Evan Wimberly, 15, is a nationally ranked soccer player — a sophomore who, according to MaxPreps, competes on the varsity team at Whitney Young High School, where he’s also a member of the National Junior Honor Society.
The teenager is just as distinguished outside of the school walls. He’s a Brookfield Zoo King Conservation Science Scholar and participates in the Kappa Leadership Institute (or Kappa League), which provides volunteer opportunities, academic support and cultural enrichment, among other benefits, to underrepresented high school males.
Wimberly is also a member of the Chicago chapter of the fabled Jack and Jill of America — the prestigious social organization formed in Philadelphia in 1938 by black mothers who wanted to give their children the world even if the world would concede nothing to blacks in those days without a fight.
And yet, there Wimberly was in front of news microphones, hooded and slightly shivering from the cold outside of the 11th District police headquarters, 3151 Harrison St., on Wednesday afternoon. He had gathered with a group of West and South Side clergy members and activists to make some demands to James Jones, the district commander, and Mayor Rahm Emanuel.
In the wake of the Dec. 26 homicides of Bettie Jones, 55, and Quintonio LeGrier, 19 — both of whom were shot to death after 11th District officers were called to a domestic disturbance involving LeGrier and his father — demonstrators are demanding the names of the officers involved, along with a range of meaningful police reforms that include more crisis intervention training for officers.
LeGrier allegedly had a baseball bat, but his father has told media outlets that officers were at least 20 feet away from his son when they fired the barrage of bullets that first hit Jones, who was allegedly in the process of opening the door to the Garfield Park apartment building so officers could enter, before striking LeGrier.
Wimberly was also here to tell his own story about the police — because every young, black person in Chicago, it seems, has one.
“My mother doesn’t even want me walking down the street to take the bus to school or walking across the street to go to my friend’s house, because she’s too worried … I might be grabbed by police or questioned about where I’m going,” Wimberly said.
The honor student, who lives in the Woodlawn community on the South Side, said he can’t navigate like he used to.
“I can’t really do much now, because it’s not safe,” he said. “My dad tells me about how he used to be able to do stuff with neighborhood friends. I can’t do that anymore, so it’s kind of shocking, upsetting and I hope it ends.”
“To be black and a professional in Chicago, in any large city, is a challenge,” said Wimberly’s father Rob, a high school teacher. “It’s a challenge to make sure your children are safe, because you always haven’t felt safe yourself. One of the things we’ve struggled with is — we don’t want to taint our son’s understanding of his city and community, but even with all of the protections he has, he still has some interactions that will bring up questions.”
Wimberly said he often feels that he’s being watched by University of Chicago, or Chicago, police officers as he navigates his way across the college’s campus to and from Kappa League meetings.
But these days, he said — after Trayvon Martin, Tamir Rice, Sandra Bland, Laquan McDonald and, most recently, Bettie Jones and Quintonio LeGrier, among scores of other symbols of police abuse and negligence — the mundane act of walking near armed officers is nerve-wracking, like navigating a mine field.
“I don’t know whether what I’m doing is right or wrong,” Wimberly said. “It’s hard to figure out.”
One time, the police stopped him while he was on his way to lunch from school because “something was going on in the area and they wanted to know if I’d seen anything,” Wimberly recalled.
“They said I kind of fit the description [of the suspect] because I’m a black, teenaged male. But they eventually just let me go, because [it was apparent] that I was on my way home from school.”
If given the chance, Wimberly was asked, what would he tell the officers he claims often surveille him, or the one who encountered him suspiciously for no reason other than that he’s a “black, teenaged male”?
“I’d just try to tell them that they need to understand who they’re dealing with before they act,” he said. “They have to think before they act, rather than act before they think. As I’ve learned with a lot of things, you can’t judge a book by its cover. Just because someone looks a certain way doesn’t mean they’re a threat to you. They’re not necessarily doing anything wrong. Not everyone’s a gangster or a thug or ‘about that life.’ Some people are just trying to succeed and get to where they want to be and we can’t do that with the police just harassing us for doing nothing.”
“He’s the model,” said Rob, describing his son. The father said he’s currently developing a curriculum for students that will provide instruction in a range of life skills, such as financial literacy and, sadly but unavoidably, dealing with the police.
Rob said he’s more worried about young black people who don’t have the social, emotional and intellectual maturity of his son. Ultimately, however, he noted that the burden of public safety shouldn’t fall on everyday people, to say nothing of society’s most vulnerable.
“Just like we don’t expect the police to prejudge our children, we don’t prejudge them,” Rob said. “We don’t just immediately assume you’re going to be there to harass us. We know you’re there to protect and to serve, but there are some who can be very disrespectful. They escalate situations, instead of de-escalating them.”
Rob said Evan “recognizes he may need to de-escalate when he encounters an officer who might want to escalate” a situation, but that the burden of de-escalation should fall on the officer.
“The burden is on the police to serve and protect people how they are,” Rob said. “Not how they should be.”