By AARON GETTINGER
Ald. Leslie Hairston (5th) faced bellicose protesters demanding she support specific law enforcement policy proposals and answer for her perceived absence from the social unrest that followed the July 14 police shooting of Harith “Snoop” Augustus in South Shore. She largely deferred on their demands but agreed that all the police body camera footage with audio be released.
Black Lives Matter (BLM) activists and those pressing for a Civilian Police Accountability Council (CPAC), led by the Chicago Alliance Against Racist and Political Repression, were present at the meeting held at the Hyde Park Art Center, 5020 S. Cornell Ave.
“Police shootings of black and brown people all over the country are at an alarming, almost-epidemic rate, and I’ve been an advocate for police reform for years,” said Hairston, reading from prepared remarks.
“But let’s be clear: there was no reason for mayhem to happen,” she continued. “Constructive protest is one thing, but the vast majority of protesters were outsiders coming to the scene to agitate and incite chaos.”
From this point, Hairston lost one-way control over her meeting, trading time with emotional protesters who called out “How do you know? You weren’t there!” in response.
Hairston said she was at another event in South Shore at the time of the shooting and that she got information about the protests from videos of the scene. When she attempted to regain control over the meeting, calling her ward a community that was “all in this together,” protesters shot back, “No, we’re not!”
“Did you see the videos the other day? They are beating residents and protesters with closed fists,” said LaChelle Bowers, a constituent. “Where are you? Because these other aldermen are on the news every time something happens, and you are nowhere around, Leslie. You need to let these officers know that their actions are unacceptable to the Fifth Ward.”
Hairston countered that she was among the first in City Council to call for civilian accountability, referring to her failed 2016 effort to establish the Independent Citizen Police Monitor panel in the wake of the Chicago Police shooting of Laquan McDonald and the subsequent cover-up. (The Chicago Office of Police Accountability, or COPA, was eventually established by the municipal government.) She also said she was “not opposed” to CPAC, which would “re-write” the Chicago Police’s mission and prerogatives, appoint the superintendent, investigate all police complaints, act as the final authority on all discipline and refer cases to federal grand juries and U.S. Attorneys.
The CPAC protesters called on Hairston to agree to their demands that the officer who shot Augustus be named, fired and charged, that officers who “brutalized” protesters be charged and all charges against protesters be dropped and that all police audio and video from the situation be released.
Hairston did not agree to all points except the last, to which she agreed, asking for more time to do research and deferring to the COPA investigation.
“I am not your enemy,” Hairston said.
“Nobody is calling you the enemy, but we’re saying you’re working with the enemy. You are not speaking for the people in your community. If you are not fighting for their rights and their safety, then you are working beside the enemy,” said Ariel Atkins of BLM.
When Atkins asked Hairston how calling for more police in South Shore was “fighting” for her community, Hairston said she was responding to her constituents’ requests. Hairston said she was in dialogue with the Chicago Police and the local superintendent, saying she had urged them to release the video and audio of the shooting.
“The public is entitled to know what happened,” said Hairston. “After that, the investigation continues. I am not privy to any information. The police department did not tell my any privy information because there is an investigation going on. I’m sure the Inspector General is investigating, because there are several different sides that get told, and sometimes we have to wait.” Protesters challenged her claim that there was a 30-second delay on the video.
“I have lived in South Shore for more than 45 years,” said Hairston. “I’m black just like everybody else is black, and so I am subject to the same thing — I’m just talking about my experience in my 57 years of this life. The times I’ve been pulled over ‘driving while black’; you know, I do not escape any of that.”
“I’m here to try and find a way for us to improve the situation and work together to stop what we know that needs to be stopped,” Hairston said.
Dionell “Rev the Barber” Hill, who worked with Augustus, said he was wary of old guard black civil rights leaders’ passive leadership. “There’s not change going on in the communities,” he said, decrying politicians who come asking for votes or make appearances at churches then “forget” about their constituents.
“I don’t think you should be attacked, but, honestly, you chose the job,” said Hill to Hairston, sparking laughter. “The problem is that those who are in power wouldn’t be in power unless the people put them in power.” He called for mass, cooperative action across South Side neighborhoods to oppose the circumstances that led to Augustus’s death.
When asked how her conduct would change after the protests and unrest, Hairston said she would keep doing what she has been doing, mentioning her presence on 71st Street, drives on every street in the Fifth Ward and constituent meetings. She agreed to meet with Atkins and BLM organizers.
When asked after the meeting if the shooting and social unrest had changed her law enforcement priorities, Hairston stressed the importance of flexibility in changing circumstances. Regarding CPAC, Hairston said, “I have to look at it in depth, because we are legislators and I’m not going to stand up there and say something to make everybody look good. I’m going to do my homework; I’m going to do the research and figure out the ins and outs of what’s legal and what’s not legal, because that’s going to come out eventually, anyway.”
“I thought this was a very healthy meeting,” Hairston said, adding that it is “very important for [protesters] to have their voices heard.”
She said, “While there’re some things we disagree on, I think there’s a lot more we agree on and that we can work together. Because that’s how we get the change that we really need.”
Atkins said she thought Hairston was speaking “to save face” at the meeting and that she would be surprised if she comes out and makes any changes but she hopes Hairston proves her wrong.
“If she’s honestly serious about wanting to see change, then she’ll act differently than she did in this meeting,” Atkins said. “She’ll actually listen to the people that came to it; she’ll actually listen to the community members; she will actually go out and try to meet with them; and then she will actually discuss with them about the amount of policing that she has added.”
Atkins said she pledges to “keep the pressure on” and said that, while she would try to get more activists at Hairston’s meetings, she was most focused on the meeting the alderman promised her.
In other news, Hairston said the Obama Foundation “is in their next phase” for the Presidential Center, hiring contractors and continuing to work on its Community Commitments pledge, with the project-building Lakeside Alliance consortium of construction companies planning to open its hiring-focused resource center in South Shore in September.
“If we don’t have people ready to fill these jobs, they will go to others,” Hairston said.
Her August ward meeting will focus on the Stop and Save supermarket coming to South Shore, and she will host the commander of the Chicago Police’s Third District in September (Hyde Park–Kenwood is in the Second District).
“We will come and tell you the things we are doing together to make sure that we are building on that relationship,” she said.