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George Floyd's death a painful reminder of Chicago's history of police brutality

"It's a repeated trauma to continuously watch police officers kill our black and brown brothers and sisters with no remedy," an activist said.
Image: George Floyd protest Chicago
Protesters in Chicago march on May 30 to protest the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis.Nam Y. Huh / AP

CHICAGO — For many activists and community organizers, George Floyd’s death under the knee of a Minneapolis police officer was a blunt reminder of Chicago's racial divide and history of police brutality against African Americans.

Many of those interactions also ended in death.

“Chicago has dealt with this over and over again,” said Carlil Pittman, founder of the youth-led anti-violence organization Good Kids Mad City. “This was literally the last straw not just in our city but for the whole black community in America. It's a repeated trauma to continuously watch police officers kill our black and brown brothers and sisters with no remedy for it taking place.”

Pittman said many of the young African American members of Good Kids Mad City see themselves in Floyd’s place and have joined protests throughout the city. Two members were arrested and held overnight over the weekend, he said.

People hold signs as they march during a protest over the death of George Floyd in Chicago, on May 30, 2020.Nam Y. Huh / AP

“As a young black man from the South Side of Chicago, I’ve had my fair share of being stopped by police and not knowing if it will turn violent,” he said. “To see this to continue to happen over and over is heartbreaking and emotional."

In 2014, Chicago drew national attention when a police dashcam video showed the killing of Laquan McDonald, an unarmed African American teenager who was shot 16 times by former Chicago police officer Jason Van Dyke.

Van Dyke was convicted of second-degree murder in the teen’s death in 2018.

The release of the McDonald video sparked city-wide protests and outrage and put into motion several regime shifts. Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot centered much of her 2019 campaign on bringing more accountability to the Chicago Police Department.

But not long after McDonald’s death came the fatal police shootings of Quintonio LeGrier, Bettie Jones, and Harith Augustus, along with the acquittal of a police officer who shot bystander Rekia Boyd in 2012.

According to data analyzed by watchdog organization Better Government Association, two-thirds of the 70 people killed by Chicago police from 2010 to 2014 were African American.

“We’re the epicenter of police crimes and torture,” said Frank Chapman, executive director of the National Alliance Against Racist and Political Repression and a longtime Chicago activist. “We have one of the largest police forces in the nation and their record in terms of the African American community is despicable.”

A 2017 Justice Department report investigating the Chicago Police Department found officers used force almost 10 times more often with black suspects than with white suspects.

The report also also cited concerns regarding inappropriate conduct of some officers, including “racially discriminatory conduct,” adding that much of the practice of “unreasonable force fell heaviest on predominantly black and Latino neighborhoods.”

While the report led to a consent decree aimed at overhauling practices, implementation has lagged, and the city has met few deadlines, the Chicago Tribune reported.

“It's a cumulative effect, and this [George Floyd] case comes as a boiling point,” said Chapman, who also spoke on behalf of Black Lives Matter Chicago. “So many of these cases go on and on and we’re sick and tired of this happening.”

Protesters confront police officers during a protest over the death of George Floyd in Chicago, on May 30, 2020.Nam Y. Huh / AP

Chicago has had a long history of police brutality, said Arthur Lurigio, a criminologist and professor at Loyola University in Chicago: “It extends as far back as we've had police officers, and the targets of police brutality have mainly been African Americans.”

The city has paid out over $662 million in settlements for police misconduct cases since 2004, according to The Associated Press. It includes payouts to victims of Jon Burge, a police commander who, along with a group of subordinate detectives, tortured dozens of African American suspects from 1972 to 1991. Many times, the tactics, including near-suffocation by plastic bags, shocks by cattle prods and beatings by flashlights, were used to elicit false confessions.

Activist Jahmal Cole, who founded My Block, My Hood, My City, a nonprofit that helps underprivileged youth, said justice has long eluded African Americans, but with the death of George Floyd, no one can deny what has been happening.

“The division between black, white, and brown is very visible, and nobody knows how justice is being sustained. We’ve been saying that in Chicago for a long time,” he said. “We want justice. The only thing that's going to close this wound is when they stop killing us and hold authority accountable.”

What happened in Minneapolis hits very close to home for a lot of Chicagoans living in similar circumstances, said David Stovall, a professor of African American studies and criminology at the University of Illinois at Chicago.

“It's important to understand Chicago as reflective of the nation in terms of relationships between its black populations and police force,” he said. “The police force has been contracted as a paramilitary containment force that has historically enacted its power on black communities and at the command of leadership.”

Full coverage of George Floyd’s death and protests around the country

Tanya Watkins, who has worked for years as a community organizer to fight oppression and police abuse in Chicago, said she feels this is a watershed moment for the nation and hopes the support will be followed by action.

“This is an important moment for many cities, including Chicago, but I hope people maintain this energy and momentum and be willing to do the work to impact the system,” said Watkins, director of Southsiders Organized for Unity and Liberation, a local grassroots organization.

“It’s amazing but it does not stop with marching,” she said, adding that it should not have taken so many lives to get to this point.

“As a black woman, it is very painful that black people have to die to drive it home,” she said. “We cannot pin this movement on black death and cannot continue to sacrifice black bodies in order for people to get it.”