Vairrun Strickland Credit: photo courtesy Vairrun Strickland

On an April afternoon in 2017, 35-year-old Vairrun Strickland came to the intersection of 63rd and Ashland in Englewood with dozens of other people wearing black T-shirts and brandishing green, red, and black Black Liberation flags. As part of New Era Chicago, a community service and black empowerment group, Strickland and the others were there to clean up the neighborhood and mingle with residents. A firefighter with the Markham Fire Department who grew up in Englewood, he’d helped organize similar cleanup outings in other south- and west-side neighborhoods.

“We walk through the neighborhood with our New Era T-shirts and we pick up trash,” Strickland explained in a recent interview with the Reader. “While we’re doing that we make little chants to promote black love. We also go door-to-door and pass out literature to support black-owned businesses in the neighborhood.”

Nothing about that morning was unusual, he said. As the procession wound its way from block to block, kids and neighbors joined in to help pick up bottles and food wrappers from vacant lots. A police car trailed the group for the three hours they were out there—something that always happens during New Era’s outings, Strickland said, despite the group’s having asked the Chicago Police Department not to send escorts so as not to discourage engagement with local youth who might be wary of cops.

“The police in that neighborhood make the neighborhood nervous,” he said. “We tried to explain to [CPD] throughout the times I’ve been out there that we are acquainted with the neighborhood, that the neighborhood knows us.” Their requests went unheeded. Still, Strickland said that on that particular day the police presence wasn’t of any particular concern to the New Era members. Until the cleanup ended and the group reconvened at 63rd and Ashland.

It’s unclear why more police officers arrived at the scene then, but within minutes an altercation ensued that ended with Strickland and several others arrested. Later, CPD would claim that New Era members started the fight by not getting out of the road when asked to do so by officers. (The department declined to comment for this story because of pending litigation related to the incident.)

A couple of weeks after the incident, New Era’s Detroit chapter—four of whose members were arrested after participating in the cleanup—compiled video footage of the incident and the preceding event to help draw attention to what happened and raise funds to get its members out of jail.

Four and a half minutes of video captured by a woman at the scene appears to show a massive, chaotic melee. Dozens of plainclothes and uniformed police officers in flak jackets appear to rush into a crowd of people dressed mostly in black, many holding Black Liberation flags. Women and children appear to be swept up in the chaos, as officers shove and yell at them to disperse. The cops appear to tackle several young men to the ground, beating some with batons. Several officers are captured shouting at the woman behind the camera and others nearby. Many people seem to be screaming in the background, and at one point the woman filming can be heard crying as she walks around the graveled vacant lot where the incident occurred.

“What is the problem? We’re off the sidewalk—I don’t even understand why people are being arrested right now,” a woman in a pink hoodie who appears to also be recording the situation on her phone exclaims as she passes through the frame. “I have it all on tape.”

“All right, that’s fine, you can tape all of it, here’s the deal,” a bearded officer wearing plainclothes and sunglasses tells her. “I’m gonna walk over there to make sure everything’s cool. If you guys are still here when I come back, everyone’s going to jail, mark my words.”

Another officer tells the women: “If you’re gonna obstruct traffic, this is what happens.”

Ultimately, Strickland was charged with obstruction of traffic and resisting a police officer—minor violations of the Chicago municipal code. Other members of New Era were charged with felonies, such as aggravated battery to a police officer—a charge that was recently identified by the Chicago Reporter as among the most common “cover charges” filed after police use excessive force.

Eight months later, the case against Strickland was dismissed. Last month he sued the city and four of the officers involved in federal court, alleging false arrest, unlawful detention, violations of his First Amendment rights, malicious prosecution, and intentional infliction of emotional distress. The lawsuit names police officers Michael Jetel, R. Rodriguez, J. Motesdeoca, and Syed Quadri.

Strickland’s attorney, Brad Thomson of the People’s Law Office, didn’t want his client to give a play-by-play of his arrest to the media at this point. But the complaint states that as Strickland and other members of New Era “were standing on the sidewalk, Defendant Jetel aggressively charged into the crowd. Other Chicago police officers then charged into the crowd and began violently arresting members of New Era. Plaintiff Strickland verbally expressed his disapproval with the behavior of Defendant Jetel and other Chicago police officers. Defendant Jetel then directed Defendant Rodriguez and Defendant Montesdeoca to take Plaintiff Strickland into custody.”

The complaint also states that Strickland made no physical effort to resist arrest, though he continued to express his opposition verbally. It then says that he was transported to the Seventh District station, “where he was held in police custody for over eight hours.”

New Era Detroit’s video of the melee also shows footage of the cleanup. One man appears to give instructions to the group before they fan out through the neighborhood:

“We are not out here to antagonize or argue with or get into any altercations with the police,” he says. “We do not engage with them at all.”

The video then shows New Era members chanting and talking with people in the neighborhood as they walk down the road carrying garbage bags. Periodically, the person behind the camera shows the police SUV following the group. At the end of the nearly 35-minute video there’s more footage of the altercation captured by bystanders.

After his arrest, Strickland said he was “cursed at” by police officers, “kind of treated like a criminal based on my appearance, in my opinion.” That was until he proved that he was a fellow first responder. “After seeing the credentials in my wallet their attitude changed,” he said. “Then it seemed that I was more respected and was talked to like a human being.”

He added that he was puzzled by the intensity of the police response to New Era. “During the incident, the flags we were carrying—they broke them in half. There were kids out there crying. They had no regard for that,” he recalled. “There’s a lot of things in Chicago that involve protests of the police. That’s not the reason we were out there. The way we were treated, it almost seemed like the Chicago Police Department thought that we were an anti-police group.”

Strickland was worried that the charges would put his job in jeopardy, though he had the support of his supervisors in Markham. He fought the case tooth and nail, he said, because he believed that being convicted of resisting a police officer would probably result in an automatic termination from the fire department. He knew he’d be filing a lawsuit too.

“I honestly think that the incident was probably due to poor leadership,” he said. “I think any leaders that were on that call that didn’t do their jobs to the best of their ability should be let go. Any of those officers who committed any bodily harm to people out there should be fired.”

He said that the officers’ “aggressive” actions were a sign of their inability to do their jobs correctly. “I know professional officers, and I’ve seen them make arrests, and what happened to me and the rest of the group—that wasn’t professional at all.”

Strickland said that the experience hasn’t stopped him from working with New Era. Though the group hasn’t conducted a cleanup in that part of Englewood since the incident, it’s continued to organize similar outings elsewhere in the city. But, he added, the ordeal altered his perception of police officers, with whom he’s collaborated nearly every day in 11 years as a first responder.

“I’ve had to deal with a little anxiety when it comes to the police now, which I’m not used to,” he explained. “Definitely since my arrest there’s been a personal change. If I’m driving I’m pretty nervous if a policeman pulls behind or on the side of me.” He’s come to the unpleasant conclusion that having his uniform on isn’t much armor against that fear: “Even sometimes when I’m on the job working with the police I’m used to working with, when I’m around them, I still have that nervousness.”   v