Living While Black: A Student Seeks Justice in an Unjust System
By Jay Trewn (JD-MBA 2021)
A little over a year ago, the harsh reality of living while Black was thrust into my central vision in Chicago’s Lakeview neighborhood. That day, after running some errands, I returned home to my apartment on a bright and sunny morning. When I returned, I entered the side gate that led to my backyard. What I didn’t know was that a police officer had been watching me and radioed in for backup. As I walked through my backyard to the stairs leading to my back door, two police officers turned off their body cameras and burst into my backyard, hands on their holsters, yelling at me, accusing me of “grooming” my very own apartment, and demanding to see my ID.
The truth is, this wasn’t new.
Living while Black
Growing up in an affluent suburb of Detroit, I was repeatedly stopped by the police while riding my bike and questioned. “We’ve received reports of stolen bikes in the area, whose bike are you riding?” or “Where’d you get that bike?” In time, biking while Black turned into driving while Black and other such routine “offenses” warranting constant stops and badgering at the hands of the police. They all told the same story: “You Don’t Belong Here.”
Yet, regardless of how routine this has become, the fear that overtook me in my backyard was indescribable. While I am generally a confident and composed person, always ready with a witty retort or a sarcastic comment, in that moment I felt small, afraid, and helpless. As a law student at the Northwestern Pritzker School of Law, while I may not be well versed in all the intricacies of the law governing police actions, I am privileged enough to know my rights and when those rights are being trampled on. Upon explaining to the officers that this was my place of residence and I did not need to show them an ID, they proceeded to call me a “little prick” and threatened not to help me if I was robbed in the future. After their verbal assaults waned, I was able to side-step up the back steps of my apartment building, keeping my eyes on the officers and hands clearly visible, until I made it to my second floor unit and ran inside. While I am certainly happy to be privileged enough to be pursuing graduate degrees in business and law at Northwestern, in that moment it became clear that my educational status would not save me.
Upon explaining what happened to my wife, she immediately set off to confront the two men, who had gathered on the adjacent street corner and were joined by a Sergeant. As she began questioning the officers, the first thing they said to her, a white woman, was “Oh, that was your husband?!” The discussion quickly turned into an argument, as the officers proceeded to berate my wife in an effort to validate their actions, claiming that 1) I had looked over my shoulder as I entered my backyard, amounting to “reasonable suspicion”(turning around is now permanently added to my list of offenses while Black), and 2) they have “extensive” training in identifying burglaries in progress. Yet there had been no report of a burglary. No neighbor had called in a suspicious person. A police officer simply saw me enter my own backyard on a bright and sunny Cubs game day, and the color of my skin caused them to question my very existence in the neighborhood.
Seeking justice in an unjust system
In the aftermath of the incident, my wife and I wrote an e-mail to our alderman, Tom Tunney, explaining that while we love living in Lakeview, this event had been extremely unsettling for us. We asked to hear his perspective on how to have a productive conversation with the police that would lead to better understanding, accountability, and meaningful change moving forward, in the hopes that such a conversation would help us feel safe again in our own backyard. Twice, he declined. When he finally agreed to call us on a Friday morning, my wife and I expectantly awaited his call. Yet the call never came, and the alderman neither rescheduled nor apologized for his absence.
Instead, through his assistant, he insisted we file a complaint through the Chicago Office of Police Accountability, so we did. They opened an investigation. A COPA investigator told my wife there was body cam footage of one of the officers telling their sergeant what happened after they left my backyard, and the investigator implied the body cam footage contradicted the police report the officer had filed, a fireable offense. My wife has spent the past year fighting to obtain the police report and body cam footage through a Freedom of Information Act request. First, we were told the request was “never received.” Later we were told the request was denied because the information my wife requested did not directly pertain to her. After I personally made the FOIA request, I was told that because of the “pending investigation,” they would not release the body cam footage or police report. This investigation has been pending for over a year, with no end in sight. With no personal video to go viral, I am convinced it will be pending indefinitely.
My experience that day, and the subsequent failed effort at seeking accountability, shined a bright light on the culture of the Chicago Police Department. That is a culture of prejudiced policing driven by racial animus, a culture of incompetence, and most importantly, a culture of impunity. When you pair that culture — one of racial animus, incompetence, and impunity — with the authority to wield deadly force, that is a recipe for disaster.
After my experience being racially profiled in Lakeview, it became glaringly apparent to me that many of our elected officials simply have no interest in seeking justice for Black and Brown communities. We are repeatedly assaulted, and our wounds left open. The healing balm of acknowledgment, accountability, justice, and reform are fraudulently withheld by the systems and institutions that harm us. My wife and I followed all the correct protocols and engaged the system our alderman claimed would support us. And yet, the system failed us. We still have no answers, no accountability, and no justice over a year later. So, in light of that, we decided to reclaim our power.
*Tune in next week to hear the story of how we reclaimed our power.*