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Chicago: People’s Hearing for survivors of police crimes

By John Metz

Participants in the the  People’s Hearing for Survivors of Police Crimes

Chicago, IL – On Saturday, June 3, newly sworn-in Police District Councilors, community groups and survivors of police misconduct gathered at Gorham Methodist Church on Chicago's South Side for the inaugural People's Hearing on Police Crimes.

The event, which capped off a years-long struggle to pass and implement the Empowering Communities for Public Safety (ECPS) ordinance, follows the resounding victories by 39 pro-ECPS candidates for the 66 seats in the 22 newly created Police District Councils in municipal elections earlier this year. These historic achievements, and the overwhelming defeat of candidates close to the Fraternal Order of Police (FOP), have placed Chicago squarely at the forefront of the movement for community control of police.

At times reminiscent of truth-and-reconciliation commissions convened elsewhere in the world to address state crimes, speakers at the People's Hearing often held back tears as they recounted the terror inflicted by Chicago Police on them, their loved ones and their communities. Many also described how government officials and the Chicago Police Department (CPD) routinely ignored their demands for justice, but they expressed optimism that the recent elections marked an end for the longstanding culture of impunity in policing.

In opening remarks, Jasmine Smith, co-chair of the Campaign to Free Incarcerated Survivors of Torture (CFIST) and advocate for the survivors of Police Sergeant Brian Forberg, voiced sentiments shared by many in the audience. “It is our time to show up and show out like we never have before. We have to fight. Enough complaining, enough of 'We can't change the system.' It's up to us to stand up against the system.” Smith closed by imploring outgoing Cook County State's Attorney Kim Foxx to follow through on campaign promises to free those wrongly convicted. “We are demanding a mass exoneration before Kim Foxx leaves.”

Chicago Alliance Against Racist and Political Repression (CAARPR) Field Organizer Frank Chapman put the event and the achievements of ECPS into a larger, historical context: “What we just did here in Chicago in February has never been done in the history of this country. We elected three people in each police district in a manner that will hold police accountable.”

Chapman, who himself was wrongly convicted before regaining his freedom through the movement that freed Angela Davis, also gave his perspective on the road ahead. “These are uncharted waters, and we're learning to swim. This is going to be challenging. What we've done is write the mayor a letter to have an open public meeting with the district councils and police. We are playing no games with the district councils, and we want them to work. What we've got to do is show them.”

Among those bearing witness at the People's Hearing was activist and political prisoner Anthony Gay, who served 22 years in solitary confinement and became a leader in the campaign to abolish this cruel and inhuman method of punishment. Appearing via video call, he described his own journey through Illinois' injustice system. “They gave me solitary confinement at 12. When I was tortured in solitary confinement, I experienced the problems of this country first hand. There needs to be a limit on the time you can spend in solitary confinement.”

He paid a heavy price for his advocacy upon his release, becoming a target for police retribution. “The police targeted me after I got out and put trumped-up charges on me,” Gay noted. However, he remains committed to the struggle. “I see it not as a problem but as an opportunity. I refuse to give up and stop fighting. Every day, I'm fighting for justice, and I will keep fighting every day to end solitary confinement.”

In the years after the Vietnam War, numerous CPD officers – chief among them the infamous Police Commander Jon Burge – brought methods of torture that they learned while serving in the U.S. military home to Chicago. Officers often employed these techniques when they needed to extract false confessions. Survivor Sean Tyler gave a personal perspective on the ways this phenomenon affected oppressed communities in the city. “The conditions of Vietnam left a mark on the mentality of the officers in Chicago. At 18, I was picked up, tortured, and confessed to a crime I had nothing to do with. I didn't know until two years later why I was in prison. As residents of Chicago, we have been victimized [by these officers] for too many years.”

When the lineup of speakers concluded, People's Hearing attendees had the opportunity to meet the new Police District Councilors and present issues and concerns from their own communities.

District Councilor Arewa Karen Winter, who represents the 15th District on the city's West Side, recalled her own journey to the movement after the shooting and wrongful arrest of her nephew. “I have been fighting this fight since 2016, and one of the first organizations I met was CAARPR,” she said. “One of our first trauma responses is fight-or-flight. My nephew ran from the police and was shot climbing over the [eight feet tall] fence. Police said he had a gun on his body, but the narrative we were given was impossible, and forensics told us otherwise. There was no police bodycam. The city and CPD plays a lot of games with families and retaliates against them.”

District Councilor Winter closed by articulating the new hope brought by the district councils, which are overwhelmingly represented by working-class community members who have never held elected office before. Winter said of the CPD, “I want to show them we have power. We have to be clear about the power we have as district councilors. We're supposed to be about holding them accountable.”

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