The Police Will Keep Killing Us Until We Stop Criminalizing Blackness and Poverty

The murder of Harith “Snoop” Augustus by Chicago police is the latest reminder that we must hold our elected officials accountable for upholding a system that devalues Black life.

Katelyn Johnson July 20, 2018

The Chicago Police Department shot and killed Harith "Snoop" Augustus on July 14, 2018. (Miles Kampf-Lassin)

In Novem­ber 2015, the video of Laquan McDonald’s mur­der at the hands of Chica­go police was released, spark­ing weeks of protests across the city. In the three years since, life for most Black Chicagoans has either large­ly remained the same or shift­ed in a bizarre de-evo­lu­tion of freedom.

Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel has exhibited a profound indifference to the living conditions in poor, Black communities, but so have many aldermen who have been elected year after year and promote constituent services like speed bumps, but fail to deliver on jobs, healthcare, equitable education and police accountability—which their constituents also desperately need.

Don­ald Trump is pres­i­dent, Jeff Ses­sions is Attor­ney Gen­er­al and the nation­al gov­ern­ment is tak­ing major steps back­ward on police reform. Black folks are fac­ing new threats to their free­doms while the Demo­c­ra­t­ic Par­ty appears unable to learn the lessons from its fail­ures and the Repub­li­cans have refined their agen­das to include more overt oppres­sion. Mean­while, the police keep killing Black peo­ple with no account­abil­i­ty. Our world is dif­fer­ent, and orga­niz­ers and activists are left to rede­fine the mea­sures of progress.”

While we were wait­ing for jus­tice, Harith Snoop” Augus­tus was killed in my neigh­bor­hood of South Shore, just around the cor­ner from where I live. The police quick­ly released offi­cial body cam footage appar­ent­ly show­ing Augus­tus car­ry­ing a gun, but the footage lacked audio, so the gen­er­al pub­lic is still left with­out answers. There were com­mu­ni­ty mem­bers on the block that day, some of whom saw the shoot­ing hap­pen. I do not know what hap­pened in the moments lead­ing up to Harith’s mur­der, but I do know that sell­ing loose cig­a­rettes is not a cap­i­tal offense, and hav­ing a con­cealed, reg­is­tered weapon is not a crime in Illinois.

I believe that the insti­gat­ing fac­tor of this mur­der is a mil­i­ta­rized police force that has crim­i­nal­ized Black­ness and pover­ty. Black peo­ple have every right to be afraid and out­raged. Those activists and com­mu­ni­ty mem­bers were enraged and took to heart the oft heard bat­tle cry of pro­gres­sives: no jus­tice, no peace.” We can call for peace, but until elect­ed offi­cials actu­al deliv­er jus­tice, no one should be sur­prised at esca­lat­ing expres­sions of com­mu­ni­ty heart­break and anger.

The myr­i­ad issues fac­ing Black com­mu­ni­ties are mount­ing, and so is the oppo­si­tion to pol­i­tics as usu­al.” In the years since 2015, demands among Chicagoans for a Civil­ian Police Account­abil­i­ty Coun­cil (or CPAC) are ring­ing loud­er and more clear­ly than ever. The police have to be account­able to the pub­lic that they claim to pro­tect and serve because it is the pub­lic, in par­tic­u­lar the pub­lic in low-income com­mu­ni­ties of col­or, who have real-time expe­ri­ence and fear of police bru­tal­i­ty and harassment.

The entire sys­tem of polic­ing needs be re-eval­u­at­ed, and we are see­ing that demands for police abo­li­tion from groups like the Black Youth Project 100 are gain­ing steam on the local and nation­al lev­els. Groups like the Coali­tion for Police Con­tract Account­abil­i­ty (CPCA) have ana­lyzed the Chica­go Police Department’s union con­tract and have iden­ti­fied 14 pro­vi­sions that make it easy to hide police mis­con­duct and that stand as bar­ri­ers to long-term police account­abil­i­ty interventions.

Youth-cen­tered orga­ni­za­tions like Assata’s Daugh­ters have led the fight to inter­rupt con­tin­ued financ­ing of poor polic­ing with their demand for #NoCo­pAcad­e­my, rec­og­niz­ing that the $95 mil­lion the city has pro­posed for a new police train­ing facil­i­ty would be bet­ter spent on schools and com­mu­ni­ty ser­vices. The inde­pen­dent polit­i­cal orga­ni­za­tion Unit­ed Work­ing Fam­i­lies, hav­ing recent­ly chal­lenged the polit­i­cal machine and won with can­di­dates like Bran­don John­son and Delia Ramirez, are mov­ing for­ward to rede­fine pro­gres­sive pol­i­tics as a pow­er­ful coun­ter­weight to the two-par­ty system.

Com­mu­ni­ty orga­ni­za­tions have mobi­lized and activists have put their bod­ies on the line to fight for jus­tice. But many in City Hall have remained silent or oppo­si­tion­al to their con­stituents’ demands. Sim­ply nego­ti­at­ing with elect­ed offi­cials who have served mul­ti­ple terms with­out deliv­er­ing jus­tice is not enough.

I’m at a loss for words at where we go from here. I am dis­ap­point­ed by how many pro­gres­sives (myself regret­ful­ly includ­ed) resort to the same tired tac­tics of protest­ing, march­ing, win­ning a small con­ces­sion and then rins­ing and repeat­ing the same process with­out being inten­tion­al about hav­ing an elec­toral rep­re­sen­ta­tion of our val­ues. There have to be polit­i­cal con­se­quences for inac­tion of elect­ed deci­sion-mak­ers. I under­stand that change takes time, and I under­stand that change hap­pens when we work togeth­er, but what will it take to man­i­fest the deep trans­for­ma­tion that our dying com­mu­ni­ties need? I’m work­ing on tak­ing the plank out of my own eye, and in this moment, I am chas­tened by the wis­dom of activists and com­mu­ni­ty lead­ers who are on the front lines to chal­lenge con­ven­tion and corruption.

We must be ready to accept that though peace will come at a cost, but not a cost as high as more blood­shed. Many politi­cians brag about being tough on crime” but then refuse to pri­or­i­tize the poli­cies that are proven to actu­al­ly reduce crime. Lock­ing peo­ple up does not make me feel safer, and as a Black woman, more police don’t make me feel safer either. We need to col­lec­tive­ly reimag­ine our safe­ty by decon­struct­ing what safe” neigh­bor­hoods have and mak­ing sure all neigh­bor­hoods have the same things.

May­or Rahm Emanuel’s neigh­bor­hood is con­sid­ered safe,” and it’s because most of his neigh­bors already have every­thing that they need to sur­vive and thrive. I would feel safer if all my neigh­bors had liv­ing wage jobs, robust edu­ca­tion, qual­i­ty health­care and access to legal weed. We are safer when we actu­al­ly take care of people’s needs instead of crim­i­nal­iz­ing pover­ty, Black­ness and poor edu­ca­tion. If we want to stop crime and pre­serve life, we need to fix the prob­lems that cause crime” in the first place.

May­or Emanuel has exhib­it­ed a pro­found indif­fer­ence to the liv­ing con­di­tions in poor, Black com­mu­ni­ties, but so have many alder­men who have been elect­ed year after year and pro­mote con­stituent ser­vices like speed bumps, but fail to deliv­er on jobs, health­care, equi­table edu­ca­tion and police account­abil­i­ty — which their con­stituents also des­per­ate­ly need.

My dear com­rade Richard Wal­lace, Exec­u­tive Direc­tor of EAT (Equi­ty and Trans­for­ma­tion), recent­ly stat­ed that There can be no cel­e­bra­tion with­out affir­ma­tion and account­abil­i­ty by our elect­ed offi­cials of the trau­ma they have caused the Black com­mu­ni­ty in Chica­go and a legit­i­mate frame­work of how to estab­lish Racial Equi­ty in [this city].”

Tanya Watkins, co-exec­u­tive Direc­tor of the Black­roots Alliance, said at a press con­fer­ence this week that, “ there is no rea­son that Rahm Emanuel should get to sit in his ivory tow­er, unscathed and unboth­ered in this moment. His neigh­bors, friends, col­leagues and com­mu­ni­ty mem­bers can­not turn a blind eye to the injus­tice that is tak­ing place in com­mu­ni­ties of color.”

That’s real life, direct­ly-impact­ed expe­ri­ence talk­ing, and elect­ed offi­cials need to lis­ten to it.

We need to work togeth­er to flip the script and turn the vol­ume up to 11. We need civil­ian account­abil­i­ty of the police now. We need to orga­nize our votes, our direct actions, and put in place a long-term strat­e­gy to deliv­er polit­i­cal con­se­quences for any elect­ed offi­cial who fails to deliv­er justice.

We need to act now, because the cost of wait­ing for peace is too high.

Kate­lyn John­son is Exec­u­tive Direc­tor of Action Now, a grass­roots com­mu­ni­ty orga­ni­za­tion work­ing to build pow­er and fight for racial, social and eco­nom­ic jus­tice in low-income Black com­mu­ni­ties in Chica­go. She is also Co-exec­u­tive direc­tor of the Black­roots Alliance. She grad­u­at­ed from North Park Uni­ver­si­ty in 2004 and has ded­i­cat­ed her career to address­ing issues of sys­temic oppres­sion and devel­op­ing grass­roots leaders.
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