What It Looked Like to Police Ourselves This Summer: An Ode to De-Escalation on My Chicago Block
This summer, my neighbors didn’t call the cops — they looked after one another
I live right on the border of Chicago’s Uptown and Edgewater neighborhoods. Uptown is a rare spot of relative racial diversity in Chicago’s otherwise hyper-segregated map; from the ’50s to the early ’80s, it was a Southern migration hub, a place where Black, hillbilly, Latinx, and Native people rubbed elbows with one another.
As the descendant of white northern Appalachians, and Tennessean melungeons, I appreciated inhabiting a neighborhood where people who shared all my lines of ancestry had converged. I’m a transplant from suburban Ohio, and am undeniably part of the city’s gentrification; still, it felt like some part of me had unwittingly wound up where I was meant to be.
Edgewater is the neighborhood immediately to the north of Uptown. It was once a part of Uptown, but split off from it officially in 1980; it is Chicago’s “youngest” neighborhood. Edgewater is Whiter and richer than Uptown, its streets lined with high-rise condominiums built inside of former hotels. It has a Whole Foods, co-working spaces, and boutique shops. It’s no coincidence that this far more privileged and homogeneous community sought to distinguish itself from Uptown when it did. Edgewater residents had fought to define the neighborhood as its own distinct entity since the ’60s — the exact same time that Uptown started to become so vibrantly diverse.
I see the distinction between the two neighborhoods every single day. I see the white, well-off people from the expensive apartments and condos with their baby strollers and electric scooters. I see the older Black men who have lived here for decades spending time together outside the corner store, complaining about their grandkids and gossiping about friends. I see the poorer white people who live in one of Uptown’s many shelters and drug treatment facilities. I see young queer people of all races and backgrounds, drinking coffee and chatting, or heading to protests via Berwyn’s red line.
Here on the border between Edgewater and Uptown, there’s a cafe with tons of tables and chairs that line the whole length of the block. There is plenty of room to space out, so it feels safe even in the time of Covid-19. There are alcoves where you can sit to avoid the rain. There’s free Wi-Fi, and the coffee and pastries are good. A lot of us — residents of both Edgewater and Uptown — post up at this coffee shop for hours every single day, to work, shoot the shit, read books, or clear our heads.
I know most of the regulars. There’s the elderly white couple who buy cups of ice from the cafe and fill them with pop they purchased at the corner store. There’s the dude who manages the Dollar Tree around the corner, and the old men who are always hanging out. There’s the middle-aged white dude with a faint Eastern European accent working on his laptop, and there’s the thirtysomething white person who’s always on their laptop (that’s me). Dozens of people come and go sporadically, a wide variety of ages, races, income brackets, housing statuses, and ability levels.
I’ve seen a lot of shit happen on my block this summer: Drug overdoses, fistfights, crying jags, mental breakdowns, and awkward conversations. Lots of people hang around outside, with little else to do. There’s anger, boredom, and despair, but also community support. Many people look out for one another and try to put the pin back into a conflict before it blows up. I’ve gotten to know my neighbors like never before, watched countless fights get de-escalated, and even helped to de-escalate them once or twice.
This summer, I think I saw a glimpse of what a world would look like without police. I felt inklings of how it might be for a community like mine. It hasn’t been perfect, and I haven’t always been present enough to truly make myself a part of it. But my neighborhood has been wonderfully dynamic, collaborative, and beautifully alive.
I feel compelled to write about what I’ve seen so that I can remember it and so others can hear about how it looks. I also need to get these memories down to eulogize this street, because sadly, it’s all about to change.
An old white guy was sitting at a table, huffing computer duster. He had been doing it for a while. The dude was really messed up. Others on the block had noticed and were congregating in a small crowd a few yards away, pondering what to do.
“We can’t just let him die over here,” said the guy who manages the Dollar Tree, a light-skinned Black guy in his thirties. He’s around all the time, but I haven’t caught his name. He keeps to himself usually.
“We can’t just have somebody dying out here,” the Dollar Tree manager said. “This is supposed to be a good neighborhood.” He called 311, but they didn’t seem concerned and didn’t say they’d send an ambulance.
A few people tried to get the old man to stop huffing computer duster. He yelled to himself and rocked in his seat, ignoring everyone. He huffed more.
“That man is gonna die,” the Dollar Tree manager said. He shook his phone. “And they don’t even care.”
The man started to slowly sink in his seat. He had been a big bundle of energy throughout most of this, but now he was becoming unresponsive, disappearing into himself.
“Should we call the cops?” someone asked.
“No,” said the Dollar Tree manager. “We need an ambulance.”
He called 911 this time. “A guy just downed a whole can of WD-40, and now he’s dying out here,” he said. “I don’t think you understand what I said last time. This dude is gonna die out here. You can send someone now, or you’re gonna have to pick up a body.”
The paramedics came this time, quickly, and approached the old man. He woke up and was a bit belligerent. He worried he was going to be taken away against his will. Several people explained the situation to the EMTs, and one of them checked the guy’s vitals. The sirens seemed to have shaken him out of his stupor a bit and sobered him up. He left the canister behind and walked away from us, down the street, muttering to himself, but alive and unarrested.
The Dollar Tree manager was disappointed. “He’ll be back again,” he tittered. “Some people just don’t want to be helped.”
I was glad nobody had gotten hurt.
Two guys were screaming at one another from opposite sides of the street. One took his shirt off and ran into the middle of the road, hit himself in the chest, and egged his opponent on. They started fighting, screaming in one another’s faces. Then they began throwing fists.
“Stop that shit,” said one of the older guys who hangs out in front of the convenience store every day.
Cops around here are always picking sides… I’ve seen them blame a hate crime victim for his own jumping before, and try to arrest him because he was too confused and concussed to follow directions.
“Calm it down, walk away!” yelled another. A Chicago Transit Authority worker strolled up and joined the chorus, putting his hands up, telling everybody to calm down. A younger Black guy put himself between the two men. One of the guys’ friends dragged him away from his opponent. The two men kept yelling and trying to provoke one another, but the neighborhood put up a unified front. Walk away, everybody chided. Give it up.
A few times, one of the guys ran toward the other, screaming again, working himself back into a lather. But every time, the crowd persuaded him to stop. They parted ways. Everybody gossiped about the averted fight all afternoon.
There was another fight, exactly like the first. Like the last time, my neighbors helped break it up, talked the two dudes down, separated them, and de-escalated them. But this time, somebody called the cops. I think it was the white, well-off-looking lady sitting on the patio, but I’m not sure.
By the time the cops came, the fight had long since died down. But the cops’ presence immediately fanned the flames.
The two guys immediately got agitated, anxious about the cops, and furious once again at each other. Cops around here always pick sides. If they decide one party is innocent and another is guilty, it gives them a reason to arrest somebody and come down on them like a pile of bricks. I’ve seen them blame a hate crime victim for his own jumping before, and try to arrest him because he was too confused and concussed to follow directions.
Both guys were anxious to prove they were virtuous in this battle. When you have the cops on your side, you’re safe. They both were screaming at one another, so the cops started threatening them both. Eventually, they made a seemingly arbitrary decision. One ended up in the back of the squad car.
Adelle came up to me and asked what happened.
“The fight had already been broken up, “ I told her. “There was no reason for them to arrest the guy.”
She started to cry very suddenly. “There’s too much violence happening around out here,” she said. “My nephew died on the West Side this summer. He got shot.” She showed me a big button on her sweatshirt. It was a photo of a young man with his birth and death dates marked.
“I hope Trump does send the National Guard here,” she said. “I hope they make it stop.”
I was a little stunned. “I’m worried the cops and the National Guard will just shoot at innocent people,” I ventured.
“I don’t think they will,” she said. “Something has to happen. Something has to make this stop.”
A few of Adelle’s friends came to comfort her, and we both said goodbye. I didn’t know what to make of Adelle’s belief that cops and National Guardsmen would make things better. I also knew that she was one of the regular forces for de-escalation in the neighborhood. Adelle knew everybody; people routinely came to her to vent about things. She and her great-granddaughter had a softening effect on people; everyone was incredibly warm and gentle around them. Even with her pro-Trump outlook, she was doing a lot more to keep the area safe and unpoliced than many of the committed abolitionists I knew.
On this street, there are kids and older people. Guys quietly drink at cafe tables, and people close business deals loudly on their cellphones. Some people ask for spare change or a light; there’s Jamariana always asking me for a hug, though I always say no, explaining that I can’t because of “the disease.” I don’t know why I always say it that way. I guess I think it’s funny and dramatic.
There’s a guy, Greg, who goes by the nickname “Showtime.” He’s a Black guy in his sixties who wears a lot of bright patterned suits and plaid newsletter caps. He carries a large Bluetooth speaker, stands on the corner, and cycles through the same three songs over and over: “Rock with You” by Michael Jackson, “The Girl Is Mine” by MJ and Paul McCartney, and “Cruisin’” by Smokey Robinson. Showtime keeps telling me he wants to take me dancing. He says he wants to buy me a dress. He added me on Facebook to give me links to his music — YouTube URLs to those three songs.
When he asks me if he can teach me how to dance, I say, “Sorry, we can’t touch because of the disease. But we can sit out here and listen to your music.”
There’s a Methodist church on the corner, with a lush community garden and two big plots full of flowers. Sometimes when the cafe is closed, I sit on the church steps and read and try not to be eaten alive by flies. The flowers in the garden are constantly being tended to by a fleet of grey-haired Eastern European ladies. Their husbands stand around bored, waiting for them to finish futzing over the plants.
Some sinewy younger guys serve as groundskeepers for the church, and some live in the church building. There used to be AA meetings in the back room every night, but those have ended because of the disease. Still, a few guys hang around outside, smoking and checking in with one another. In the evening, one of the sinewy men stands on the corner in a bright yellow traffic vest, just looking around, making sure everybody gets home safe.
I was sitting at a patio table, reading a book, and shutting the world away. A Black woman with sleek reddish-brown hair came up to me.
“Excuse me,” she said. “Do you believe Black Lives Matter?”
“Yes,” I said.
“Do you believe that all lives matter?”
“Well,” I said, “I think people say that to derail the conversation.”
“Let me ask you this,” she continued. “When you go around a Black person in the grocery store aisle, do you say excuse me? Because I am sick of people squeezing behind me and not respecting me enough to even talk to me.”
“I’ve definitely gone around someone without saying excuse me,” I said.
“This is about respect,” she said. “I’m 50 years old. My daughters are a doctor and a lawyer. When they were little, every kind of kid was in our house. Every kind of person peed in our toilet. Black, White, Asian. How many white people can say that?”
“Not a lot,” I said.
She looked behind her at the bar that’s been shuttered since the pandemic began. “If this bar right here opens up again, when this is over, and you see me in it, will you say hello to me? Do you see what I’m saying?”
“I think so,” I said. “I think a lot of us white people do withdraw from everybody else.”
My frostiness and tendency to disappear into my work is probably the most capital-W White thing about me. I know it’s wrong, and I’ll probably need constant reminders throughout my life to keep that tendency at bay. It’s the same tendency that leads people like me to gentrify neighborhoods, move away to homogeneous suburbs, and call the cops.
“I’m 50, and when you’re my age, you’ll have information you want to share with younger people. You can do what you want with it. But there is a lot you can do with this,” she said. “Do you understand?”
“I think I do,” I said. “I think I did need to hear this.”
“Just don’t ignore people,” she said. “Look people in the eye and say hello to them. I hope I’ll see you around again. My name is Miss Kelly.”
“Devon,” I said.
“It’s nice to meet you, Devon,” she said.
We bumped elbows, and then she left. I know she was completely right about me. I’m exactly the type of person she needed to tell that to. I’ve denied myself and others so many opportunities at connection. My frostiness and tendency to disappear into my work is probably the most capital-W White thing about me. I know it’s wrong, and I’ll probably need constant reminders throughout my life to keep that tendency at bay. It’s the same tendency that leads people like me to gentrify neighborhoods, move away to homogeneous suburbs, and call the cops.
A guy walked up and down the sidewalk. He was drinking out of a big whiskey bottle and talking to himself. He was a handsome Black man with a few flecks of grey in his hair. He went into the cafe but was asked to leave because he wasn’t wearing a face mask. He was visibly frustrated. He came up to me and asked if I could call someone for him. I said sure.
He gave me a phone number and told me it was his dad’s. “Tell him Corey* is waiting for him,” he said.
I called the number, and an older man picked up the phone. “Your son is here looking for you?” I said. “Corey?”
“I’m getting my apartment sprayed for roaches right now,” the old man said. “I’ll be there in 15 minutes. Tell him to wait.”
“Your dad will be here in 15 minutes,” I told Corey, and he took a seat near me on the patio and drank his whiskey. I went back to answering email.
A young, blond white guy came up to me. “Do you need me to sit with you?” he asked quietly.
“No, I’m good. We’re all good.” Corey was just a neighbor who was a little drunk. This was not a big deal.
Corey heard the blond guy checking in with me. He was understandably offended. “If you want to ask them out, ask them out,” he said, getting in the blond dude’s face a bit. “You don’t have to make it about protecting them from a Black guy.”
The blond guy put his hands up and took a step back. “I’m sorry, man. I’m sorry,” he said.
Corey was upset. He got up in the blond guy’s face a bit. A few other people standing around on the sidewalk told them to break it up and walk away. The two men separated. The blond guy went inside the cafe. Corey sat back down next to me.
“He didn’t have to do that,” he said.
“Yeah,” I said. “People make a lot of assumptions about who is and who isn’t unsafe.”
Corey started talking to me about how terrible his year has been. The death of Chadwick Boseman still gutted him. “I had no idea he had cancer,” he said.
“Nobody did,” I replied. “It’s so horrible. He made all those movies while he was dying.”
“And Kobe died earlier this year; I still wasn’t over that,” he said. “And then the coronavirus,” he said. “And then George Floyd. And then the guy in Wisconsin. I just turned 40. What will it be like when I’m 50?”
We sat there talking for a while, mostly about Marvel movies and how shit the world was.
Corey’s dad showed up; they talked seriously for a while. I put on my headphones and got back to work. Eventually, they both walked away together.
I’m tempted to feel good about how everything went, warmly relieved that nobody escalated things, that nobody tried to call the cops unnecessarily. The very fact I find that impressive is telling. A Black man being a little drunk and grief-stricken in public should never be cause to invoke state violence. We should not instantly assume that someone having mental health symptoms or battling addiction makes them suspect. Neighbors should be able to speak to one another without being perceived as a threat. It’s disgusting that we live in a world — that some of us have created a world — where this is one of the “good” stories.
My street is about to change dramatically. The cafe, bar, and corner store are going to be leveled and replaced by some fancy condos. It will probably be some $1,600-per-month, one-bedroom bullshit with a fancy faux Starbucks in the lobby, for tenants only. The little impromptu community that has formed along the street will dissipate and get replaced with a bunch of richer, younger people. They’ll be Edgewater types, not Uptowners, ones who’ll be all too happy to call the cops on any little thing.
It’s a tale as old as time, and it’s happened on about 20 corners in the neighborhood in the past year. I can’t say I’m not a part of it. No matter my outlook or family history, my presence here helps make this neighborhood more appealing to the yuppie, call-the-cops category of white people.
More and more corners will get snapped up. I hope we find someplace new to gather next summer, somewhere to while away the hot hours, and gossip and look after each other. But I expect that instead there will be fewer people hanging around this street next summer—and a lot more cops.
Please consider donating to Brave Space Alliance, a Black-led, trans-led organization that provides resources, services, and programming to LGBTQ+ individuals and families on Chicago’s South and West Sides. To help fight racist policing in the city, donate to The Chicago Alliance Against Racist and Political Repression.
*Name changed for anonymity.