Justice Department Hears Stories Of Police Abuse At North Side Forum
On a hot night, with no air conditioning in the Truman College gym, Justice Department lawyer Emily Gunston took a handheld mic to address about 200 people sitting on bleachers. The crowd was about half African-American, half white, all ages.
Gunston addressed two questions head on: First, why the need to gather new evidence about something that seems so obviously true?
The feds need the strongest possible evidence, Gunston explained.
“Everyone needs to understand, that if they fight us on this case, they would lose,” she says. “We need to be in a very strong position when we negotiate a consent decree with the city of Chicago.”
Second, why should the process take so long? The investigation has already been going on for six months. Gunston said the feds want to be sure to demand smart reforms that speak directly to underlying problems.
“If we just come in here, and we slap reforms on this city, that’s how you end up with reforms that look like window dressing,” she said. “That’s how you end up with reforms that can be easily manipulated, and that end up looking like a politicized response.”
She says the rest of the evening is for hearing from people who have signed up to speak. She urges people to participate-- to call, to email.
“We respond to every single call, we respond to every single email,” she said. “We cannot prove this case without you.”
For the next two hours and change, dozens of people came forward—some to make speeches, others to tell stories.
Robin McPherson stepped up to a mic in front of the bleachers and identified herself as a human rights worker from Rogers Park.
“I’m law abiding, work every day, own my own home, drive a decent car, pay all my bills,” McPherson said. “I do everything. I try to be right.”
One night, she stopped for gas a few blocks from home, and when she pulled out of the station, she was surprised to see three cop cars behind her, lights and sirens on. She says it took her a while to figure out that she was the one they were signaling to pull over.
When she did, officers jumped out of all three cars.
“They pulled me out of my car, put me on the back of my car, got a police lady searching me,” she said. “And when I said, ‘What did I do?’ they said I pulled out of the gas station and didn’t put on my left turn signal.”
McPherson described the police locking her up for a couple of hours, in cuffs, before letting her go.
“I just wanted to share that story,” she said. “You live in your community. And you do the right thing. But you are targeted, you are profiled. It’s just unreal. And it really, really exists.”
The crowd applauded McPherson as she made her points.
Others told stories of family members who they said had been wrongfully arrested, imprisoned or killed.
“I am the mother of Michael Westley, who was shot and killed June 16, 2013,” said Chantell Brooks. “He was 15 years old.”
Officials who reviewed her son’s case declared the shooting justified because, they said, her son was carrying two guns. Brooks said she doesn’t believe that and wants the Justice Department to re-open the case.
“That was my child,” she said. “That was my first son. It really hurts-- I’m lost for words, but I can’t cry anymore. All I can do is to fight for what’s right and fight for my son.”
One of the last speakers was 24 year-old Kirah Moe, who said her voice was hoarse because she had been out protesting. And the problems with police, she said, extend to the way officers treat protesters.
“I know they have to be emotionally involved just as we are,” said Moe. “But at the end of the day, we pay taxes for them to serve and protect us.”
And after the meeting ended, a small group lingered to talk with Gunston and each other.
“What good is a lawsuit?” an older man asked, frustration in his voice.
“There shouldn’t even be no investigation,” a woman said, interrupting him. “Because it’s plain and simple in everybody’s face, what’s going on.
“They’re making fun of us,” the man said. “That’s all it is. The Department of Justice is making no more than fun of us.”
Kirah Moe pressed forward, to make sure she had the right email address to reach Gunston with a video.
“I will send it to you,” Moe told Gunston. “You will be able to see it, the force that we’re talking about.”
“Send it to us,” said Gunston. “Thank you.”
Dan Weissmann is a reporter for WBEZ. Follow him @danweissmann.