Student protesters ended their sit-in at the University of Chicago Police Department (UCPD) headquarters Saturday morning, after a night spent occupying the building in support of their demand to dismantle the school’s police force.
Around 15 people emerged from the building at 10:30 a.m. to cheers from supporters outside, who had set up an overnight encampment — a half-dozen tents, as well as food and water, in the middle of Drexel Avenue.
“I just graduated today, actually. I’m not at graduation because I am here, and actually most of us have sacrificed and risked something to stay here.” said Michelle Yang, an organizer with #CareNotCops, the group behind the action. “I feel very confident that as an outgoing student that this fight will continue.”
Yang said that around 50 people first occupied the headquarters yesterday afternoon. Around 7 p.m., they were informed by the school’s administration they were trespassing (the building closes to the public at 5 p.m.). But they stayed overnight and into the morning, despite entreaties from UCPD Chief Kenton Rainey and school administrators.
As their numbers dwindled overnight — Yang said a chunk of people left at 2 a.m. — the occupants set up little groups to discuss plans without being overheard by the UCPD officers stationed on both sides of the building entrance. Every 30 minutes, an officer would announce to the room that they were trespassing.
In a statement, the university said that protesters were “free to leave,” and that the dean on call had offered to arrange a meeting with Rainey and Lee. It also criticized protesters for not adhering to social distancing practices.
“The University asked that protestors leave the building as remaining in the building created a safety hazard due to the COVID pandemic, offered safety masks and hand sanitizer, and reiterated these public safety concerns for the duration of the protestors’ presence in the building,” the statement read.
But organizer Anna Attie said during the morning rally that it was the school’s decision to close down the building that meant organizers couldn’t maintain social distancing requirements.
“We had an action that was able to be safe and socially distant. We had people inside, people outside, we were planning to set up tents outside to sleep outside and have some people inside,” they said. “The cops came and they blocked the doors and they said you can’t exit. If you leave, you can’t come back …. The cops closed the doors on us so we couldn’t have a safe action.”
Last weekend, #CareNotCops released a set of demands around UCPD that include a call for the public release of the UCPD budget, the diversion of funds from police to mutual aid programs on the South Side, and the dismantling of the school’s police force by 2022.
Earlier that morning, around 9:20 a.m., Rainey emerged from the building and spoke to the score of supporters stationed outside with food and water. He said that both he and U. of C. Provost Ka Yee Lee had pledged to meet with the sit-in participants.
“We are concerned about their health in there, because the COVID spread is real. Again, I appreciate what you guys are doing. I really really do, because I’m a Black man, Black lives really do matter. It’s not a slogan for me — I’ve lived this every day of my life,” said Rainey, who took over at UCPD in 2017. “Everything that you’re doing, it matters – it’s really, really pushing police leadership and we need that push. It gives us the courage to stand up and make the necessary reforms that are necessary.”
Supporters outside said that they wanted a public meeting at the headquarters, and asked Rainey to let those inside use the building’s bathroom and come out for food and water. (Yesterday, organizers tossed a package of diapers through a door that had been left ajar.)
But Roma Linares, a second-year undergraduate at the U. of C. and an organizer with #CareNotCops, said that the group wanted to meet with administration officials and Rainey on their own terms. “We’ve been in a lot of meetings and rooms where we get empty words and they don’t listen. We really want him to make some kind of public commitment,” Linares said. “We want there to be as many eyes on him as we can get.”
Yang said that the group will demand that any meeting is live streamed to the public.
Linares said that, instead of funding for UCPD, they would like to see the school give money to organizations that are working to create “systems of care” around the city.
“I think that police cause a lot of harm, even unintentionally, I think that is just the nature of police." Linares said. "I know there are community organizations in Hyde Park and around Chicago that have already started building systems like mutual aid support, and de-escalation, and intervention into gang conflicts, especially here on the South Side.
“We believe the university should be giving more to the community around it because it has taken so much since its inceptions. And we want to open up conversations around what that could look like, and talk to members of the community and see what they want.”