Chicago police, racism and the powerlessness of the gun in Rogers Park

crossposted from As of Yet Untitled

This afternoon I was sitting in my office downstairs from our apartment when I noticed the yelling volume outside had gone up significantly to a low roar. I looked out the window and saw that the number of kids walking home from nearby Sullivan high school had grown to a critical mass. Either something had already happened or was about to.

I walked out the front door and saw that one of Charletta’s big plastic planters was broken, dirt and plants spilled out on the ground. On the corner of Pratt and Bosworth, 30 or 40 kids were milling around. One squad car (car number 9602) was there, but the officer was still sitting in his car, smoking a cigarette.

As I walked toward the corner I watched a swirl of motion erupted as four or five kids took swings with their legs and fists at a sixth boy. As I continued walking toward the corner, the officer sitting in his car did nothing but sit and smoke his cigarette. By now the victim of the attack was on the ground as the other kids took turns kicking him. As I got closer, the officer began to back his car up, almost running over the kid on the ground. Then as soon as it had begun, it ended. The kid on the ground was apparently not hurt too badly as he was also quickly away from the scene.

After it was clear that the violence was over, the officer finally got out of his car. The crowd of kids moved on down the street. A minute or two later, half a block down the street, another swirl of fists and feet erupted as a boy was pulled off his bicycle and pummelled. Again, the officer made no move toward the melee. It too evaporated after 30 or 40 seconds. This time the victim sat stunned against the fence for a while, although he was not hurt badly.

Other cop cars began to show up, but again they simply followed the crowd around the block from the safety and comfort of their cars. I continued walking behind the crowd of kids. It wasn’t until the crowd and moved two and a half blocks from Bosworth and Pratt that the two officers got out of their cards ahead of the group and separated out one young man who was apparently the focus of people’s anger. The crowd gradually dispersed and headed in different directions.

I went up to the officer who I had seen smoking in the car during the fight and asked him why he didn’t do anything. He was not happy with my questions. He told me he had called for backup. What exactly did I expect him to do? He was by himself and he didn’t have a tazer. When I continued to question him about other alternatives besides tazering, he pointed to his gun. If he got out of his car, he said, someone might grab his gun.

So there you have it, an officer unable to act because of his gun. It seems to come down to a lack of training (or motivation) to intervene anywhere on the scale of coercian (see J. Denny Weaver’s Visualizing Nonviolence for more on this concept) between sitting in his car and using a taser or gun. On further reflection, I suspect that if the victim had been a white person, the officer suddenly would have found some deeper motivation to intervene. The rules of engagement seem to be pretty clear to both the attackers and the police. As long as the kids only beat up other African-American kids, the police won’t directly intervene. They are only there to protect property owners and white people (or perhaps well dressed people of other races).

I also found myself examining my own instincts. When violence does happen, it erupts so quickly that its hard to know what peacemaking looks like. In this, I feel alright wih my response of a calm non-ancious presence moving towards the disturbance was alright. It may have helped de-escalate things. Nevertheless, I found myself wondering if I could have done more. Was I hanging back because I was depending on the the officer to do something? Probably. Do I have a long way to go in training my instincts to respond with more effective nonviolent intervention? Definitely. I clearly have a lot to learn on a lot of fronts.

Comments (2)

  1. Amy

    I asked similar questions a few months ago:

    I still don’t have any good answers, but these are questions that Anabaptists have to ask. Peace is not just a lack of fighting–I think it involves doing something. Not sure what that something is just yet…but still thinking about it.

  2. Jean

    And what about violence within a home? Or intra-family violence you witness in a public place?

    I suspect most people reading this blog aren’t confronted with the kind of obvious, imminent, public, group violence Tim dealt with, but we all likely witness family violence of one kind or another on a regular basis. By the way, thanks Tim for this incredible post. It brought home again the deep-seated realities of racism and attendant violence.

    A frightening percentage of women and children face regular family violence. I’d love to be part of a proactive conversation about how this can be addressed and prevented in Anabaptist communities and beyond.

    As a young teenager I once heard a father threatening to kill his about 8 year old son in the middle of a department store. I did not actively respond to this man’s horrid action, but the experience has been a touchstone for me and regularly confronts me with what I am doing to address family violence. Oh, and let’s say it straighforwardly, most often men are the perpetrators.

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