Thursday night, hundreds of Chicagoans gathered at police headquarters at 35th and Michigan to once again demand that police officer Dante Servin be fired for the fatal, off-duty shooting death of Rekia Boyd. Servin, who many say avoided a homicide conviction on a technicality, has been the focus of a local manifestation of the national #SayHerName rallying cry, which highlights the stories of Black women and girls killed by police.
Thursday night’s action was a multi-staged event, and sprawled across several locations. While protesters rallied outside police headquarters, some organizers and supporters entered the building to sit in on the monthly police board hearing. Inside, police were clearly on high alert, ready to halt any disruption after Black Youth Project 100 successfully shut down last month’s meeting in an inspiring spectacle of resistance and indignation.
Activist attendance has driven police board hearings to capacity in recent months, turning both the inside and the outside of Chicago’s police headquarters into staging grounds for those challenging police violence and impunity.
Thursday night, one police board member chose to pre-emptively scold the crowd, warning that board hearing proceedings called for “civility,” and smugly adding that she “would hate to have to take action” due to any disruption. Another official, who stood in for no-show police Superintendent Garry McCarthy, took a different approach, praising the protesters in attendance, telling them that Chicago’s activist scene is uniquely peaceful, “eloquent” and “respectable.” His commentary drew jeers from the crowd as the stand-in speaker suggested that Chicago’s protesters were somehow a different breed than those who’ve taken to the streets in Baltimore or St. Louis in the past year. In an all too typical allusion to Martin Luther King Jr., he urged those present to behave like the activists “who are most remembered” for their work. Amid the calls for him to “get on with it” and “stop talking,” I could hear a young person audibly mutter, “Fuck your respectability.”
During public comments, police torture survivor and anti-death penalty activist Mark Clements addressed the board, saying, “All of you have some kind of responsibility,” for seeing that police who torture and kill are discharged from their positions and stripped of their pensions. Clements proceeded to call out the names of both victims of police violence, and police officers who have yet to be punished for their crimes.
Martinez Sutton, Rekia Boyd’s brother, who one board member clumsily referred to as “Mr. Boyd,” told the board that he did not trust the next stage of the process to determine Dante Servin’s fate. While The Independent Police Review Authority (IPRA), which rarely finds fault with police who kill civilians, has recommended that Servin be fired, police Superintendent Garry McCarthy now has three months to consider the matter before making his recommendation to the police board. Martinez reminded the board that McCarthy has never demonstrated any belief that Servin’s actions were either criminal or unprofessional, despite the superintendent’s familiarity with the evidence that led to Servin’s case going to trial, and to IPRA coming to its uncharacteristic conclusion that Servin should be terminated.
At the end of the hearing, as the last speaker, who was not connected to the campaign against Servin, went on a strange, anti-Semitic rant, the young organizers in attendance decided that the proceedings had gone on long enough, and rose to their feet, revealing contraband signs demanding justice for Rekia Boyd. They marched from the space together, pulling nearly the entire audience from the meeting room, and rejoined those rallying outside, where speeches and performances had occupied those who hadn’t attended the hearing.
Once the crowd from the meeting had rejoined those rallying outside, Martinez thanked the crowd for supporting his family, saying, “I love each and every one of you. You’re my fuel.” Organizers then announced that a march to Dyett High School, where the Dyett hunger strikers and other community members were holding vigil, would soon be underway.
For 34 days, over a dozen #FightforDyett hunger strikers have refused to eat, demanding that their community’s high school remain open, and that the city honor a community generated plan to make Dyett a green technology high school. The community’s plan has been widely praised by both policy makers and educators, with many noting that the plan is much more thoroughly developed than most charter school plans that receive approval in the city of Chicago. But so far, the only “compromise” the mayor has offered has been to keep the school open as a community arts school. But as Brother Jitu told Democracy Now! after the mayor’s proposed solution was announced, “People in Bronzeville said they wanted a global leadership and green technology high school, that’s part of a sustainable community school village, a system of education.”
While keeping the school open is major gain for the #FightForDyett hunger strikers, organizers argue that the mayor’s plan is merely meant to placate the community, and quell dissent, rather than provide a sustainable solution that benefits area youth.
Dyett is a profound example of the city’s ambivalence toward Black youth. When the city chose to slate the school for closure despite exceptional academic gains and visionary community involvement, a community led movement forcefully rose to its defense. The campaign escalated over time, from awareness raising events and meetings with politicians to sit-ins and even a lock-down at City Hall, where protesters chained themselves around a statue of George Washington. While these efforts did garner headlines, they did little sway city officials. But during the last month, the Dyett hunger strike has gained national, and even international attention. In the face of increasing demands that he resolve the situation, Mayor Emanuel did something he has rarely done during his tenure as Chicago’s mayor, even when lives have been on the line – he gave ground.
While the solution proposed by the mayor does not satisfy the needs of the community, the proposal shows movement on the part of the city’s leadership, which many have taken as a sign of hope. Still, as the hunger strikers entered their 33rd day without food on Thursday, many, including a chorus of medical professionals, were expressing concern for their health and welfare.
With those concerns fresh in the minds of those in attendance last night, seeing hunger striker Anna Jones stand alongside young organizers outside the police station, as the destination of the march was announced, was incredibly heartening. I was told that the march route easily spanned 20 blocks, not taking into account any twists and turns that might be caused by clashes with police. I wasn’t feeling well and wasn’t sure if I could make it.
Then, I saw that hunger striker Anna Jones would be making the journey on foot, with the rest of the protesters, and I knew I had to do the same.
The march was intense, fueled with righteous anger and a fiercely expressed love for Chicago’s Black community. The names of women and girls killed by police were repeatedly called out, as police clashed with protesters each time strategic moves to take the streets played out. Protesters were struck, and in some cases slammed by police bicycles, as officers attempted to keep the march from seizing control of any city streets. But the protesters persisted, re-organizing and redoubling their efforts each time they were repelled. The tension continued to rise, but the marchers would not be contained. Eventually, they claimed and held the street for the remaining duration of their march to Dyett.
Once we reached the school, the crowd formed a circle at the intersection of 51st and Lawrence, shutting down both streets for the duration of the speeches and song that followed. In my mind, it was the perfect ending to a night of resistance: the shut down of two roads, one for Rekia, and one for Dyett, while we stood in a circle, centering speakers who lifted up the struggles that had brought us together. At that literal intersection of struggle, we heard from hunger striker Brother Jitu Brown, who reminded the crowd to believe in possibility, saying, “They said we couldn’t have a trauma center, and what did we do?”
Veronica Morris Moore, an organizer with Fearless Leading by the Youth (FLY) also joined the hunger strikers in the center of the circle, saying that the Kenwood Oakland Community Organization, which has been a central force in the fight for Dyett, had offered longstanding support for FLY’s recently triumphant campaign for an area trauma center.
Just before the night ended in song, Brother Jitu led the crowd in a call and response, shouting the words, “We are today! We are tomorrow! We are Forever!”
In some moments, anything seems possible. I am grateful for the people who bring those moments into the world.