Last week, West Side residents and community leaders were forced to confront several days of racially charged violence that has the nation on high alert and even led to some dire warnings from area politicians.
“The disrespect of a few police officers acting under the color of law has us on the brink of a race war,” Cook County Commissioner Richard Boykin (1st), whose district includes large swaths of the West Side and western suburbs, said during a town hall discussion he hosted last Saturday in Austin.
Interviews with a dozen West Side residents in the wake of last week’s national tragedies revealed a cauldron of anger, frustration and fear among the city’s African Americans, particularly relating to what most claim is a long history of abuse and mistreatment at the hands of police officers.
A swift unraveling
The week started on Monday, July 4, with notes of appreciation struck by West Side leaders for the Chicago Police Department’s efforts to stop what many residents feared would be three days of particularly heavy bloodshed. By Tuesday, outlets like ABC News were reporting on the 50 shooting victims, and three homicides, in Chicago over the Independence Day weekend.
The 2016 numbers were cause for grim relief, lower than what many expected. The relative holiday calm, many observers claimed, was the result of Chicago Police Superintendent Eddie Johnson’s decision to put 5,000 officers on the streets over the three-day weekend — 1,000 to 2,000 officers more than the typical weekend, according to ABC.
“We were on a pace this year that we thought the violence was going to go off the charts,” said the Rev. Marshall Hatch, pastor of New Mt. Pilgrim Baptist Church in Garfield Park told the national news outlet. “I think it would have been a lot worse out there if it weren’t for these (police department) efforts.”
If the day began with relief, it would end in grief and the nation would know the name of 37-year-old Alton Sterling, an African American father of five who was shot multiple times at point-black range by a police officer in Baton Rouge, Louisiana. Early July 5, two officers responded to a report that a man selling used CD’s outside of a convenience store had threatened someone with a gun.
After arriving on the scene, the police officers wrestled Sterling to the ground, with one yelling out, “He’s got a gun! Gun!” Seconds later, shots rang out. The store’s owner told reporters that Sterling never brandished the gun or threatened the two officers during the short, but fatal, altercation, which was captured by the cell phones of multiple bystanders, store surveillance camera and the officers’ body cameras.
The next day, on July 6, the graphic death of 32-year-old Philando Divall Castile was livestreamed on Facebook to an audience of millions. Castile was stopped by a St. Anthony police officer for a minor traffic offense while driving in a vehicle with his girlfriend, Lavish Reynolds, and her 4-year-old daughter.
In the video, Reynolds calmly narrates how the tragedy unfolded while Castile slowly loses consciousness.
“They killed my boyfriend,” Reynolds says matter-of-factly over Castile’s moans. “He’s licensed to carry. He was trying to get out his ID and his wallet out his pocket and he let the officer know that he had a firearm and was reaching for his wallet and the officer just shot him in his arm.”
Seconds into the footage, the officer, visibly shaken and distraught, returns to the driver’s side of the car with his gun still drawn over the dying Castile’s bloody body.
“F—k!” the officer shouts. “I told him not to reach for it. I told him to get his hand off it.”
“You told him to get his ID, sir, and his driver’s license,” says Reynolds, whose steady recollection of the incident sounds more authoritative than the officer’s.
On Thursday, July 7, as demonstrators gathered in the streets of Dallas, Texas to protest the deaths of Sterling and Castile, a lone gunman killed five of the city’s police officers and injured several more — an act that would complicate the country’s grief.
In the wake of the Dallas shootings — which President Obama condemned as “vicious, calculated (and) despicable” — police chiefs across the country, including Superintendent Eddie Johnson in Chicago, ordered cops to patrol the streets in pairs.
The gunman, army reservist Micah Johnson, an African American, reportedly taunted police during negotiations and expressed a desire to kill white people.
Black Lives Matter activists, afraid that opponents of their movement would try to connect Johnson’s actions to local struggles against police abuse, also vigorously denounced the shooting.
West Siders react
At his July 9 town hall, which he called an “Endangered Population Summit,” Boykin, echoing the famous 20th Century African American scholar W.E.B. Du Bois, said, “The persistent problem of the color line is applicable not only to the 20th Century, but also to the 21st Century.”
Increasingly, as reactions from West Side residents to last week’s tragedies suggest, that problem is tinged in blue, with many respondents denouncing Micah Johnson’s actions, but framing them in a context of historical frustration and disappointment with law enforcement.
Ralph Harris, of Austin, said he was “flabbergasted” when he heard the news of last week’s tragedies, which left him pining for solutions.
“This just keeps going on,” he said. “What is it that we need to do to stop losing our young brothers to senseless police violence? Is it that the police are afraid of black men? It seems like any little move a black man makes is construed as hostile. Years ago, when the Rodney King beating was filmed, there was still this overwhelming denial (and many claims) that it was just a separate, individualized case — that it wasn’t the norm. The black community has known for eons that this is the norm.”
“I know black men between 16 and 25 are the ones being killed and doing the killing, too,” said Johnathan Powers, 24, of Austin. “The Dallas shooting is nothing more than retaliation from people fed up with a system that protects bad cops. I wouldn’t be surprised if more individuals get fed up and start shooting at cops. I wouldn’t advise anyone to do so, but it’s only so much a person can take before they snap.”
“What happened to these two men was cruel and unusual punishment for crimes they did not commit,” said Jamie Stewart, 42, of East Garfield Park. “It hurts my heart to see police officers kill the wrong people. The people doing all the shooting are still alive and the innocent black men are the ones dying at the hands of law enforcement.”
“Police have been killing black men since the beginning of time so why it is a big deal all of a sudden?” said Robert Brickhouse, 59, of North Lawndale. “Who needs the Ku Klux Klan when you have police officers with the legal authority to kill black people?”
Percy Coleman, a former south suburban police chief, recalled the death of his son, Philip Coleman, who died in 2012 while in the custody of Chicago Police. At Saturday’s summit, Coleman described the entrapment felt by many of the city’s African American residents.
“The police, with their legal guns, can kill,” Coleman said. “And the gangs, with their illegal guns, can kill you.”
“It’s funny how the police want us to be snitches and tell on people doing wrong in the hood, but when a police officer does wrong none of the upstanding officers come forward, like a good snitch, to say anything,” said Pierre Snow, 31, of East Garfield Park.
Vanessa Stokes, of Austin, described the potential powder keg that is the interaction between residents and officers — even the good ones, she said.
“Police seem like they’re cool, but you never know,” Stokes said. “You might say the wrong thing and that might spark something that would be unfortunate.”