There’s a reason why organizers walked into a trendy Lincoln Park restaurant on Chicago’s north side during New Year’s Day brunch in 2016, chanting the names of Black Chicagoans killed by the police, names like Rekia Boyd. Other police killings across the country were receiving attention, but this particular case—of an off-duty Chicago police officer killing a 22-year-old in 2012—did not.
It was important, they knew, that as patrons ate their brunch and sipped their mimosas they were reminded that Rekia Boyd’s only “crime” was walking down the street with her friends. Boyd’s group then ran into the officer, who told them to quiet down and fired shots, claiming he saw a gun that was never recovered.
It would be years before the officer, Dante Servin, would resign. And unfortunately, that Lincoln Park restaurant employee’s claim that this demonstration had no purpose because “We all have TV; we all watch the news” is not a true one. No, everyone did not know Rekia Boyd’s name. But activists knew that they should.
The very first major scene in Ashley O’Shay and (frequent Reader contributor) Morgan Elise Johnson’s Unapologetic captures this moment. The Kartemquin Films documentary, currently streaming through November 20 as part of the Black Harvest Film Festival, is even more timely after a summer of unrest and a pandemic that keeps citizens from looking away. And, it doesn’t stray away from the uncomfortable. In fact, it forces audiences to go to the front lines with the Chicago millennial activists who led so many of the city’s movements for racial justice for the past several years.
We soon meet the two leaders who we follow throughout the film: Janaé Bonsu, the national policy chair of Black Youth Project 100 (BYP100) who is pursuing her PhD in social work while following her calling to lead, and Ambrell “Bella BAHHS” Gambrell, an artist and activist whose family history—like so many Black Chicagoans—has shaped her view of what liberation should and could look like.
Much of the documentary is through the lens of these two millennial women who, along with other unrelenting activists, have sacrificed, prioritizing the Movement for Black Lives over their own self interests.
Also early on, the film captures the intensity of a Chicago police board meeting—a public one held at Chicago Police Department headquarters on the city’s south side. Previously led by now-Mayor Lori Lightfoot, the board had the power to decide disciplinary cases involving Chicago police officers.
Meeting after meeting, activists and supporters, including Rekia Boyd’s brother Martinez Sutton, showed up demanding answers about firing Dante Servin. And meeting after meeting, those demands were dismissed. But that didn’t deter attendance, and like LaCreshia Birts of BYP100 says to then-Police Superintendent Garry McCarthy to cheers from a packed room, “Either stand up or step down.” Sutton gives the rest of his speaking time to honor his sister, and with fists lifted, supporters chant loudly: “I am Rekia Boyd.”
But this solidarity was achieved through collaboration. After the Movement for Black Lives was ignited in 2013, local organizations joined together—those like Assata’s Daughters, Black and Pink Chicago, Black Lives Matter Chicago, Brave Space Alliance, BYP100, Chicago Alliance Against Racist and Political Repression, Chi Stops, Fearless Leading by the Youth, For the People Artists Collective, GoodKids MadCity, Inner City Muslim Action Network, Let Us Breathe Collective, Project NIA, and S.O.U.L.
The women in the documentary also don’t shy away from the issues and obstacles they face within this work, like when Black women and Black LGBTQ+ people are pushed out of the spotlight of the very movements they lead.
“The sexism and the homophobia that shows up in our movements weakens us,” says Page May of Assata’s Daughters. “It destroys our power.”
After fighting for justice for Rekia Boyd, activists focus on a new name. At the #SayHerName March organized by Village Leadership Academy, Gambrell performs a piece that says: “This is Black history that we are making. Even if we don’t, our stories gon’ make it.” And it’s the same piece she performs later, even more passionately, after a judge orders the release of a dashcam video showing another officer, Jason Van Dyke, fatally shooting 17-year-old Laquan McDonald 16 times.
It’s another young Black victim, but the same cast of political players. Only McCarthy, the police superintendent, was fired, and activists set out to get justice from Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel and Prosecutor Anita Alvarez.
With these young women putting their bodies and minds on the line in the fight for justice, looking at their personal lives is just as meaningful. Moments of laughing with family and friends or talking about dating helps to show the support they have behind them to even do this work, and we even see celebrations for Gambrell’s 23rd birthday and Bonsu’s 25th.
“The toll it takes on you, it’s not fun,” Gambrell says. “We need to celebrate life to keep doing this shit.” v