First published online in August 2021, as part of our “Correspondents” series, we reproduce this text commissioned to Benji Hart. In it, they sharply critique the noxious spectacularization of polished encounters between the Chicago police and youths of Black and brown neighborhoods, including when these encounters are made into architectural projects, such as Studio Gang’s Polis Project.
On July 16, 2021, BASE Chicago hosted a water balloon fight between members of the Chicago Police Knights Baseball Club and youth from the westside neighborhood of Austin. The event was held in front of the vacant Marconi Elementary Community Academy, a school which closed in 2014 under Mayor Rahm Emanuel, who also oversaw the closure of 49 additional public schools in almost exclusively Black neighborhoods in 2013.
The scene, which was featured in multiple local papers and news reels, was a strange restaging of a common sight: Black youth facing off with predominantly white officers, only this time with all parties armed with the same multicolored, non-lethal weaponry, in the shadow of an abandoned school. The coverage and its commentators reiterated over and over again: By creating more recreational spaces where police and Black youth can interact with one another, “…events like this will help change ill perceptions on both sides.”
The prevalence of this type of pro-policing propaganda appears against the backdrop of school closures, shuttered mental health clinics, and ever-rising gun violence, paralleled by a police department budget that — despite austerity measures in every other sector — has increased every year since 2012. At the same time that such stunts work to rebrand police as a community resource rather than an occupying force — using Black and brown children as props in the process — they are also undeniably a response to massive, militant uprisings from Ferguson to Minneapolis, demanding the defunding and abolishing of police departments, who continue to kill Black people even while boasting of progressive reforms.
Despite the steady failures of increased police spending to curb interpersonal violence, and of “community policing” to stop officers from murdering the residents of the municipalities they patrol, those outside of movements (and often outside of the most impacted communities) continue to push for more spending and coerced interactions with police as the only imaginable solutions.
Polis Station, a project by the Chicago architectural firm Studio Gang in the North Lawndale neighborhood, is an attempt to transform the 10th Precinct located there into a community hub. As the firm’s website describes it:
“Polis Station proposes reframing police stations as sites of social connection and services that together offer a holistic, community-centered approach to public safety. It lays out a series of physical and programmatic steps that can be taken to adapt the existing infrastructure of police station buildings to become civic assets that support new, community-based models for public safety.”
In an informational video about the project on the same page, vice president of neighborhood organization Men Making a Difference, Robert J. Calhoun says: “The sounds of summer, kids playing, the joy, the laughter. That’s missing. And we beg for anything to help us bring that back.” He is immediately followed by Robin Robinson, a journalist with Chicago Police Community Affairs. She insists on the importance of officers and Black youth coming together outside of emergency situations:
“Seeing each other as human, taking off that uniform that we all recognize and sometimes fear. And they both have a uniform: See a young Black man, pants sagging, tattoos, dreads, you think, ‘Oh my god, is he gang involved?’ You see a police officer, all you see is the uniform. ‘Is that a good one, is that a bad one,’ right?…They have so much in common, but they don’t have a voice, and people aren’t sure what to make of them when they see them. So when they see each other as humans, playing a game, collaborating on something, that’s real community policing.”
There are a number of racist tropes that need examining here, but perhaps the most insidious one is that of sameness, mirroring coverage of the westside water balloon fight: Black children and police officers are both just stereotyped. Youths’ natural hairstyles and casual dress are akin to an officer’s cap, their badge, their gun. As has been long pointed out, Blackness is itself seen as a weapon, making a Black child and an armed agent of the state equally-paired combatants in the white supremacist eye. They each deny the other’s humanity, and it is from this mutual misunderstanding that conflict erupts.
Such comparisons erase all power dynamics therein; that being Black is an identity one is born with, while being an officer is a job; that Black people bear the actual legacy of being legally less-than-human, a status determined by social systems, not the prejudice of individuals; that Black people in the U.S. are the descendants of slaves, while police are the descendants of slave patrols; that police deaths in the line of duty are currently at an all-time low, while the extrajudicial killings of Black people occur at a higher rate than they did under Jim Crow; that Black communities in Chicago experience widespread poverty, while the Chicago police department costs the city $1.7 billion annually; that police viewing young Black people as threatening is rooted in vile histories of institutional racism, while Black youth viewing police as threatening is rooted in the inherited knowledge that police are charged with enforcing the U.S.’ most racist laws, often on pain of death.
The erasure of these profoundly unequal power dynamics is intentional. Programs like the westside water balloon fight, and projects like Polis Station, work to actively undermine the demands of Black movements — the same ones many of the host organizations declare solidarity with on their homepages. They appropriate the language of grassroots organizers — calls for investments in green space, public education, healthcare, arts programing, and housing — and instead imagine Black and brown communities are only worthy of these investments when they are tethered to incarceration.
When community members like Robert J. Calhoun beg for anything that can bring joy and healing into their neighborhoods, they are being sincere. Pro-policing projects take advantage of this desperation — borne from disinvestment, systemic violence, and racism — and channel it into PR for the very structures responsible for all three. Where Black movements have worked diligently to redefine public safety as reinvestment in non-carceral resources and the strengthening of community bonds, these projects reinsert the police right back into the robust vision for a world without them so many are fighting for.
In their misguided attempts to address state violence, they do the state’s work for it. But what is perhaps even worse, the rhetoric of sameness that surrounds these efforts contributes to the ongoing mistreatment of Black communities. By pretending that the playing field is level, that it is mere distrust leading to police murders, they trivialize the violent reality Black people live with daily, have lived with every day since our ancestors were kidnapped and brought to this continent — our first forced interaction with the settler state. They hold us responsible for our own deaths, and in doing so absolve the police (and themselves) of the actual work required to protect Black lives: the hard work of abolition. From 2017 to 2019, the #NoCopAcademy campaign fought the construction of a $95 million police academy in the westside neighborhood of Garfield Park. For 18 months, Black and brown youth from across Chicago led marches, teach-ins, train takeovers, and rallies at City Hall, demanding real investments be made in youth on the westside, not into the police department that regularly tortures and murders them. Despite their best efforts, construction of the academy will begin this fall.
On May 27, 2021, Mayor Lori Lightfoot announced that a Boys & Girls Club would be built on the same site as the sprawling campus. At a press conference, Boys & Girls Clubs of Chicago President and CEO Mimi LeClair stated: “We hope the Club will continue to build bridges by creating opportunities for first responders to engage in mentorship and develop an open dialogue with our young people.”
Hundreds of Black and brown youth from the westside, whose voices are almost instinctively left out of these conversations, signed an open letter in response to the announcement. They brought attention to youth killed by Chicago police only months earlier:
“Anthony Alvarez was 22 years old and Adam Toledo was nothing more than a child, only 13 years old at the time of his murder by CPD earlier this spring. This Boys & Girls Club announcement is damage control for these murders along with all the other [misuses] of law carried out by the Chicago Police Department. More and more people across the city of Chicago are recognizing the need [to] change the very way we define safety — not as punishment and control, but sharing resources and building community.”
If the police and prison system bears a direct lineage from the transatlantic slave trade, then calls for its abolition are a continuation of the long fight to abolish chattel slavery. The violence of slavery wasn’t due to the lack of an intramural basketball league. It wasn’t the result of slaves and overseers not having access to recreational spaces in which they could learn to see each other’s humanity. The reason was that control and abuse are baked into a system where one population of people owns another. This power dynamic couldn’t be reformed, discussed, nor water ballooned away. It had to be permanently destroyed.
If organizations, architectural firms, and public officials want to finally support the fight for Black lives, they should join in calls to defund the police. They should denounce their previous projects, and apologize for the PR they’ve provided for an inherently racist and murderous institution. They should show up physically and materially for the campaigns and grassroots struggles their work has previously undermined. They should use their platforms to demand investments be made in historically oppressed communities that fight incarceration, rather than working to further entrench it.
But claiming to support “both sides” in a centuries-old struggle — one in which monetary investments and institutional power have consistently been heaped on racist state apparatuses for the sole purpose of subjugating Black communities — is misdirection. And until real responsibility is taken, these actions are as violent as the police and prison system they force Black people to play nice with. ■