Photo: Charles Rex Arbogast/AP Photo

After a wave of school closings and a federal investigation of its police department, Chicago's mayor wants to spend big on a new police academy

“No escalation of policing has ever made us safer,” indigenous queer organizer and co-founder of Lifted Voices Kelly Hayes declared. The crowd gathered inside the In These Times building on Chicago’s North Side snapped their fingers and clapped enthusiastically. “All the police that are already out there, more well-funded than any police in the country, are not keeping any of us safe.”

The teach-in was designed to raise awareness and opposition to a proposed $95 million training academy for police and fire personnel on Chicago’s West Side. The city claims the new facility will bring jobs and development to the area. The mayor (who has not returned a request for comment) has also pointed to the scathing Department of Justice report on Chicago policing, which recommended improved facilities.

But Hayes and her audience weren’t buying it. More than 40 Chicago community organizations have endorsed the #NoCopAcademy campaign, an effort to derail the project and redirect the funds to more pressing community priorities. They’ve held train takeovers to educate people about the proposal and contacted aldermen to encourage opposition to Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s plan.

They’ve also been pushing people to think about what they’d rather do with the money. The second-floor room where Hayes spoke had been turned into an impromptu art gallery, with different ideas for the $95 million on the walls. Artist Molly Costello’s poster showed an art table with posters lying on it, declaring,”Art in Every Classroom; Fund Creativity Not Cops.” Another by Chiara Galimberti depicted farmland surrounded by a circle of houses with the words “Community Kitchens,” “Free Quality Education and Daycare” and “Affordable Housing” written on their roofs. A statement from Silvia Gonzalez of the Chicago ACT Collective pinned to the wall demanded “No more layoffs or closures.” Chicago has shut down more than 50 schools since 2013, a number of them in the neighborhood where the new police training facility is supposed to go.

“Financially this proposal doesn’t make sense. We don’t have the money. … There’s a lot of different ways to transform the city that don’t have anything to do with police training.”

Marginalized communities in Chicago have historical reason to believe that money for police doesn’t benefit them. Chicago police commissioner Jon Burge was accused of using electric shocks and beatings to torture confessions from up to 120 African-American men between 1972 and 1991. Chicago finally apologized and paid reparations to victims in 2015, after decades of activism. In 2014, police officer Jason Van Dyke shot 17-year-old Laquan McDonald in the back 17 times. The city refused to release dashcam footage for a year. When they finally did, the images were so disturbing they forced Chicago to cooperate with a DOJ investigation.

Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel speaks during a press conference on Jan. 25, 2017, in Chicago. Emanuel has backed the plan to build a $95 million police and fire training facility. Matt Marton/AP Photo

That DOJ study found the city neglected to train officers properly and “failed to hold officers accountable when they use force contrary to CPD policy or otherwise commit misconduct.” The most important DOJ recommendations involved greater accountability. Chicago has chosen to focus on giving more money to law enforcement.

The city’s strategy is not unusual. As the Black Lives Matter movement highlighted police abuses, many localities responded by investing in body cameras and training. In contrast, NoCopAcademy argues communities are best served when there is less money spent on policing and more spent on schools, mental health services and other resources that treat neighborhoods as investments, rather than problems to regulate.

Patricia Frazier, a teen leader with the community organization Assata’s Daughters, says the police have plenty of money. Chicago allocates about 1.5 billion a year to police; approximately 40 percent of general fund expenditures for the city. “We aren’t deciding what that money should be used for,” Frazier said. “But we do think that the community should be funded and not cops. People in marginalized communities could use that money better than paid cops who are misusing their training.”

In line with this criticism, Chance the Rapper made an impassioned appeal against the project at an early November city council meeting. “Financially this proposal doesn’t make sense. We don’t have the money. There’s a lot of different services that need to be covered. Mental health services, obviously schools are my big thing. So there are a lot of different services. There’s a lot of different ways to transform the city that don’t have anything to do with police training,” said the Chicago-born rapper whose given name is Chancelor Jonathan Bennett. Nonetheless, aldermen voted 48 to 1 in favor of purchasing the land for the academy. Carlos Ramirez-Rosa from the 35th ward was the only one to vote against the mayor.

Nonetheless, Monica Trinidad, a lead organizer of NoCopAcademy and a founder of For the People Artist’s Collective remained optimistic. The council still has to allocate more money for the project, so it’s not yet a done deal. NoCopAcademy had some promising conversations with aldermen who agreed the money could perhaps be spent in better ways, even if they didn’t take the step of opposing the mayor on this vote. Trinidad was also heartened by the spontaneous response she saw after the vote. “Going on Facebook, I saw people infuriated and calling out their alderman. We didn’t even have to ask people to do that,” she said.

Hayes also pointed out that the police academy is an important opportunity. Community activists in Chicago have long been demanding more schools, better health care, and greater investment in communities. The city has responded in recent years by claiming it is broke and has no money for such initiatives. But, as Hayes told the teach-in, “We have something going for us right now. They admitted $95 million exists. The lie of them being broke, they blew it out of the water themselves, and now we have that leverage to play with. We have to run with it. When you have leverage, you don’t let it go to waste.”