Manuel Almanza Jr. sat at the foot of the Illinois Centennial Memorial Column in Logan Square last Friday, wearing his old Marine camo jacket, and holding a handwritten placard reading “I AM ADAM TOLEDO/ FUND THE HOOD/ DEFUND THE POLICE.”
“I could have been Adam,” said Almanza, who grew up in Little Village and served in the Marine Corps from 2008 to 2012. “I was a teenager one time. I liked hanging out with my friends at the park or the YMCA. The way to dress was baggy. Being tall, brown, I was constantly harassed by the police.”
Almanza was in Logan Square Park for a demonstration to protest the police shooting of 13-year-old Adam Toledo. The killing was not “an isolated incident,” he said, but a symptom of a police culture that endangers minority communities more than it protects them.
“The time of talking to the mayor, the police is over,” Almanza said. “It’s time to defund, disarm, dismantle and abolish the police.”
The shooting of Adam Toledo, occuring during the soon-to-conclude trial of Derek Chauvin, has put the “defund the police”/police abolition movement back in the spotlight after a lot of attention was paid by the press during the midterm elections. Much of that attention created more heat than light, because behind the straightforward and sincerely meant slogan lies a lot of ambiguity, in part because organizers are still working on the hows and the whens. “Defund the Police” has transcended politics to become a cultural slogan, printed on t-shirts for sale across the street at Wolfbait & B-girls, a women’s clothing store.
Do they mean “defund”? Yes. But that doesn’t mean fully defund tomorrow, or the next budget year, even if such a thing were possible, which it’s pretty obviously not. A good place to start is a June 2020 New York Times op-ed by Mariame Kaba, director of Project NIA, titled “Yes, We Mean Literally Abolish the Police.” But here’s the key: “We don’t want to just close police departments. We want to make them obsolete.”
Framed this way, it’s theoretically something almost anyone could get behind: not needing police because people just aren’t violent enough to need to be policed, which you’d get to by addressing problems at their root. Setting aside everything else about it, policing is pretty much a last-minute solution to crime and violence. Cops are limited in what they can do if someone is not committing a crime, and then when someone is, significant powers kick in. And this gets most of our attention and money for “fighting” crime.
Many of the Logan Square rally’s speakers expressed a fundamental disagreement with the idea that the state should be empowered to use force and violence against its citizens. This, of course, is fundamental to policing. Police have the authority to restrain, attack, and even kill people they believe are endangering the public. That authority is considered essential for preserving law and order. Now, though, large communities feel that “law and order” is more threatening than the lawlessness that would supposedly ensue in its absence.
“The police do not keep us safe,” the event’s emcee, Karina Solano, shouted to the crowd. “Who keeps us safe?”
“We do!” the thousands in the park shouted back.
“This is state violence,” said Solano, an organizer with Unete La Villita. “Police: you are not judge, jury, and executioner. We don’t need to see the video to know that Adam deserved to live. The police have a long history of corruption and cover-ups, and they expect us to believe them? There are no excuses. There are no good cops. There is no reforming the police.”
Between speeches, the Chicago Freedom Ensemble, a brass band, performed “We Shall Overcome” and Marvin Gaye’s “What’s Goin’ On?,” an appropriate soundtrack for what has become a significant early 2020s social movement.
Sandra Nevarez, the mother of Marc Anthony Nevarez, who was shot and killed by the police in Little Village last October, noted that Illinois abolished the death penalty—but still allows police to kill.
“We need justice,” Nevarez said. “There’s no reason I should be going to the cemetery every day. Why do they do this to us? Is CPD now the death penalty?”
Despite the “Yes, We Mean Literally Abolish the Police” headline, Kaba writes that “this change in society wouldn’t happen immediately.” Because it is hard to conceive. The Chicago Reader has done some of the best reporting on the subject, and in a 2017 piece, Maya Dukmasova described the step-by-step process of conceiving it by asking the basic question “Are their alternatives to calling 911?”. This was the question posed to attendees of a workshop on police abolition hosted by Showing Up for Racial Justice:
When it came to traffic accidents—for which insurance companies often require police reports—or witnessing drunk or reckless driving, imagining alternatives became considerably more difficult. Kim and Steph presented a set of even more challenging situations: running across an incapacitated stranger, witnessing a mental health crisis or escalating violence.
“We have to recognize that there are times when you are going to have to call the police,” one of the workshop facilitators told attendees. “That doesn’t mean you’re a terrible person.” The late Pat Hill, a former Chicago beat cop and Harold Washington bodyguard—a reform advocate, but not of abolition in the near term—noted to Dukmasova that policing had replaced social services in impoverished Chicago neighborhoods during the end of the 20th century, limiting the scope not only of what’s available, but what seems possible.
The result has been a black-and-white portrayal, even though there’s a lot of nuance just below the surface. It’s also not merely a Black-and-white issue. As Darryl Holiday reported for Chicago, the young police abolitionists have a sometimes tense generational relationship with older Black leaders like Jesse Jackson and former Black Panther Bobby Rush. Not just because of their differences, but because of their similarities, as Rush told Holiday—the older generation wants to bring their experiences to bear on the matter, and they don’t always get listened to, a tale as old as time.
The dynamics will continue to evolve. Toledo came from a Latino neighborhood with different political dynamics, locally and otherwise. What’s largely been a movement led by Black youth and younger adults could change in approach and tenor with more Latino leadership, such as we saw at the Logan Square rally. Or they could follow parallel paths in their own communities. Beneath the simple slogan of “defund the police,” and the simple discourse about it, there’s a lot going on.