Tackling Violence with a Softer Side of Policing

By Emily Gray Brosious | Gapers Block | Jun. 30, 2015

Chicago Police Officer Diana Varga answers questions from children and youth at the Foglia Family and Youth Center in Chicago's East Garfield Park neighborhood. (Photo by Emily Gray Brosious)
Chicago Police Officer Diana Varga answers questions from children and youth at the Foglia Family and Youth Center in Chicago’s East Garfield Park neighborhood. (Photo by Emily Gray Brosious)

When police officers couldn’t make it to a scheduled basketball match with youth in the East Garfield Park neighborhood last Wednesday, 11th District Chicago Police Officer Diana Varga swooped in to save the day with an impromptu meet-and-greet of sorts.

Dressed in plain athletic clothes, the outgoing young officer spoke about policing in Chicago to a few dozen people gathered in the gymnasium. Then she opened up for a question and answer session. Children and teens sat cross-legged on the basketball court, eagerly raising their hands to ask Officer Varga about her background, her police work and what it takes to become an officer.

“Everyone in here could be a police officer. Be athletic, be healthy, get your degree,” she said before leading a few lively rounds of training drills and breaking into some basketball practice with the kids.

This isn’t necessarily the picture of police-community relations that readily comes to mind following recent waves of protest and national outrage over the deaths of unarmed black people at the hands of white police officers. Amid such tensions, it can be easy to overlook the individuals and organizations actively working to change that dynamic.

Organizations like Marillac St. Vincent Family Services, which planned Wednesday’s event as part of a larger collaboration with the Chicago Police Department (CPD) aimed at building trust between police and community members to help tackle gun violence in the Garfield Park neighborhood.

“With more than 1,100 shootings in Chicago this year alone, the community in Garfield Park is bracing for the worst as summer approaches and temperatures rise — conditions under which gun violence historically rises in the city,” said Stephen Barker, Associate Director of Development at Marillac St. Vincent Family Services.

Building a “coalition of peace” between the police and the community is a key strategy for lowering gun and drug related violence in the Garfield Park neighborhood, Barker said in an interview. “This is what saves lives.”

Officer Vargas echoed that sentiment and underscored the importance of community-police relations. CPD’s emphasis on community policing measures is actually one of the reasons she chose to join the department, she said in an interview.

Many children and youth were excited to meet with police officers Wednesday.

“A lot of people don’t like police because of shootings and things across the country, but I feel safer when they’re around,” 14-year-old Jacari Brown said in an interview.

He hopes increasing positive interactions between youth and police officers will lower the gang-related violence in his neighborhood.

“We want less gangs, less guns, less kids getting killed,” he said.

Chicago Mothers March to Remember Children Killed by Police

By Emily Gray Brosious | Gapers Block | May 12, 2015

A group of mothers protested police violence Saturday evening on the South Side, near the spot where 15-year-old Dakota Bright was fatally shot by Chicago police in 2012.

“My baby was 15 and he was taken away,” said Bright’s mother, Panzy Edwards. “And the third district cops have no remorse.”

Police claim Bright was killed after he pointed a gun at an officer, but Edwards maintains her son was unarmed. Officers on-scene declined to comment for this story.

The “Mother’s Day March Against the Police State” was the latest in a series of demonstrations aimed at law enforcement, targeting what organizers call systemic racism, violence and a culture of impunity within police departments nationwide.

Standing in front of a poster that displayed the names and faces of black men and women who have been killed by police, Edwards read names of the dead aloud. She turned to the police and said– “If y’all are for the people then why are you killing the people?”

Panzy Edwards, the mother of 15-year-old Dakota Bright who was killed by Chicago police in 2012, addressed demonstrators Saturday evening before leading a march to the Third District Police Station. (Photo/ Emily Gray Brosious)
Panzy Edwards, the mother of 15-year-old Dakota Bright who was killed by Chicago police in 2012, addressed demonstrators Saturday evening before leading a march to the Third District Police Station. (Photo/ Emily Gray Brosious)

Demonstrators rallied steps from the alley where Bright was killed, then marched nearly a mile to the Grand Crossing District police station. Chants, songs and the sounds of car-horns honking in solidarity filled the air as police officers silently tailed the slow-moving peaceful march — without much interaction with protesters.

The group held a candlelight vigil outside the police station and Edwards read a poem for her slain son. It’s been more than two years since his death and Edwards said she still hasn’t found justice through the criminal justice system.

Organizers echoed that sentiment, saying they did not believe justice could come from the same system that “kidnaps and kills their loved ones.”

Demonstrators said they are fed up “living under police occupation,” and called for no-police zones in communities they say have been brutalized by “state sponsored black genocide” at the hands of Chicago police officers.

“Strong communities make police obsolete,” organizers repeated during the rally.

Demonstrator Daphne Jackson described a “war” being waged by police on black communities, and said it was time for people to stand up and defend themselves.

“They’re not here to help us. We are our help,” she said.

Jackson also pointed past the police, at larger public policies that systematically disenfranchise and subsequently criminalize black men in America.

“This is what society gave them. Stop blaming them for it,” she said.

Freddie McGee, whose 34-year-old son Freddie Latice Wilson was killed by Chicago police in 2007, said he sees trouble ahead if the criminal justice system doesn’t reform in a major way.

“People are tired of marching peacefully,” he said.

Why Did Chicago Police Attack ALEC Protesters?

By Emily Gray Brosious | Originally published at Gapers Block | Aug. 13, 2013 

Thousands of activists, union and faith group members, and concerned citizens rallied outside the Palmer House Hilton in downtown Chicago this past Thursday to protest the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), whose 40th anniversary conference was being held inside the hotel.

Demonstrators picketed around the block for about an hour, then gathered at a soundstage to hear speakers including Rev. Jesse Jackson address the crowd. Closing remarks from a Chicago Federation of Labor representative thanked the Fraternal Order of Police for protecting the crowd and asked everyone to leave. A majority of union members, many from out-of-town, did leave at the CFL’s request. However, a smaller group of anti-ALEC activists and citizens stayed put to continue on with the protest.

It was at this point that police began moving to break up the crowd, pushing and using barricades. After a brief standoff with activists chanting on one side of the barricade and police standing on the other side, police opened the barricade and surged into the crowd, knocking protesters to the ground. The commanding officer, Alfred Nagode, was seen repeatedly striking an activist in the face and head. Several others were beaten by police officers before a handful of arrests were made.

Aaron Cynic, an activist and writer at Chicagoist on hand at the anti-ALEC protest, witnessed police rush the crowd seemingly unprovoked. He said the beatings and arrests appeared to be targeted and pre-planned.

Laura Sabransky, another activist and anti-ALEC protester reports very little communication from police before they rushed the crowd. They did not get on a bullhorn ordering people to leave.

“Specific individuals were secretly selected as targets and attacked,” David Orlikoff, an anti-ALEC activist and member of Occupy Chicago, alleges.

Orlikoff, himself, was targeted and arrested about half an hour later while he was leaving the protest. As he walked along the sidewalk on the south side of Monroe, an officer snatched him from behind, pulled him into the street, cuffed him, searched him, and took his phone.

“I was completely taken by surprise and shocked and had no idea what was happening to me,” Orlikoff recounts.

He was not informed of his rights, and when he asked why he was being arrested, the arresting officer said it was for something he had done earlier, but would not elaborate. He was eventually charged with misdemeanor battery.

Orlikoff says police animosity towards anti-ALEC protesters was obvious throughout the incident. Nagode, who he describes as a “hot-head with a flaring temper,” was heard repeatedly chastising protesters for being ungrateful that they had even been allowed to walk and chant. Once inside the police wagon, he witnessed police deny medical assistance to another arrestee, a female teacher, who was having a medical emergency and begging for the inhaler inside her bag that had been confiscated. Inside the jail, he heard police verbally berate other anti-ALEC arrestees.

So what is up with this violent police crackdown on protesters at Thursday’s demonstration? To understand the police response, it is necessary to understand what anti-ALEC activists were there to protest.

For those unfamiliar with the group, ALEC is a tax exempt 501 (c)(3) organization made up of legislators, corporations, and foundations that works to promote conservative, free market, limited government ideals. It does so by drafting model bills and pushing them in state legislatures though its legislative members. ALEC’s impact on public policy goes well beyond simple lobbying. In effect, unelected corporate representatives have actually finagled positions of power within legislatures akin to those of elected representatives.

John Nichols, Washington correspondent for The Nation magazine, has criticized ALEC as a “collaboration between multinational corporations and conservative state legislators,” waging a “savage assault on democracy.”

The group boasts around 2,000 corporate members and 300 legislative members across the country. Their model legislations include right to work laws designed to do away with minimum wage, laws to create tax havens for corporations and wealthy interests, laws to push public funds from public schools to private charter schools, laws to prevent class action lawsuits from being filed against corporations and employers, laws to repeal mandated worker benefits, laws to eliminate pollution regulations and environmental protections, laws to increase for-profit prison operations, and numerous others. The controversial “stand your ground” law is also an ALEC brainchild.

Many believe that Chicago police cracked down on anti-ALEC protesters because their message directly defies the pro-business agenda of political players calling the shots in this city, chieflyMayor Rahm Emanuel. Mayor Emanuel has notoriously embraced many of ALEC’s conservative policies pushing to expand privatization and corporate reach within the city.

Cops do snatch and grab arrests to repress individuals engaged in activities confronting the legitimacy of the dominant hierarchy, Orlikoff explains. Charges distract from those activities. Police target organizers and individuals involved with the activist community, attack them, and arrest them on made-up charges to undermine the viability of political movements. Its easy for police to do and makes it much harder for protesters to get back on the street without risking harsher punishment.

Because police are the “frontline foot-soldiers” of the existing power structure, Orlikoff laments, “Anything that challenges that existing structure elicits a dangerous response from law enforcement.”

Of course, historically and presently, repressive police tactics are nothing new for Chicago’s activist community. From the first round of Occupy Chicago mass arrests back in October of 2011, to mass arrests surrounding the NATO Summit in May 2012, to last week’s anti-ALEC protest crackdowns, the Chicago Police Department appears to have a nasty habit of targeting and violating the constitutional rights of protesters based on their proletarian political beliefs.