Schools For Kids, Not Cops: An Interview with #NoCopAcademy Organizers

by The PEWG Blog

In February 2018, a visit to Harvard University by Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel was met with protest by dozens of local students and residents, including members of Boston DSA. They had gathered, in part, to support a grassroots, youth-directed, adult-supported effort in Chicago called #NoCopAcademy. Here, the PEWG Blog talks with Caullen Hudson and David Moran of SoapBox Productions and Organizing about #NoCopAcademy, and about some organizing strategies, tactics, and lessons from the campaign. You can also learn more about #NoCopAcademy from this report released in the fall of 2018, which presents not only the results of the campaign’s grassroots public opinion research, but also rich self-documentation of the campaign’s history (an organizing lesson in itself). The conversation below has been condensed and edited for clarity.

PEWG Blog: What is #NoCopAcademy and what’s it about?

CH: #NoCopAcademy is a grassroots coalition fighting against Rahm Emanuel’s plan to build a $95 million cop academy in West Garfield Park. And West Garfield Park is a low-income black neighborhood that’s been disinvested from for decades. The coalition is a grassroots collection of groups formed to oppose the academy—and not only to oppose it, but also to give answers to where the money should go: that’s schools, that’s health clinics, that’s jobs programs, that’s the Laquan McDonald Wellness Center. We have answers for where the money should go. And the campaign is also pushing back against the lack of transparency in the City Council and in Chicago.

PEWG Blog: The campaign is a little over a year old now; how did it begin?

CH: So, Rahm Emanuel released his plan for the academy over July Fourth Weekend 2017—which was obviously very intentional, so that no one would know about it! There was a very quick, kind of rapid response to the plan. Quickly a lot of groups got on board, groups like For The People Artists Collective, Assata’s Daughters, Black Youth Project 100 Chicago—a lot of groups in the city. And they started organizing a coalition, started organizing against the academy. So that was mid-summer 2017. It really gained more exposure in November 2017 when the City Council had the first vote to buy land for the academy. That’s when Carlos Ramirez-Rosa was the only Alderman to vote against it. It was a 1-to-49 vote. So that was a bit more exposure then, and over the fall the coalition was kind of building; that’s when we at SoapBox hopped on. Chance the Rapper also spoke out at City Council and that got nationwide exposure.

PEWG Blog: What was it like as you both got involved?

DM: We ended up working along with a couple youth from Assata’s Daughters as well as from Whitney Young and Orr High Schools—because this cop academy is planned for across the street from a high school. And so we created a PSA for them, that was our initial entry point into it. It was really cool to talk to these kids and understanding that they’re the ones who don’t want it. The motto was: “Schools for kids, not cops.”

PEWG Blog: That’s a great line!

DM: Yeah, it was super sweet. And from there, we also have a podcast called Bourbon ’n BrownTown, and so we had on the podcast Ruby Pinto, who’s one of the organizers with For the People Arts Collective, and she also coined the term #NoCopAcademy. And we’ll be releasing one with some other organizers as well, like Debbie Southorn and Monica Trinidad, talking more about #NoCopAcademy [ed.: now available here]. Personally, my experience in the organizing world is still very new, very fresh. So it’s really wonderful to be able to see all the different organizations and how everyone is adding to the campaign and watching it grow. Because it’s still growing. We’re steady growing, and that’s because of the work that everyone has been putting forth.

PEWG Blog: How does the coalitional aspect of this work? What’s it like with so many groups working together?

CH: It’s definitely not easy! A lot of folks who are involved in this were also involved in the #byeAnita campaign, which was a similar kind of cross-organizational approach to unseating the Cook County State’s Attorney a couple of years ago—which was successful. Communication is definitely key. The last thing you want is someone to say that they’re going to do something—and it’s really important to the campaign, to the mission—and then not being able to deliver. So, being honest and transparent and creative, really.

DM: We have a research team, a communications team, and most importantly we have a youth organizing team. Oftentimes people don’t expect children to be in front of campaigns. But they actually have weekly meetings, so some of the adult organizers and the high school kids and kids from other youth programs will meet every week to talk. And then monthly meetings with us, with endorsers, are really more like, “Ok, look, the kids are thinking about doing a train takeover on Monday. Who can be there? Who can provide this?”

PEWG Blog: Something I really admire, watching the campaign from Boston, is the really important role youth are playing. I was struck by this phrase in the report that the campaign put out a few months ago, “youth-directed, adult-supported.” What can you say about the intergenerational orientation of the campaign?

DM: So there are specific adult organizers who work specifically with the kids. For example, with the train takeovers, the kids were like, “you know, I think we should go talk to people on the train because they’re just sitting there!” Being there and seeing them interact with the public, and the energy they have—one of the coolest things for me is to see these kids, from twelve- to eighteen-years old, putting time and effort in. Because they don’t gotta be there! They could be doing something else. Seeing the energy that they have is something that I think really helps fuel a lot of us adults.

CH: Going back to “schools for kids, not cops”, it doesn’t just sound clever, but also the fact is that the mayor has closed four schools since 2013 and can continue to do that in black and brown neighborhoods. The money that could have been used to have those schools open went almost directly to the Chicago Police Department; they even have CPD training within schools that have been closed. So looking at the contextual backdrop of what’s happening in the city, and who’s responsible, these decisions very much directly impact young people. They know about it, and they have some of the most sophisticated analyses I’ve seen of organizing and of the problems of our day. And they come to it on their own, they self-educate, and then we’ll hear about it and kind of shepherd them along. It’s such a cliché, but I’ve learned so much through working with the students as well as the adults coaching them—everyone’s growing in this experience. There’s a quote I love by Mariame Kaba that goes:

“Write yourself into history. Not because you’re vain, but because you’re important, your work is important. You’re building off the work of your ancestors, and someone will be building off yours.”

That just crystallizes the intergenerational aspect of this campaign.

PEWG Blog: An aspect that I think can be challenging about campaigns like #NoCopAcademy are the several levels of problems that have to be organized against all at once. So in your case, immediately there’s fighting the idea and funding and construction of the academy, but in a larger sense the project is about the violence of policing and racist patterns of investment/disinvestment more broadly. At the same time, you also have to struggle against the anti-democratic day-to-day tactics the mayor and city council use to enact these larger things. What have you learned about working on these several levels at once?

CH: Earlier we touched on the challenges of how you navigate having a coalition around an issue, but I think this is one of the big pros to it. There’s a lot of folks in our coalition, and a lot of folks from different spaces. And it relates to what Dave mentioned earlier about having different committees: around data, around whipping alderpeople, around branding, around fundraising. So that’s a huge benefit of having a coalition—to split the work up and then reconvene so that everyone has the same, not necessarily analysis, but the same rhetoric around it. And then some of it happens organically. I’ve been in so many spaces—either representing SoapBox or just as me being a person in the world—where I’ve brought up the cop academy. I’ll talk about these really specific things happening in Chicago right now, but I’ll use that to make an argument about how it connects to capitalism. What’s happening right now in the campaign is very much about money, allocation, how city council operates, but that’s happening against the backdrop of racist disenfranchisement in the city of Chicago, which isn’t a uniquely Chicago thing—it’s not even a uniquely American thing. We can talk about a lot of different issues and shed light on them using this specific example.

PEWG Blog: Finally, since you’ve both been especially involved in creating media for the campaign, what’s been the role of art and media in #NoCopAcademy?

DM: Media’s very important. From things like graphics to videos, we’ve been able to create a larger reach. And it also gives people the opportunity to express themselves—some of the kids have made some smart-ass signs, just really witty things. And then, on social media, there’s things like understanding consistency of hashtags and being able to tag each other—because we’re a coalition. For the train takeover, there were seven different organizations that were repping, so we were then able to use each other’s platforms and audiences to be able to push things out. The whole point is to try to get as many eyes on this campaign as possible, and then to create some sort of emotion.

CH: We mentioned Ruby, who we had on the podcast, and one thing she said, which I agree with wholeheartedly, is that art is a part of organizing. It’s not just, “oh, we’ll have some banners and signs and it’ll be cool, this will be nice to look at.” No. It’s integral. Art has to be done—it’s not a sideline, it’s necessary. Movements have always had art, but now, in the digital age, it’s so multifaceted and so much of a must. The short answer is: art is integral to our organizing, and we have to use the tools of our day in order to build on the work of our ancestors.