On September 9, dozens of protesters rallied outside the Cook County Department of Corrections in Chicago, demanding an end to the injustices of the criminal justice system, including police brutality, mass incarceration and the unlivable conditions within U.S. prisons, especially during the pandemic. The protesters also called for the abolition of prisons and police, and the implementation of reconciliation and restorative justice on a mass scale. Activists from organizations throughout Chicago used the event to uplift the names of those who have fallen victim to the criminal justice system, including Anthony Alvarez who was shot in the back by Chicago police, Alexis Wilson who was shot and killed by Dolton police and Nickolas Lee who died of COVID-19 in the Cook County Jail.
This demonstration was also in solidarity with the national Shut ‘Em Down demonstrations, a call to action organized by Jailhouse Lawyers Speak to “highlight prisoners’ historical struggles, and the current political struggles to dismantle the prison industrial slave complex… and serve as a wake-up call to every person in this nation that the current jailing path does not work and it’s time to end it.”
Cook County Jail has been a hotspot for COVID-19 throughout the pandemic. Currently the jail is experiencing yet another surge in cases which is being woefully underreported by the mainstream media. As a result, inmates have begun a hunger strike to demand that they stop being housed two to a cell, and for proper PPE to be provided and sanitation procedures taken.
According to official statistics, at least 40 inmates in Cook County Jail are currently positive with the coronavirus, and 10 detainees have already died of COVID. However unofficial reports from inmates themselves indicate that the numbers are much higher. A June 2020 Harvard study found that 55% of Chicago’s COVID cases were directly linked to Cook County Jail.
The date chosen for the demonstration also holds historical significance for revolutionaries. September 9 was the 50th Anniversary of the Attica Prison Rebellion, where 1,300 prisoners seized control of Block D of Attica Correctional Facility near Buffalo, New York. The uprising was provoked by the killing of prison activist and Black Panther George Jackson, who was shot and killed in San Quentin State Prison three weeks prior. The prisoners in Attica demanded an end to the inhumane living conditions at the prison, an end to the torture and beatings at the hand of the prison guards, a fair minimum wage, better education, rehabilitation programs and amnesty for acts committed in the uprising. The uprising was brutally put down leaving 29 prisoners and 10 guards dead, and 89 others and seriously injured.
The protest on Thursday was organized by many groups from across Chicago, including PSL Chicago, Justice for Anthony Alvarez, Justice for Nickolas Lee, Black Alliance for Peace, Make Noize for Change, New Era Young Lords, and Unete La Villita. It began with passionate chants from the crowd, which included, “No more cops, no more prisons. What we need is abolition!” and “Money for jobs and education, not for mass incarceration!”
There were many speakers at the demonstration, including Patrick McWilliams from Justice for Anthony Alvarez. Alvarez, aged 22, was shot and killed by Chicago police March 31. His killer, Evan Solano, was stripped of his police powers, three months after the Civilian Office of Police Accountability’s recommendation to do so. He is currently still employed by CPD.
“Solano has yet to face any real repercussions. The cops have come and destroyed memorials, harassed protesters who peacefully protest. We are demanding that Evan Solano be fired arrested and charged for murder,” said McWilliams. He explained the connection between these demands and prison abolition. “Who ends up in these prison walls? Is it the cops who we see murder people day in and day out? Is it the bankers who steal from everyday working people? These prisons are designed for the working class, designed to house those who the system believes they can make a profit from out of slave labor.”
Between 2005 and George Floyd’s murder last year, only five non-federal law enforcement officers were convicted of murder in an on-duty shooting and not had the conviction later overturned, according to Philip Stinson at The Henry A. Wallace Police Crime Database at Bowling Green State University in Ohio.
Shabbir Manjee from the Party for Socialism and Liberation spoke about his experience protesting the murder of Alexis Wilson. “We were within our rights of free speech, we were within our rights of free assembly. The police immediately saw that we were gaining traction and support, and they snatched four of us, including me. I was arrested and detained for no reason. They are trying to cover up the murder of an innocent girl.” Wilson, aged 19, was shot and killed in her car by Dolton Police on July 27. No charges have been filed.
Other speakers voiced their concerns of the criminal justice system’s effect on their communities. Irma Morales of Unete La Villita in the working-class, Latino neighborhood Little Village spoke: “Why does the police need so much funding? They use this funding and technology to oppress us. All that money was supposed to be dedicated to fighting this pandemic. And who pays for this police brutality? Working people do. It is not fair! There are alternatives to this. With education and resources, we see a decrease in violence. We need funding, we don’t need police!”
Paul Papo Mireles with the New Era Young Lords expressed solidarity for the abolition of the prison system. “Too many Black and Brown people are caught up in this vicious cycle of repetitive incarceration and a system that is stacked against us. This system is built to create a cycle to keep people in jail for profit,” he said.
A few of the speakers reminded the crowd that the struggle of prison abolition is an international struggle. Vichina Austin from Black Alliance for Peace said, “We have to understand that resistance, along with international solidarity and class struggle, is the only answer. From the military industrial complex to the prison industrial complex, the people must understand that we have a moral, historical and political obligation as people living in the imperial core, to reject and denounce the ways in which the United States violates the human rights of those domestically and globally.” She spoke of the United States bombing Somalia, putting more economic sanctions on Cuba, expanding the U.S. military presence in Africa and militarizing the police.
The protesters then took to the streets, marching around the walls of Cook County Jail. Dr. La’Shawn Littrice from Make Noize for Change led the crowd in chants including “Racist prisons: shut them down!” and “What’s the call? Free them all!” They received support and signs of solidarity from passersby. As the protesters returned to front of the jail, they were greeted by a powerful display of solidarity, as prisoners from inside were seen waving from the windows and flickering the lights within their jail cells.
Liberation News spoke with Cassandra Greer-Lee at the protest. Greer-Lee is the widow of Nickolas Lee, who died of COVID in Cook County jail on Easter Sunday of last year, after being held for three-and-a-half years. Lee was never convicted of a crime. “You would think that if 15 people have already died, [Cook County Sheriff] Tom Dart would have a plan in place for this pandemic that is coming back around,” said Greer-Lee. “This is not something that he didn’t know about. He knew that the Delta variant was on the rise. It is a blatant disrespect for human life.” She explained that inmates are hunger striking for PPE and the ability to be socially distanced, as well as other measures to protect them from the coronavirus. She said that the jail has taken retaliatory measures against activists, including not letting them out of their cells, cutting their phone time and putting them on lockdown.
Near the close of the demonstration, those on the inside were able to call out and speak directly to activists outside. They thanked demonstrators for bringing attention to their plight inside the walls.
Feature photo: Inmates hold up signs decrying the conditions inside the Cook County Jail. Liberation photo