Inside the 19-hour occupation of the University of Chicago Police headquarters | Feature | Chicago Reader

News & Politics » Feature

Inside the 19-hour occupation of the University of Chicago Police headquarters

"I’m fighting for my future, I’m fighting for my safety, I’m fighting for the people who come after me."

by

Sign up for our newsletters Subscribe

9 comments
GRACE DEL VECCHIO
  • Grace Del Vecchio

There were bathrooms in the building, but the protesters weren't allowed to use them. And if anyone left the police headquarters, the officers wouldn't let them back inside. But shortly before 8 PM, nearly five hours into what would be a 19-hour occupation of the University of Chicago Police Department, a protester who was stretching accidentally pushed the metallic handicap button inside the building. The door, which was supposed to be locked, swung open.

The 40 masked protesters inside the lobby of the police headquarters texted some of the more than 100 gathered outside about what they needed delivered: diapers. Then, during a break from the impromptu dance parties outside the doors, protesters pressed the button, popped open the door, and threw the baby diapers one by one over an officer's head and then under his legs.

The protestors had a new concern. If they relieved themselves in the diapers—which, for obvious reasons, didn't exactly fit—would they be liable for public indecency? But after a comforting phone call with the National Lawyers Guild, it was deemed safe to use the diapers while in a tent on the far side of the lobby.

Care Not Cops organized the June 12 protest and sit-in, along with UChicago United, Students Working Against Prisons, and UChicago Student Action. As protests ripped across the nation after the police murder of George Floyd, Care Not Cops issued a statement saying that University of Chicago "administrators have made both verbal and written statements claiming 'solidarity' with protestors and a commitment to anti-racist action. In light of these, we call with renewed vigor on the University to defund and disband UCPD, as well as to make reparations to those victimized by UCPD." The protesters had a list of demands: defund the UCPD by 50 percent for the next school year and invest that money in grassroots organizations on the south side; completely disarm the UCPD—including tasers and mace—and restrict the use of force; disclose the UCPD budget for the last 20 years; and commit to a plan to disband the UCPD by 2022. The protestors called for University of Chicago provost Ka Yee Lee and chief of UCPD Kenton Rainey to meet with them that night.

Care Not Cops was born two years ago after the UCPD police shooting of then-senior Charles "Soji" Thomas, who was suffering a mental health episode. The shooting and Thomas's subsequent eight felony charges, including those of aggravated assault of an officer and damage to public property, catalyzed student organizers to take action. The desire to access information applies not just to the budget, but also to policing policies. This effort is not only driven by students, but by community members in the neighborhoods surrounding the university that are disproportionately policed by both the CPD and UCPD, Chicago's largest private police force. (The Freedom of Information Act, which allows the public to access records, does not apply to private institutions like the University of Chicago.)

Two months after the shooting, protesters organized an occupation of the campus's main quadrangle and demanded the administration meet to discuss disarming and defunding the UCPD. The meeting, however, fell short of the organizers' desires.

"It's actually ridiculous," said Tai Davidson Bajandas, a rising fourth-year who helped found Care Not Cops in 2018. "Because one of the things that they have told us, the administration, and something that the police chief told us was to organize if we want to see change."

GRACE DEL VECCHIO
  • Grace Del Vecchio

When the protesters, mostly in their 20s, first occupied the lobby in the headquarters at 3:30 PM, the side doors of the building remained open, allowing them to move in and out of the building as they pleased. The plan was to do this for the duration of the occupation to decrease the risk of COVID-19.

The protestors sat on the ground while marshals from the march stood, as if on guard, in neon vests. In the first few hours, they created posters and drawings which read, "All Black lives matter," "No justice, no peace," "Abolish UCPD." By the morning, the glass windows, walls, and doors of the headquarters were plastered in posters.

When "business hours" ended at 5 PM, without warning, UCPD cops locked the entrance. The officers told protesters that no one would be permitted to enter the building, and if anyone left, they could not return. The officers also said protesters would not have access to the building's bathrooms, and that no one was allowed in to supply them with additional food or water. The pizzas that were ordered couldn't be delivered.

Anna Attie, a recent graduate from UChicago, where she has been organizing with UChicago Student Action, another student organization that often partners with Care Not Cops, was the police and dean liaison of the protest. She was standing in the doorway, listening to an open mike where protesters were sharing poetry and words of affirmation, when the police pushed her aside and locked the premises.

Dean Lynda Daher, who was on call that night, arrived soon after the police locked the doors. "[She said], 'We're here to protect your right to protest,'" Attie told me. "I obviously knew that's not really why she was there. She was the only one that could really infringe on that right." Daher requested to go inside, but after the officers refused she soon left.

Meanwhile, the scene directly outside headquarters was pleasant. Protesters played music, laughed, and danced. Some remarked that the occupation was an adequate replacement for the pre-pandemic dance parties they enjoyed with friends. Even rain showers didn't dampen the energy that coursed through the crowd.

Officers soon cut the air conditioning in the building. To sustain the occupation overnight, the protestors split into groups. When decisions had to be made, representatives from each group met in the back of the lobby. And while these meetings took place, the other protestors blasted music from a portable Bluetooth speaker, danced, and chanted to distract the police in the room.

In the hours leading up to 3 AM, the protesters made the space their own. As rumors swirled about the Chicago Police Department coming to disrupt the protest, they created barricades out of dumpsters, cars, bikes, and, at times, people. (CPD never came.) They pitched tents and wrote messages on the ground that read "fuck 12" and "autonomous zone."

Many of the protesters I spoke to described the space as liberating. "To be able to just inhabit a space that felt so concrete, so, like, autonomous . . . it was beautiful," Davidson Bajandas said.

"These were young people fighting for something and that's what I'm doing. I'm a young person and I'm fighting for something. I'm fighting for my future, I'm fighting for my safety, I'm fighting for the people who come after me safety," Yasin Muhammad, a 20-year-old photographer and activist from South Shore who spent the night inside the headquarters, told me later.

Some people in the neighborhood dropped off coffee, tents, and blankets. But time moved strangely inside the headquarters. "I keep forgetting when things happened," said Attie. "It was so hectic and sort of felt like everything was happening at once. I would sort of look up and realize hours had passed. Time was weird in there." And time was likely weird because the police wouldn't let the protesters sleep.

"Every hour or 30 minutes a UCPD officer would come in and read kind of like the same memo," said organizer and recent UChicago graduate Michelle Yang. "We were kinda confused about it but I think in retrospect we realized that because they did that continuously throughout the entire night that this was a way to drain us and prevent us from resting." The Chicago Maroon reported that "as students grew increasingly frustrated at being repeatedly woken or prevented from falling asleep, they began chanting over the officer, yelling 'Quit your job,' or reciting lyrics from Nicki Minaj's 'Super Bass.'"

UCPD later e-mailed the memo that was read inside: "The building you are in is now closed and you are trespassing. You need to leave the building. No one has or is preventing you from leaving the building. The City and State's COVID-19 guidance prohibits gathering of more than 10 people. You are required to wear masks and social distance with at least 6 feet between people. We have made masks available to any of you who need one. The Dean on Call has offered to arrange a meeting with the Provost and the Chief of Police. Please refrain from calling the UCPD dispatch repeatedly and asking others to do so. It is causing a public safety hazard."

While not sleeping, the protesters spent the night expanding their art collection: illustrations of Batman slapping a pig dressed like a cop; Mario and Waluigi next to a sign that read ACAB, or All Cops Are Bastards; Sailor Moon saying "In the name of the moon, fuck the police." This artwork only further reminded those who passed the headquarters of what ignited the protest. "One, two, three, four, five, six, seven, eight, nine, ten, 11, fuck 12," the protesters chanted into the night and at the police officers inside.

The comics drawn by a protester on the glass doors of the UCPD headquarters. - MICHELLE YANG
  • Michelle Yang
  • The comics drawn by a protester on the glass doors of the UCPD headquarters.

Shortly after 9 AM, after hours and hours of calls and e-mails from protestors and supporters during the occupation, chief of police Rainey spoke to those inside headquarters, then addressed those outside. Rainey emphasized his support of the right to protest, but also mentioned his concern for safety in the midst of the pandemic. He said this while wearing a mask, but with his nose exposed.

"I appreciate what you guys are doing, I really really do," Rainey said. "Because I'm a Black man. Black lives do matter. I've lived this, it's not a slogan for me. I've lived this every day of my life."

Rainey's confident air disappeared as the protesters questioned why he wouldn't meet with them now. "We're not gonna have that discussion here," he said. "I've given the people in there the date and time I'm willing to meet with them . . . Monday at 8 AM."

The protestors were not impressed. "If you were worried about our safety, you would meet our demands," said Muhammad.

At 10:30 AM, the protesters exited the building. The group, which had diminished to just 15, marched out chanting "Care not cops" as they joined the growing crowd outside. "The police made it so we couldn't have a safe action," Attie said to the crowd. "They infringed on our right to protest." To conclude the 19-hour occupation, Claire Hagerty, another protestor who was inside the headquarters, took to the megaphone to read aloud an abridged version of "A case for reparations at the University of Chicago," about the history of racial injustice at UChicago

On Monday, there would be no meeting with Rainey. Organizers said they would refuse until the university agreed to their terms of public access to the meeting.

In an official statement to the Reader, the university said they "offered to set up a meeting early this week to include Provost Ka Yee C. Lee, Chief Kenton Rainey of the University of Chicago Police Department (UCPD) and a representative group from those who carried out the protest this weekend. The group has not replied to the University's offer to schedule a Monday or Tuesday morning meeting, and thus we have not yet reached mutual agreement on a time, setting, or structure for the meeting."

Whenever I go to protests as a reporter, I have a rule to stay until the end. When I arrived shortly after the doors were locked, I expected to find myself enveloped in panic and chaos. That wasn't the case. Those in the street were chanting and yelling; those inside police headquarters, only a few feet away from officers, put up posters that said "Fuck You :)" and sometimes folded their hands in the shape of a heart. And, in a way, the lobby and the patch of cement outside police headquarters really did feel like an autonomous zone. That night, and into the morning, I asked every protester I spoke to a question: Did you ever feel hopeless? They all answered with a resounding no. Tired, uncertain, nervous, but never hopeless.

"I felt so energized and so supported," said Davidson Bajandas. "I mean, I was tired. I was tired but I don't think I was ever hopeless. I think the energy outside especially was just so vibrant, so alive. People were just dancing, people were laughing."

"I think we learned so much," said Attie. "And I think a lot of people and organizers grew so much, which I think is going to be really important in the future."

"It shows a resistance, it shows you can have your voice heard, it can cause ripples in the system," said Muhammad. "We have people in trouble right now. Our community is in trouble right now. The Black community is in trouble. The Brown community is in trouble. And that call is not gonna go unanswered. With the whole entire world, one man's call for help, George Floyd . . . the whole world is up right now. The people reached out and the people responded."   v

Support Independent Chicago Journalism: Join the Reader Revolution

We speak Chicago to Chicagoans, but we couldn’t do it without your help. Every dollar you give helps us continue to explore and report on the diverse happenings of our city. Our reporters scour Chicago in search of what’s new, what’s now, and what’s next. Stay connected to our city’s pulse by joining the Reader Revolution.

Are you in?

  Give $35/month →  
  Give $10/month →  
  Give  $5/month  → 

Not ready to commit? Send us what you can!

 One-time donation  → 

Comments (9)

Showing 1-9 of 9

Add a comment
 

Add a comment