Amara Enyia: Beware ‘dialogue as spectacle’ in fight to transform Chicago police

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Photo courtesy of Amara Enyia

Public policy strategist and former Chicago mayoral candidate Amara Enyia.

I remember being at a church on the South Side one night in October 2017, at an event to support families of people killed by gun violence. I don’t recall the exact church. But it had the same brown pews, wood paneling, greyish carpet, and feel of the Baptist church I attended growing up in Chicago’s south suburbs. At some point, I slipped out into the vestibule for some air. And as I peered through the little window to the sanctuary’s interior, a voice startled me.

I turned to see a Black woman in her mid-30s whose large brown eyes were watery with unspilled tears. She started telling me about her nephew. Police had killed him several years prior, she said. The scent of cigarette smoke emanated from her black leather jacket as she spoke. I caught a subtle whiff of alcohol on her breath. Her raspy voice exuded pain.

She had attended countless meetings, rallies, and press conferences seeking more accountability from the police department, pushing for more effective approaches to addressing violence in Chicago. She had participated in gatherings with community groups, gatherings with police, gatherings with community groups and police. Still, she despaired that she would never see justice.

The last thing I would have done at that moment is ask her to attend another dialogue session and talk about her pain, another space where her agony would be a spectacle to the uninformed.

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A recent article in Chicago Magazine mulled the idea of Chicago establishing a truth and reconciliation commission to help address longstanding issues of violence and distrust of police, especially in Chicago’s Black and Latinx communities. The piece referenced examples of similar efforts across the world, including one in South Africa, initiated in 1995 as part of a deal between the former white minority regime and the African National Congress.

There is no single format for a truth and reconciliation commission, but most involve a series of discussions in which grievances are aired openly and without fear of reprisal. The findings and recommendations of commissions are supposed to inform efforts to redress past abuses and prevent new ones from occurring, according to the International Center for Transitional Justice:

A truth and reconciliation commission seems like a logical step in Chicago’s healing process after months of pain and frustration manifesting on Chicago streets. But the wrongdoings of police and city leadership have already been documented. The transgressions have already been discussed. Yet the systematic wrongs have not yet been corrected.

Reconciliation—the end of estrangement—without reparation and restoration, is hollow at best and breeds deeper cynicism at worst. We know that the root causes of Chicago’s endemic violence stem from generations of systematic, sustained, and sanctioned disinvestment by the dominant power structure that has ravaged the city’s Black communities. The same neighborhoods bear the brunt of police racism and brutality. Justice is not in the rehashing of this knowledge.

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There has been no shortage of dialogue between police and residents in Chicago, and the police department has, at times, been vocal about seeking out such dialogue. The last two CPD superintendents launched “listening tours” early in their tenures. The reality is that community members who have been involved in these sessions for years are fully aware of the limitations and frustrations that arise when dialogue begins to feel like an exercise in futility. In the past, when the community emoted at police board hearings, some were threatened with arrest. When others worked to put together comprehensive proposals for public safety and community control of the police, their proposals were ignored.

Recently, when protests erupted and calls rang out to “defund the police”, instead of dialogue, protestors and non-protestors alike were met with raised bridges and blocked public transportation to protect the hallowed corridors of downtown while the very neighborhoods that many of the protestors live in, were left to fend for themselves.

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Rachel Teicher, the director of the National Network for Safe Communities at New York’s John Jay College, said in the Chicago Magazine piece that her organization would be “thrilled” if City Hall called seeking help with a truth and reconciliation initiative. She said the process “changes the fabric of the community.” But which community would be materially changed by this process?

Is Teicher referencing the police community, which belongs to a department that has yet to address 70% of the recommendations for reform set forth by the Department of Justice? The community of social justice advocates and activists who have demanded community control of the police for years? Or the communities that have been economically crippled by the city for decades and ignored as if their neglect was part of Chicago’s standard planning and development strategy?

Herein lies the danger of dialogue as spectacle.

A truth and reconciliation process will not change the community’s fabric unless the weavers’ values are changed.

We cannot overlook the imbalanced power dynamic between the parties that would be brought together for dialogue. Nor the fact that one party to the dialogue wields enough power and resources to address the other party’s ills. If dialogue is to be had, the onus weighs heavily on those within the corridors of power to take actions that show they have heard what has been shared over decades.

The critical question is, what has the City of Chicago done to address the decades of neglect, disinvestment, and erasure of voices in the very communities they would supposedly dialogue with?

And as the budget season rolls in, how will the city respond to calls to defund the police? Will funds be reallocated into budget lines that build up individuals and communities? Or, will the police budget continue to cost taxpayers $1.78 billion (or more) and hundreds of millions more for misconduct lawsuits?

Those financial resources would be better used to invest in people. That means investing more in affordable housing and quality jobs, providing resources to under-resourced schools, and much more – basically all of the things that build strong individuals and strong communities. These are the things that prevent violence.

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With shootings and murders on the rise and President Trump sending federal agents to the city, community organizers and criminologists point to a police hiring spree from just four years ago to show that more cops on Chicago’s streets aren’t the answer.

Last week, the City Council voted to pay out another $6.65 million in police misconduct settlements. Chicagoans also learned they’ll be facing a $2 billion budget shortfall. Chicago’s history shows us that the most vulnerable communities have historically borne the brunt of budget crises. Like the woman I met at that South Side church in 2017, the people of those communities deserve solidarity and systemic change.

A truth and reconciliation process may create sympathy. But justice isn’t about sympathy and sentiment – it’s about tangible action.

Amara Enyia, Ph.D., works at the local, national, and international levels as a social impact and public policy strategist with a background in community organizing and advocacy. She’s also a former Chicago mayoral candidate.