Donald Trump recently tweeted his support for the Chicago police who marched on May 23 in protest outside Chicago’s City Hall, saying, “The Chicago Police have every right to legally protest against the mayor and an administration that won’t let them do their job.” Trump claimed that killings are occurring at a record pace in Chicago, and that “tough police work” would restore order quickly, if only Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel would allow it. In reality, 198 people have been killed in Chicago in 2018 — which amounts to 46 fewer murders than the city had seen by the same date last year. But while the country may be accustomed to Trump firing off falsehoods with abandon, some may be surprised to hear that the Chicago police, whose high-profile brutality has launched countless protests, have themselves become protesters. So, what was going on in Chicago? And what exactly was President Trump endorsing when he sent that tweet?
A Day of Tension and Protest
It was clear the night before that Wednesday, May 23, would be an intense day at Chicago’s City Hall. Local organizers, led by a coalition of Black youth, were planning to make their presence felt at a general meeting of the Chicago City Council after being prevented from offering public comment at a Budget Committee hearing the previous day. The youth had attended the budget meeting on May 22 to voice their opposition to Rahm Emanuel’s plan to spend $95 million on a new police academy. That night, word spread that Chicago police issued their own call to action, with the Fraternal Order of Police calling on “all members to attend the general City Council meeting” to protest the city’s decision “to put Officer Robert Rialmo in a no-pay status for a 2015 fatal shooting that was deemed ‘unjustified’ by COPA [the Civilian Office of Police Accountability].”
In 2015, Officer Robert Rialmo gunned down Quintonio LeGrier, a 19-year-old Black man who was experiencing a mental health crisis, and 55-year-old Bettie Jones, a Black woman who was killed as she stood in her building’s doorway. Rialmo claimed that LeGrier had swung a bat at him, leading him to fire the shots that killed Le Grier and Jones. But after two years of investigation, disciplinary officials determined that the evidence — including witness testimony, shell casings and other forensic evidence — indicated that Rialmo was lying, and that he had fired at LeGrier from too great a distance for the officer to have been under attack when he killed LeGrier and Jones — who was an undisputed bystander. Chicago police did not mention LeGrier or Jones in their call to action, but they did name three other officers who they claimed were being “arbitrarily” punished by the city.
The Fraternal Order of Police complained that Officers John Wrigley and John R. “Jack” O’Keefe — who stand accused of committing perjury in the course of multiple cases — were facing dismissal after making what the police union called “small errors” in their testimonies. Moreover, the Fraternal Order of Police argued that the potential firing of O’Keefe and Wrigley served as evidence that Mayor Rahm Emanuel had turned his back on the Chicago police. The police union also expressed outrage that Officer Brandon Ternand might face dismissal for the killing of 15-year-old Dakota Bright, whom Ternand shot in the back of the head during a foot chase in 2012. In 2017, The Chicago Tribune reported that Ternand “was among about a dozen officers who had amassed the most complaints within the 12,000-strong [Chicago] police force.”
Young organizers with the #NoCopAcademy campaign, which aims to halt the city’s investment in a $95 million police academy, were already planning to attend the general City Council meeting when word spread about the police mobilization. With the Fraternal Order of Police bussing in members from all over the city, an urgent call for community attendance was issued by Black Youth Project 100 (BYP). Calling for a counterprotest that would center the demands of the #NoCopAcademy campaign and other community-led efforts, BYP said on its events page that the Fraternal Order of Police has “decided to CO-OPT our organizing tactics to continue to pressure City Aldermen to support pro-police policies that lead to the torture, deaths and over-incarceration of Black and Brown people.” While Fox News characterized the protesters as merely opposing police, the counterprotest event had clear messaging ahead of the event, as BYP stated on its event page:
On Tuesday May 22nd, City Council’s Budget Committee approved the financing agreement for a $95 Million Police Academy on Chicago’s West side in under two minutes, denying Black youth the right to speak out against it, also ignoring 500 petition signatures from West Garfield residents, wanting to spend that money on community resources like clinics, better schools and youth programs instead.
At City Hall the next morning, community members showed up hours ahead of the City Council meeting. Filling the gallery of Chicago’s City Council chamber with supporters of the mayor’s agenda is a common tactic in Chicago — one that significantly predates the Emanuel administration — so supporters of BYP and the #NoCopAcademy campaign, as well as an initiative aimed at instituting community oversight of the Chicago Police Department, lined up early to wait for their seats. Police who were protesting did not show up at 7:30 a.m., when community activists began arriving, but a contingent of police eventually emerged outside, marching around City Hall in a procession that many found disturbing.
Despite waiting for hours, at 10:00 a.m., the largely Black crowd of community members were told that there were no seats left in the City Council chamber.
City officials claimed that police and military personnel — who had not waited in line — had taken every available seat. Only one representative of the #NoCopAcademy campaign, local organizer Erica Nanton, was able to gain a seat and offer public comment at the meeting. In addition to being largely silenced at the general City Council meeting, young Black community members had also been prevented from speaking at the City Council Budget meeting the day before, and threatened with arrest for canvassing on the city’s “L” trains two days prior. Members of the #NoCopAcademy campaign pledged legal action and ultimately filed for an injunction over what they said was a violation of the city’s open meeting laws, with regard to the Budget Committee meeting. According to #NoCopAcademy organizer Maria Hernandez, the city’s efforts to disenfranchise Black youth are a major political concern, and such attacks are commonplace in Rahm Emanuel’s Chicago. “[Emanuel] expects Black and Brown youth to learn in dilapidated schools with lead-contaminated water,” Hernandez told Truthout, “but he feels that the police can’t learn to stop being racist without a shiny $95 million facility and a swimming pool. He’s a Republican in a blue tie.”
On May 25, a Cook County judge rejected the campaign’s motion for an emergency injunction to halt the City Council vote. Despite the efforts of Alderman Carlos Ramirez-Rosa, a member of the Chicago City Council whose position echoes that of local organizers, another round of funding for the facility was approved on May 25. But the movement to bring the project to a halt remains as energetic as ever. “We’re feeling powerful,” #NoCopAcademy organizer Debbie Southorn told Truthout. “Rahm dared us to find one alderman who would change their vote between Wednesday and Friday, and we did.” Southorn also noted that there will be several more City Council votes on the cop academy issue before the project is fully funded.
“Very Fine People”
While some may consider it inflammatory to compare Trump’s support of the police union’s protest to his defense of the white supremacists who marched in Charlottesville last year, the president’s endorsement of the Fraternal Order of Police’s protest agenda has equally disturbing implications. Chicago police were protesting the non-payment and potential firing of police who the city determined had wrongly shot and killed Chicagoans they were sworn to protect, as well as police who lied under oath. US police killed 1,129 people in 2017. Chicago’s police force is infamous for its racism and brutal practices. After the murder of Laquan McDonald, who was shot 16 times while walking away from a Chicago police officer, the Department of Justice investigated the Chicago Police Department and found “a culture in which officers expect to use force and not be questioned about the need for or propriety of that use.”
What Trump is advocating for is a Chicago, and in fact, a country, wherein police face no penalties for any infraction, including murder and perjury. It’s not enough for Trump or Chicago’s Fraternal Order of Police that police are rarely prosecuted for killing Black and Brown people — they also want police to be protected against any financial consequence for killing or framing marginalized people.
While Trump claims Chicago police are unsupported by the city’s leadership, the facts tell a different story — one of over-investment and impunity. The city of Chicago spends $4 million per day on policing, while as many as 85 percent of disciplinary findings against Chicago police are overturned on quiet appeal. And even as young Black people cry out for investment in their communities, Rahm Emanuel, who Trump claims is hindering Chicago police, stands poised to spend $95 million on a new police facility.
In some ways, the Chicago police are a perfect emblem of Trump’s America: white police killing Black people without consequence, and marching proudly for their right to do so. Fortunately, there are organizers who are willing to hold the line in an ideological standoff — one that found its literal expression in Chicago last week, as cops acting as protesters filed into the lobby outside the City Council chamber and attempted to shout down young Black protesters. But, as Page May, a Chicago organizer with Assata’s Daughters told Truthout, “[the police] were surprised by how many of us there were and I think we quickly overwhelmed them. They didn’t even have a sense of the floor space.” May says the police attempted to “out chant” the young protesters, calling out, “Who are we? CPD!”
“They were all chanting and they got in this military stance,” said May, “and had their arms crossed, with a deadpan stare, facing straight ahead. It was certainly very intimidating.” But the young protesters held their ground, aware that there were many standoffs ahead, not only in the #NoCopAcademy fight, but also in the larger struggle for Black futures in Trump’s America and Emanuel’s Chicago. The youth responded to police with a louder chant of their own: “Back up, back up! We want freedom, freedom! All these racist-ass cops, we don’t need ’em, need ’em!” The youth protesters’ chant quickly drowned out the chanting of police. The noise also prevented the police from delivering their message to the press. “I think we had a really beautiful response,” says May. “It was the moment that … emphasized that the #NoCopAcademy campaign really has a strong foundation of years of organizing against police violence, for police accountability, and for [prison and police] abolition.”
While Trump’s tweet portrayed Chicago police as unsupported underdogs, police agencies enjoy bipartisan support in the United States — which has allowed their violence to flourish. Fortunately, the right side of history is coursing with the energy of young, righteous organizers, who are willing to speak the truth: that the difference between white hoods and blue uniforms is often a matter of aesthetics, and nothing else. And as Page May said of last week’s standoff, “the truth matters, and our truth was louder.”
UPDATE: An attorney for the #NoCopAcademy coalition announced on Friday that the coalition had offered to drop its Open Meetings lawsuit against the city of Chicago if officials would pledge to follow open meeting rules in the future. Adherence to those rules would mean that the campaign’s young Black organizers would be allowed to speak at future public meetings that, according to the city council’s own rules, would allow for public comment. The coalition’s offer was rejected on Friday.
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