Credit: Grace Del Vecchio

On Sunday afternoon, after Chicago police shot 20-year-old Latrell Allen but before the city would mourn broken windows and looted Best Buys, a block in Englewood was about to erupt.

A crowd of some 100 officers stood behind yellow police tape at the intersection of 56th and Aberdeen. They stood like an army, on the spot where they shot Allen, some holding guns half the size of their own bodies and poised for what might happen next. Dozens of people from the neighborhood gathered just north of the intersection. They yelled to the officers for answers about the shooting. They yelled that the officers didn’t belong in the neighborhood. Black neighbors of all ages sat on their porches up and down the leafy green residential block in the heart of the south side.

The face-off, in part fueled by the rapid spread of misinformation, lasted for hours. Had police shot and killed an unarmed 15-year-old? (The official account from CPD states that Allen shot at the police first. The officers on the scene were not wearing body cameras, and the account has been disputed.) While the police officers were positioned behind yellow tape, community members said a cop reached across the barrier and pulled a man to the ground.

Shortly after 6 PM, the sea of angry and frustrated residents parted. The officers marched north on Aberdeen back to their patrol cars. Those who had gathered filmed the exit on cell phones, some even smiled. A man spoke into a bullhorn. “Let them through, let them do their jobs.”

That man was Tyrone Muhammad. The 41-year-old was dressed in a white T-shirt, which he wore under a black bulletproof vest with a matching black mask. Muhammad speaks in a calm voice, like a friend who knows you well.

He arrived on the scene around 5 PM after seeing posts on social media and responding to calls from community activists to de-escalate the standoff. In 2017, Muhammad started Ex-Cons for Community and Social Change (ECCSC), a program that teaches exconvicts de-escalation tactics to serve and protect their communities. ECCSC’s motto is “It’s gonna take us to save us.” Muhammad often gets calls from activists across the city to de-escalate situations. He also gets calls from CPD and COPA officials, as well as from the mayor’s office. (He said Lori Lightfoot’s office who would later call him on Monday to discuss the shooting in Englewood and the looting in the Loop. He also said they never take his advice.)

“We can’t be out here looking like savages, just because [the police] act like savages,” Muhammad said to those who had gathered on Sunday. “We need to maintain some decorum and some order and some unity. We can’t sit around and make noise and do all this crazy stuff on camera and people watching us like we the idiots and we the animals. So let’s stay calm, be respectful, and stop and not let tensions get so out of hand that we fighting each other.”

Credit: Grace Del Vecchio

Joseph Williams was getting ready to watch a movie on Netflix with his wife and son when he saw Facebook Live streams of altercations between community members and police. “I flew out of the house, I knew I had to get out . . . like I gotta get over here like to see what’s going on there,” Williams, the founder of the nonprofit Mr. Dad’s Father’s Club, told me.

The 31-year-old father of five, wearing a mask that read “We are all one home team,” said those on the scene were angry and impatient for answers about the shooting. The police relayed to Williams that three men were arrested: Allen, who was shot, and two others. “The police were already fired up,” said Williams. “So the first thing I tried to do was start to get out there and mellow the community out, give them some responses. And then started trying to push back a little bit on the [community members], a little bit just so we can get some things settled.”

Williams knew the situation was fraught and that he likely couldn’t handle it alone, so he called on other community members for assistance. Muhammad answered that call. The two men navigated the neighborhood crowd and police like interpreters. Flipping back and forth between sides, delivering information and demands, concerns and feelings, working methodically to de-escalate an otherwise tense block. While Williams and Muhammad encouraged others to put down bricks and walk away from the police, they also knew the only way for things to truly de-escalate would be for the police to leave.

Muhammad went to the police officers and told them they needed to clear out. “Get your people out of here with the M16s out of our community,” he said. “This is not a war zone. That’s why you have no respect from the people because you comin’ over here like you at war.” Muhammad, like the exconvicts he works with, was unarmed. (He believes formerly incarcerated individuals should be allowed their Second Amendment rights.) The police wrapped up the investigation and left the scene.

Muhammad is often labeled an organizer and activist, but he rejects those titles. “I call myself a community servant,” he said. (It’s the title written on the back of his bulletproof vest.) “I think a lot of the activists are really not activated to really get at the issues of our community,” he said. “That’s more about talk and rhetoric than actual action.” While he only launched ECCSC a few years ago, Muhammad said he started practicing this methodology while serving 21 years in prison. He grew tired of watching young men go in and out of the system without any real transformation. “Understand it’s not gonna happen from the politicians. It’s not gonna happen from the pastors, is not gonna happen from the correctional facilities, although they call themselves direction. It’s gonna take us to save us.”

As I walked around the 5600 block of Aberdeen shortly before the police dispersed, community members were vocal about denouncing CPD’s presence in the neighborhood. “They need to get up out of here,” one person said. “We don’t want them.” “Let the community handle it,” another said. I heard it again and again. On that Sunday afternoon, the cops made the neighborhood feel less safe. Those who watched the scene unfold were anxious, holding their breath, only able to exhale once the police and their rifles were gone. For these people, the police presence in Englewood on Sunday night was the antithesis of de-escalation, a disorganized threat to safety, a result of a system that invests more in policing its communities than in the communities themselves.

“See, the police don’t have a strategy, that’s why they’re so aggressive. That’s why they come and call more officers and more officers. Instead, they get so many police, they disperse the crowd abusively, they do messed up stuff to people and that’s the end of the day for them,” said Williams. “They don’t know us, don’t care about us. They come in to do a job, and the job is, really, to be aggressive.” He continued. “They get these multibillion dollar contracts, but they’re not out there always seeing what happened. They come afterward which is useless.”

“You got a whole thing going on that you would never fix until you get at the root of the causes,” said Muhammad. “So it’s easy to talk about the communities, but you really need to be talking about why the communities are disinvested.”  v