On April 21, organizers from the Party for Socialism and Liberation, along with community activists, students, faculty and staff, gathered at Parkland College, in the central Illinois town of Champaign, to demand that former police chief R.T. Finney be fired.
Between 2003 and 2012, Finney presided over a reign of terror by the Champaign Police Department, targeting Black and Brown working class people. Abuses included the hospitalization of 17-year old Brian Chelsea due to police violence and the police killing 15-year old Kiwane Carrington. Today, Finney is teaching criminal justice and community policing at Parkland College.
Discontent over this flagrant disrespect for Black, Brown and working class students built among Parkland College students, faculty and community members after Finney began teaching classes in the Fall of 2021. After the first call for his firing was brought by a Parkland faculty member, organizers from PSL began to elevate the call and escalate demands. Organizers spent months raising awareness and connecting with students, faculty and staff by collecting signatures for an online petition calling for Finney’s firing. These efforts culminated in a rally on April 21.
The community rallies
More than three dozen people showed up in support of this cause, including several journalists. Four speakers shared the history of Finney’s racist past, abuses of power and over-policing of Black communities in Champaign, while also acknowledging the racist roots of capitalism. Between speeches, the crowd marched while chanting “Fire R.T. Finney” and “No justice, no peace! No racist police!”
“For too long, Black people have been victimized by the forces of the state for the purpose of protecting private property,” B.W. Lawton, of the Malcolm X Grassroots Movement, told Liberation News. “Finney maintained his position as a police chief without as little as a slap on the wrist for his participation in the murder of Kiwane Carrington. To let someone like Finney teach a new generation of officers is diabolical, and this community must do everything in its power to prevent that from happening. This demonstration was a testament to this community’s commitment to the end of police terrorism in Black communities.”
Finney’s history of anti-Black policing
One police officer in particular, Matt Rush, epitomized the policing strategy that Finney enforced and is part of his teaching at Parkland. Rush is a name that carries disgust among longer-term residents of Champaign, especially among those who live in the communities he targeted. During his tenure with the CPD, Rush was hit with several allegations of excessive force, mostly against Black victims. In the end, Rush would cost the public $320,000 in civil suit settlements and another $50,000 in a separation agreement.
The epitome of Finney’s time as police chief was the 2009 police murder of 15-year old Carrington. Carrington was trying to enter a community program building, which he did not know was locked, when Finney and another officer, Daniel Norbits, arrived on the scene and immediately drew their weapons. Norbits opened fire, shooting and killing Carrington. Within minutes, these two armed men had decided that this confused Black teen was a threat, and killed him.
Community residents quickly rallied and protested against this clearly racist police killing. Even 11 years later, the killing of Carrington served as a powerful memory for the uprisings against police brutality in the summer of 2020.
Parkland College is the smaller sibling of the massive University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, which has more than 50,000 students, many of whom are from outside the area. By contrast, Parkland College has approximately 10,000 students, who come primarily from Champaign, Urbana and the surrounding small cities. This student body is composed almost exclusively of working-class individuals with ties to the local community.
These ties to the local community mean that many of these students, and certainly their older family and friends, know about Finney, Carrington and Rush’s victims. Some of them may have even been stopped by Finney’s intentionally racist “random” stop policies.
The campaign continues
After the final speeches, organizers led protesters through the college to force the Parkland administration to acknowledge the concerns of the community.
“Our energetic chants, ‘Fire Finney Now! Fire Finney Now!’ rang out across the campus today, to deliver the decisive consensus of Parkland students, faculty and Champaign-Urbana community members to the college administration, that R.T. Finney’s vision for policing and criminal ‘justice’ is unacceptable, that educating students in police brutality and racial profiling is unacceptable, and that the current system of policing premised on the violent maintenance of private property is unacceptable,” Alex Taylor of PSL told Liberation News.
This rally was just one step in the campaign to see Finney removed from Parkland. Later this month, activists will drive a car caravan through Champaign reiterating their grievances against the former police chief. The community is strong, resolute and clear in its message: Fire Finney!