.
In the beginning, CEP’s organizing efforts were largely centered around attempts to meet with administrators to discuss areas for improvement in the UCPD. But according to Benezra, UofC officials repeatedly declined to meet the demands because, as a private police force with responsibility only to the UofC, they were not legally required to release more information.
At that point, Benezra and the other organizers realized they needed to exert more pressure. CEP began working with local elected officials such as state Representatives Christian Mitchell and Barbara Flynn Currie, who, in 2015, introduced an amendment to the Private College Campus Police Act in the Illinois House of Representatives. The bill formalized the CEP’s calls for transparency and accountability and would have required the UCPD to “disclose to the public any information that a law enforcement agency would have to disclose under the Freedom of Information Act.” However, while it was still in the House, Currie amended the bill to prevent the release of information usually open to the public, like security footage and most disciplinary records. Despite this, the House passed the bill unanimously. Currie didn’t respond to a request for comment by press time.
But in the Senate, the bill ran into roadblocks. State Senator Kwame Raoul, who represents nearly every person within the UCPD’s patrol boundaries and is now the Democratic nominee for Attorney General—and who was the bill’s sponsor in the senate—introduced another amendment that would have allowed the Attorney General’s office to subpoena officials of private campus police departments in appeals of denied requests, which goes beyond the appeals process for all other public bodies under FOIA.
By this point, transparency advocates had turned against the bill. “There was a worry that legislative negotiation conceded too much,” Invisible Institute director Jamie Kalven, who fought for years to secure the public status of investigations into Chicago Police officers and was a member of the IRC from 2007 to 2011, told the Maroon in May. “‘The principle won’t apply to this type of records, won’t apply to that type of record,’ to the point where the emerging legislation would be worse than the status quo.” He, and representatives of other transparency groups, filed witness slips against the bill and Raoul’s amendment. (Raoul didn’t respond to multiple requests for comment by press time.)
Raoul’s amendment was voted down in the Senate Judiciary Committee and a third reading of the bill was never held, thus preventing a final vote and effectively killing it. Benezra and other organizers believe the UofC lobbied against the bill, contributing to its failure, although it never submitted any witness slips against the bill. When asked by the Weekly if the UofC took a position on the bill, Sainvilus replied in an email, “The University typically does not comment on specific legislation.” However, Currie told the Gate in May that the UofC “was not real keen” on the provisions of Raoul’s amendment, and that senators reviewing the bill caricatured it as “the beginning of the end of the idea of private institutions.”
Ultimately, though, CEP’s efforts were not in vain. Prior to the bill passing the House, the university announced it would begin releasing some data on UCPD practices, including traffic stops and “field interviews,” the UCPD’s term for on-foot investigatory stops. The data, though much more limited in scope than what a traditional law enforcement agency is required to release, allowed the community some insight into the force that policed them.
In many cases, the data seemed to confirm the community’s suspicions about racial profiling and harassment. The Chicago Reporter found that in the ten months after the data on field interviews was released, Black people made up over ninety percent of the stops but less than sixty percent of the population within the jurisdiction.
Fountain Walker, the UCPD’s chief at the time, addressed the discrepancy by saying that two-thirds of the stops were initiated by community members, not the UCPD, and that this represented the UCPD’s commitment to community needs.
Since then, the UCPD has continued to stop and question Black people at disproportionately high rates compared to the demographics of the jurisdiction. In 2016, every single person the UCPD stopped for a recorded field interview was Black, according to a report from the Illinois Department of Transportation (IDOT). In 2017, over ninety-four percent of people stopped for field interviews were Black.
The Weekly made similar findings in its review of traffic stop data, obtained from IDOT. From 2010 to 2015, the percentage of UCPD traffic stops that were of Black people ranged from seventy-one to seventy-seven percent. In the months leading up to Thomas’s shooting, the number of traffic stops increased drastically. According to a Weekly review, the first five months of 2018 saw a 343 percent increase in traffic stops compared to the same months in 2017. A Weekly review of the published data also found that the amount of traffic stops occurring outside of the UofC’s core campus area—defined by the Weekly as the area between Cottage Grove and Stony Island Avenues, and 60th and 55th Streets—has steadily increased since 2015, reaching over forty percent of total stops by May.
When asked to explain the increase, Sainvilus wrote that 2017 was a low year for traffic stops. In response to showing that the 2018 traffic stops were significantly higher than 2016 and 2015 as well, Sainvilus wrote that “as community expectations have increased, so has UCPD’s enforcement activity.”
THE RUN-AROUND GAME
CEP continued to organize after the bill failed to pass, but momentum slowed down. Jessica Law, a UofC student who was involved with the initial CEP movement and currently organizes with #CareNotCops, explained that the people involved with CEP graduated while underclassmen were generally less aware of the racial justice issues around the UCPD.
Another obstacle to organizing underclassmen was UofC’s emphasis on safety in its marketing to parents and prospective students. Shaw, as one of the founding members of CEP, found it difficult to introduce a new movement to the student body. “There’s so much narrative that the university puts out that’s hard to combat,” Shaw said.
Meanwhile, UofC’s response to the movement frustrated efforts and dissipated energy for reform. Organizers were repeatedly granted meetings with administrators without decision-making powers, which some characterized as a stalling tactic the university employs to this day. Often, the people that organizers met with either did not have jurisdiction over the demands that organizers asked for, or refused to negotiate. “They love to play the run-around game,” Shaw said.
Sofia Butnaru, who was involved with CEP, thinks that the university releasing some of the data was a strategic move to draw attention away from the issue.
“I think that’s what the University of Chicago does really well,” she said. “They will send out an email asking you to fill out a survey about mental health, they will release certain new [information about] stops, and then the student body will sort of be depoliticized and two years later, they end up shooting a person in a mental health crisis. And that is completely preventable.”
The university has deployed heavy-handed tactics in response to other organized campaigns. The Trauma Center Coalition, which fought for the construction of a trauma center at the UofC Medical Center, repeatedly staged sit-ins on campus to compel officials with decision-making power to meet with them. The UofC responded with the UCPD in many cases, as officers dragged protesters out and arrested them for trespassing. During one sit-in in January 2013, UCPD officers tackled demonstrator Toussaint Losier, at the time a graduate student, and began beating him while he was on the ground, other demonstrators told the Maroon.
In another memorable incident that year, the UCPD was caught infiltrating a trauma center protest with an undercover officer who was wearing campaign stickers and texting her superior updates about the situation. At the time, UCPD and UofC officials commissioned a report that pinned the blame for the protest infiltration on the officer’s supervisor, claimed he made a rogue decision, and fired him. However, two months ago, a Cook County jury sided with the supervisor in a lawsuit claiming the plan to infiltrate the protest emanated from top officials of the UCPD—including then-Chief Marlon Lynch and then-Deputy Chief Kevin Booker, who now leads the University of Illinois at Chicago’s police department—according to court documents obtained by the Maroon. The UofC is contesting that jury decision.
According to Kofi Ademola, an organizer with Black Lives Matter Chicago and Good Kids Mad City, one of the strengths of the trauma center campaign was that it lasted so long. “[The UofC] didn’t foresee this being a [fight] for this long,” he said. “They were hoping after, you know, a year or so of resistance from them not capitulating, not bargaining, not negotiating or whatever, that they would see us kind of walk away defeated.”
Still, maintaining a campaign of that intensity for so long came at a price. “[The campaign] cost people money, time, resources, trauma,” Ademola said.
Organizers say the UofC uses these tactics against protesters to exhaust efforts and obstruct momentum. “I think for the administration, they would prefer that people just forgot about this,” said Law.
CEP’s battle for better transparency and accountability, met with resistance by university officials at every step, only scratched the surface of what organizers wanted to achieve. “I think we decided on [those demands] initially…because we knew that we could build a coalition of local business owners and community groups and local elected officials around those demands,” Benezra said.
Shaw explained that many organizers, including herself, wanted to start CEP’s organizing in 2013 with calls to defund, disarm, and disband the UCPD. “But I guess we felt we had to walk before we could run,” she said.
Now, in the wake of the shooting, organizers see a space for a more radical agenda. “The recent [incidents] on campus have lit a spark under people,” Shaw said, “but I think that there is an opportunity there to make more courageous demands than just transparency and accountability.”
Benezra agreed. Reflecting on the work that CEP did, she encouraged organizers to worry less about what they deem to be ‘winnable’ and more on what the community needs immediately. “If I could go back now, I guess I would say don’t worry about making reasonable demands,” she said. “Ask for what we want and what the community deserves.”
FROM WINNABLE TO RADICAL
Following the shooting of Charles Thomas, campus groups responded quickly with a list of demands and an on-campus rally. UChicago United launched the #CareNotCops campaign and sent a petition with nearly 2,000 signatures to UofC President Robert Zimmer on April 5. For the June action, UChicago Student Action, which CEP had folded into in 2016 and had been separately organizing around the shooting, became part of the coalition.
In addition to repeating the call for transparency and accountability, #CareNotCops demanded that the university disarm the UCPD, reduce its funding and jurisdiction, give the IRC more power and independence from the University, and provide better mental health services on campus and throughout the community.
The push for mental health services was particularly poignant in light of Thomas’s shooting. Thomas had been trying to get mental healthcare through the University’s Student Counseling Services prior to the shooting, but was referred off-campus due to SCS’s understaffing.
In the petition, #CareNotCops called on the UofC to fully fund mental health resources for both university affiliates and the broader community, including improved counseling services with a larger and more diverse staff, reduced wait times, the end of forced leaves of absence for students, and a trauma-informed crisis intervention and response team separate from the UCPD.
The renewed demands for transparency and accountability continued CEP’s efforts and responded directly to the shooting. Even as the University decided to publish the body camera footage within 24 hours of the shooting and allow a writer from the Gate to spend twenty hours typing out, line by line, eight of the UCPD’s fifty General Orders, the writer pointed out the difficulty involved in viewing the GOs and the lack of legal requirements for the UofC to publish the footage. While Raoul, among others, praised the UofC for releasing the footage of the shooting so quickly, the Gate and others argued that had the video been more damning, perhaps the University would have waited or declined to go public altogether.
In a campus-wide July 10 email from UofC’s Associate Vice President of Safety and Security Eric Heath, a new set of UCPD reporting practices was announced: one of them was the decision to make many of the GOs public on the UCPD’s website. The decision to publish the GOs, Sainvilus wrote, was “made as part of the [UCPD]’s overall transparency initiative to provide extensive information on the activities of its police department.”
Many organizers view the UCPD’s policies around keeping certain kinds of information secret as unacceptable and potentially harmful for residents. “You know there’s the obvious ‘don’t break the law’ law, but what gets you in trouble with the UCPD, as a non-university-affiliated person? You don’t know,” said Shaw. Since 1997, the UCPD has been the arresting law enforcement agency in the cases of over 140 people prosecuted in Cook County, according to data obtained by the Weekly from the State’s Attorney’s Office. Many of those arrested and prosecuted were likely not students.
#CareNotCops also demanded the university grant the UCPD’s Independent Review Committee more power and let the community appoint members. Many organizers view the IRC as significantly flawed in its ability to hold the UCPD accountable. Currently, the thirteen members of the IRC—students, faculty, and community members—are appointed by the provost (prior to 2015, the student members were recommended by UofC’s student government, which protested losing that privilege) and tasked with reviewing the UCPD’s internal investigation into some complaints made about officers’ conduct. In the event that the IRC sustains a complaint, it has the option to recommend disciplinary action for the offending UCPD officer.
By most measures, the IRC is a poor vehicle for police accountability. Not only are most of its members affiliated with UofC and appointed by the provost, it’s unclear what effect, if any, its recommendations have on how UCPD handles internal investigations of its officers. Organizers are skeptical that reforming the IRC will deliver the kind of accountability they want, but as Law put it, the IRC “is one form of accountability that already exists and could be made better.”
The IRC reviews complaints brought against UCPD officers that fall under categories of excessive force, violation of rights, abusive language, or dereliction of duty; all other complaints are “investigated internally by the Department of Safety and Security and addressed as personnel matters,” according to Sainvilus. While the IRC doesn’t publish or otherwise make public the case details of its reviews, it does publish an annual report and anonymized case log, which together provide a small look into the UCPD’s disciplinary process.
According to the most recent annual report, published this April, between 2005 and 2017, there were 160 complaints filed against UCPD officers, 119 of which were determined to be within the IRC’s “purview.” Of the complaints reviewed by the IRC,, at least eighty-four complainants were listed as Black, fifteen as white, five as Asian, and one as Latinx.
The logs also show vast year-to-year shifts in how many complaints the UCPD receives, how many allegations are sustained against officers, and how often the IRC agrees with the UCPD’s findings.
From 2006 to 2009, per the IRC logs, the UCPD received between six and eleven complaints per year. Between 2010 and 2014, however, the average number of complaints received jumped to a little over eighteen—reaching a peak of twenty-three in 2011—before drastically dropping again. In 2015 and 2016, the logs show four and eight complaints received, respectively. When asked about these fluctuations, Sainvilus wrote, “Although we will not speculate about the number of complaints, we can share that the complaint process has remained consistent and the IRC annual report accurately reflects the number of citizen complaints brought against UCPD officers.”
The logs also show that, while for a period of years between 2007 and 2011 the IRC regularly found UCPD internal investigations to be lacking or otherwise not concur with their findings, that momentum tapered off to just four total complaints in which the IRC disagreed with the UCPD between 2012 and 2017. And in one of the most recent cases in which the IRC disagreed with a UCPD ruling, it was to find that a UCPD officer who had lent his personal cell phone to a robbery victim, then proceeded to use her Facebook Messenger account and delete her personal messages, was not actually in the wrong for doing so.
It is unclear exactly how comprehensive the published logs and reports are. According to Sainvilus, the logs include both external and internal UCPD complaints against officers, with internal complaints being listed as “Outside IRC Purview.” However, at least one internal investigation—into the Trauma Center protest undercover infiltration—does not appear; the only way to discern that it is being withheld is because a copy of the internal investigation (which is separate from the outside review into the incident by law firm Schiff Hardin) was filed as an exhibit in the court case surrounding the supervisor’s firing.
When asked why information about this investigation was not published in the 2012-2013 log—which skips directly over the complaint’s case number—despite the fact that the logs purportedly show all internal investigations, Sainvilus incorrectly wrote that the incident was only investigated by Schiff Hardin. The Weekly responded by presenting a copy of the separate internal investigation that was published by the Maroon in May. “I don’t know why that case number was not included in the IRC’s” log, Sainvilus wrote in response, but added that she doesn’t “know of other instances where an investigation outside the IRC’s purview has not been listed in the IRC’s annual report.”
DISARM, DEFUND, AND DISBAND
The most radical demands in #CareNotCops’ petition—to disarm the UCPD, reduce its jurisdiction, and reduce its funding—constitute a shift in strategy. Rather than stick to short-term demands deemed more winnable, #CareNotCops organizers shared their radical agenda in order to add to a conversation about the police’s role in creating a safe community and to provide context for their other demands.
The demand to disarm and defund places the shooting and the history of the UCPD within the broader context of police violence and misconduct across Chicago and the rest of the country. For many organizers, it also represented a breaking point after years of failed reform efforts. “What happened to Charles should have never happened, but that happens to so many people who don’t get the same sort of recognition of wrongdoing on the part of the UCPD,” Butnaru said.
At an April 25 public discussion hosted at University Church by the International Socialist Organization’s (ISO) UofC branch, attendees spoke about the disparate definitions of “safety” that are used on campus, among administrators, and in the community.
Schuyler Stallcup, a member of the ISO branch, said it was important for people to reframe conceptions about what constitutes a safe community. “Safety is something that is grown from within a community, and it requires things like investment, and things like mental health,” he said. “Those are the things that when we start taking money away from these security institutions and start putting them into institutions like housing and jobs and education and mental health services, that then we can actually build safe communities.”
Destiny Deshawn, an ISO organizer who led the forum discussion, argued that criminal justice reform begins with investigating the root causes of inequality within communities. Quoting scholar, author, and activist Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor, Deshawn said, “It is impossible to imagine transformative police reform while poverty and unemployment, substandard housing, unequal access to public education continue to pervade Black neighborhoods. This is a social inequality that justifies the presence of police in our neighborhoods.”
#CareNotCops organizer Jessica Law said that demands for transparency, public accountability, and mental health care were stepping stones on the path to disarming and defunding. “I think transparency doesn’t mean anything unless there’s like something happening after transparency,” she said. “Transparency is the means to an end.”
In this way, although #CareNotCops’ calls to disarm UCPD may seem counterintuitive to some in terms of promoting safety on campus and in the surrounding community, organizers emphasize that investing less in the use of police and more in the lives and interests of community members will do more to reduce the risk of violence overall. These arguments build on the work organizations like Assata’s Daughters and the #LetUsBreathe Collective have done in recent years to push for abolishing prisons and the police and introducing alternative forms of justice, like restorative justice.
Organizers from other activist groups including, #LetUsBreathe and Good Kids Mad City (GKMC), a youth anti-violence group formed in Chicago in the wake of the Parkland school shooting in February, are joining #CareNotCops in reimagining the role of the UCPD and demanding reform. Alycia Moatan, one of the GKMC organizers and a student at Kenwood Academy High School, said the UCPD detracts from the feeling of safety.
Moaton explained that she and her classmates, as well as many other high school students in the surrounding neighborhood, deal with the UCPD on a daily basis since they often see officers near their school grounds. “The UCPD, they’re on Kenwood’s grounds a lot, so they sometimes mess around with the Kenwood students,” Moaton sayid. (According to Sainvilus, the “UCPD does not actively patrol [CPS] grounds, but could respond if called and/or requested.”)
Moatan said that dealing with the UCPD is one of the driving forces for the current solidarity with UofC students and community members. “We’re just as likely to be affected by a University of Chicago police officer, just as much as somebody who’s on the campus,” she said. “So it’s the idea of, why don’t we join together to fight the issue?”
According to Moaton, GKMC’s long-term goals mirror those of the #CareNotCops initiative in calling for increased investment in the surrounding community alongside disarming the UCPD. An April 20th march led by Kenwood Academy emphasized the pervasive impact of gun and police violence across Chicago. Moatan explained that her vision for the future of the South Side included reclaiming what had been lost through years of gentrification and policing. “I feel like what a safe community looks like to me is having knowledge and resources placed back into these neighborhoods where it’s been taken away from us,” said Moatan.
Envisioning a safer community and an alternative to policing is key for many organizers.“The word safety means to prevent risk and harm,” said Damon Williams of the #LetUsBreathe Collective, who spoke at the action on June 1. “What safety is often used to mean is how do we redistribute the risk to those who have less access to power.”
THE #CARENOTCOPS ACTION
On Friday, June 1, over a hundred students and community members gathered at the Alumni House on UofC’s campus and marched to the main quad under the #CareNotCops banner, where they set up an occupation of the grounds and stayed for twenty hours. Organizers started at Alumni House, during Alumni Weekend, to catch the attention of visiting alumni who might donate to the university. Organized by members of UCSA and UChicago United, the action was intended to mirror Freedom Square, an occupation that took place in Lawndale’s Homan Square in 2016 to protest the violent policing and torture tactics used there.
Organizers planned to camp out from 2pm on Friday to 10am on Saturday, or until they were able to secure a public meeting with Provost Daniel Diermeier, who oversees appointments to the IRC and the UofC’s budget. The rally included a series of speakers, students and activists from Black Lives Matter, the #LetUsBreathe Collective, GKMC, and supporters of the the Civilian Police Accountability Council (CPAC) police oversight proposal being considered by City Council.
Organizers wanted to carve out a space where “the violence that allows [the UofC] to be here is acknowledged and remediated” in the middle of campus throughout the entire occupation, said Julie Xu of #CareNotCops, who has contributed to the Weekly. Five of the organizers risked arrest and disciplinary action by camping out in tents, and seventeen people in total stayed overnight and received donations of food and blankets from campus and community members alike.
In addition to speakers, chanting, and marching, the action featured workshops on political education. Three different teach-ins took place, hosted by Black Lives Matter Chicago-affiliated anti-police violence group the People’s Response Team, on alternatives to calling the police, prison and police abolition, and cop watching. Although five students were threatened with campus disciplinary action for blocking entrances and exits to the quad with tents used for camping, the UCPD didn’t arrest anyone.
Organizers did not hear from Diermeier, despite him being at a university meeting nearby. Eventually, Dean of Students in the University Michele Rasmussen contacted organizers, asking for a set of demands and agreeing to a meeting. Organizers emailed back and forth with Rasmussen, who they had repeatedly met with before without progress, until a meeting could be secured with Diermeier.
That meeting finally occurred on June 12 when organizers met with Diermeier and Derek Douglas, the university’s vice president for civic engagement and student affairs. #CareNotCops organizers told the Weekly that they intended to focus on the demands for transparency and accountability, but Diermeier kept redirecting the conversation to their demands about disarming the UCPD and said he wasn’t sure if he should take them seriously.
Organizers also said that Douglas argued #CareNotCops did not represent the interests of the community, despite the presence of several community organizations at the June 1 action. In an email to the Weekly, Sainvilus wrote that UCPD leadership and officers receive regular, “overwhelmingly positive” feedback from community members and leaders, but declined to specify any individuals or groups on the record.
There is no definitive data on how the communities under UCPD jurisdiction feel about the police force, though it is possible that the line between support and criticism falls, at least partially, along generational and racial divides. According to the 2014 article published in the Gate, older community members were more likely to praise and prefer the UCPD to the Chicago police, while younger generations, who reported frequent harassment from UCPD officers, were more critical.
Meanwhile, the racial disparities between the university-affiliated population and the community at large likely play a role as well. In the same Gate article, a former UCPD chief explained that university employees often called the UCPD to report who they perceived as suspicious or unknown individuals, but were in fact members of the community doing nothing to warrant police attention.
IMAGINING A FUTURE WITHOUT POLICE
Since current organizing efforts are partially a response to the recent shooting, some organizers worry that energy will dissipate as time passes. “One important thing to sustain the momentum and energy that’s happening is to not let anything die down just because an event has passed,” Moaton said.
Part of sustaining that energy for organizers entails tying the more recent events on campus to the longer history of UCPD practices as well as community organizing around the city, like the campaign trying to stop the proposed law enforcement training academy on the West Side, the fight for securing a community benefits agreement with the Obama Foundation, and more.
“I think that’s where we’re headed, where university students are being more cognizant of their privilege and access, and then how to leverage that on behalf of the community,” Ademola said. “What would slow that process down is if people started to go back into silos.”
Ademola thinks actions like the one on June 1 and similar protests are the most important for building public consciousness. “We have to educate students and the surrounding community about what’s going on, and then we have to have space where they can actually engage,” he said.
Williams, from the #LetUsBreathe Collective, emphasized the power of disruptive actions in sustaining energy. “Disruption to the status quo is one of the most empowering tools we can have as people who do not have traditional, normal, institutional decision-making ability,” Williams said.
Preparing future organizers to get and stay involved, through political education and teach-ins, has also been a focus. “A long term goal is definitely to make it easier for people after us to continue the fight,” Moaton said.
Organizers will likely continue to demand changes through direct action, but they may also return to an attempt at legislation. “At the end of the day…community members don’t have influence over the University of Chicago—but they do have influence over local elected officials, and I think that has to be a main strategy in bringing reform to the university,” Benezra said. Curtis Tarver, the Democratic nominee to replace the retiring Currie next year, told the Maroon in May that he supports legislative efforts to open UCPD records “as long as the information does not adversely affect the integrity of investigations and discovery in criminal cases,” concerns that the existing state law already account for.
Williams, however, worried about the limits of legislation reform efforts. Speaking about the plans for the new police academy, he argued that calls for better policing, in part, provided justification for building the academy, despite activists joining in #NoCopAcademy to halt its construction. He warned that if organizers like #CareNotCops aren’t careful, their demands could be “co-opted to further sustain the institution.”
Williams acknowledged the importance of targeting traditional forms of power—like legislation—but also encouraged activists to take their actions one step further. “I think history kind of shows me that the more effective way is to, in addition to that, build the alternative, build what you are proposing, and not just name what you’re opposing.”
At the heart of the movement will be the need to imagine alternatives to policing. “I don’t mean that there shouldn’t be something that people can do [if they are in danger], but there should be options other than the police,” Shaw said. Instead of armed police, some organizers proposed training response teams for mental health crises or volunteer forces to mediate conflicts and de-escalate situations, as long as the solution diminished net harm in the community.
Organizers were aware that the road between now and the future they were envisioning would be long. But at the action on June 1, students and community members seemed ready to work toward it. As the action came to a close on the morning of June 2, the group started chanting: “We’ll be back!”
Jasmine Mithani, Adam Przybyl, Pat Sier, and Sam Stecklow contributed reporting
Ashvini Kartik-Narayan is a student at the University of Chicago majoring in public policy. She last wrote for the Weekly in March about the state of high school journalism across Chicago, particularly on the South Side.