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Stopping Chicago’s Proposed $95 Million Police Academy in Its Tracks

$95 million could pay for 259 mental health clinics.

Activists voice their opposition to the police academy at City Hall on the day of the vote for land use, November 8, 2017. (Photo: Matt McLoughlin)

Welcome to Interviews for Resistance. We’re now several months into the Trump administration, and activists have scored some important victories in those months. Yet there is always more to be done, and for many people, the question of where to focus and how to help remains. In this series, we talk with organizers, agitators and educators, not only about how to resist, but how to build a better world. Today’s interview is the 92nd in the series. Click here for the most recent interview before this one.

Today we bring you a conversation with Monica Trinidad, an artist and organizer born and raised in Chicago who is currently organizing with For the People Artists Collective and also the People’s Response Team.

Sarah Jaffe: We are here to talk about one particular campaign happening in Chicago right now, which is around the construction of a new police academy. To start off with, tell our listeners what that is and, in particular, what they are budgeting for it.

Monica Trinidad: Over Fourth of July weekend, Rahm Emanuel, who is a really awful, awful mayor, threw out this proposal to build a $95 million police academy. He originally framed it as a public safety training center. That is sort of the messaging he is using in mainstream news outlets. Really, what it is, is $95 million for a new fancy shiny building for the police force here in Chicago, in a city where we already spend $1.5 billion on police every year.

That is $4 million every single day that goes into policing from our city budget. That is about 300 percent more than the Department of Public Health, on family and support services, on development, housing, shelters, things like that.

Basically, he tried to slide this under the radar on Fourth of July weekend thinking nobody would pay attention. But we did. We saw it and were like, “No, this is not what we need in our community right now. This is not what we are asking for.” The No Cop Academy campaign is an effort that is supported by community organizations from across the city. There are about 40 organizations right now that are part of this coalition.

We are saying that $95 million needs to be invested in our communities and not in more police training and more police training grounds, for example. The campaign is being led by Assata’s Daughters, which is a young Black women and femme organization in Washington Park. It is also in coalition with the People’s Response Team, For the People Artists Collective, Black Lives Matter Chicago, BYP 100; the list is incredibly long. The campaign is only about two months old now. It started as a rapid response campaign and it still is, but now we see that this is longer than we had expected and so now we are in it for the long run.

Speakers against the police academy at City Hall on the day of the vote for land use, November 8, 2017. (Photo: Matt McLoughlin)(Photo: Matt McLoughlin)

Some of the money that Chicago spends on policing is on paying out settlements over police violence. Take us through the recent history of the Chicago Police Department and Rahm Emanuel’s involvement.

In Chicago, in this year alone, I think 14 people have been shot and killed by the Chicago Police Department. We know that a huge amount of money goes toward settlements. We are hearing these arguments from aldermen that, “Well, if we have better police training, we won’t have to be paying out all of these big huge settlements.” That is not necessarily true, when you think about policing and the police force as inherently violent, as having roots in oppression and being anti-Black.

When you think about the ways in which we are talking about this police training center and how this is going to be better for our city, we are saying, “Absolutely not.” This is not where our money needs to be going. Our money needs to be put into resources. In a time when Rahm closed over 50 schools in 2013, six of them in that neighborhood where they want to build that police academy. It is very clear that Rahm is saying he is supporting schools and resources for cops, but not for the Black kids.

We are trying to say that real community safety is coming from fully funded schools and mental health centers and job training programs and social and economic justice in our communities. Not these expanded resources for policing.

A lot of us that are involved in this current coalition, we were part of We Charge Genocide, which was an effort in Chicago in 2014 where we went to Geneva, Switzerland to go to the United Nations to submit a report on the huge amount of police violence being committed against young people of color in our city. We were there, we did direct action inside of the United Nations calling attention to the murder of Dominique “Damo” Franklin. His family recently got paid out about $200,000 in a settlement for wrongful death.

This cycle keeps repeating over and over where we see somebody is murdered by the Chicago police. There is a huge settlement that gets paid out. Then it happens … again. If they think that opening up a brand new police academy is going to stop this, then they are just entirely wrong.

This kind of campaign follows from the invest/divest framework that has been discussed a lot in the last couple of years. Could you talk a little bit more about that framework and why it has been effective for previous campaigns, and particularly for this one?

Even from just an artist perspective — something that Chicago is really, really good at is really understanding the role that art plays in organizing and activist spaces, understanding the importance of the cultural worker, understanding the importance that opening up our imaginations to endless possibilities of a world outside of what we are actually existing in right now is so crucial in our campaigns and moving forward in them. So, when we think about $95 million, we are like, “What could we actually be doing with that money?”

There is so much we could be doing with that money! It is just absurd that they want to put more money into the police department when $95 million could pay for running 259 mental health clinics in our city. It could mean one brand new high school. A new school in Englewood would cost $75 million. It could build six new Chicago Public Library branches; $15 million is the cost for a new library that happened in Chinatown.

We are being given this one option from our city that says, “Oh, we are going to give you more policing.” Then, people say, “Okay” because everybody wants more. More, more, more. We want resources. But no one is stopping and asking our communities, “What would you actually like to see done with $95 million?” That is where we are coming in and informing our communities and saying, “Here are all the things that we could actually incredibly benefit from in our city and here is what they are proposing.” This is not okay. This is not right.

And, also, just making it clear that this isn’t a transparent process. This plan was well developed long before it even was made public. And there has been no public comment or input at all whatsoever on the plan at any stage. We are making this clear to our communities that this plan is being put forward without our input in a time when our mayor is saying that the city is broke. But apparently, he can find money when he wants to.

That is where we are coming from with the invest/divest. Let’s ask our communities and folks that are directly impacted by a lot of the violence that is happening and say, “What actually would make this violence stop?” That would be job training, that would be after-school programs. I think that imagination piece is what is often missing in the conversations around what we could actually invest our money in.

The beautiful organizing that happens in Chicago is being able to expand our imaginations and to demand the impossible, to demand what people think is not ever going to happen and being like, “Yes. It is. If we just believe it and work for it and think about it, we could actually achieve what we want.”

Tell us about this coalition that is working on this and how it came together.

Just last year we had the #ByeAnita campaign. That was a campaign to oust our state’s attorney Anita Alvarez who was blocking any sort of progress in moving forward in any sort of justice in our city. It was also at a time when the Laquan McDonald video came out. We know that she played a huge role in keeping that undercover and under wraps. We came together as an organization being led by Black women and fems of Assata’s Daughters and Fearless Leading by the Youth and said, “Bye” and she is out.

It also comes from working together with people within the reparations ordinance fight. Those are some of the same people … [who] won reparations after 20 years for Jon Burge torture survivors in our city and won a huge package. A huge financial package. A memorial should be going up soon, which is one of the first of its kind … dedicated to people that have been victims of police violence. That is something just unheard of. Then, also, including this history in Chicago Public School curriculum. It is this huge, huge success.

Some of the same people that were part of We Charge Genocide and charging Chicago Police Department with genocide … are involved with this coalition. Again, I want to emphasize that this is being led by young Black people, in particular, by Assata’s Daughters. We are taking cues and taking the lead from young Black people that are saying, “This is not what we want. We do not want more police harassment and violence. We want money for the schools.” That is how it came together.

It started out very small. We knew that this was being hidden from the public, so we really just wanted to make some noise about it. We put out a statement and we did a press conference and sort of just hoped for the best. Then, so many organizations started reaching out to us to endorse the campaign, organizations that we haven’t worked with before. Education and economic justice groups were reaching out to us and being like, “Yes, this is exactly what we are saying.” It was really a beautiful moment where we thought, “Wow, we could really build a huge coalition of organizations across … our city to demand better for our city.”

We are about 40 organizations strong now and still growing every day. We get at least three or four requests to endorse per day and press coverage across the country. It has really taken off. I really think that it shows the desperation that our communities have, that we are like “This $95 million does not make any sense.”

What we want is accountability and something that keeps coming up is the Department of Justice coming to Chicago and giving us their 99 recommendations. Can they tell me how many recommendations have been taken care of that will decrease the violence that police are perpetrating on our communities? No. What they are doing first and foremost is creating a $95 million shiny new building. What we are saying is that we want accountability, not a new facility, and we want transparency.

You mentioned the Justice Department and, of course, Donald Trump loves to use Chicago as his example of a place where there is all this violence. Rahm Emanuel wanted to be one of the people who was resisting Trump, whatever that means, but when you look at this kind of thing, his priorities are not actually that different.

Absolutely. You hear Rahm talking about being a sanctuary city and a place where police never cooperate and never collaborate with ICE. We are like, “Wrong. That is absolutely wrong and you are a liar.”

We have a Chicago gang database. Nobody knows how you get on this database. Nobody knows how to get off this database. It is just this arbitrary, non-transparent database [that] people get put on … and that is one of the exceptions to police and ICE collaborating. BYP 100 Chicago and Mijente are doing a lot of work, a lot of brilliant work in Chicago to really amplify that and to really expose that.

He is such a liar when it comes to being the antithesis to Donald Trump. He is using Trump politics. He is Chicago’s Trump, basically. I think that is another narrative that we want to disrupt as a campaign.

There was just a city council meeting to vote on the police academy. Talk about what went on at the city council meeting and then, what the next steps are.

There was a city council vote last week. Basically, 48-1 voted in favor of the land acquisition … 30 acres of vacant land for that academy. The one sole alderman who opposed it was Alderman Carlos Ramirez-Rosa from the 35th Ward. He gave a speech about how police training isn’t going to solve problems that are being highlighted in the Justice Department report and that we don’t need more training, we need more money for mental health services and schools and not for a police academy.

It is so interesting. We are very new to working and being involved in the city council process. I think it is very muddled and very confusing on purpose. When we went in, we were like, “Okay, let’s get our people in to make public comments against the police academy because we know that it is going to be up for vote today. So, let’s get in line. Okay. How do we make a comment? What do we do? What do we fill out?”

Also, I am sure many people have heard that Chance the Rapper came out to oppose the police academy, as well. He was there. He gave his three-minute opposition to the police academy. There were also folks from NTA, which is a school in Chicago that is also facing closure. There were about 100 NTA students … demanding that their school remain open. They also plugged us and said, “No police academy. Fund our schools. Not this.”

Then, there were also folks … from Uptown Tent City who are basically calling out their alderman James Cappleman who is harassing the homeless and taking away their ability to have a tent community in Uptown area. They were also saying, “No cop academy. Create homeless shelters and create housing for homeless people.”

So, we have all these different people that are all saying, “We are opposed to this police academy.” Then, when the time for the vote comes up, you have all of these aldermen that are saying why they support the police academy. And before this, there were all these different line items that were just being voted on and passed, voted on and passed, voted on and passed. We really believe that this land acquisition vote, which was also just a line item, would have just had that vote and been done with had we not been making the noise that we have been making. Then, they spent an hour defending this police academy being built. I don’t think they would have done that if we weren’t there.

This wasn’t a surprise, the way they were going to vote. Especially knowing that this entire process hasn’t been transparent, without public comment, and the way that city council works is not about democracy. So, we already knew this wasn’t going to happen the way that we wanted, but I think that we were really just curious to see what was going to happen inside of the city council.

And we said, “Okay, next steps. Let’s focus on putting pressure on the aldermen.” Not that voting is going to change anything, but showing these alderman that people felt really polarized about this campaign and where their alderman stood. After this vote happened, my Facebook wall was flooded with people who were being like, “How dare my alderman vote for this police academy! I am committing to voting you out in 2019.”

So, you are seeing this huge surge in constituent power that is happening right now. People are really pissed off and are committing to recreating the #ByeAnita campaign for all of these different aldermen. I think that these aldermen really made a huge mistake and miscalculated their decision in which way their vote went.

Do you know what the next steps are or where the next opportunities to stop this are?

Yes, it is not a done deal yet. They still have to find a contractor. They still have to figure out financing. This building is not a done deal yet, because they still don’t know exactly how they are going to pay for the project. They are still about $37 million short. I think that is also a huge area of question, of “How can we organize around that?”

It is going to be brought back to city council in March. So, there is still time to organize around that. And I think there is still time to turn aldermen around and stop it. We are re-strategizing, we are re-grouping, and figuring out the next steps.

Even if this police academy gets built, I think we have already won. I think we have already been successful in really exposing the ways that the city really doesn’t care what its community members think or what its constituents think. They are still going to do whatever Rahm says to do and exposing that is something that we have really been successful at.

I think it is really giving room to have conversations around abolition, to have conversations around alternatives to policing, alternatives to prisons. It is really building up power amongst our different communities and friends and building a united front against the things that are harming our communities. And changing the narrative. I think that is something we have been really successful at in this campaign so far.

Right in the beginning, Rahm was trying to call this [a] public safety training center and that was the language that was being utilized universally in the news. Now, it is being referred to as the “cop academy.” Now it is being referred to as exactly what it is. I think, in that sense, we have also won by changing the narrative. Now, next steps are keeping the pressure on.

How can people keep up with you and with the campaign?

People can visit us at We post a lot of updates on the People’s Response Team Facebook page, Assata’s Daughters’ Facebook page, and For the People Artists Collective Facebook page. Lots of updates there. If people want to get on the endorser’s list, if you are an organization in Chicago that wants to join us, you can email us at [email protected].

Interviews for Resistance is a project of Sarah Jaffe, with assistance from Laura Feuillebois and support from the Nation Institute. It is also available as a podcast on iTunes. Not to be reprinted without permission.

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