Chicago police promised Friday to meet monthly with a group of African-American students to work on improving race relations, an effort at quelling unrest in the Mount Greenwood neighborhood after a police-involved shooting of a black man last weekend led to protests and canceled classes at one school.
The promise came after a 2 1/2 hour closed-door meeting at Chicago Public Schoolsheadquarters with the students, police, the 19th Ward alderman, and the principal at Marist High School, which had been targeted by protesters after racist comments written by some students in reaction to the ongoing controversy were posted online.
“I would describe it as a very productive conversation — opening up dialogue, working towards peace and bringing students from these schools and students from Marist High School in my community together to talk about a topic that many are uncomfortable with, and that’s race relations in our country,” Ald. Matt O’Shea said of Friday’s conversation. “I thought today was a great first step and I look forward to continuing to work with these young ladies”
The six female students and Superintendent Eddie Johnson said Friday they agreed to monthly meetings with the police superintendent, sessions with Chicago police officers to inform them about the movement’s nonviolent message and a series of community town hall discussions in Mount Greenwood aimed at improving race relations.
After the meeting, Johnson spoke to reporters inside the lobby and said he pledged to meet with the students representing Black Lives Matter Youth every month to talk about racism in the city.
“I want to commend them for their courage and bringing us, forcing us, actually, to come to the table to talk to them about their concerns,” Johnson said. “They have forced us to have to tackle that head on and I think that we should.”
The students, some of whom said they know black students at Marist, told reporters that, among other things, Johnson agreed to “workshops” for his officers to learn about the position of Black Lives Matter.
“So they understand that when we say ‘Black Lives Matter’ we’re not saying that their life doesn’t matter,” said Maxine Aguilar, a junior at Jones College Prep. “That they understand the point of our organization, as part of Black Lives Matter, is to protect black people similar to how their job as police officers is to protect all people, and that we should have a level of understanding with each other.”
Johnson also agreed to monthly meetings with the students to discuss issues on “police brutality, systemic racism, and the criminalization of brown and black children in school,” said Eva Lewis, a senior at Walter Payton College Prep.
“This meeting was very productive and we look forward to the officials that we met acting on the demands that we gave them,” said Maxine Wint, a student at Kenwood Academy High School on the South Side.
Students said they also spoke with Marist principal Larry Tucker about improving race relations at the high school during Friday’s meeting, but that at his request, they could not comment on the specifics of the conversation because he preferred to share details with his students and their families before anything was announced publicly.
Jessica Daniels, a Walter Payton student, said her fellow organizers had taken up the cause of black students at Marist, a non-CPS school, because they pride themselves on spearheading conversations about race across the city, regardless of location or school affiliation.
“This is what we dedicate our lives to and so to see racial aggression being implemented in another school, we cannot stand as bystanders, and we had to act,” she said.
The incident at Marist that sparked protesters’ outrage involved several senior girls who were discussing, over a group text, the impact that the police shooting of a black man in Mount Greenwood — and the resulting Black Lives Matter protests — would have on classes this week.
One of the girls used profanity and the N-word, according to a screen shot shared widely on Twitter, and at least four others reaffirmed the racist message, screen shots indicate.
School administrators said they were “devastated” by the incident and promised disciplinary action against those involved. They also convened a meeting of the school’s Peace and Unity student group on Monday to discuss the handling of race relations at the school, and held a schoolwide assembly Tuesday to reiterate Marist’s values, officials said.
The students had planned a protest outside Marist on Friday, but it was canceled, students said, after CPS officials informed them they had reports their appearance could spark violence against them.
Marist also canceled classes Friday in response to the possible protest.
“After communicating with local officials and assessing the situation internally, we feel it is in the best interest of our school community to not be in session tomorrow,” a statement posted Thursday on the school’s website reads. “Not only is safety our first concern, but limiting disruptions to the learning process is vital to our students’ success.”
Johnson said he did not feel the students would have been at any greater risk marching outside Marist than if they were marching anywhere else.
O’Shea said there would be a prayer vigil and town halls in his ward to bring residents together, as well as an outreach effort to local schools.
“Racism is learned. Kids aren’t born with it. They learn it,” O’Shea said. “I want to reach out to our local schools and bring children together to talk about this topic.”
Johnson said the students at Friday’s meeting planned to hold a protest march on Sunday, but it has been postponed.
“Everyone in Chicago has a right to have their voices heard, but you want to ensure that the venue that you choose you have the most impact, and I think those young ladies understand that they have an opportunity now to have an impact on race relations in this city,” Johnson said.
He said it was important for the police to be a part of Friday’s conversation because the department is responsible to protect everyone’s right to protest. He doesn’t mind what rhetoric is used during protests as long as it doesn’t lead to violence.
“Everybody has a right to their opinion,” he said. “CPD doesn’t take sides. We swore an oath to serve and protect the citizens regardless of which side of the fence you’re on in these particular events.”
O’Shea said he was “caught by surprise” and saddened by the tension that has erupted in Mount Greenwood over the last week.
“But I think today, we began to turn the corner,” O’Shea said. “And we can begin the healing process and find peace and that’s what my hope is, and I think I speak for everybody here today.”
When asked if he can speed up the healing process, he said, “we’ve had racism in our country for more than 200 years. I don’t know how much we can speed it up. But I know that in talking to the overwhelming majority of my community, they want to see the process sped up. And they want to start the healing. And they want to start an open dialogue.”