I describe the 2013 closing of 49 public schools in Chicago as, for me, a racially traumatic event.
At the time I was in a teacher certification program at the University of Illinois, student teaching at Stockton Elementary, one of the schools scheduled to close.
The selected schools were spread across the South and West sides, with the exception of three schools clustered together where I lived in Uptown—one of the only largely-Black neighborhoods on the North side. Of the thousands of students impacted by these closings, 88% were Black, 93% lived below the poverty line, and over 2,000 were unstably-housed—commuting to school from non-permanent addresses, shelters, and the street.
The event, which represented the largest single sweep of school closings in US history, played out not unlike Hurricane Katrina had some eight years earlier—in no small part because it was orchestrated to have the same impact on Chicago’s Black community as Katrina had on New Orleans.
It was driven by Democratic mayor Rahm Emanuel, in a majority-Democrat northern city. White communities observed it, occasionally denounced it, and stood idly by as it was executed. Black communities looked hopefully to then-President Barack Obama, a close political ally of Emanuel, to step in. He was as silent on the racist attack as Bush had been during the hurricane.
The school closings were a turning point in my life as a young educator, but also as a young Black person. On the one hand, they irreparably damaged my relationships with white people in the city of Chicago. The white liberal value of education as the salve for poverty had been offered to me by family and community members my whole life. Watching liberals look the other way as their party dismantled public education for Black children in their city was the most bitter example of white hypocrisy I’d ever had to stomach.
Simultaneously, I witnessed the trauma and instability the closings inflicted on the city’s most vulnerable residents. I saw the harm they caused Black, homeless, and disabled kids, whose lives were already in turmoil. I saw students I loved deeply have opportunities for growth and expansion snatched from them, and despaired over the indifference with which their demise was met by the larger city, by almost everyone who was not a teacher or family member of a directly impacted child.
A year after the school closings—exactly three years ago today—Mike Brown was murdered, Ferguson, MO exploded, and the Black Lives Matter movement took off nationally. One of the primary demands of that movement was for the total abolition of the police and prison systems—both of which bear a direct lineage from chattel slavery, and overwhelmingly single out Black communities for extrajudicial violence.
Organizers in Chicago ingeniously pointed to the city’s annual budget, 40% of which is allotted to the Chicago Police Department, compared to 5% for social services (and <1% for public schools). The defunding of the CPD was not only just, they argued, but entirely feasible. With such a gross discrepancy between the departments which support Black communities and those which murder and incarcerate them, how could anyone who claims to value Black lives not call for a massive redistribution of funds?
Attempts to dismantle public education—which were spearheaded by Democrats long before Donald Trump, and have been a bipartisan effort for almost two decades—should always be seen as a focused attack on Black communities. This is not merely because Black people are so dependent on public ed, but because we invented it.
In the wake of another abolitionist movement, Black communities mobilized to educate young people looking for opportunity post-slavery. Black women largely took it upon themselves to create grassroots education in the reconstruction south, and were so effective, poor white children began attending their schools. The federal government saw the need, and provided funding. It wasn’t until wealthy white communities demanded segregated public schools for their own children that the modern, highly stratified public education system was born.
This is the primary theme of Black struggle, one as present in the current abolitionist movement as in previous ones: The demands made by Black communities for their own liberation work to benefit the larger society; The demands made by white communities serve only to benefit white communities, always to the detriment of all others.
Nationwide consternation ensued last month when mayor Emanuel officiated a decision requiring all Chicago high school graduates to produce proof they’d been accepted into a college, vocational program, job, or the military in order to receive their diploma. The requirement will be in universal effect by 2020. Meanwhile, four new school closings are on the schedule for the coming year, all in the impoverished South side neighborhood of Englewood.
While the mayor’s office continues to deny funding for a host of public services—announcing the cutting of over 900 jobs from Chicago Public Schools just this week—it also recently announced the construction of a new $95 million police training academy, to be raised on the West side. The same police department which was just described by the Justice Department as violating the civil rights of Black residents on a systemic level is receiving an expensive new firing range—the exact opposite of reparations.
As Chicago poet Britteney Black Rose Kapri puts it, “Everything is burning, and we still have to explain what smoke means.”
The renewed austerity measures of the Emanuel administration have nothing to do with bettering education within the city of Chicago, nor creating more public safety, and the mayor knows it. They represent a concerted effort on the part of city government to actively displace the city’s poor and Black residents, carving out real estate for the wealthy, and raising their property values.
As new trauma continues to be inflicted on Black communities in Chicago, without any recognition or reconciliation for the old, I am bewildered by those who call police abolition an extremist suggestion, as though the austerity measures blatantly targeting Black communities are not themselves extreme. I am bewildered by white liberals who take offense at legislation being pushed by the Trump administration, as though it did not mirror much of the legislation of the Obama administration, and the consistent agenda of their own party in Chicago and elsewhere.
The question must finally be: What will the wealthy and white do to make amends for their legacy of greed and violence, to provide healing for generations of harm? Police and prison abolition represent, in my mind, the simplest and most peaceable answer to this question.
For what is the actual dollar amount owed to Black people by the United States? Once we have taken into account slavery (not just stolen labor, but lasting physical, emotional, and psychological trauma), slave patrols, Black codes, sharecropping, redlining, Jim Crow, medical experimentation, sterilization, gentrification, faulty loans, sexual terrorism, mass incarceration, the Drug War, the GI Bill, lynching (state-sanctioned and otherwise), the infiltration and decimation of community organizations, chemical poisoning, the HIV epidemic, voter suppression, deficient housing, insufficient employment, wage theft, unequal access to public education, unequal representation under the law, what algorithm can accurately capture the exact price of Black suffering? Who, precisely, would pay that price? Where would the resources come from? Answering these questions in earnest would bankrupt the US empire—an outcome I am not personally opposed to.
Assuming the empire is not prepared to dissolve itself to right its uncountable wrongs, what, then, should reparations look like? If police abolition is too extreme, should white families have their children sold away from them? Should white workers undergo the lash? Should white students have their schools closed, their funding cut, their classrooms tripled in size? Should the wealthy be evicted from their homes to provide housing to those whose labor generated the wealth that built those homes? Should the two million richest take the places of the currently caged population?
One would be hard-pressed to paint a mass Black movement for vengeance as unjustified. If reparations were to take the form of retribution, the empire would be a bloodbath.
What does it say about Black people that our movement is focused not on terminating our oppressors, but abolishing the systems relied on to oppress us? What does it say that our primary demand, posed in the face of unspeakable and uninterrupted violence, is elegant and logical, one that—like all historically-posed Black demands—stands to benefit all people, even those presently harming us?
What does it say about the harmful that they continue to call our movement violent, as though the monopoly on violence weren’t theirs alone? What does it say about white people that they are so committed to our subjugation, so invested in maintaining our expendability, that they continue to argue against a just solution, to the detriment of their own moral salvation, their own lives?
This week, a small group of activists and journalists sued the Chicago Police Department for access to public records, which they refuse to share. The Emanuel administration also incidentally closed 6 of the city’s 12 free mental health clinics in 2012, again targeting largely poor, Black neighborhoods. Activists want access to police records of SWAT deployments to demonstrate that there has been a spike in these deployments in response to mental health crises in the wake of the clinic closings.
Their goal is, simply, to prove a militarized police force is an ineffective solution to the mental and emotional trauma of poverty. Their goal is to cut funds from the monstrous police budget, and redirect them to free mental health services, public schools, affordable housing, and other social programs that prevent violence, making the use of expensive deployments obsolete.
Black people and our oppressed counterparts are owed the entirety of the US empire, its wealth and territories. It should be understood not merely as humane, but miraculous, that all we ask is for the dismantling of the structures designed to destroy us, and their replacement with the most basic social services, for the benefit of all.
Justice requires the giving up of something. If the wealthy and white are unwilling to defund the police and prison systems, they need to think seriously about what sacrifices they are prepared to make. For at the ruthless rate their measures are targeting Black communities, they may not have the luxury of choosing much longer.
Action step: Call mayor Rahm Emanuel at 312 744 3334, and tweet him at @ChicagosMayor, and tell him to cut funds from the Chicago Police Department and put them into Chicago Public Schools. Tell him to cancel the new police training academy, and commit those funds to quality education and free mental health resources.
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