On a raw, rainy March morning in Chicago, Mayor Rahm Emanuel stood on the dais of the city council chambers, looking out over the aldermen who had just voted to build one of his most cherished projects: an $85 million police and fire training academy on the West Side, the most blighted, violent quarter of the city. Emanuel proudly announced the tally — 38 ayes, eight nays — and tried to begin a victory speech: “Before we go on, I’d like to say a few words about this item,” he told the crowd, before he was suddenly interrupted.
“Mic check! Mic check!” shouted a group of protestors standing in the public gallery. “Dear Rahm Emanuel, our community is not for sale! Since you lack remorse, we will lack peace. No cop academy. $95 million for community!” (The cost of the project was previously listed at $95 million, though it has since dropped to $85 million.)
Outside, in the lobby, hundreds more demonstrators who had been denied entry by the police were chanting, “Let us in! Let us in!” Their voices were loud enough for the aldermen to hear. Once the most strident demonstrators had been hustled out of council chambers to rejoin their comrades in the lobby, Emanuel continued.
“This will meet the needs of economic development in the neighborhood,” he said, proudly pointing out that two new restaurants would be opening inside the facility and hundreds of police and fire cadets would be driving there every day. “For decades, the West Side has been ignored… But the most important thing [the project] can do is bring public safety into the heart of a community that has its challenges.”
Emanuel had only two months left in office, and neither of the women running to replace him wanted to build the academy. But Emanuel had rushed the academy through the city council — a city council that has rarely defied him — because he sees it as an important piece of his legacy. Building a multimillion-dollar civic edifice on the poor, black West Side might be seen as evidence that he’s not, as his detractors call him, “Mayor 1%,” a neoliberal whose only vision for Chicago is luring new tech businesses to the Loop. A new police training facility is, in Emanuel’s mind, a sign that he’s serious about reforming a department that can clear only 17 percent of the city’s murders.
“It’s going to look like more occupation. It already feels like we live in a Third World country.”
West Garfield Park, the neighborhood where the academy will be built, has the city’s highest murder rate (139 per 100,000 residents) and one of its lowest median household incomes ($24,266). Many people believe spending $85 million on schools and job training would be more effective in reducing Chicago’s violence. In 2017, some of these skeptics formed a citywide protest movement called #NoCopAcademy. (It was #NoCopAcademy leading the demonstrations against Emanuel as he announced the project.) Members of the resistance effort — and some members of the West Garfield community affiliated with the group — see the mayor’s academy as something more sinister than a simple misallocation of resources: To them, it’s a colonialist intrusion on a neighborhood that has long suffered from police harassment, ultimately intended to create a green zone that will make it more attractive to the young professionals who have been replacing Chicago’s dwindling black population.
“We have a longstanding, difficult issue with police in our community,” says Stephanie Nobile, who lives a few blocks from the site where the academy will be built. “It’s going to look like more occupation. It already feels like we live in a Third World country.”