This piece is part of a series that explores the various perspectives around defunding the police.
Around 7pm on Sunday, August 9, I started seeing Facebook Live videos of a familiar scene: Black male voices, a phalanx of cops, and the disjointed yells of humans under duress. The first two videos were from people I didn’t directly know, but what I did know was the location that was tagged on each video—Moran Park at 57th and Racine. Realizing something big was happening, but not knowing what, I started searching online for other friends who happened to be there.
Joseph Williams is a millennial who ran for 15th Ward alderman in 2019. He entered my brain during that election cycle, and my work this year as a member of the Resident Association of Greater Englewood has put me in close proximity with him often—at RAGE’s end of the year party and then volunteering with him during the emergency relief food distribution. When I saw his Live that Sunday he was cool, calm, and collected. What stood out most was when he stated he would turn off his livestream to focus on mediating the conflict that was happening between police and residents after the police shot Latrell Allen. I felt his purpose and wasn’t surprised when his video went viral. When I saw the South Side Weekly team was looking for on-the-ground recounting of the story, I knew I could raise a voice in Englewood.
This interview has been edited for clarity and length.
I think something that the mainstream media and just any media has been missing about what happened at 57th and Racine is understanding the social media impact. Could you recap how social media gave you your call to action to even go over to 57th Street?
Absolutely. I was in the bed with my son. We were about to watch a movie. It just so happened my Facebook was [open] on my phone and I saw a Live, and I’m like, “What is this? That’s down the street!” So I just like flew out the door and went straight over there. My wife was like, “Where are you going?” I’m like, “Hey, I got this. I got to get over here and try to help out in some way.”
You could see that the tension was high. You can see that the police were not being as responsive as they could have been to the community by showing them respect back or communicating with them. And I just kind of started to assess the situation. One person was saying, “A guy got shot this many times.” Another person was saying, “They just beat up my cousin and pulled him.” You get the chance to just hear all the different stories.
I went to [Chicago Police Department director of community engagement] Glen Brooks, and asked him, “Hey, what’s the condition on this young man?” And I was able to tell the community he’s stable, really, to try to calm it down. Because you’ve got community, police—everybody’s aggressive towards one another. It was a really tense situation. The police had a crime scene that they were supposed to be behind, and they put yellow tape in front of them. And what I noticed them do was reach past that crime scene and pull individuals in. And after pulling them in, they beat ’em up! And one guy, I watched him pull his shirt and rip his shirt up, but why they was doing that…it caused more friction.
It was just a blessing that…when I first went on my Live, [other organizers] got a chance to see where I was at and they started to respond to the call. They started coming out. And when the organizers started to come out, they helped me organize a little bit better. We were able to build a link chain, build a wall up with each other to protect the community. And then the community stayed behind us, the police stayed on their side, and nobody crossed paths. And it was to keep everyone protected and safe.
Eventually, a bullhorn came out, and… I was able to [say], “I need all women and children [to get out] because more police are flowing into the community,” while I’m on the bullhorn. I’m talking about at least an extra 200 additional police were coming out, running down the streets with batons in their hands, assault rifles strapped to their chest.
Before you went out, you didn’t have any actual clue what you would be doing, correct?
Nah, nah, man. Not other than what I do on the regular. I love to organize events and just organize people and try to do my community work. I just wanted to help so I just ran out the door. Didn’t know what I was about to walk into, but I knew I had to find some way to try to help.
And when you got there earlier, you said, the organizers and activists, they came afterwards. Were there some folks on the ground when you first got there?
When I first got there, it was only me. And then another gentleman, [Simeon Career Academy Basketball Hall of Fame player] Tim Flowers, he called me directly and said, “Joe, where you at?” So Tim was one of the first people on the scene with me. And from there we just kept trying to balance it out. And then other organizers and activists started showing up in bits and pieces, and it was just a blessing to have them come out there because it helped. Like I said, those same police that rushed into our community, disrespecting them, and being so hostile to the community were the same police, they had to leave back out of the community. And with me working with those organizers, we were able to open a pathway up for them to leave and go right back to their cars safely, get back home to their family safe. And it’s something that I tell everybody, they didn’t give us that same opportunity when they rushed into Englewood.
You have to treat a community with a little bit more respect. A lot of the community members that were out there was actually like, “Hey, where’s [Officer] McClain? Where’s [Officer] Shelton?” because these are the community-engaged officers that are usually out there and they know the community members. But they wasn’t out there. They had Ninth District police from Bridgeport out there—there was like a few Seventh District, but the majority was Ninth District and they didn’t know how to react with our people.
I worked with Commander Snelling, the Seventh District commander.…He was also the one who gave us updates with the young man that got beat up by an officer, so we can connect him back to his family. Snelling realized, like everyone else, that it was too many police officers on one block so he wants to start deploying and get rid of some of the police officers. So we worked with him and he was able to send them away.
With a lot of what’s going on with the civic unrest in terms of police brutality and stuff, you hear people talking about funding community violence prevention and crisis response. And it sounds like you did the job that officers like Shelton usually do when they’re in a situation like that. Those skills that you learned, did you learn them from one source? Do you think there’s a training that other people from the community could learn?
I would love to do a training with other individuals to teach them about this, to teach them how to organize when things like this are happening in their communities. This is a big piece that we are missing. We organize for other things, but our communities don’t know how to organize when their emotions are up high and people are upset. People don’t think like, “You know, what if we click arms, you guys, and we build us a wall?” We can protect each other and stop the police from coming on our side at least.
It’s good to have these types of skill sets because the simple fact is that when you don’t have that setup, it looks totally different. When I arrived, everybody was scattered in different portions on the street.…There was no structure, really. Everybody wasn’t together. So it made it easier for the police to run in on people and easier for children and women and people to fall and trip because of the fact there was no protection for them. I would love to host sessions where I can come out and organize communities and teach them what it looks like when responding to the police in these types of situations.
Did you read the Tribune article? The one that highlighted you? I liked how they paired [UIC professor Kishonna] Gray’s view of the historical disinvestment in our community and everything. Do you think there’s any existing apparatuses that can be focused on in terms of getting that funding to actually reinvest in the community?
Because we see the friction between police and you know—I [read an article] not too long ago, it says seventy percent of police are denying the fact of doing restorative practice, doing community engagement and community relationship trainings and things like that. So if seventy percent are denying to do it, why do they even work in a community or serve a community that they’re not willing to build a relationship with? So thinking of it from that standpoint tells me that we need to pull some money away from the CPD budget. We need to use some of that money to invest into some of the stuff that we’re talking about today, to invest into some of these resources that could be boots on the ground and helping out.
We can’t continue to invest so much into a police department that’s continuing to say, “We don’t want training on how to build relationships. We don’t want to come into your community and know you. We want to come over here and basically tell you what to do. And we’re going to be aggressive. And we going to do it how we want to do it.”
Somebody has to step up to the plate and say, you know what, we’re going to mediate this. We’re going to find a way to de-escalate this. And until that happens, money should be pulled from the police department and put into resources that can really help when it comes to this.
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You ran for alderman; you probably felt a new presence that you had whenever you entered a room. After going viral, how do you feel your presence in the world? Has there been any shift or anything? Do you feel like you’ve been pushed to a further point in your career? Or how has going viral impacted you?
Oh, I was just speaking from my heart and I went to sleep. I was tired after that day. I went home, I went to sleep and I woke up to so many phone calls and it was like, “Hey, you’re going viral on Twitter!” I’m like, “Well, I don’t have a Twitter account, so can you share the video?”
I’ll say this: for me, the standard has always been set to a very high bar. I don’t think the work should ever stop. I don’t think I could ever stop the work that I’m doing. I ran for alderman based on some of the same principles that I’m continuing to fight for, trying to protect our women, our children, bringing men back into the household; protecting our communities on any level, no matter if it’s getting a stop sign put up just so guys won’t fly past the stop sign and possibly hit children; fighting for our schools and making sure schools have the resources they need. Going viral just put probably more pressure on me to make sure that I can continue to fight, even if I fight even harder now. Now not only are people watching, but people that are watching us can also be a part of the change. I would never change my vision or [what] I want to feel about our community. I have hope that [our community can] one day be beautiful, can be something that our children grow up proud. And I just want to continue to fight to bring that type of quality and bring that type of positive vibe. And I’ll never stop.
Cordell Longstreath is the community engagement and outreach specialist for the Resident Association of Greater Englewood. You can catch him rambling about the importance of the census. He previously helped report a piece on Black and brown communities arranging a truce for the Weekly.