Police blues

UCPD’s actions speak to wider structual inequalities in our society.

By Michael McCown

I went to a high school where it was not altogether surprising to see a student tackled and cuffed by one of our two school police officers. It was also common knowledge that white students and students of color had different rights and privileges. It was widely known that students of color needed a hall pass but white students did not. Not that there was not enough arbitrariness to go around: One time I (a white student) was brought in on a so-minor-as-to-be-unreal offense, and the officer seemed to relish making clear to me that my future lay completely in his hands. He proceeded with a humiliating “repeat after me” routine meant to bring home the fact that I was not under the authority of the school principal, but under the authority of the law that could and would jail me if it so chose, before finally letting me return to class.

I bring this up only so that, when I say that what I saw on Sunday shook me, you’ll understand that I have at least some experience structuring my perceptions. Some of us in the University community will want to explain this away as a misunderstanding between police officers trying to do their job and rowdy protesters, but it was not. A black University of Chicago student was asking to speak to the Dean-on-Call when he was tackled to the ground by perhaps six officers, who had him laying face-down, cuffed. Three years after the infamous Reg arrest, this is still how police work is done at the University of Chicago, as it is all over the nation. The irony is that the arrested student, Toussaint Losier, was a member of the very ad hoc committee formed after the Reg arrest that led to the creation of the recently-endowed Campus Dialogue Fund.

But not only was a University student arrested. Members of Fearless Leading by the Youth (FLY), the group protesting the lack of a Level I trauma center on the South Side, were also arrested and mistreated by the University of Chicago Police Department. The footage, which is on the Internet, depicts an officer striking at protesting FLY youth with a baton. Several arrests were made, including that of a 17-year-old female member of FLY who studies at King College Preparatory. Another female FLY youth was kicked while on the ground. Photos of her bruises were posted on Facebook.

This is the kind of brute force and arbitrariness that the police are used to exerting on black communities, largely without consequence. This is not some stunt that wily protesters put on to make waves—this is the default mode of policing, which is why we see this kind of violence over and over again. When I worked with FLY in the summer of 2011, I brought the youth to campus one day for the innocuous purpose of getting some work done at the Community Service Center. At one point a young man in the group stepped outside, and the next thing we knew, an entire squad of UCPD officers had surrounded him and had him with his hands up against the wall because, believe it or not, he “fit a description” of the perpetrator of a crime that had occurred the previous week. Except this young man lived in Roger’s Park, making him far from a likely suspect.

You do not need to think that there ought to be a trauma center at the UCMC to recognize that the fact that there is no trauma center on the South Side, and the area’s general paucity of medical services, is closely linked to the same racial and class marginalization that shaped the UCPD response on Sunday to the protesting youth. And they have truly a lot to protest about. The day before the demonstration, there were seven deaths by shooting on the South Side. While South Side residents face the longest travel time of any population in the city to life-saving trauma care, the most resource-rich hospital in the vicinity is constructing expensive “penthouses” for high-end patients. The UCMC claims opening a trauma center would cause the closure of other vital programs, and maybe that’s true. But to me, the fact that the UCMC emergency room declares itself on bypass five times more frequently than any other emergency room in Chicago indicates that the University’s disinterest in serving this population goes deeper than just trauma care.

People will say that the UCMC is the wrong target. As a private institution, it can structure itself how it will (and forcibly remove dissenters); it is the government’s separate responsibility to provide care for its citizens. I can accept that to a certain degree: It’s true there is more than one way to skin a cat. But when we get right down to it, if the government is truly by the people, it is still up to us to right these wrongs. There is no farming out of responsibility. FLY is demanding a trauma center, but they are also posing a question to the University community: Who and what is important to us? Will this community of intellectuals, businessmen, researchers, politicians, presidents even, take some kind of responsibility for the entrenched disparities of this society—or are we all so helpless? Think what you will about the specific merits of their cause, but FLY is doing this community good by breaking its bubble, by continually manifesting through its protests the bitter reality of social exclusion we have become so adept at not seeing, or maybe not believing.

This is not to suggest that the University must devote all of its resources to charity. The question goes much further than that. We must go far beyond the idea that we owe “charity” to poor communities. What we owe is a world far too long in coming where access to medical care is not left to the whims of hospital administrators and justice is not left to the caprice of the police, who, as it was made clear to me first as a frightened 16-year-old and then again yesterday, feel unconstrained in their authority, and have come to expect from civil society the assent that is silence. Let’s begin by raising our voices and asking that the University of Chicago administration not charge those arrested on Sunday.

Michael McCown is a third-year in the College majoring in history.