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Chicago government silences objections to $95 million police academy plan

Threats of arrest and a fast-tracked vote promise to fuel more outrage.

Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel with TV producer Dick Wolf at a party celebrating the 100th episode of Wolf's show "Chicago P.D." in January. CREDIT: Timothy Hiatt/Getty Images
Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel with TV producer Dick Wolf at a party celebrating the 100th episode of Wolf's show "Chicago P.D." in January. CREDIT: Timothy Hiatt/Getty Images

Chicago’s civic leaders are pulling out some new tricks to muzzle a loud, well-organized campaign against Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s plan to spend $95 million on building a new police academy in one of the communities hit hardest by the school closures and social service cuts he’s imposed since taking office.

Police were out in force Monday night at transit stations around the city ahead of a planned canvass of commuters aboard Chicago’s L trains. The volunteers were warned they would be arrested if they tried to board the trains and educate fellow Chicagoans, organizers said on social media. One tweeted that the “train takeover” tactic has never provoked such a response in the past when locals took to the L to push other civil rights campaigns. “Now that its targeting CPD’s proposed fancy [building], new rules magically appear,” she wrote.

The train takeover was meant to raise awareness of a planned vote Tuesday morning at City Hall to formally appropriate funds the Aldermen have already approved for the project. Though the police academy already passed its primary legislative hurdle in a 48-1 vote last fall, organizers have used every occasion that the formalities of the plan provide at City Hall to flood elected leaders with opposing views. That’s made for vigorous public comment and some civil disobedience at past meetings.

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But on Tuesday morning, budget committee members rushed the police school funding measure through without allowing public comment. One opponent of the plan who was in the room tweeted that the committee spent “less than a minute” on the police funding question, then took “20 minutes discussing animal control.”

The committee’s response to the latest loud objections signals that leaders are eager to shut down debate. Budget committee head Carrie Austin shuffled the meeting agenda on the fly Tuesday, bumping the police academy appropriation measure to the top of the meeting and calling an immediate vote without opening microphones up for public comment.

The silencing tactic is a sharp contrast to past meetings on procedural matters tied to the academy project, where residents who are working to shut the project down gave quick-but-meaty speeches decrying the plan and pointing to evidence that the city doesn’t have the support of the communities most directly affected. There would be no concise summary of community views provided by people who have canvassed their neighbors about the project, no Grammy-winning recording artists reminding aldermen of the cuts to schools and social services that have defined the Emanuel era in Chicago. Just a quick vote, a quick gavel, and an eruption of anger from the people who weren’t allowed to step up to the microphones.

It’s not that big of a room, though, and the protesters’ voices were plenty loud without a mic.

“We spend $4 million a day on these police. How much do you spend on kids? How much do you spend on kids? How much do you spend on kids?” one woman said as the committee chair slammed a gavel to interrupt her. She continued as a trio of cops began walking her back up the aisle and out of the room.

Several other demonstrators were also escorted out by uniformed police as they shouted down the committee following the vote. “Shame on you,” one shouted. “How could you do this? How do you look yourselves in the eye?” another said as a man in a suit told a cop to “get him out of here.”

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One member of the committee, Alderman David Moore, met with organizers outside the committee hearing afterward. “He has questions he didn’t get to ask cause it moved too quickly,” organizers from the #NoCopAcademy movement said on Twitter.

Moore represents the 17th Ward, several miles south from the proposed academy site in West Garfield Park. Residents of the West Garfield area have expressed surprise and concern at being told about the planned police facility Emanuel and other leaders want to put in their neighborhood, canvassers working with the organization Assata’s Daughters told aldermen at another recent meeting.

Emanuel cut six of Chicago’s 12 mental health clinics out of his budget in 2012. He closed 50 public schools around the city in 2013. The city couldn’t afford the combined $803 million cost of those facilities, his administration argued at the time. The contrasting willingness to spend $95 million to build a state-of-the-art police training facility does not sit well with the people — mostly Black and Latinx families — who’ve borne the brunt of Emanuel’s scrimping and saving elsewhere.

“How much do you spend on Black kids? This is a majority Black city. You spend $4 million on these cops every single day instead of these schools, I have a problem,” the woman who three cops ushered out of the room shouted Tuesday. “How am I supposed to bring children into this world if you are wasting money on these cops?”