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The Streets Have Eyes

A grassroots youth organization is mobilizing in Uptown, and police aren't sure they like it.



A year and a half ago Prince Crockrom saw some teens and adults he knew playing basketball in the pocket park across the street from the North Magnolia courtyard building where he lives. He went down and learned that they were there as members of the Uptown Peace Patrol, operating a recreational program in the play lot.

Every Wednesday and Saturday afternoon that summer the UPP painted little kids' faces and organized jump-rope and steal-the-bacon games for them. The group also set up regular basketball and double Dutch tournaments for members of local gangs. At first rumors circulated that there might be problems. UPP leaders asked the police not to intercede directly, though beat officers did walk through the park. Everyone seemed to have a good time, and nothing bad happened. "All my friends were involved--the whole neighborhood showed up, and there was lots of parent support," says Crockrom. "As time wore on, the Peace Patrol guys started asking responsibilities of me. Did I want to help put programs together? Did I want to draw in the younger kids? I said sure."

That summer Crockrom began helping run the games. He hadn't finished high school; he'd dropped out during his junior year at Prologue Alternative High School in Uptown. He didn't belong to a gang, though he admits to a few brushes with the law: "Criminal trespass, misdemeanor stuff." Now, at 21, he has a job with a catering company and is working on his GED.

UPP represents a new type of organization dominated by street kids. Members push recreation and academics for everyone from kindergartners to high school seniors as an antidote to gangs and drugs. They deplore the way inner-city teens are portrayed by the media, and they tend to be suspicious of the police. UPP was formed in 1996 as an outgrowth of the Uptown Community Rights Assembly, a quarterly town-hall meeting on neighborhood issues. "Kids need a support mechanism, and many find it in [gangs]," says Anton Miglietta, a 27-year-old neighborhood activist and former local school council member who started the Peace Patrol with two other adults. "Our idea was to give the kids another kind of structure that they'd create themselves."

The adults and 15 or so teenagers began in the summer of 1997 by mounting skits at Arai Middle School that warned the children about getting involved with drug dealers, and they talked a little about what the kids' rights were if the police stopped them on the street. By 1998 UPP had a summer-long program that included organized games for children at the Magnolia play lot and at Gooseberry Park, at Malden and Leland. Twice a month members also stood guard outside the currency exchange near Broadway and Wilson while senior citizens cashed their social security checks.

This past summer UPP began with similar programs, then persuaded Phoebe Helm, president of Truman College, to open classrooms, a gym, and the college pool to the group for three Fridays in a row. She says, "I'm supportive of after-school and summer programs for youth that improve academic capabilities." But she refused to allow the group to hold a "safety session," because she thought the tone was antipolice.

"First we'd have math and reading," says Crockrom. A block of time in each two-hour academic class was also devoted to advice about dealing with the police. "If you're stopped by police officers, don't run," Crockrom would tell the kids. "Listen to your Miranda rights. Tell the truth, but don't go beyond your name, address, and phone number. You don't have to say where you've been."

Pressed to explain this concern about the police, Crockrom says, "The police aren't from around here. They don't know us, and they have no concern. They have our people pulling their pants down. That's harassment, not serve and protect." But he also says, "We're for the police because we need some kind of order." Karl Schmitt, the police lieutenant in charge of community-policing beats in Uptown, denies that officers harass or abuse kids.

Gym activities and swimming took up the late-afternoon portion of UPP's summer Fridays at Truman. "We raced, had fun, played football in the pool," says Crockrom. "A lifeguard or two was on hand--before you could get in the deep end you had to pass a test." In the early evening the group held basketball tournaments for the older kids. The ceremony that ended the summer sessions featured dancing, music, and a karate demonstration.

"The whole reason behind this is to stop criminalization," says Crockrom. "We're giving kids a place to be where otherwise they might get into trouble." Ledarrel Goss, another 21-year-old UPP leader, says, "The stereotype is that people of color are out there doing bad things. If you shoot somebody, you turn up on Channel Nine. But we're taking young people under our wing and showing them that they can finish high school or even go to college."

This fall UPP leaders asked Helm to allow the group to expand what had been just a summer program at Truman College to an after-school program held three days a week. They also hoped to persuade the Park District to give them a worker to run their games. Helm was willing to accommodate the group, but UPP couldn't find enough volunteers. Miglietta says they hope to try again in the spring.

In early October the Community Justice Initiative--an umbrella organization of more than a dozen groups, including UPP and Northwestern University Law School's Children and Family Justice Center--held a citywide summit on problems city teens face. The two-day summit drew 700 participants to the student union at the University of Illinois at Chicago. "Here were hundreds of us, meeting together, and there were no problems, no arguments," says Crockrom. "It seemed like one roomful of light." At the end everyone voted on actions they could take, such as setting up a "youth and media council" to influence the way teens are portrayed on TV and in print, having classes in public schools on what rights teens have when confronted by police, and organizing "police watch groups" to prevent abuses.

The week before the summit a large group of UPP members had attended a Chicago Alternative Policing Strategy meeting at a senior home on Sheridan Road. "The regular attendees, who are condo owners, are always calling the cops on kids who live in a Section 8 building on Lakeside," says Miglietta. "But they were silenced." Crockrom adds, "They couldn't say what they normally say because we were sitting right there." Asked whether the condo owners have a right to speak out about problems they see, Crockrom concedes that they do. "They're human," he says, "and they're in the neighborhood also."

The UPP members also complained about specific instances of police misconduct, and Debbie Gold, a CAPS beat sergeant, advised them to call police internal affairs or the department's Office of Professional Standards. And they complained loudly about accusations made at previous CAPS meetings that Prologue students on their lunch break had been panhandling, drinking in public, and using or selling drugs--accusations that had led to some arrests. The school's principal, Pa Joof, was there to defend his program. "The police and the neighbors had described us as the problem, so we had to respond," he says. "We wanted the neighborhood to know that, look, we're an excellent school, despite the negative vibes." He's also looking into making space behind the school where students can congregate during breaks.

Gold says she welcomes Prologue supporters at CAPS meetings. "If they attend," she says, "problems can be solved mutually. That is what CAPS is about."

On October 5 a small group of UPP members attended the CAPS meeting of a neighboring beat, held in an SRO on North Malden. "We tried to get on the agenda," says Crockrom, "but the facilitator said he'd already made the agenda." David Rowe, the facilitator, says Miglietta asked him who set the agenda. "We do," Rowe replied. He says he then asked Miglietta what issue he had in mind, and Miglietta told him "youth services." "'Fine,' I said, 'so you can give a report on youth services the next time we meet.'" Rowe says Miglietta came to the next meeting but hadn't prepared a report.

At the October 5 meeting the regulars complained about petty crime committed by kids. "They talked about little kids like they were predators," says Miglietta. "Man, it was crazy. It wasn't like anybody had gotten stabbed or anything. The bottom line is that they want to clean out poor people and black people so their property values will rise."

"The property owners who usually attend CAPS meetings, they don't have kids," says Crockrom. "Instead they have two or three dogs. And they constantly complain that we are the problem." Rowe, a project manager for a real estate developer, counters, "People who attend want safe streets, clean streets, and a well-mannered community."

But Crockrom insists that the meetings will become productive only when the property owners change their way of thinking. "Their view of kids is to lock 'em up, lock 'em up. But they don't talk to the kids they see in braids, with big clothes. They are stereotyping us out of fear." But isn't he guilty of stereotyping the regulars as childless complainers? "No," he says. "For the simple fact that gentrification started with them."

Meanwhile UPP has been trying to organize a citizen patrol to monitor the police as they make arrests. "If the police stop somebody," says Miglietta, "the patrol would stay a distance away and observe what's happening to monitor if there is abuse."

"Citizens have the right to observe," says Lieutenant Karl Schmitt. "But if they break into an actual arrest, they are breaking the law. The charge would be interfering with a police officer."

Miglietta says that patrol members would also offer to call First Defense Legal Aid, a nonprofit that sends lawyers to represent offenders at police stations across the city.

Crockrom and Miglietta would prefer that the focus stay on UPP's recreational and academic work. They want to raise more money for equipment and trophies. The money they now get comes in piecemeal--they hold an occasional car wash and sometimes go door-to-door asking local store owners for contributions. They're also looking for more volunteers. "When we start up our new programs we're going to put out flyers," says Crockrom, "and the people already with us will go back to their blocks and do some recruiting. We're looking for younger people to join us. You can learn things from the young set."

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Dorothy Perry.

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