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Public scrutiny of the Chicago Police Department’s so-called “gang database” is increasing with each passing day—and that’s exactly as it should be. As many have already pointed out, the database is racially biased, loaded with errors and compiled by police with virtually no transparency or democratic oversight.

 

Whereas it is anything but obvious how police decide who belongs on the list and who doesn’t, it is clear that the consequences of being placed on the list are often grave. Indeed, simply having one’s name listed in the database can mean arrest, denial of employment and housing—even deportation, if you’re an immigrant.

 

As if this weren’t disturbing enough, we have recently learned that the Chicago Police Department has been sharing information from the gang database with the police departments at the University of Chicago, Loyola University, Northeastern Illinois University, as well as 7 other universities and colleges throughout Illinois and Indiana.

 

Just imagine: for the “crime” of being Black or Brown, you are stopped and frisked by police officers who demand your identification and, without telling you, decide to add your information into the gang database. You are given no opportunity to appeal the decision and neither are police required to offer any reasoned justification for having put you on the list.

 

Suppose, then, that you decide to apply to a university in the city where the police department has you on file as a gang member. Will that prevent you from being able to matriculate there? It’s not clear. Would the police at the institution in question treat you differently than they might have otherwise? We can’t know for sure, but the uncertainty is itself worrying given that many Chicago-area university police departments have a shameful track record of profiling and harassing, and even shooting students of color. Tack on the “gang” designation and we can expect even more hostile interactions between students and law enforcement.

 

Apart from how this revelation might impact the lives of would-be university students, it also raises questions about the fraught relationship between universities in Chicago and the communities near them. This is especially true of the relationship between the University of Chicago and the South Side communities close by. All too often, the well-heeled administrators who run the university take actions that imply that they see the residents of the predominantly Black surrounding neighborhoods as little more than a “problem population” to be contained, disciplined and—most importantly—kept at arms length from the university campus.

 

So, it’s not entirely surprising that the administration’s police force is complicit in the growing scandal surrounding the CPD’s database. But it is deeply upsetting, nonetheless.

 

Universities, at their best, can promote community and civic vitality not simply for those enrolled, but for everyone in close proximity to them. Collaborating with the CPD to profile, surveil and punish young people of color who are already facing enough adversity is thus the exact opposite of what universities in our city should be doing.

 

This is all made more appalling when the contents of the CPD Gang Database are examined in the context of the department’s racist history. Lest we forget, the CPD is an institution that tortured Black and Latinx  men and women in order to obtain false confessions. This is also a department that continues to operate a “black site” in Homan Square that has garnered international notoriety. What’s more, the secretive gang database is made even more repugnant in light of the department’s widespread practice of “stop-and-frisk” policing tactics—even though the public has long recognized that this amounts to little more than blatant racial profiling and harassment of Black people who have committed no crime whatsoever. Indeed, according to information gathered by Chicago’s We Charge Genocide, in the summer of 2014 CPD conducted over 250,000 stops of individuals who were not arrested.

 

As scholar and activist Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor has argued, these problems cumulatively underscore the deeply compromised citizenship of Black people in the United States today. As she puts it, “when the police can approach you, search you, arrest you and even kill you with impunity, it means you don’t have first-class citizenship—you have second-class citizenship.”

 

Seen this broader context, the lack of transparency and democratic accountability surrounding the so-called “gang database” is especially problematic.

 

The goal of erasing the database is important in its own right. But it must also be part of a much larger transformative vision that rejects the logic of criminalization and police surveillance and emphasizes, instead, the importance of investing in education, health and quality of life for everyone—but especially for young Black people in Chicago.

 

The goal of erasing the database is important in its own right. But it must also be part of a much larger transformative vision that rejects the logic of criminalization and police surveillance and emphasizes, instead, the importance of investing in education, health and quality of life for everyone—but especially for young Black people in Chicago.

 

There is an incredible amount of talent and potential in communities of color in our city. It’s high time that the immense amount of wealth in Chicago be invested in developing and cultivating that talent, rather than on policing, surveillance and incarceration. It’s telling that for every two African Americans enrolled in a university in Illinois, there are five Black people in prison. Branding young Black and Latinx people as criminals before they even apply to school extends the scope of the school to prison pipeline and is only going to make this systemic problem worse.

 

Thankfully, people in Chicago are standing up to this unjust state of affairs. A coalition has formed to demand #Justice4Laquan and, more broadly, a number of reforms that would lift up communities of color and rein in the criminalization of Black and Latinx youth. Unless ordinary working class people in Chicago—of all races and backgrounds—can come together and organize grassroots movements to challenge the backward priorities of City Hall, the broken status quo will remain in place. As Frederick Douglass memorably put it, “without struggle, there is no progress.”

 

 

 

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