After two weeks of large scale protests and rallies, the chants of “Black Lives Matter” and “No Justice, No Peace” are not ringing through the streets as loudly as they had been. But local activists say their demands have not been met and that they will continue to pressure Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot and other city leaders to make changes.
WBEZ caught up with six local activists who were pushing for a transformation of the police before the recent George Floyd uprisings. Some of the groups these activists represent have worked together in the past, including Black Lives Matter, #LetUsBreathe Collective and Black Youth Project 100. The current protests, they said, are an opportunity to collaborate, coalesce around ideas and mobilize.
Some of the organizers we talked to said they have little faith that Lightfoot will do what is right on her own without more protests and other direct actions. After all, they have a history with her. They say Lightfoot was dismissive as police board president when they advocated for disciplining the officer who killed Rekia Boyd in 2012; he was acquitted of murder in 2015.
“I would not say Lightfoot is enemy number one, but she is close,” said Trina Reynolds-Tyler from BYP100.
As these activists prepare for reform after Floyd, they gave their perspectives on what is happening now and what they see happening in the future.
Kristiana Rae Colón
“Now is absolutely the time to sustain this collective momentum toward reimagining carceral systems in America.”
Kristiana Rae Colón, 34, is a poet activist. She and her brother founded the #LetUsBreathe Collective after the 2014 uprising in Ferguson, triggered by the police killing of Michael Brown. The organization infuses art into the movement, guided by the premise that “you can’t have a liberated future if you can not imagine it.” She said this is especially important when it comes to radical ideas, such as abolishing the police.
“So the number one critique that I hear is, ‘We can’t abolish the police because who would keep us safe’? Or, ‘We can’t abolish the police because there are still criminals and once you abolish the police then who are you going to call?’” Rae Colón explained. “That’s why I think that liberation is a creative endeavor because you have to have the imagination to answer those questions.” She compares the police to slavery — an institution that can’t be “reformed.”
She and her brother, along with other artist activists, were thrust into the spotlight on a recent Sunday when police beat them with batons. Her brother, his girlfriend and others were also arrested. Since then, she said, “it has been rapid response for 10 days.” She said her organization’s location in Back of the Yards has become a hub for organizers to debate and conduct training, and to distribute food and aid to the community.
Rae Colón predicts that in the coming weeks the demands of activists will coalesce and protest organizers will enter into collaborations with each other. “Now is absolutely the time to sustain this collective momentum toward reimagining carceral systems in America,” she said.
Black Lives Matter-Chicago, Southside Together Organizing for Power and Ujimaa Medics
“We have been hoping, waiting for the kind of spark that would really ignite people.”
Amika Tendaji, 39, describes herself as a poor black girl from the South Side who got into activism as a teenager when she connected her struggles with those of sweatshop workers in Honduras. She is involved in several organizations, including Black Lives Matter-Chicago, Southside Together Organizing for Power and Ujimaa Medics, which trains people to keep people alive until paramedics arrive. Black Lives Matter-Chicago helped organize two of the biggest protests on the Saturdays of May 30 and June 8; it also has supported other actions by helping to keep people safe.
She said she and other organizers feel like they are floating on a cloud. After years of demanding more accountability for Chicago police, they suddenly found themselves in a sea of people agitating for the same thing. “We have been hoping, waiting for the kind of spark that would really ignite people into understanding it is not OK for police to keep killing black people,” she said. “It is not OK for black lives to be so disposable.”
She said the work in Chicago is far from done. “Absolutely not,” she said. She pointed out that protesters in Minneapolis and Los Angeles have won commitments from their mayors to disinvest in police and reimagine policing. But Mayor Lori Lightfoot has yet to agree to shift any funding away from police. “Without continued extreme pressure, I do not think Lightfoot is going to back down.”
BLM-Chicago is supporting a number of actions over the next week, including a student protest against police in schools. They are “cooking up” others, Tenjadi said, and working on when and where.
Black Youth Project 100
“It is about significantly changing the institution.”
A newly minted graduate of the University of Chicago’s Harris School of Public Policy, Trina Reynolds-Tyler worked with several grassroots organizations as a student. Today, she is a member of the Black Youth Project 100, a national organization of black activists and organizers 18-to-35 years old.
When Chicago Public Schools suspended meal distribution for a day after the first weekend of protests, the 27-year-old Reynolds-Tyler jumped into action, forming what she calls “the People’s Grab and Go.” Even though the school system has resumed free meal distribution, the street food pantry is still operating. She said it has turned out to be a good way for organizers to connect with people in the community.
“We have a sign up at our People’s Grab and Go that says ‘Defund Police.’ Last week, someone thought it said, ‘Defend Police,’” she said. “The volunteer ended up having a really long conversation about defunding police. That is the type of intergenerational work that we are doing.”
Reynolds-Tyler said the winding down of big rallies this past week should not be mistaken for an end to the uprising. Rather, she said, organizers are using this time to mobilize and regroup about the issues they want to address. One consistent area of focus: Persuading the mayor to reduce money spent on policing. But, perhaps more importantly, she said the role of the police needs an overhaul. For example, she pointed out, as first responders police interact frequently with homeless people. Is there an alternative in which mental health experts and other support services take responsibility for this population?
But, she said, activists will probably not have a single, central demand. “Police have been used as the arm in criminalizing people who have experienced a lack of resources, be it in education, be it in housing, be it in health care,” Reynolds-Tyler said. “I imagine in the next few weeks, you will see not one demand but buckets of demands… it is about significantly changing the institution.”
“I think we need to have discussions first with our city leaders, officials, our aldermanic leaders, our community leaders.”
William Calloway supports the protests but, he said, “Protesting is like war. It should be the last thing you want to do.”
Calloway rose to prominence in Chicago’s police reform movement after he helped unearth the video that captured the shooting of Laquan McDonald in October 2014. The protests that followed in 2015, after the video came to light, led to an agreement between the city of Chicago, the Justice Department, and the Illinois Attorney General to reform CPD. While the federal consent decree is an important remedy, Calloway said the police department must be held to its terms and deadlines.
Calloway said he agrees with those who say the Chicago Police Department is a flawed institution that does not keep citizens safe as evidenced by the high rate of gun violence and costs millions in taxpayer dollars to settle abuse suits. But his demands are more specific than “defund the police.” First, Calloway would like to see the police union’s contract scrapped and replaced with one approved by the community.
He also thinks the sentence given Jason Van Dyke, the police officer who shot McDonald — 81 months, or 6 ¾ years — was too light. Calloway would like civil rights charges brought against Van Dyke; if convicted, Van Dyke would spend more time in prison. His other proposed reforms include opening trauma centers and mental health clinics around the city and boosting the economies of blighted neighborhoods.
Protests, he said, can put people in dangerous situations. “I think we need to have discussions first with our city leaders, officials, our aldermanic leaders, our community leaders,” he said. “We all need to come together, have town hall discussions … [and] really try to utilize a diplomatic approach before we automatically go to protesting.”
Last year, Calloway, now 31, failed to unseat South Side Alderman Leslie Hairston in a tight City Council runoff election to represent the 5th Ward, which includes Hyde Park and South Shore. He still believes working with Mayor Lightfoot can be an effective path to change. “At a time like this, it needs to be all hands on deck,” he said. “As a woman of color, she completely understands what is going on.”
“They really want to be on the front lines. It is their lives they are fighting for.”
Damayanti Wallace founded GoodKids MadCity in April 2018 to organize Chicago teenagers in a fight against gun violence. Now a student at New York University, the 19-year-old activist has moved to the administrative side of the organization. As she expected, the young activists involved in GoodKids MadCity felt compelled to be in the mix of the George Floyd protests. They pushed for a rally that last week drew hundreds — and was punctuated by an incognito appearance by the rap artist Kanye West.
“Majority of them feel like this is their time, like they really want to be on the front lines and fight for it,” she said. “It is their lives they are fighting for.”
The group has focused on their long-standing demand that police no longer be stationed in Chicago public schools. Wallace said students have long felt that police make them less safe. “Seeing a gun in your school every day as you walk down a hallway, that doesn’t do anything for your mental health,” she said. “They don’t have social workers. They don’t have all these things necessary for a successful education.”
Last week, Lightfoot flatly rejected the idea of removing police from schools, in response to the big rally held by GoodKids MadCity. For Wallace that rejection was a line drawn, a call to confrontation. “It could look like healing spaces. It could look like informational sessions. It could look like a bunch of different things,” she said. “I think now — with the fire because of what is going on in the world and the stuff that consistently happens — it is going to look like a bunch of rallies and a bunch of rejection of CPD.”
Chicago Alliance Against Racist and Political Repression
“We got to keep on fighting. The youth who are out there now, they got the energy to do it.”
Frank Chapman has been fighting against the police and for the release of political prisoners for 50 years. His organization, the Chicago Alliance Against Racist and Political Repression, was founded 47 years ago.
In 2012, not long after Chicago police killed Rekia Boyd, the organization started a campaign demanding that Chicago adopt an elected citizen board to provide oversight of the police; specifically, it supports a reform plan called Civilian Police Accountability Council, or CPAC. “We want to say who polices our community and how our community is policed. That means no racist insensitive police in our community, like the one who murdered George Floyd, like the one who murdered Laquan McDonald,” Chapman said. “We want a decisive voice. Not just a seat at the table. It is our communities we are talking about.”
In his many years as an activist, Chapman said he has never seen anything like what happened over the past two weeks. The civil rights movement, he noted, took years to draw crowds in the tens of thousands, as happened at rallies over past weekends here and across the country. He doesn’t buy the idea that, without external pressure, city officials will heed the demands of activists. Instead, he said activists must force city leaders to act.
“We got to keep on fighting. The youth who are out there now, they got the energy to do it,” the 77-year-old said. “I have been working with them the last few weeks, they wore me out.”
Correction: A previous version of this story used the wrong photo for Amika Tendaji and misstated the location of the #LetUsBreathe Collective as Humboldt Park; it is located in Back of the Yards. WBEZ regrets the errors.