There was a shooting in my neighborhood, Rogers Park, in October. There were probably shootings in every neighborhood sometime this year, but this one attracted extra notice because the victim, Cynthia Trevillion, was a teacher at the local Waldorf School—she was on her way out to a Friday-night dinner with her husband and was unlucky enough to get caught in gang-related cross fire. The bullets hit her in the head and neck and she died immediately.
The following Monday our alderman, Joe Moore, called a community meeting at the site of the shooting, the corner of Morse and Glenwood, next to the el stop. Reporters from DNAinfo and TV stations were there, but I went as a civilian, on my way home from work. Maybe 150 people showed up. Someone had set up a few rows of chairs in front of the stage, but most of us stood in the street and on the sidewalk. The sound system wasn’t good. We had to strain to hear.
The alderman spoke, and then Glen Brooks, the police department’s director of public engagement, spoke, and then John Warner, the organizer of neighborhood “positive loitering” events, spoke. They all said Trevillion’s death had been a tragedy. They said that future tragedies might be prevented if everyone in the neighborhood put up a united front of “vigilance” by attending CAPS meetings and forming block clubs and positive loitering groups to show criminals that they weren’t welcome.
On the surface, this all seemed reasonable. Yes, let the neighbors of Rogers Park come together to mourn the loss of one of our own and then vow to maintain a united front to protect our streets! Kumbaya!
That’s how things should work, but that’s not how Chicago worked in 2017. For one thing, it was the police who were making this request, and, if you’re black, as one-third of Rogers Park is, you have to wonder how much you can trust the police. (You even have to wonder this as a white person.) You wonder even if the representative the Chicago Police Department had sent to this particular meeting was black.
Then there’s the perception that positive loitering is just another form of racial profiling, targeting people of color and assuming they don’t belong—even when the neighborhood is two-thirds people of color. Neighborhood policing is for white people.
So by the third speech, lauding the virtues of community policing, a few members of the audience had enough. They had objections to the police department’s view of the world, and no one was letting them speak. So they shouted. They shouted about positive loitering. They shouted about the $95 million that was going to fund a new police academy when public schools were grossly underfunded. The speaker, Warner, the positive-loitering organizer, wasn’t used to hostile crowds. He began to falter.
There was one young man who was especially loud. The cops who’d been standing behind the stage surrounded him and herded him down the street, away from the rally. A whole group of bystanders followed. We held up our cell phones to record, just in case the encounter went badly.
That was another thing about living in America in 2017. You expected encounters between white police officers and young black men to go badly, and you knew that it was your duty as a citizen to bear witness.
The protester asked the cops why he couldn’t speak his piece. A police officer told him he shouldn’t be interrupting. The protester asked why only the alderman and representatives of the police got to speak. The police officer said he didn’t know. They let the protester go.
Back at the rally, Alderman Moore was urging everyone to sign up for community policing and block associations. There was a table set up on the sidewalk. A few members of the crowd, mostly older white people, were shoving to get close to it. The protesters kept shouting.
Moore and Warner, who are both white, told DNAinfo’s Linze Rice the next day that it wasn’t their goal to alienate people of color. Instead, they wanted everyone to take a more active role in community policing.
“The thing is that they don’t want to join because they’re afraid they’re going to be called ‘Uncle Toms,'” Warner said. “That has come from more than one black person that I have talked to. That is why we have such a low count of people of color, because they’re afraid they’re going to be profiled by their own people.”
It’s not “your color I’m going after, it’s what you’re doing,” Warner explained.
“People hear ‘positive loitering,’ and they think we’re going after black people because they’re the drug dealers and gangbangers. Wrong.”
When asked what his group could do to change that perception, he said there was “nothing we can do to help that, that’s their mindset.”
And it did indeed turn out to be true that the meeting did nothing to change anyone’s perception of community policing. There was supposed to be a period during the event when people who weren’t aldermen or police officers could come onstage to speak, Rice reported, but the organizers decided to skip over that altogether.
Instead, a black pastor came up to say a final prayer. As he began to speak, a woman in the crowd shouted, “Remember Laquan McDonald!” The pastor raised his voice. The woman kept chanting. He got louder. So did she.
And that was it: this was what it was like to live in Chicago in 2017, where everyone wanted the shooting to stop. The police thought they were doing a good thing by encouraging the people of the community to contribute to the overall safety of the neighborhood—when you have power and authority, people should accept your suggestions. They didn’t understand—or maybe they didn’t bother to acknowledge—that by squandering the people’s trust, they had also squandered their authority. Why should anyone listen to the police, even if it would be for their own good, when the police wouldn’t listen to the people they said they wanted to help? So here we are. And still the shootings continue.