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With the deadline for signing up for health insurance under the Affordable Care Act (ACA) less than a week away, Kevin Tapia and Felipe Hernandez were hard at work getting the word out. The two young men were working for Grassroots Collaborative, a coalition of faith, labor and community groups in Chicago, which had received a private grant to help spread awareness about Obamacare and connect people with health navigators to sign up for coverage.
On March 26 as they had many times, Tapia and Hernandez — Latino men aged 19 and 20, respectively — were going door to door asking people a series of questions about their health insurance situation and giving them information about the ACA. They were in Garfield Ridge, a mostly white neighborhood on Chicago’s southwest side, when four police officers approached and began questioning them aggressively, telling them to take their hands out of their pockets, frisking them and making them put their hands up on the car.
The two were arrested and charged with unlawfully soliciting business. “They were making us feel like criminals even though we had all the information to prove we were trying to do good for the community,” said Hernandez. (Police say they were responding to a 911 call from residents who suspected the two men were attempting to perpetrate a scam targeting the elderly, according to the Chicago Sun-Times.)
In the view of the Grassroots Collaborative and other groups that have taken up the issue, the case was a clear example of racial profiling. Though the charges against the two men were dropped today, advocates are using the incident to highlight this broader issue and push forward measures that would lead to greater police accountability.
On Friday, supporters gathered outside a South Side courthouse as the two men prepared to face a judge. Leaders from the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), the Grassroots Collaborative and the community organization Action Now alleged that racial profiling by Chicago police is a systematic problem.
Last month, Attorney General Eric Holder pledged to begin collecting data about stops, searches and arrests nationwide as part of an effort to curb racial profiling. But the scarcity of such data in Chicago obscures the city’s own version of stop-and-frisk. Activists are demanding that the Chicago Police alter its “contact cards,” the paperwork that tracks interactions between police and the public, to require more information on why officers stop or search someone. This additional data, activists say, would allow citizens and lawyers to better track and prove instances of racial profiling.
On the courthouse steps, Tapia, Hernandez and supporters held enlarged examples of Chicago’s contact cards, which include relatively little information. They compared those to the much more detailed cards used by police in New York, a city has been at the forefront of the national debate over racial profiling and stop and frisk policies. New York Mayor Bill De Blasio made it an issue during his successful campaign last year, and has settled lawsuits against the police regarding the tactic.
“For Chicago it’s a blank piece of paper that says, ‘Officer you’re in control, tell us what happened,’” said Tapia, who came to Chicago from Ecuador at age nine.
After talking with reporters, Tapia and Hernandez went before a judge who swiftly dropped the charges, but then chastised supporters in the courtroom for clapping. The group had expected the charges would be dropped, but they said the whole thing was still a troubling miscarriage of justice. For one thing, the arrest is still on Tapia’s and Hernandez’s records, and they’ll have to go through a costly and bureaucratic process to get the arrests expunged. Hernandez said they plan to demand the city pay the expungement costs. Mayor Rahm Emanuel has backed state legislation that would mean automatic expungement of juvenile arrests when charges are dropped.
Tanue David is a youth organizer for Action Now. He told the crowd at the courthouse how he has himself been racially profiled, including a time when he was stopped by police in the upscale, mostly white Lincoln Park neighborhood where he was visiting friends.
“They put me in handcuffs, saying I’m trying to burglarize,” he said. “They start asking me all these questions, took down all my information, ran my name, and they’re like, ‘Man yeah he’s clean, we can’t get him on anything.’
“The problem is the police have so much power, they can plant drugs, they can plant anything on people, they can basically choose someone’s destiny,” David continued. “And I don’t want them to be able to choose my destiny.”
David and others said political leaders including Emanuel are responsible for racial profiling by police.
“It’s coming from the top,” said David. “It’s the politicians who are training the police essentially to racial profile young Black and young Latino men.”
Illinois ACLU staff attorney Lindsay Miller said, “We know stop-and-frisk is pervasive in Chicago today, just as it has been for the past several decades.” The result, she said, is the “arrest and detention of thousands of young men of color on questionable grounds.”
She adds that the ACLU has collected a “small amount” of data which indicates racial profiling in Chicago, but the contact cards that Chicago police currently use make it very difficult to analyze the problem.
“Police should be forced to answer two very simple questions,” Miller said. “Why is someone being stopped on the streets of Chicago, and why are they being searched by the police?”
The cards are currently used in situations that don’t involve stop-and-frisk, Miller said, meanwhile they are not used every time someone is stopped, frisked and arrested; so the cards are not very helpful in analyzing racial profiling.
“The ACLU of Illinois calls upon the Chicago Police Department to maintain a separate stop-and-frisk database with thorough documentation that is publicly accessible, so that stop and frisk patterns can be tracked,” she said. “The record of this database will allow the public to have an open conversation and a transparent discussion in our city about the use and the misuse of this tactic.”
David said he now feels he has to dress nicely all the time to avoid racial profiling. Tapia said it should not be that way.
“I should not be worried about what I’m wearing and what my skin looks like,” he said. “I should not be defined by my race.”
Though the charges have been dropped, Grassroots Collaborative executive director Amisha Patel said the group will continue to build its campaign against racial profiling through ongoing community dialogues and demands.
“It never should have gotten to this place. These are two young men who have been working really hard on behalf of the community and now they have a record,” Patel said. “Beyond that, it’s made it very clear how often young people and young men of color in particular are being stopped and frisked and arrested in the city of Chicago for very questionable reasons. There’s a lot of work to do to make sure we’re holding the police accountable…The effect of this really is, in communities of color there’s growing mistrust of the police. That’s not in the interest of safe communities and safe streets.”
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Kari Lydersen is a Chicago-based journalist, author and assistant professor at Northwestern University, where she leads the investigative specialization at the Medill School of Journalism, Media, Integrated Marketing Communications. Her books include Mayor 1%: Rahm Emanuel and the Rise of Chicago’s 99%.