After the Peace House had closed on July 11, I went along with a few others to a BEAT meeting. I tried to enter with an open mind, as I believe any time without one is wasted, and ready to listen critically: Critical of the language used and the attitudes expressed towards the community and the block I’ve learned to love and critical of my own language and attitude towards the police officers facilitating this meeting.
One of the first announcements informed us of what happened the past month within our beat. On the weekend of July 8th, someone had been arrested on the block of the Peace House. Another member of the meeting who I had not met before remarked on the location. The comment seemed to imply the irony of this happening. While she said this, I thought of the arrest and wondered who from the block I’d learned to love had been taken from their family that night and spent it in jail. I wondered if this was the first or third or seventh time this had happened to them. The charge was aggravated assault and robbery. I was unaware of the reality of the arrest, but I wondered if it was someone defending themselves against an officer. I was aware of a memorial party that had happened on July 8th, that had gotten loud and the police were called. I was aware that one of my friends and community members said that his pregnant girlfriend had been pushed by an officer and another friend of his had been slammed on a police car. Another person from the community was chased down the street and others were cursed at and their cars were searched.
The woman who made a comment about the location of the arrest didn’t know these things. I feel that her comment was saying that our job at I Grow Chicago was to “clean up” the neighborhood and the block and we had failed. While we do literally clean up the block with mowing and picking up trash, I did not join this organization to wipe it clean of the reality of its situation or make it into something it is not. The Peace House is meant to give a space to people who can’t grieve in public, who can’t celebrate on their block, who can’t have a non-violent party without violence incited by those who have taken oaths to protect and serve.
As the meeting continued, a sergeant spoke on his own experience. He discussed the “culture” of police and the “culture” of communities, from his viewpoint as someone who had worked throughout the entire city. He admitted to policing differently in different neighborhoods. I asked who was holding the police accountable, what the police were doing to change this “culture.” I debated whether my comment would add to the conversation, but as an anthropology major, it’s pretty impossible to sit quietly when someone brings up culture. Culture is the way a group of people adapt to their surroundings to survive. That includes everything that makes that group who they are and affects them. That includes race, that includes ideology, class, gender, institutions designed around them. We are everything around us and everything within us. The “culture’ of the police described by this sergeant was one of disinterest. One that placed all responsibility on the communities it policed and ignored its own contributions to the world around it. One that uses “culture” to describe itself as a united front but claims personal decision when discussing the “bad apples” of their forces. Culture is made up of individuals who make decisions based on their own indoctrinations.
So when the sergeant says the answer is to file complaints, I remain critical and skeptical. Where is the change? Where is the accountability? Where is the repentance to the communities that have been reduced to their worst actions and refused to be seen as human? Police are human, yes. They bleed if you cut them, their feelings are hurt when you yell at them. They have favorite songs, probably none by NWA. What we need is for the police to stop using “human” and “culture” as excuses, they are nothing but detriments to the changes that need to be happening.
Working in the summer camp and working at the Peace House, I am almost constantly surrounded by children. I work with them to apologize for what they’ve done and take responsibility for their actions. I ask them to respect me as I respect them. I think what we ask of our children should be asked of the adults in our lives as well, especially those have signed up for the position that claims to be interested in “being the change,” as the sergeant likes to say.
All of this rushing through my mind, I sat there in the meeting trying not to look enraged, disillusioned, or ready to fight. I’m not sure if I accomplished any of those things. But, I did look to the members of the community I’ve grown to love for help. They supported my words and my actions, remarking that we are the generation that will make change. We are the change. I wasn’t sure if I really believed them in that moment, but their genuineness made me want to.
Driving towards home, Marie (a fellow intern) and I loudly complained in the car about the ignorance revealed at that meeting. After I dropped her off, I didn’t know how to feel. I believe in hope and I believe in love, but sometimes I question whether it is enough. Weighing heavy on me, I drove onto the highway and I was blessed with the most beautiful sunset I’d ever seen from leaving the peace house and a commute home cut in half. This blessing helped me see I am not alone. My hope and my love may not always feel like enough, but when you multiply it by the friends I’ve made at I Grow Chicago, the community that has helped me to love and learn, the people we impact as we work everyday, I suddenly don’t feel so small.
They were right, We are the change.