A committed group of Chicago Public School students didn’t let spring break stand in the way of their community organizing.
On Wednesday, around 50 teenagers held a sit-in at Chicago City Hall to protest Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s proposal to build a $95 million police training academy as well as medical clinics and public schools the city has closed since Emanuel took office. The students sat amongst mock tombstones that they’d created to represent victims of police shootings.
The young activists are participating in #NoCopAcademy, a campaign to combat Chicago’s investment in law enforcement and divestment from public education and community services. The initiative is run by a coalition of Chicago groups, including Black Youth Project 100, Black Lives Matter Chicago and For the People Artists Collective. Much of the black youth organizing for the campaign is run by Assata’s Daughters, who currently works with over 100 young black organizers.
“When I was informed that there were more schools closing down in Englewood to help build the cop academy, it interested me because I was a victim of school closings, and I had to go to school in a whole different neighborhood that I knew nothing about,” Nerica Johnson, a 16-year-old junior at Simeon Career Academy, whose elementary school Songhai was one of the predominantly black and low-income schools closed in 2013, said in an interview. “I want to help change how they’re not funding schools or art programs, but they’re using all this money for a police academy that’s really not needed.”
Over Fourth of July weekend, Emanuel announced his proposal for the police academy, to be built in West Garfield Park, a neighborhood on the city’s West Side where 95.6% of residents are black and 41.7% live below the poverty line.
The #NoCopAcademy campaign launched in September — ahead of the city’s November vote to purchase the land for the police academy — canvassing, holding teach-ins at schools and pressuring local politicians to vote against the measure. They raised a lot of local and national awareness around the issue, which resulted in protests against Emanuel’s speaking engagements at Harvard, the University of California Los Angeles and the University of Michigan. Chance the Rapper became involved with #NoCopAcademy after seeing a video of a train takeover and tweeting about it. Despite all the attention organizers brought to the issue, Chicago aldermen voted 48-1 to purchase 30.4 acres of land at 4301 W. Chicago Ave. for the academy in November.
Then in February, Chicago’s school board voted to close four predominantly black high schools on the city’s South Side: Robeson, Hope, Harper and Team Englewood. On March 26, activists with the #NoCopAcademy coalition filed a lawsuit against the mayor’s office for “refusing to disclose crucial emails and records regarding the early planning” for the police academy. That same day, student activists held a flash mob to call attention to their demands for the resources slated for the police academy to be redirected toward community investment.
“It’s more important to fund schools than police academies because most of us kids feel like we don’t have any opportunities.,” Johnson said. “All the schools [Emanuel is] planning on closing down and all the things he’s not planning on funding, I feel like it’s discouraging kids. There’s so many kids out here with so many different talents, like drawing, dancing, architecture, but we can’t display them if we have no programs teaching us how.”
Tijonae Middleton, a 17-year-old high school junior at Simeon, said their goal is to stop the police academy from being built, but also to advocate for a youth center on the South Side of Chicago where kids can get access to mentors and mental health services.
Simeon Career Academy isn’t one of the schools slated to be closed. But that didn’t stop these teens from getting involved. Johnson and Middleton are part of an activist group that Simeon students organized with the help of an English teacher. They call themselves Simeon’s Young Activists, and for most of the students this is their first time engaging in community organizing. Simeon’s Young Activists have participated in train takeovers, art parties and canvassing to raise awareness about the proposed $95 million police academy. They also attend biweekly #NoCopAcademy organizing meetings held by Assata’s Daughters, an organization formed in 2015 to bring young people ages 6-21 into the Black Lives Matter movement. Earlier in March, the organization held a youth summit to prepare and brainstorm the campaign’s upcoming tactics, organizers said.
“One thing that was important to us was that the [#NoCopAcademy] campaign really centers young people’s leadership, like 18 and under,” Page May, a cofounder and organizer with Assata’s Daughters, said in an interview. “Laquan McDonald was 17. Mike Brown was 18. We absolutely have to have young people present to understand the extent of what policing looks like and to develop full solutions.”
Students who attend the schools slated to be closed are also leading the charge to protect their education. Jacquia Jackson, a 15-year-old freshman at John Hope College Prep, rallied a group of students to join her in fighting for their school to remain open.
“No black children should have to go through fighting for their education,” Jackson, who spoke out against the school closings at Chicago school board meetings, said in an interview. “It’s wrong for [Rahm] to close four neighborhood schools in Englewood, when they’re not doing the same thing up north.”
The Emanuel administration’s latest decisions to invest in police rather than students follow years of divestment from schools and community services in Chicago’s black and Latinx neighborhoods. It also follows city’s repeated failure to hold police accountable for brutality and discrimination. In 2014, Chicago police fatally shot black 17-year-old Laquan McDonald. Despite chilling video footage of the fatal shooting, the city government waited over a year — until after Emanuel’s successful re-election bid — to indict Jason Van Dyke, the officer who shot McDonald 16 times. Van Dyke’s trial is slated to begin this summer, according to the Chicago Tribune.
The Emanuel administration did not respond to repeated requests for comment and has released relatively little information on the plans for the academy. City officials have framed the new police academy as a way to centralize and modernize law enforcement training in Chicago and to keep apace with the administration’s two-year promise to hire 970 additional police officers.
Activists are critical of this massive investment in policing on the heels of the Department of Justice’s scathing 2017 report on the Chicago Police Department, which found widespread misconduct, abuse and a severe problem with escalation to deadly force against black and brown individuals. Chicago already spends about $1.46 billion — 40% of the city budget — on policing. Emanuel has also been widely criticized for his historic closure of 50 predominantly black Chicago public schools in 2013 and his repeated clashes with the Chicago Teachers Union.
“What we really need to work on is not having more police but changing the training of the police — changing how police accountability looks,” Middleton said in an interview. “If we implement more police around the city of Chicago who are trained in the same way, we’re going to end up with more police brutality incidents.”
May said that the #NoCopAcademy campaign isn’t just about teenagers showing up with protest signs and making noise. Assata’s Daughters is training black youth organizers and equipping them with the tools they need to plan and execute political campaigns. “Along the way, we’re also helping to develop an analysis, and make sure that they have the historical context around the police academy and full understanding of why this is so bad for the West Side, for Chicago and for black people,” May said.
One of the most effective tactics the teen organizers have employed to educate the public about #NoCopAcademy is train takeovers on Chicago’s public transportation system. Organizers inform train passengers about their initiative and pass out information about developments around the police academy and the potential school closures.
After the success of their first train takeover, Assata’s Daughters’ 11- to 13-year old organizers led a workshop for kids ages 6 to 10, and then they did more takeovers with the younger kids.
In addition to teaching community organizing and leadership skills, May said that much of organizing young people is about offering basic support to enhance their well-being. This means providing money to take the bus to meetings every week, transportation to actions and hot food at all meetings. After interviewing for this story, May planned to spend her evening doing laundry for a few young people who didn’t have a place to wash their clothes.
“Hopefully, some of them go on and become the next Fannie Lou Hamer and the next Malcolm X,’” May said about the youth she works with. “But maybe they also want to become the next Neil deGrasse Tyson, or they want to become the great black teacher that our children deserve. Our goal is to make sure that you learn how to do that in a way that loves and supports your people.”