Reimagining Community Safety with #NoCopAcademy

by Bridgit Gallagher 

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Over the 4th of July weekend in 2017 Mayor Rahm Emmanuel announced the city’s intentions to invest $95 million dollars into a police and fire training academy in Chicago’s west side neighborhood Garfield Park.  Chicago’s up-and-coming fire and police recruits will be trained in a state-of-the-art campus, spanning over 30 acres of private land.  This academy is the Mayor’s response to the scathing report issued by the Department of Justice concerning the racist, excessive, and often deadly force used by Chicago Police.  In other words, Rahm’s solution to a culture of racism in our city’s police force is more money for more police.

While this proposal is a satisfactory solution to racist policing for the mayor and his constituents, Chicago activists say no.  In early September, over 30 Chicago organizations endorsed a campaign under the hashtag “No Cop Academy,” including Assata’s Daughters, People’s Response Team, and For the People Artists Collective—just to name a few.  These organizations are demanding not only an immediate halt to the construction of the new cop and fire academy, but also redirecting the funds for community resources that create real safety. As stated on the #NoCopAcademy Campaign’s website:

Chicago already spends $1.5 billion on police every year—that’s $4 million every single day. We spend 300% on the CPD as a city than we do on the Departments of Public Health, family and support services, transportation, and planning and development (which handles affordable housing). This plan is being praised as a development opportunity to help local residents around the proposed site, but when Rahm closed 50 schools in 2013, six were in this neighborhood. The message is clear: Rahm supports schools and resources for cops, not for Black and Brown kids.  

The campaign’s mission statement goes on to explain that real community safety comes from social and economic justice, not more police.  In fact, the campaign recently commissioned artists to design posters imagining what Chicago could do with $95 million dollars instead. Artists submitted designs that explored what real community investment looks like: fully funded schools, mental health clinics, community gardens and kitchens; fully funded art programs and after school/community programs; public housing and solar panels; community conflict resolution trainings & programs, and libraries.  The list goes on and the posters are a powerful expression of what could be if Rahm Emmanuel cared about our city’s most marginalized communities.

The idea of police abolition is a difficult one for most.  It’s hard to imagine how our communities could be safe if we didn’t rely on police (and in turn, prisons).  When I have this discussion in my own communities, I generally focus on one point: police can only respond to crime, but can never prevent it. Crime prevention begins with strong, fully funded communities: communities where people’s basic needs are met, such as housing, education, healthcare, economic stability, nutritious food, and clean water (which is not a given for black and brown neighborhoods—Flint still doesn’t have clean water).  While people can generally agree with this, one argument I most often hear when I discuss police and prison abolition is “But what would we do with all the really bad people? Like the rapists and murderers and stuff.” Indeed, what do we “do” with all the “really bad” people?

To answer such a question requires collective imagination and deep critical reflection: to examine with a critical lens not only how our society is, but to imagine what it could be; not only to understand the causes of crime, but what our response to crime says about us as a society. In our collective imaginations about crime, punishment, and justice, our societal rules state that when you break the law, you must be punished. If you commit a crime, there must be some consequence, right? We can’t just let those people get away with it.  What would stop them from doing it again? How would we keep our communities safe if criminals were allowed to roam free? How would we function as a society?

These questions (read: fears) have been answered by a system of policing and prisons.  Police are here to “serve and protect” our communities by keeping a vigilant watch for law breakers and then arresting them.  Our courts decide the exact punishment, which is very often time in prison (or some form of containment).  Criminals serve their time and then are released back into the world.  But what does it say about prisons that 77% of released prisoners return within 5 years? What does it say about prisons when the United States makes up less than 5% of the world’s population but holds 22% of the world’s prisoners? Are people really just that bad, or rather, is there a fly in the ointment that is the United States’ prison and policing systems?          

One answer can be found in the very ideological structure of our prison systems: an isolated building filled with 6x8 cells, walls covered with brick, steel bars, constant surveillance; no community programs, no libraries (or limited libraries with banned books); limited healthcare and mental health services; limited (if any) higher learning classes; isolation from family and loved ones and limited physical contact during visiting hours; cold rooms; limited access to hygienic products (only this year did it become a federal mandate to provide free tampons and pads to women prisoners). And if people are not able to function and behave in such an environment? We isolate them further with even less access to basic needs and human interaction (read: solitary confinement).

Why do we believe that prisons are effective at reforming if there are so many repeat "offenders"? Why would Chicago activist work so hard against the cop academy if policing truly alleviates crime and poverty?  As an educator by training, I examine prisons and policing with the same lens I use to teach.  In my classroom, if children are acting out and breaking class rules, shaming and isolating those children never works. Taking away those resources and human interaction—that would help them better understand their behavior—only perpetuates the problem.  Shame and isolation gives children the message that they are bad and that message is internalized. And what do “bad” children do? They behave badly!

Yet, our collective understanding of crime, punishment, and justice says that prisoners deserve to suffer. Well of course they don’t have basic needs and severely limited human interactions! They don’t deserve such privileges! They did something bad and now they’re being punished. What did they think was going to happen?

But I invite us to ask a different set of questions: why did this person commit this crime? What happened during the moments the crime took place? Who is this person, really? What’s their story and how did they get here. What do they need? What services can be provided to truly heal and restore? Do people really heal when they are isolated and shunned from society? Or do we heal when we are deeply connected to our communities? What does it mean to forgive? What does forgiveness look like in a society? How can forgiveness transform a person? How could our societies transform if restorative justice and strong communities were its pillars?

What could Chicago look like if $95 million dollars was used to reopen the 50 schools and 6 mental health clinics Rahm closed in 2013?

What if $95 million was invested in Chicago’s black and brown communities? Or used as reparations for the victims and families of police brutality?   

What if $95 million was used to fully fund and staff libraries, schools, health care and community centers? What could Chicago look like if every neighborhood had spaces that belonged to them? Spaces to nurture children, engage teenagers, support adults, care for the elderly…

What would crime look like if our city had all these services? What would we look like?

These are the possibilities we dare to imagine and this imagination is crucial.  As the poet Martin Espada explains in an interview in Policing the Planet: “No change for the good ever happens without it being imagined first, even if that change seems hopeless or impossible in the present. History teaches us too that we are the agents of change.” Ultimately, the answer to the question I hear most often, “What do we do with the bad people,” is not a question I can answer alone.  The answer requires a collective reimagining of who we are as human beings in a society.  Do we want a world where we reduce people to “bad” and then lock them away until they’ve somehow magically “learned a lesson” without any real restoration and healing? Or do we want a world where we see people in shades of nuance and create institutions and a society that nurtures compassion, forgiveness, and strong community bonds?

If we want a society that reflects our best selves then we must dig deep for our best selves.  We become our best selves not when we are isolated from one another, but when we are deeply connected. Join the conversation and learn more at http://www.nocopacademy.wordpress.com.