A group of Chicago activists has staged a demonstration since Friday near a controversial West Side police facility, vowing not to leave until the City Council formally scraps a proposed ordinance that would make attacking first responders a hate crime.
Members from several organizations, forming the Let Us Breathe Collective, set up their encampment in a vacant lot at Homan Avenue and Fillmore Street, across the street from the Homan Square police building. The demonstration went through the weekend’s searing heat and drenching rain.
Demonstrators said they focused their protest on the Homan Square facility that has been at the center of multiple police misconduct allegations over the years. They said designating police officers as a class of people who require hate crime protections would essentially silence people opposing the Police Department.
“It was created as a way to counter a social movement that has bubbled over in the past couple of years,” said Damon Williams, who also is a member of Black Youth Project 100. “It threatens protesters in the name of protecting the most protected group.”
The idea of a longer-term sit-in grew out of a protest last week. Dozens marched from the Douglas Park home of Dante Servin, who was acquitted of manslaughter after fatally shooting Rekia Boyd in 2012, then chained themselves together to block the intersection at Homan and Fillmore. About 10 people were arrested.
Many in the group then gathered at the vacant lot and dubbed it Freedom Square. Williams said the group was not prepared to stay at the time but returned Friday with tents, food, water, sleeping bags, a barbecue grill and other supplies.
“We have to resist these kinds of oppressive tactics,” said Immanuel Sodipe, 19, who is among activists opposing the legislation.
Ald. Edward Burke, 14th, introduced the proposal to expand hate crime protections to emergency responders on June 22. In addition to police, the statute would apply to current or former firefighters and paramedics and would increase the potential fine for such assaults from $500 to $2,500.
The current law bans assaults, harassment and similar attacks against people motivated by their race, color, sex, religion, national origin, age, ancestry, sexual orientation, or mental or physical disability. The law was amended last year to also include current and former military personnel as a protected group.
Also sponsoring the proposed law are aldermen Patrick Thompson, 11th; Derrick Curtis, 18th; Matthew O’Shea, 19th; Willie Cochran, 20th; Christopher Taliaferro, 29th; Nicholas Sposato, 38th; and Anthony Napolitano, 41st.
“Each day police officers and firefighters put their lives on the line to ensure our well-being and security,” Burke said in a statement last month. “It is the goal of this ordinance to give prosecutors and judges every tool to punish those who interfere with, or threaten or physically assault, our public safety personnel.”
Such legislation is becoming increasingly popular in the wake of several high-profile shootings of police officers this summer, particularly in Dallas and Baton Rouge, La. Those attacks came amid nationwide demonstrations against police violence, specifically the fatal shootings of two black men in Baton Rouge and suburban St. Paul, Minn.
Many leaders in politics and law enforcement contend that a growing anti-police sentiment is making law enforcement officers a target for violence. Louisiana passed its “Blue Lives Matter” bill in late May, which includes firefighters and paramedics.
Chicago Fraternal Order of Police President Dean Angelo said he supported Burke’s proposal.
“It’s not something that should be argued about,” Angelo said Sunday at a prayer vigil for fallen officers. “For too long now, we’ve been one of the only voices out there supporting the police. We’ve witnessed too many funerals lately.”
The measure is pending in the council’s Public Safety Committee but was not called for a vote or discussion during the most recent meeting this month.
Beyond their stance against the hate crime proposal, demonstrators said their protest is intended to be a mechanism for community outreach. They said residents and kids are invited in to eat, sit and talk, dance to the music and play. Early Monday morning, organizers passed out grilled chicken, bratwurst and coffee to locals passing by the camp.
“Direct action often involves marches and blockades, but those aren’t necessarily communicative,” Sodipe said. “This is a direct entry point for the people to come in and start a dialogue. We want them to know that we care about them, that they notice they’re not the only ones who feel like this system doesn’t care about us.”