In this day and age, police violence—particularly against African-Americans, LGBTQ people, youth, people with mental illness, and undocumented immigrants—is impossible to ignore. As people who have little personal experience with these tragedies become conscious of the frequency and pervasiveness of assaults and killings by law enforcement officers, some are starting to wonder: In an emergency, are there alternatives to calling the police?
On the evening of October 25, about 20 people (mostly white women and a couple of men) gathered at the Nightingale Cinema in Noble Square for a workshop that explored this question. Hosted by Showing Up for Racial Justice (SURJ), the workshop was the group’s latest in a series of events devoted to exploring the history of policing and police abolition. It’s part of a growing movement of grassroots organizations training people wary of police to do everything from cop watching to providing emergency first aid to gunshot victims. The event prompted attendees to examine the notions of justice and punishment that shape their thinking about police and revealed the degree to which state services seem inextricably intertwined with law enforcement.
SURJ is a nationwide network whose history dates back to the early years of the Obama presidency, when its founders wanted to mobilize against the racist backlash they witnessed in the wake of the 2008 election. As incidents of racist violence and vandalism have increased after Trump’s election, SURJ has grown and been emboldened; the October 25 workshop could accommodate only a couple dozen people, but more than 2,500 Facebook users had clicked “interested” on the event page. The group’s Chicago chapter supports local social and racial justice campaigns—such as #NoCopAcademy—led by people of color, and it frequently organizes other trainings aimed at educating white people about structural racism and state violence. Leaders of SURJ believe that teaching whites about oppressive social relations and institutions shouldn’t be the burden of organizers of color.
The workshop began, as all SURJ events do, with an explanation of the organization’s mission and the code of conduct known as the “brave space agreement”: participants verbally agree for the duration of the event to love and respect themselves and others, to be accountable for their own words and actions, and to struggle against “harmful systems” of thought and behavior such as racism, homophobia—and calling the police.
“The content here can really push us and our boundaries, and our understanding of safety, and therefore it can lead us to some difficult conversations,” Steph, one of the workshop leaders who didn’t want to be identified by her last name, told the group. “The idea of a brave space is we need to move beyond ideas of staying safe, because when we are safe we do not push ourselves to grow and change. Oftentimes in ‘safe spaces’ . . . we confuse feelings of discomfort for feelings of being unsafe, and that can keep us from growing.”
Following this orientation, participants were asked to split into groups and contemplate a series of open-ended questions: What was our first memory or experience with police? What shaped our perspective of the police? What do we think is the purpose of the police department?
Some people emerged with recollections of grade school D.A.R.E. programs and parents advising them at a young age to talk to a police officer if lost. Others recalled never meeting a cop until they received a driver’s license and were pulled over. Most remembered being raised with notions of the police as relatively benevolent. As for the institution’s purpose, answers ranged from protecting children to protecting wealth and property.
Steph and cofacilitator Kim (who also didn’t want to share her full name) used the groups’ thoughts as a segue to discuss the history of policing in broad strokes, speaking of southern slave patrols and the use of metropolitan police forces in northern cities to suppress workers. They noted Chicago spends roughly $4 million per day on the police department and that the DOJ report laid bare CPD’s “culture that facilitates unreasonable force and corrodes community trust.”
They then asked participants to close their eyes and visualize answers to another series of questions: What does justice mean? Does justice always have to mean punishment? They instructed the attendees to think of a time in their personal lives when they might have caused harm to someone but then made it up to the person without punishment. Could this sort of justice be scaled? Once assembled again in the small groups, attendees discussed whether they’d ever called the police and why. If so, what was gained? Did the caller know the result for the other people involved in the situation?
Most people had either never called the police or called in situations such as automobile accidents when it seemed impossible not to dial 911. Others recalled phoning when they saw distressed motorists on the highway or heard what seemed like domestic violence in their neighbors’ homes. “I was socialized to call the police if there were three teenagers hanging out anywhere,” one woman volunteered.
The facilitators posed another question: Did you have second thoughts about dialing 911? A few people responded that they felt that the cops weren’t all that helpful. A woman who was mugged said she never got her stuff back. A man who’d been assaulted on the street didn’t feel like the cops changed anything about how badly he felt afterward. They’d called the police in the first place because it didn’t seem like there was anything else they could do in those moments of fear and vulnerability. No one who volunteered to share stories knew what happened to the other parties involved.
Having arrived at this stage, the workshop turned finally to the subject of options other than calling the cops. But as the conversation continued it became increasingly clear that access to alternatives is deeply structured by one’s privilege.
Kim and Steph asked attendees to think about the possible consequences of calling the police and what could be done instead if someone had a noise complaint or witnessed loitering, graffiti, a traffic accident, or reckless driving. Most seemed to agree that some of these situations simply may not need police intervention. People admitted that in some cases they feel tempted to involve the cops because they’re irritated with someone else’s annoying but essentially harmless behavior. Perhaps we should just let the loitering and graffiti be and accept them as daily realities of living in a large city. One man in the audience was particularly keen on figuring out how to address loud teenagers who congregate outside his house and ignore his requests to keep it down. Other workshop attendees suggested he confer with neighbors to see if they’re bothered too; together they could figure out a response to the teens that reflected the sentiments of the wider community but didn’t engage law enforcement. Or he could just suck it up and deal with the noise.
But when it came to traffic accidents—for which insurance companies often require police reports—or witnessing drunk or reckless driving, imagining alternatives became considerably more difficult. Kim and Steph presented a set of even more challenging situations: running across an incapacitated stranger, witnessing a mental health crisis or escalating violence. If calling the cops might get someone killed, are we supposed to stand by and let someone actually get killed? People puzzled over the potential implementation of neighborhood phone trees and exchanged information about mental health crisis resources. They talked about restorative justice organizations that seek to help victims of crime heal in a way that makes sense to them rather than indiscriminately punish the perpetrators. Increasingly people discussed the frustrations of having to think around the state to address problems the state is supposed to be there to handle. Rather than not calling for professional help when we witness some sort of crisis, can’t we just have an assurance that the help won’t arrive armed and dangerous?
And what do you do if there are no alternative services and agencies in your neighborhood? In an interview with the Reader last year, Pat Hill—a former police officer and head of the African-American Police League, who passed away in September—noted how Chicago’s black community came to rely on the police for all sorts of social services as black neighborhoods became increasingly impoverished in the 1970s and ’80s. With the disappearance of jobs and opportunities, and with them a neighborhood safety net of institutions, it seemed to Hill that people had no alternatives other than calling the cops. And the police, increasingly the only city institution left to serve poor neighborhoods, have never been adequately trained to answer the social service calls they’re increasingly tasked with. Instead, as the DOJ notes in its investigation and reporters have steadily documented for decades, CPD is plagued by a culture that allows officers to consider themselves at war with the community rather than existing to protect and serve.
“We have to recognize that there are times when you are going to have to call the police,” Kim said. “That doesn’t mean you’re a terrible person.”
Some incidents of police violence could be prevented if people reconsidered the knee-jerk response of dialing 911 whenever they feel uncomfortable. But that wouldn’t save victims like Philando Castile or Walter Scott or Eric Garner or Tamir Rice, who were simply going about their lives when they encountered deadly state violence. And Quintonio LeGrier was calling 911 during a mental health emergency. Instead of trained medical professionals, a couple of cops showed up at his door, shot him and neighbor Bettie Jones first, and asked questions later.
Having prompted people to think critically about the cop within themselves, SURJ’s future workshops will educate attendees about how to transform the cops patrolling their communities. The group’s next event will focus on the Chicago police union’s contract as a barrier to CPD reform, and what could be done to change it.