Eric Hudson only wanted to play basketball on the playground courts across the street from his Bucktown apartment. For that he wound up in jail.

Police call Hudson the victim of fate–the wrong person in the wrong place at the wrong time with the wrong attitude. But the meaning of his May 7 arrest, Hudson counters, goes deeper than fate to reveal police attitudes about crime, class, and race.

“This wouldn’t happen to me if I were white,” says Hudson. “If you’re a black man in America you should expect to be arrested at some time in your life–my uncle told me that it’s a rite of passage. But I wasn’t ready for it. I think of myself as a good, responsible citizen; I didn’t expect it to happen in my neighborhood.”

Until that night Hudson had never had a major run-in with the police. He was born 27 years ago in a rough south-side neighborhood and attended Lake View High School at Irving Park and Ashland. He knew gang members, at home and school, and some were his friends. But he never got sucked into the gang life. “I was lucky,” says Hudson. “I had good teachers. They stayed on me. They encouraged me.”

He went to Georgetown University, graduated with a major in international economics, and returned to Chicago, where he went to work for a government-sponsored antipoverty agency. “I lived with my family on the south side, but it was dangerous being back in the old neighborhood,” he says. “Many of my friends, including my old girlfriend, were strung out on crack. I loaned them money but I felt like I was an enabler. I was robbed once and shot at twice. Just by hanging out with old friends I put myself at risk of being killed.”

He moved to Hyde Park. “I didn’t like it there,” he says. “The University of Chicago’s like a colonial power. People feared me. They crossed the street if they saw me coming, even when I was wearing a suit. The university teaches them to fear blacks.”

So he settled in Bucktown, a classic in-between north-side community: neither all black, all white, all Hispanic, rich, poor, nor yuppie, but a mixture of all–though in recent years an influx of young professionals has threatened to drive out the working class. On Hudson’s block are renovated homes and newly constructed, suburbanlike condos owned by men and women who walk golden retrievers and skate about on roller blades.

Hudson spent most of his free time on the basketball courts of Holstein Park at Shakespeare and Oakley. “It’s a good scene there,” he says. “It’s mostly young Hispanic guys who represent the old neighborhood. The white professionals don’t play ball, though they come to the park to walk their dogs.”

It was at Holstein Park that he had his run-in. “I should have known something was up because there were all these police cars lined along the fence,” says Hudson, who went to the park at about nine that evening. “There were about ten cops standing over a group of 13 Hispanics, most of them teenagers and young men, who had their faces down on the ground. I should have turned around and walked away. But by then it was too late to leave. I would call more attention to myself, like, “You must be doing something wrong if you’re going away.’ So I started playing ball with some other guys on the court.”

The police carted off their prisoners and returned for more. “The cops said, “Everybody up against the fence’–like, you know the position, you know the drill,” says Hudson. “I was shocked; I didn’t do anything wrong. Everything I needed to establish my credibility–my bank card, my credit cards, my phone card–was in my wallet back home. Suddenly, I’m just this black guy in a sweatshirt and Nikes with a gold earring and a shaved head. I kind of lost it; I got upset. I said: “Against the fence? For what?’ I said, “I’ll get against the fence if you give me your badge number.”‘

They handcuffed him and led him to a patrol car. “They put me in the back with two other people,” says Hudson. “A cop told me, “You walked into a big gang meeting.’ I said, “What are you talking about? That’s not what’s going on.’ The cop said, “If it were our decision we’d let you go, but we have to transfer you [to the station].’ I said, “Can you roll the window down? It’s hot back here.’ They laughed at that because you can’t roll the windows down. I guess they thought I should have known that, but I had never been handcuffed in the back of a police car. At least they turned on the air-conditioning.”

They took Hudson to the Shakespeare District police station at 2150 N. California and locked him alone in a room. “They kept me handcuffed and I could see the cops peeking at me through the windows,” says Hudson. “I told them I work in community development, I have a sensitive position. I don’t need this. They just laughed at me.”

Eventually he was placed in a cell with about a dozen other prisoners, all arrested at the court. “They cuffed me to the wall and decided to interview me–right in front of all the kids,” says Hudson. “And that bothered me, because they had plenty of time to interrogate me before, when I was alone in the room. The cop said, “What gang do you belong to?’ I said, “The taxpayers.’ He said, “If you don’t start being more cooperative, we’ll charge everyone with a felony. I’ll close the door and let you talk about it.’

“He leaves me alone with the kids and one of them said, “If you don’t fuckin’ talk they’ll put you in a cell with me.’ I said, “Look, if you’re gonna do something, you better do it now when I’m handcuffed to this wall.’ He backed off. I said, “Man, I didn’t get you arrested. I’m not trying to cause you grief.”‘

After several hours in the station, the police undid his handcuffs. “The kids and I loosened up,” says Hudson. “I said, “You guys ever been in the projects?’ They said no. I said, “You ever seen a real gang fight?’ They said no. This is all stuff I had seen before. I knew they weren’t hardened criminals–they didn’t even come close. They’re just a bunch of kids that society doesn’t give a damn about.

“I figured out what probably happened. The yuppies who live around Holstein Park don’t like those kids playing ball so they call the cops and the cops just swoop in and arrest them. For no reason at all. We weren’t doing anything. They didn’t find any drugs or weapons. The more I thought about it the angrier I got. Who are these people to move in this neighborhood and drive the working people out? It’s like this neighborhood is charming to them, it’s a good place to invest, so they come in with their dogs and their dogs shit in the grass–which is illegal by the way, though of course no one arrests them. Then they have the cops arrest the kids. If they want to live in Lincoln Park, why don’t they just live there?”

Eventually the police moved Hudson to a smaller cell. “They had four of us in a 12-foot cell with one toilet and one metal bunk,” says Hudson. “Sometimes I sat on the bunk and sometimes I laid on the floor. We had a good time, me and the fellows. One of them was a Cuban guy who did a great imitation of Scarface. Another guy imitated the cops–he was funny as shit. Some of them were working guys. They were missing work because they had been arrested. I couldn’t get over that–jobs were probably lost because of this. I did a lot of thinking. I thought about my friends who never made it. Rick from Lakeview is in jail for shooting rival gang members. Gerard–a south-side friend–is dead; he was shot over a drug debt. Another friend died from a crack overdose. I sat in that cell and wondered if that’s what awaits these kids. It doesn’t have to be. But we’re criminalizing good people. While I’m sitting there one guy says, “I don’t have money for bail.’ And another said, “That’s OK, my friends will get you out. But you’ll have to work it off by slinging.’ Right there in jail, they were recruiting.”

It was past three in the morning before Hudson was released; he was charged with loitering, a misdemeanor offense. “I didn’t have any money to catch a cab and it was starting to rain and I’m standing outside the station, collecting my energy for the long walk home, when this huge car with tinted windows rolls up,” he says. “The driver rolls down the window and it’s one of the fellows who had been arrested and released before me. He says, “Yo, you want a ride or what?’ They drove me home. I was exhausted and I was grimy and I was down, and they came along in this big luxury car and drove me to my door. At that point, the way I felt, I would have joined that gang.”

Shakespeare District commander Jose Velez says Hudson’s arrest might have been avoided had Hudson not smarted off to police. “The arresting officers encountered a gang disorderly,” says Velez. “It was never their intention to arrest Mr. Hudson. But Mr. Hudson started yelling, “Is this a police state?’ The officers said, “Stop this, leave this area, we’re conducting business here.’ He was loud and boisterous and disrupting everyone else.”

Hudson says the police never offered him a chance to leave the court. “If they had given me a chance to leave I would have taken it–believe me, I did not want to have a run-in with the cops,” says Hudson. “And I never said anything about a police state. I don’t even think it’s a police state–it’s racism.”

Velez has asked to meet with Hudson, so they can discuss what happened. “There are a lot of good things we’re doing in this district,” says Velez. “We sponsor athletic activities in the park for young people. We work closely with community organizations. We practice community policing.”

But there’s more the police can do, says Hudson. “They should be reaching out to those kids on the playground,” he says. “Instead of arresting them they should play basketball with them. Those kids could see the cops as role models. Some of those kids would make good cops. Listen, the cops and the kids don’t know how good they have it. Bucktown isn’t the projects. These kids aren’t hardened criminals. There’s still a chance. Their stories don’t have to end up bad like so many of my old friends.”

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Photo/Marc PoKempner.