On October 7, 1968, students held a meeting in the cafeteria at Harrison High School on the West Side of Chicago and were assaulted by police. Poster by Nicole Marroquin and available at Hoofprint Chicago. (Courtesy Hoofprint Chicago)

This open letter was organized by Illinois artists, educators, and cultural workers and was originally published on Chicago Arts for Black Lives’s website on June 18, 2020.

To Mayor Lori Lightfoot, Chicago Public Schools CEO Janice Jackson, the Chicago Board of Education, CPS principals, and LSC representatives, and the alderpersons of the 50 Chicago wards across the city:

We are writing to you as practicing artists, designers, educators, parents, and citizens of Chicago.  Many of us have gone through Chicago Public Schools or have children who go there. Many of us teach in Chicago in colleges, art programs and museums that work directly or indirectly with students from CPS. Every year, we send art education students into CPS schools to learn to teach the next generations of artists. Some of us are veteran CPS teachers, many of us are CPS parents and alumni, but we all believe that our well being is intertwined with the well being of the children of this city. We know that policing our students does not foster creativity, and does not support students’ beliefs in their ability to imagine different possibilities in our world.

As members of the art community across Chicago, we write in solidarity with #PoliceFreeSchools, CPS Alumni for Abolition, 75 organizations, 19 alder people, and thousands of citizens to urge you to: 

  1. Defund the police citywide and enact the Civilian Police Accountability Council (CPAC).
  2. Terminate the Chicago Public Schools district’s contract with the Chicago Police Department in advance of the CPS/CPD policy renewal deadline August 31, 2020.

As CPS Alumni for Abolition has noted, “In the district, almost 89% of the students are people of color, and around 36% of students are Black, who are disproportionately criminalized and traumatized by police presence in our public schools…For every highly-visible example of police violence that occurs in schools, there are many others that are unreported. Last year, Chicago Police Department officers tased and dragged a 16-year-old student down the stairs. Across the country, we have seen the impact of policing in schools: students body-slammed, thrown across classrooms, and beaten.”

Mayor Lightfoot, you say that CPD’s presence in public schools is minimized, but Law Professor Miranda Johnson writes in the Chicago Tribune, “When police walk the hallways of schools, the impact on children is not benign. Students who attend schools with police officers are more likely to be ticketed or referred to juvenile court for minor offenses, such as disorderly conduct or classroom disruption. They also are more likely to be suspended or expelled from school. Regular adolescent misbehavior becomes criminalized when viewed through a police lens.”

In your 2019 Arts & Culture Policy, you state “Arts and culture serve as an economic engine that generates thousands of jobs and spurs diverse business development in the Loop and our neighborhoods.” If you believe this, fund art programming so students can have economic opportunities. You say, “we cannot have a vibrant and diverse arts community if our neighborhoods are not safe.” Mayor Lightfoot, we in the art community respond that we do not feel safe with a police force that resorts to violence against our Black and Brown citizens, particularly our youth. You say we cannot have a vibrant and diverse art community, “if our neighborhood schools and afterschool organizations are not healthy and do not include diverse arts education programs,” but you include no direct funding for arts education in CPS in your 2019 plan. To have a vibrant art community in Chicago, we need art in our schools, not police. 

In Chicago, the nonprofit arts alone are a $2.2 billion industry that supports over 60,000 full-time-equivalent jobs, generates a total of $1.3 billion in household income to local residents, and delivers more than $200 million in local and state government revenue. Artists do not come out of thin air, they need to be supported and nurtured. While you have raised the annual art budget in Chicago to $2.7 million, the CPD budget has swelled to over $1.7 billion in 2020. Chicago’s annual art budget is approximately half of what you spend on the CPD citywide in one day. 

Despite your claim of its limited presence, CPS alone currently has a $33 million contract with the Chicago Police Department. We stand with CPS Alumni for Abolition and #PoliceFreeSchools to demand that you terminate this contract and reallocate it to fund essential resources such as nurses, counselors, and transformative justice facilitators. These services, in addition to access to art and culture in schools, will support marginalized students by helping them to reflect upon and transform their situations, instead of continually relying upon punitive enforcement structures that disproportionately criminalize Black and Brown students. 

Dr. Janice K. Jackson, you say, “The arts have the power to change people’s lives – especially when we expose children at a young age to the joy and creative influence of an arts education.” We whole-heartedly agree in the transformative power of education and the arts, but creativity does not operate in a vacuum and students cannot be creative when they feel unsafe.

Therefore, we demand a safe environment for every public school student centering health, safety, and support over criminalization and policing. Because of our deep connection and commitment to Chicago and its particular issues with police and public school, we are taking direct action to engage our local social environment and hope that members of other art communities across the country take on this mission and amplify all of our demands. As artists, designers, and arts educators we vow to do all we can to ensure the Chicago Public School students receive care and justice.

Mayor Lightfoot, you ran to lead this city on a promise of dismantling structures that perpetuate racial violence in this city. You began your term by hanging the work of some of our most esteemed colleagues in your office, including Amanda Williams, Tony Fitzpatrick, Dawoud Bey, David Klamen, and Dan Devening, to show that art can lead the way.

We need artists that create support networks. We need artists that critique gentrification. We need artists that challenge criminalization industries. We need artists that celebrate Black and Brown community and culture. We need art that inspires us to do better, from your office where you are reading this right now, to every school and street corner for every child to see. What we don’t need is more police. 

To see the full list of 1,069 signatories, or to add your name, visit Chicago Arts for Black Lives.

The Latest

Memories So Fair and Bright

Kimetha Vanderveen’s paintings are about the interaction of materiality and light, the bond between the palpable and ephemeral world in which we live.

Chicago Arts for Black Lives

We are practicing artists, designers, educators, parents, and citizens of Chicago taking action for Black Lives.

One reply on “An Open Letter From the Chicago Arts Community on Police-free Schools and Defunding the CPD”

  1. …….. As black and brown children continue to be shot to death in their own neighborhoods, but sure, the police in their schools are the problem.

Comments are closed.