Community Keeps Us Safe, Not the Police

Veronica Rodriguez

By Veronica Rodriguez
Brighton Park Neighborhood Council

With the assistance of Sokha Eng

Veronica Rodriguez is a Youth Organizer with Brighton Park Neighborhood Council. She describes her experiences with police that led her to engage in the No Cop Academy campaign and defunding Chicago Police. She believes that resources devoted to policing should be invested in the community instead. Veronica shows that being part of movements and campaigns helps the community become resilient and grounded and she talks about becoming an organizer who supports the next group of students to grow as leaders.

I identify myself as Latine and non-binary. My parents are both immigrants who came from Mexico. I was born here in Chicago. It is how I see my identity, acknowledging where I come from, embodying the struggles that my family faced. There’s still a lot for me to learn and explore about myself.

When I talk about police-free schools, my lens is that policing affects my family and me every day. There are so many impacts that policing and the existence of prisons have in our lives. We deserve so much better in terms of safety and wellbeing, like everyone having food and a home to live in, and resources for restorative justice and healing justice. I have learned that community keeps us safe, not the police.

Police do not keep us safe

I don’t want to see families like mine continue to live in fear because we live under white supremacy. Nobody should be afraid of being deported; nobody should rely on police – who often murder us, incarcerate us and immediately view us as a threat for simply existing – and that’s where I view my role. Policing is something that impacts people of color, specifically Black communities. I am acknowledging that I have a role in dismantling anti-Blackness in Latine communities and am committed to working towards abolition.

Our city invests so much money in police. Chicago received $480 million for COVID relief under the CARES Act. Of that money, $281.5 million went to the Chicago Police Department. That is 60% of money going to the police instead of the thousands of families, individuals and youth suffering without housing, food, PPE, no access to technology for school, the elderly being at risk of exposure to COVID, childcare programs and more. Nobody who truly needs it received any of that money – money that was meant for us.

Police uphold white supremacist structures. Police maintain social control through fear – through murdering us. Police protect the white, the rich. We do not need police. We keep us safe. Community keeps us safe. Resources keep us safe. Fully funded schools keep us safe. Not the police ever.  

I grew up on a block that had gang members on the corner, and there would always be shootings. I would feel unsafe sometimes, but I never questioned why this is happening. It just felt so normal. The only distinction I had of safety growing up was being told by my mom about never crossing the tree that was in the middle of the block. My mom would always say, “never cross past that tree, okay, don’t ever cross past that tree,” because on the other side was where the gang members would be. Little by little, as I got older, I kept crossing past the tree and would start to see things. Often, it would just look like them hanging out in their gang colors, just chilling. There would be other kids on that side – which is really why I kept slowly passing by the tree – I wanted to ride bikes with them. I wanted to join the soccer games they would have in the middle of the street. We never really talked about what was going on. My parents didn’t question it; they just wanted to protect me and my little siblings at all costs. My dad told me how he would talk to the leader of the gang, and tell him, “I don’t want you to talk to my son or bring him into your gang at all. Leave my children alone.” They wouldn’t talk to us.

High school was definitely the moment where I started to be very reflective and observant of my surroundings. I attended Back of the Yards High School, and Back of the Yards is a community that I had to learn about. I was very much shielded at home, and there were a lot of things that I did not understand. Throughout my high school experience, I saw students getting pushed out. There were metal detectors and there were two police officers at the entrance. We had many security guards who would be watching us at all times. We had to wear uniforms. We wore maroon shirts and gray pants, and the reason for the uniforms, based on what my principal said, was because they wanted to embody the Harvard colors. Really, I knew – and students knew it was because they wanted to prevent students who are potentially involved in gangs to not rep any gang colors or clothing. They said they wanted us to aim “high” for schools like Harvard. But, really – I never heard about Harvard until my junior year – or ever imagined it being a place for me.

I met Olivia at BPNC through a student voice committee we started at high school. Through political education, I started learning about oppression, about racism, and about root causes of the problems in my community. Through those conversations and through those reflections, we started to see how my high school was trying to separate itself from the community. My high school was trying to show the best side of Back of the Yards, but why not show all sides? What CPS and adults consider the “worst” sides of our community are still worth making space for, worth investing in and worth acknowledging and trying to be a part of. We should not be separating ourselves at all because that is pushing out students. It’s just harmful and so hurtful and contributes to the narrative that some students are worth giving up for, simply because they do not fit white standards.

My high school experience was so enlightening. I received so much backlash from my teachers because of my activism and how much I was being outspoken. To the point where I was getting kicked out of clubs because my white teachers didn’t like me, trying to blame me for things. There is a culture of pushing you out rather than engaging in conversations.

My high school had an International Baccalaureate program that I joined because it has digital outreach and digital media. I really loved art, Photoshop and Illustrator. My art teacher was white. I had a really good relationship with my white teacher. I trusted him with personal information.

A lot of teachers followed me on Instagram. I was learning about and doing work around gentrification and I posted on Instagram a post that was like, “If I see you walking down 18th street, I’m going to tell my dog to bite you.” It was a joke. If you’re a white person walking, I’m not going to do that. It was a joke and just my way of expressing my anger. I was angry, just an angry young person as I heard and watched many Black and Latinx families get kicked out of their homes because rent and taxes were increasing. The only people who could afford these rents now are gentrifiers.

Another art teacher from my school, screenshotted the Instagram post and sent it to my principal. The art teacher I was close with, tried to have a “teaching moment” with me about my anti-Gentrification post. He just told me that he regretted giving me the opportunities that he did and said that I was never going to be successful, that I was never going to get accepted into a college or a job after they saw my social media. I know he felt personally attacked by my post. He probably loves Pilsen or thinks gentrification is a good thing.

I was a senior and it all felt like a lot on me, so I just cried and cried. I was angry because I didn’t really know what to do. Because of that interaction, I didn’t feel safe or comfortable being in that class anymore. I ended up being removed from the IB program that I had been working really hard for the last two years. I didn’t even go to my own graduation because I was not going to get my IB diploma for the hard work that I had done. I wasn’t going to get my credit for college. We tried to talk about the harm done, but the art teacher decided not to apologize or grow from that interaction. This is the same teacher who would call my activism and organizing as “teen angst”.

Fighting to end funding for police

Through BPNC. I was expanding my understanding of how the city works and how school funding works. I became even more involved and got the opportunity to travel to youth summits and meetings that are happening in different cities. I got involved in campaigns around school funding. For example, the National Teachers Academy was getting closed, and we fought this and it was just amazing; we won!

I got involved in the conversation around policing and what that looks like. I got involved with the No Cop Academy campaign, which is a campaign that is trying to stop the building of a police academy at West Garfield Park, which is a predominantly Black neighborhood. It was going to cost $95 million and have an Olympic size swimming pool. Why are we investing that much for a Cop Academy? It just didn’t make sense. I came to understand how much money is being invested in police, while the city is willing to close down public schools. In 2013, the former mayor Rahm Emanuel closed down 50 public schools. It was devastating and we still see the impacts from that decision till this day. They closed 6 of the 12 public and accessible mental health clinics. Why is the city investing in policing instead of our communities?

They say police make you safe. But I was hit on the head with a baton last summer by a police officer. We were downtown protesting the murder of George Floyd. I saw two young Black men get dragged away by five to six police officers. I remember yelling, “Let them go! Let them go.” I got knocked to the floor and a police officer just hit me on my head. I was bleeding. Luckily, there were a lot of people around me who saw what had happened, so they pulled me out of there. I just remember feeling blood gushing out and it was everywhere. I ended up getting four stitches on my head.

I got involved in the campaign to defund the Chicago School Police. We held rallies, teach-ins, workshops, showed up at Lori and the Board of Educations home and gave testimonies to the Board of Education. We ended up getting $12 million taken out of the budget. That’s definitely something we’re celebrating, even though we’re aiming to make it to zero. We also got 17 schools to vote to remove police from their schools.

I think about a particular parent from my high school. The last time that I had spoken to them, they were not in agreement with us. This time they were like, “You know what, I believe that we have an opportunity to listen to students and shift and make change; if this doesn’t work, we can try another way.” And they voted to remove police from their school. We’re reimaging safety and that’s exciting and energizing and incredibly powerful.

I think the highlight of being a part of these campaigns and movements has been how resilient we are and how creative, because of how tiring it is to do this work. All summer, we were being told by the mayor and Chicago Public Schools that we are wrong, that we need police. The way that we have been able to stay grounded in our fight and take care of each other and celebrate each other and be so energizing is beautiful. Our summer was so beautiful. We would show up, we would have fun, we would dance, we would meet their anger and their manipulation with joy. They don’t want to see us keeping high spirits and pushing and motivated. They want to shut us down.

It is also important to acknowledge when we say we are tired. We are constantly mourning – our school closures, the murders and incarceration of our peoples, being told that Black lives are not important to the people in power making decisions with new policies, laws, budgets that are incredibly harmful and neglecting our needs. It is so tiring. I do this for Black liberation, for Black Trans liberation, for queer youth, for our undocumented communities. That is what keeps me going. I have a responsibility.

It has just been so amazing to watch the way that we grow, not only as organizers but also as community members and acknowledge how we will forever take care of each other. We will be doing mutual aid. We would participate in other campaigns. At the same time as we were fighting for police-free schools, we will be fighting about the budget, talking about how much money is being invested in the police department while money is needed for mental health clinics.

From activist to organizer

Through my organizing, I’ve grown a lot and have more hope. I have been challenged in my ways of viewing safety and how I can contribute to my communities. I have reflected on how important it is to know your community and build with them, and how important that is to get to know your neighbors, have conversations with your neighbors about how we can support each other. I feel like I have reflected a lot on my personal relationships too.

My job now is facilitating student voice committees in middle school. A lot of what I do is trying to be a personal resource for my students, helping them build their own leadership skills, supporting them in their campaigns, and sharing my knowledge. I bring in all these concepts in the same way that in high school, I was being introduced to concepts of institutional and structural racism. I now bring that into the room to create a deeper understanding. I used to think of myself as an activist, just showing up for meetings and actions and things like that. But now, I view myself as an organizer, as someone who can connect people to each other. I’m trying to figure out how to be a resource for others and engage them and remind each other that the work we do is rooted in love, community, and freedom.