Speakers against the police academy at City Hall on the day of the vote for the land use, November 8, 2017. (Matt McLoughlin)

Here’s Why Chicago Activists Are Against Rahm Emanuel’s $95 Million Cop Academy

A conversation with Monica Trinidad, a Chicago-based artist and organizer.

BY Sarah Jaffe

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It is about building up power among our different communities and friends—and building a united front against the things that are harming our communities.

Welcome to Interviews for Resistance. We’re now several months into the Trump administration, and activists have scored some important victories in those months. Yet there is always more to be done, and for many people, the question of where to focus and how to help remains. In this series, we talk with organizers, agitators and educators about how to resist—and build a better world.

Monica Trinidad: My name is Monica Trinidad. I am an artist and an organizer in Chicago, born and raised here on the far South Side. Currently I am organizing with For the People Artists Collective and also the People’s Response Team.

Sarah Jaffe: We are here to talk about one particular campaign happening in Chicago right now, which is around the construction of a new police academy. To start off with, tell our listeners what that is and, in particular, what they are budgeting for it.

Monica: Over the 4th of July weekend, Rahm Emanuel, who is a really awful, awful mayor, threw out this proposal to build a $95 million police academy. He originally framed it as a public-training safety center. That is sort of the messaging he is using in mainstream news outlets. Really, it is $95 million for a new, fancy, shiny building for the police force here in Chicago, in a city where we already spend roughly $1.5 billion on police every year.

That is about $4 million every single day that goes into policing from our city budget. That is more than the city spends on the Departments of Public Health, Family and Support Services, Transportation and planning and Development (which includes affordable housing).

Basically, Rahm Emanuel tried to slide this under the radar on 4th of July weekend thinking nobody would pay attention. But we did. We saw it and were like, “No, this is not what we need in our community right now. This is not what we are asking for.” The No Cop Academy campaign is an effort that is supported by community organizations from across the city. There are about 40 organizations right now that are part of this coalition.

We are saying that $95 million needs to be invested in our communities and not in more police training and more police training grounds. The campaign is being led by Assata’s Daughters, which is a young Black women and femme organization in Washington Park. It is also in coalition with the People’s Response Team, For the People Artists Collective, Black Lives Matter Chicago, BYP 100. The list is incredibly long. The campaign is only about two months old now. It started as a rapid response campaign and it still is. But we are in it for the long run.

Sarah: Some of the money that Chicago spends on policing is on paying out settlements over police violence. Take us through the recent history of the Chicago Police Department and Rahm Emanuel’s involvement.

Monica: In Chicago, numerous people have already been killed by the Chicago policy department this year. We know that a huge amount of money goes towards settlements. We are hearing these arguments from aldermen that, “Well, if we have better police training, we won’t have to be paying out all of these big huge settlements.” That is not necessarily true, when you think about policing and the police force as inherently violent, as having roots in oppression and being anti-Black.

When you think about the ways in which we are talking about this police training center and how this is going to be better for our city, we are saying, “Absolutely not.” This is not where our money needs to be going. Our money needs to be put into resources. Rahm closed 50 schools in 2013, some of them in that neighborhood where they want to build that police academy. It is very clear that Rahm is saying he is supporting schools and resources for cops, but not for the Black kids.

We are trying to say that real community safety comes from fully funded schools and mental health centers, job training programs and social and economic justice in our communities. It does not come from expanding resources for policing.

A lot of us who are involved in this current coalition were part of We Charge Genocide, which was an effort in Chicago in 2014 where we went to the United Nations in Geneva, Switzerland to submit a report on the huge amount of police violence being committed against young people of color in our city. We were there, and we did direct action inside of the United Nations calling attention to the murder of Dominique “Damo” Franklin. His family recently got paid out about $200,000 in a settlement for wrongful death.

This cycle keeps repeating over and over. Somebody is murdered by the Chicago police. A huge settlement gets paid out. Then it happens over and over again. If they think that opening up a brand new police academy is going to stop this, then they are just entirely wrong.

Sarah: This kind of campaign follows from the invest/divest framework that has been discussed a lot in the last couple of years. Could you talk a little bit more about that framework and why it has been effective for previous campaigns, particularly for this one?

Monica: Even from an artist perspective, something Chicago is really, really good at is understanding the role that art plays in organizing and activist spaces, understanding the importance of the cultural worker, understanding the importance of opening up our imaginations to endless possibilities of a world outside of what we are actually existing in right now. So when we think about $95 million, we are like, “What could we actually be doing with that money?”

There is so much we could be doing with that money! It is just absurd that they want to put more money into the police department when $95 million could pay for more mental health clinics in our city. It could mean one brand new high school. A new school in Englewood would cost $75 million. It could build 5 new Chicago Public Library branches.

We are being given this one option from our city that says, “Oh, we are going to give you more policing.” Then, people say okay, because everybody wants more. More, more, more. We want resources. But no one is stopping and asking our communities, “What would you actually like to see done with $95 million?” That is where we are coming in and informing our communities and saying, “Here are all the things that we could actually benefit from in our city, and here is what they are proposing.” This is not okay. This is not right.

Also, this isn’t a transparent process. This plan was developed long before it even was made public. And there has been no public comment or input whatsoever on the plan at any stage. We are making it clear to our communities that this plan is being put forward without our input during a time when our mayor is saying that the city is broke. But apparently, he can find money when he wants to.

That is where we are coming from with the invest/divest. Let’s ask our communities and folks who are directly impacted by a lot of the violence that is happening and say, “What actually would make this violence stop?” That would be job training, and that would be after-school programs. I think that imagination piece is what is often missing in the conversations around what we could actually invest our money in.

The beautiful organizing that happens in Chicago expands our imaginations and allows us to demand the impossible.

Sarah: Tell us about this coalition that is working on this and how it came together.

Monica: Just last year we had the #ByeAnita campaign. That was a campaign to oust our state’s attorney Anita Alvarez who was blocking any sort of progress in moving forward in any sort of justice in our city. It was after the Laquan McDonald video came out. We know that she played a huge role in keeping that undercover and under wraps. We came together as an organization, led by the Black women and femmes of Assata’s Daughters. The fearless leading youth said, “Bye”—and she was out.

It also comes from working together with people within the reparations ordinance fight. Those are some of the same who we won reparations after 20 years for Jon Burge torture survivors in our city and won a huge package. A huge financial package. A memorial should be going up soon, which is one of the first of its kind to have a memorial dedicated to people that have been victims of police violence. That is something just unheard of. Then, also, including this history in Chicago Public School curriculum. It is this huge, huge success.

Again, I want to emphasize that this is being led by young Black people, in particular, by Assata’s Daughters. We are taking cues and taking the lead from young Black people who are saying, “This is not what we want. We do not want more police harassment and violence. We want money for the schools.” That is how it came together.

It started out very small. We knew that this was being hidden from the public, so we really just wanted to make some noise about it. We put out a statement, and we did a press conference, and we sort of just hoped for the best. Then, so many organizations started reaching out to us to endorse the campaign, organizations that we haven’t worked with before. Education and economic justice groups were reaching out to us and being like, “Yes, this is exactly what we are saying.” It was really a beautiful moment when we thought, “Wow, we could really build a huge coalition of organizations across the spectrums in our city to demand better for our city.”

We are about 40 organizations strong now and still growing every day. We get at least three or four requests to endorse per day, as well as press coverage across the country. It has really taken off. I really think that it shows the desperation that our communities have, that we are like “This $95 million does not make any sense.”

What we want is accountability. Something that keeps coming up is the Department of Justice came to Chicago and gave us their 99 recommendations. Can they tell me how many recommendations have been taken care of that will decrease the violence that police are perpetuating on our communities? No. What they are doing first and foremost is creating a $95 million shiny new building. What we are saying is that we want accountability, not a new facility. And we want transparency.

Sarah: You mentioned the Justice Department and, of course, Donald Trump loves to use Chicago as his example of a place where there is all this violence. Rahm Emanuel wanted to be one of the people who was resisting Trump, whatever that means. But when you look at this kind of thing, his priorities are not actually that different.

Monica: Absolutely. You hear Rahm talking about being a sanctuary city and a place where police never cooperate and never collaborate with ICE. We are like, “Wrong. That is absolutely wrong and you are a liar.”

We have a Chicago gang database. Nobody knows how you get on this database. Nobody knows how to get off this database. It is just this arbitrary, non-transparent database where people get put on it, and that is one of the exceptions to police and ICE collaborating. BYP 100 Chicago and Mijente are doing a lot of brilliant work in Chicago to amplify and expose that.

Rahm is such a liar when it comes to being the antithesis to Donald Trump. He is using Trump politics. He is Chicago’s Trump, basically. The idea that he is the resistance to Trump is another narrative we want to disrupt as a campaign.

Sarah: There was just a city council meeting to vote on the police academy. Talk about what went on at the city council meeting and what the next steps are.

Monica: There was a city council vote two weeks ago. Basically, 48 to 1 voted in favor of the land acquisition for 30 acres of vacant land for that academy. The one sole alderman who opposed it was Alderman Carlos Ramirez Rosa from the 35th Ward. He gave a speech about how police training isn’t going to solve problems that are being highlighted in the Justice Department report and that we don’t need more training, we need more money for mental health services and schools and not for a police academy.

It is so interesting. We are very new to working and being involved in the city council process. I think it is very muddled and very confusing on purpose. When we went in, we were like, “Okay, let’s get our people in to make public comments against the police academy because we know that it is going to be up for vote today. So, let’s get in line. Okay. How do we make a comment? What do we do? What do we fill out?”

Also, I am sure many people have heard that Chance the Rapper came out to oppose the police academy, as well. He was there. He gave his three-minute opposition to the police academy. There were also folks from NTA, which is a school in Chicago that is also facing closure. There were dozens of NTA students who were there who were demanding that their school remain open. They also plugged us and said, “No police academy. Fund our schools. Not this.”

Then, there were also folks there from Uptown Tent City who are basically calling out their alderman, James Cappleman, who is harassing the homeless and taking away their ability to have a tent community in Uptown area. They were also saying, “No cop academy. Create homeless shelters and create housing for homeless people.”

So, we have all these different people who are all saying, “We are opposed to this police academy.” Then, when the time for the vote comes up, you have all of these aldermen who are saying why they support the police academy. And before this, there were all these different line items that were just being voted on and passed, voted on and passed, voted on and passed. We really believe that this land acquisition vote, which was also just a line item, would have just had that vote and been done with had we not been making the noise that we have been making. Then, they spent an hour defending this police academy being built. I don’t think they would have done that if we weren’t there.

The way they voted wasn’t a surprise, especially knowing that this entire process hasn’t been transparent, without public comment. The way that city council works is not about democracy. So we already knew this wasn’t going to happen the way that we wanted. But I think that we were really curious to see what was going to happen inside of the city council.

And we said, “Okay, next steps. Let’s focus on putting pressure on the aldermen.” We wanted to show these alderman that people felt really polarized about this campaign and where their alderman stood. After this vote happened, my Facebook wall was flooded with people who were like, “How dare my alderman vote for this police academy! I am committing to voting you out in 2019.”

So you are seeing this huge surge in constituent power that is happening right now. People are really pissed off and are committing to recreating the #ByeAnita campaign for all of these different alderman. I think that these alderman really made a huge mistake and miscalculated their votes.

Sarah: Do you know what the next steps are or where the next opportunities to stop this are?

Monica: Yes, it is not a done deal yet. They still have to find a contractor. They still have to figure out financing. This building is not a done deal yet, because they still don’t know exactly how they are going to pay for the project. They are still about $37 million short. I think that is also a huge area of question, of “How can we organize around that?”

It is going to be brought back to city council in the future. So, there is still time to organize around that. And I think there is still time to turn aldermen around and stop it. We are re-strategizing, we are re-grouping, and we are figuring out the next steps.

Even if this police academy gets built, I think we have already won. I think we have already been successful in exposing the ways that the city really doesn’t care what its community members think or what its constituents think. They are still going to do whatever Rahm says to do. Exposing that is something that we have really been successful at.

I think it is important to give room to have conversations around abolition, to have conversations around alternatives to policing, alternatives to prisons. It is about building up power among our different communities and friends—and building a united front against the things that are harming our communities. And it is about changing the narrative. I think that is something we have been really successful at in this campaign so far.

Right in the beginning, Rahm was trying to call this this public training safety center, and that was the language that was being utilized universally in the news. Now, it is being referred to as the “cop academy.” Now it is being referred to as exactly what it is. In that sense, we have also won by changing the narrative. Now, next steps are keeping the pressure on.

Sarah: How can people keep up with you and with the campaign?

Monica: People can visit us at www.NoCopAcademy.wordpress.com. We post a lot of updates on the People’s Response Team Facebook page, Assata’s Daughters Facebook page, and For the People Artists Collective Facebook page. Lots of updates there. If people want to get on the endorser’s list, if you are an organization in Chicago that wants to join us, you can email us at [email protected]

Interviews for Resistance is a project of Sarah Jaffe, with assistance from Laura Feuillebois and support from the Nation Institute. It is also available as a podcast on iTunes. Not to be reprinted without permission.

Sarah Jaffe is a former staff writer at In These Times and author of Necessary Trouble: Americans in Revolt , which Robin D.G. Kelley called “The most compelling social and political portrait of our age.” You can follow her on Twitter @sarahljaffe.

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