On the South Side

Straight talk on racial tensions in Chicago from a woman right in the middle of it

A day after Chicago authorities released video of a brutal police shooting that claimed the life of a 17-year-old, a woman who works to keep youths out of gangs talks frankly about race and policing

Every time progress is made on the relationship between police and young African-American men, “Something like this happens, and it makes everything go backwards,” says Sally Hazelgrove, the founder of Crushers Club, a boxing club designed to offer at-risk African-American youth an alternative to street gangs on the South Side of Chicago.

Hazelgrove, who is white, moved to Englewood, a predominantly black neighborhood, five years ago because, she says, “If I was really going to change things I needed to put myself inside.” After noticing the overwhelming success of gangs in Chicago –– recent estimates have put the number of gang-members at up to 150,000 –– Hazelgrove decided to try and replicate the gang model, creating something that offers a similar sense of belonging, acceptance, and daily purpose but relies on music and boxing instead of drugs and guns. In its groundbreaking approach, Crushers Club has proved so successful in getting youths out of gangs and off probation that the Juvenile Probation Department of Cook County has joined as a partner.

Since launching Crushers in 2013, Hazelgrove has observed the simmering tension between authorities and the community on a daily basis. “The youth are so angry in our city,” she says. “There’s a perception that the police are the enemy and can do whatever they want.” The police, on the other hand, lack a deep understanding of the demographic, she says, and some treat South Side neighborhoods as “training districts.” This adversarial mentality can lead to tragedy.

On Tuesday, Chicago Police Department officer Jason Van Dyke was charged with first-degree murder for his involvement in the death of Laquan McDonald on the night of October 20, 2014. Responding to a call from a police dispatcher “that a citizen was holding a male who had been caught breaking into trucks and stealing radios in a parking lot,” Van Dyke arrived on the scene just as McDonald, carrying a knife, began walking away, according to the Cook County State’s Attorney Anita Alvarez. Though the first responding officer has stated they did not see a need to use force against McDonald, within 30 seconds Van Dyke had fired his semi-automatic pistol 16 times, all of the shots after the first coming after McDonald had already hit the ground, police dash-cam video showed.

“With these charges we are bringing a full measure of justice which this [case] demands,” Alvarez announced, before going on to describe a video of the event as “deeply disturbing.”

“No police shooting is okay if it is unjustified,” says Hazelgrove, who believes that Tuesday’s charges should have been filed sooner, particularly in light of Van Dyke’s long record of complaints. But she is more ambivalent about the public release of the dash-cam video, which also came yesterday following a court order. “If we don’t show [the video] we’re still in the dark,” Hazelgrove says, but showing it threatens to inflame tensions further and shift attention away from where she believes it really needs to be.

<> on November 24, 2015 in Chicago, Illinois.

Protesters take to the streets of Chicago on November 24, 2015, following the court-ordered release of a video showing then Officer Jason Van Dyke fatally shooting 17-year-old LaQuan McDonald during an incident in October 2014.

For Hazelgrove, the video release and its immediate backlash –– a mostly peaceful demonstration in the city’s downtown area –– focuses on a narrative of police brutality which risks distracting from other, more endemic issues. “We have some problems [with authorities],” acknowledges Hazelgrove, who works with police and probation officers in association with Crushers Club, which she started after volunteering in programs through the Department of Children and Family Services. “But the real problem is economic disparity. A real problem is our haves and have-nots … I feel like the real problem is segregation in Chicago.” Poor police decisions collide with structural inequality, Hazelgrove suggests, citing Chicago’s rampant homelessness, domestic abuse, broken school system, and racism which stretches back beyond the 1960s.

While the behavior of police officers must be accountable, protests that stop at police brutality and treat all officers as equal offenders risk becoming “a little bit of a dog and pony show.”

“I think protest will lead to some sort of systematic change, but I think it has to go beyond that,” Hazelgrove argues. “There has to be more real discussion about the underlying causes, and more of a holistic solution.”

In her work with street gangs in Englewood, Hazelgrove encourages people to see the situation a little differently. Young African-American men and police officers actually have something in common: “You’re both being pitted as the enemy.”

“If we just keep focusing on ‘the black male teenagers are out of control,’ ‘the police are all bad and evil,’ then we’re never going to hold the powers-to-be accountable,” she says.

Hazelgrove believes that effective solutions will require cooperative dialogue that includes more white people “coming to the table for African-Americans, so we all work together and it’s not a ‘them’ versus ‘us’ thing.” Hazelgrove, who choses to live in an otherwise black neighborhood, sees reoccurring instances of police violence as symptoms of a larger disease. “I think these are warning signs that we are in a very dangerous place in this country,” she says. “We need to wake up and start addressing these issues from the core.”

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