Resources Prevent Violence. Policing Doesn’t.

Abolitionist organizer Benji Hart speaks outside the Cook County Juvenile Temporary Detention Center in May of 2017 at a vigil for then-incarcerated abuse survivor Bresha Meadows. (Photo: Sarah-Ji)Abolitionist organizer Benji Hart speaks outside the Cook County Juvenile Temporary Detention Center in May 2017 at a vigil for then-incarcerated abuse survivor Bresha Meadows. (Photo: Sarah-Ji)

While the media’s fascination with the movement for Black lives may have largely faded, for the moment, communities around the country continue to mobilize in the face of racist policing. According to The Washington Post, 226 people have been killed by police so far, in 2018. In spite of the media’s wandering attention, organizers fighting for the lives and rights of Black people and other victims of state violence have remained active across the country, waging battles at the local and national level.

One of those battles, a grassroots effort which has nudged its way into national coverage, is the #NoCopAcademy campaign in Chicago. Spearheaded by Black youth, the effort to prevent the construction of a new $95 million police training facility, proposed by Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel, has won the attention of supporters around the country. It has led to multiple out-of-state protests, as students have disrupted Emanuel’s speeches at their universities, in solidarity with the campaign. One of the effort’s young organizers is Benji Hart, a queer Black author, artist and educator who has helped fuel the campaign’s confrontational style. As a writer, Hart’s essays on neoliberalism, prison abolition, and policing offer a reflection of the grassroots politics that drive some of Chicago’s fiercest organizing against state violence. Hart recently spoke with Truthout about the #NoCopAcademy campaign, Rahm Emanuel and the importance of resisting harmful investments in the police state while communities are deprived of essential resources.

For those who don’t know, what can you tell us about the #NoCopAcademy campaign?

I think the fundamental question that the campaign is begging the city to ask is: Does police spending reduce harm, or cause greater harm?

#NoCopAcademy is a broad coalition of community organizations working together to fight the construction of a $95 million police academy in the West Side neighborhood of Garfield Park, and demanding that those funds that the mayor and the city government want to put toward the construction of that building go toward the resources that have already been cut — like public schools and free mental health clinics — as well as other resources that actually prevent violence, which we know the police do not.

Chicago’s violence is highly sensationalized in the media, which probably has some people asking, “Why isn’t this a good investment?” What would you say to people who think investing in police will make Chicago’s streets safer?

I think one of the questions that this campaign is raising is about causation. Is the level of violence in our city actually tied to how much we spend on policing and how much we don’t spend on social services? We have one of the most well-funded per capita police departments already. The city spends 40 percent of its annual budget on the police department, which is $1.5 billion a year; $4 million a day. The city spends these exorbitant amounts of money on law enforcement already. Studies have shown, quite conclusively, that providing resources prevents violence — not policing.

I think the fundamental question that the campaign is begging the city to ask is: Does police spending reduce harm, or cause greater harm? Are we willing to address violence by investing in things like mental health, education, jobs, housing … things that can actually cut back on the trauma, poverty and pain that often leads to violence in our communities?

I know community inquiry, about how Chicagoans would like to see $95 million spent, has been part of the campaign. What sort of things are you hearing as you move through the community, asking these questions?

Schools are the big one, especially for folks in the Garfield Park neighborhood, where six schools were closed in that 2013 sweep. In the larger ward, I believe it’s as many as 12 schools that were closed in that area of the West Side, but Garfield Park specifically lost six. So, residents of Garfield Park are really upset about the idea of a police academy being built there when people in the neighborhood already have a really bad relationship with the police department. People are resentful and afraid of police violence, and don’t want to see that increase. But they are also upset because there’s been a clear disinvestment in the young people in that neighborhood. So schools, I would say, is the number one answer we hear from people when we are out in the community talking, but community gardens, after school programs, job training programs for teens, childcare, and certainly mental health and health care are also really big … and are things that we all believe would drastically, dramatically curb violence in our communities, which we believe the police would do the opposite of.

Something that strikes me about what you’ve said is the piece about how this does not actually make the city safer, that we’re not actually curbing violence in any way by spending more and more money on police. Can you say more about that?

The language of “public safety” is a political ruse. We already are very clear in our city on where resources do and don’t go, and where violence is and is not being experienced. So, when city government says, well, this is about curbing violence, I believe they actually know better. This is about … pushing out and allowing violence to continue against populations the city doesn’t value.

Some people may find it shocking that we’ve come, in such a short period of time, from the murder of Laquan McDonald, and “16 shots and a cover up,” to a $95 million investment in the same police force. And yet here we are, poised to make an astronomical investment in Chicago police. How does that fit into your analysis?

It’s really just the steady plot of anti-Black violence carried forward by the city. Chicago has never been accountable. And one of the most frustrating points of this campaign is the city government hiding behind the Department of Justice (DOJ) report [the final report of a federal investigation which found “that the Chicago Police Department (CPD) engages in a pattern or practice of using force, including deadly force”], which cites a need for new facilities. But the idea that a massive new facility will stop more violence in Chicago, and police violence more specifically, is a heinous suggestion. I don’t think anyone actually believes the city will train away CPD’s racism.

How should the city respond to the Department of Justice report?

Think about being disruptive. Think about being obnoxious. Think about being a threat to these projects being built.

The DOJ report is a double-edged sword. On the one hand, it outlines in detail that racist practices are an ingrained part of the department, from top to bottom, and have been for decades, which is important to acknowledge. At the same time, the Department of Justice is very much a part of the exact same system. And when we’re talking about police violence and about state-sanctioned violence and about the cover-ups of violence against Black and Brown communities, not just in the US but across the globe, the DOJ is really a part of that structure. And so, on the one hand, it’s a big deal for another racist organization to acknowledge the deep-seated racism of the Chicago Police Department. At the same time, the goal of that report is not abolition, which is what the goal of this campaign is — to actually divest from the criminal justice system at large, back into community resources. So, I think relying on the DOJ report is something that has to be done strategically. Because there’s important documentation there that supports a lot of the arguments that activists are making … at the same time that report was not actually made for, and is not an actual tool, for supporting Black communities or oppressed communities in general. So, relying on it as though it is, I think, will lead us to some false conclusions … as it already has with the city government using this report … to build this cop academy.

At the national level, we’re seeing a lot of backlash and have seen a lot of backlash against the Black Lives Matter movement. Donald Trump has positioned himself in direct opposition to what little ground Obama was willing to yield — saying that maybe we should demilitarize the police a little. Trump has taken the position that police should be more brutal and should not be punished for it. And the DOJ under Trump is, of course, making it clear that police will not be held federally accountable for the abuse. Rahm Emanuel has positioned himself as sort of an anti-Trump, like a nemesis, and is perhaps using that to rebuild his image a little bit, after it being horribly tarnished by a failed cover-up. As we know, Rahm has also been under fire locally for that being something of a ruse. He likes to tout the city’s sanctuary status, when grassroots organizers in the city, such as BYP100 and Organized Communities Against Deportation have repeatedly called on the city to enact policies that would actually protect undocumented people rather than a name-only policy. Here we see another area where Rahm actually seems to be practicing Trump’s values while pretending to be his enemy.

What has surprised you so far, in your organizing for this campaign?

I think what’s been fascinating about this campaign is that it’s actually been very widely supported. People seem to inherently understand that this is a mismanagement of city funds … why would you spend all this money on a police academy when you have just cut all these funds from schools, from health care, and said that the city is broke, and said the city doesn’t have those resources? Folks have just been getting it, just generally intuiting that that’s wrong. And I think that shows a big shift in a positive direction. I think a very short amount of time ago, it would have been hard for people to say we don’t want money going to police or that we want money taken from law enforcement and put into social services. A short while ago that may have sounded extreme to people, or even dangerous to people, whereas in my experience, the message of this campaign has been very widely embraced on a grassroots and community level. So, I think that shows a shift in consciousness in our communities. We are not just challenging conservative values. We are challenging liberal, Democratic Party values as well. And I think this campaign has a very simple message that leads us to ask a lot of bigger and more difficult questions about our values and about the fights that we’re fighting on a national and even global level. And who has our back in those fights and who doesn’t.

This false dichotomy of Democrat and Republican … is really blown apart in moments like this when you see liberals and Democrats, wealthy, middle-class white people in the city of Chicago who are totally willing to rip resources away from Black communities.

My sister lives in New York and I’ve been talking to her a lot about this campaign, and about the mayor’s role. And when I told her that the mayor was a Democrat, she freaked out. She was like, “Wait, this is a Democrat who’s been doing all these things?” I think that this false dichotomy of Democrat and Republican, liberal and conservative, is really blown apart in moments like this when you see liberals and Democrats, wealthy, middle-class white people in the city of Chicago who are totally willing to rip resources away from Black communities and put them into structures that are well-documented to be violent and racist toward Black communities. And it begs the question, if we want to divest from militarization, if we want to divest from policing, and if we want to build up social services, then what structures and what organizations are in place that actually help us do that? And the Democratic Party fundamentally is not one of those organizations. And I think it forces us out of that narrative which is really dominant right now, given some of the really blatantly racist, Islamophobic, anti-immigrant things that are coming from the Republican Party. It tears that narrative away from Democrats who want to position themselves as opposed to that.

When we ask, well, what are Democrats doing to fight deportation? What are Democrats doing to fight militarization? What are Democrats doing to build up social services and support systems in poor communities, Black and Brown communities and on and on? When we ask those questions, the Democrats like Emanuel are no different from the Republicans. So, I think this campaign is touching a nerve in terms of what are the actual questions we need to be asking. What are the actual demands we need to be making? And what are the power structures? Once we have clarified those things, we need to be resisting and putting pressure on.

Some great examples of folks beginning to ask these questions on their own are the numerous interruptions that mayor Emanuel has faced at colleges and universities around the country, as he attempts this strange gentrification tour — encouraging young (mostly white) college graduates to make Chicago their new home. Youth from Gwendolyn Brooks College Preparatory Academy just won the Louder Than a Bomb poetry slam last week with a piece protesting the academy and tracing the police system’s roots back to slavery. Folks across the city and country are finding creative ways to support the campaign, and anyone interested in joining them can always follow the hashtag or visit nocopacademy.com.

Do you think that a campaign like this one can interrupt the narrative of Rahm Emanuel being held up as a liberal savior or a Trumpian nemesis?

Stop supporting governments that we know do us harm.

I absolutely do. And I am bewildered that that narrative holds up. I don’t think people should believe that for a second. So, yes. My short answer is, yes. Fundamentally. The school closings in 2013 are something I always return to, because I was a student teacher at the time and I worked in a school that was closed. It was a racially traumatic moment. I was like, this city really doesn’t care about Black people. The city really does not care about Black youth, Black young people. And it’s so important to look at policies like that that are so fundamentally racist and who is perpetrating them, and who is pushing them forward. And then, of course, who is supporting them.

Lastly, I just wanted to ask, since you were talking about how we should be envisioning these things. Do you have any words of support or advice for other young grassroots organizers, in this political environment, where we have looming threats from the Trump administration, and also enemies who are being lionized because they claim to oppose Trump? What would you say to other folks in your position right now, nationally?

On the concrete level, make noise. Disrupt. Get in the way of these projects and do everything you can. Use every skill and resource you have to get in their way and stop them from happening. Think about being disruptive. Think about being obnoxious. Think about being a threat to these projects being built and not just someone who stands on the side and begs that the construction stop or begs that the funds be reallocated. They don’t care about what we say and they don’t care about our lives. We make the mistake of believing that they do when we ask for their help, and we make the mistake of believing that they do when we believe that making a sound argument will change the direction that we are quickly moving in. So, don’t ask, demand. Don’t stand on the sidelines with slogans and signs, but get in the way and interrupt and speak out and take risks. And think about what it actually takes to stop something from happening, whether it’s using your body or organizing your community. Think about what it takes to disrupt and not to just call out.

On a more political or more theoretical level: Stop supporting governments that we know do us harm. Stop believing you can work with police or work with ICE or with law enforcement of any kind to protect our communities. We need to talk about how we are actively pulling away from and disinvesting from those structures both monetarily and structurally, and how we’re actually, in our individual relationships and on a structural level, reinvesting in us and reinvesting in our communities. Don’t trust people who have already showed you that they don’t care about you.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.