Police force or occupying force?By Bryan Crawford -Contributing Writer- | Last updated: Apr 18, 2017 - 1:03:31 PM
CHICAGO—The New Era movement, founded in Detroit back in 2014, was created out of a deep understanding that Black people—particularly men—must stand up, be accountable and take control of their communities.
Members of New Era Chicago and New Era Detroit recently descended on the Englewood neighborhood on Chicago’s South Side to kick-off the year’s first "Hood2Hood" event. They go into Black neighborhoods picking up trash and spreading positive messages of love and empowerment in the streets.
"We don’t do this because we’re accusing the people who live in these communities of being lazy," Sis. Mina, who serves as the director of media and marketing for New Era Chicago, told The Final Call. "We understand the psychology and pathology of what’s behind the condition of our people within our communities."
For three hours, a contingent of roughly 50 men, women and children, walked through Englewood April 3 carrying Pan-African flags and spreading messages like, "Black love. Black pride. Black unity. Race first." They also passed out literature about services and resources that could benefit residents.
Hood2Hood cleanups have been received in an overwhelmingly positive manner, said the New Era groups.
"The worst someone will say is, ‘I like what y’all are doing but I can’t walk with y’all because I don’t want y’all to get shot,’ " said Oya Muuzic of New Era Chicago. "But when we come out, we get nothing but love and positivity because we’re spreading nothing but love and positivity to our people."
"Sometimes we’ll have someone that when they see us coming, they’ll walk away because we have our own media people out there recording the event, and they’re scared of the camera and they don’t want the attention," said Eric Mobley, one of New Era Chicago’s leaders and chief organizers. "But when we’re out there talking about peace, love, Black unity and Black power, even the roughest, most thugged out people on the block, they’ll receive it. Everybody agrees that our message is correct and whether they move in that direction or not, they know that what we’re talking about is absolutely right and a key part of the salvation for our people."
One of the primary tenets of the Hood2Hood initiative is not to engage with police in any way that is disruptive to New Era’s work.
"That message is really for those who volunteer to go out with us because some of our people are incredibly zealous, angry, and they don’t know how to conduct themselves to just be disciplined and do the work," Mr. Mobley explained. "Some like to get into shouting matches and debates with the police, and I just wanted to instruct them and let them know that’s not what we’re out here for."
While in Englewood, New Era was followed by Chicago Police Department vehicles who kept their distance, but monitored what was going on. At one point, a CPD sergeant got out of his vehicle and praised the group for their efforts while pretending to pick up trash himself, said activists.
"The police officer who was picking up the trash was a Latino gentleman," said Ms. Muuzic. "He actually motioned to another police vehicle to fall back and let us go on doing what we were doing, but they were obviously preparing to meet us on the other end. And if you watch him in the video, the Latino officer always has this consistent smirk on his face. He was the one who actually started what happened by acting as if he was helping us, but then went back to his car and called for more police backup."
When they regrouped back on 63rd St. and Ashland in a vacant lot on the Southwest corner of the street, there was already a heavy police presence at the intersection and the air was thick with tension. Members of both New Era groups felt police were there to antagonize them, not engage in any peaceful encounter.
"By the time we got back to 63rd and Ashland at the end, there may have been six or seven squad cars there," recalled Mr. Mobley. "But before I knew it, there was more cars and like 30 or 40 officers out there and things just escalated."
In video, you see police telling people to stay on the sidewalk, which they were. But within a matter of seconds, the scene went from peace to utter chaos and violence. The police justified their actions by saying New Era was interrupting the traffic flow, but members say they weren’t in the street.
"There was a cruiser immediately inside the vacant lot when we came back to 63rd and Ashland, and then two more pulled up to kind of block us in. There was never an opportunity for us to even be in the street," recalled Ms. Muuzic. "We never obstructed traffic. When they got there, they told us to get onto the sidewalk. The problem is they would get a little more aggressive each time they said it. In the video, I was standing next to Sis. Mina as she was stepping back from the curb and a female police officer grabbed her by the forearm and pushed her. You can hear me say to the officer that she didn’t have the right to put her hands on her, and the officer responded saying, ‘Yes I do.’ So, in the process of complying, even that wasn’t enough for them."
Group members say video posted on Facebook clearly depicts members of the Chicago Police Department being the aggressors. Members of both New Era groups were physically assaulted by police with their hands, fists, elbows, knees, Tasers and batons. You can also hear police speaking in a derogatory manner and breaking and stepping on their UNIA Pan-African flags, which are red, black and green. The flags go back to the 20th century Black nationalist movement of the Hon. Marcus Garvey and the Universal Negro Improvement Association.
"When we were in the police station, the main officer who I believe kicked it all off, came in and said, ‘This ends today. We let you guys do this last year, but today it ends. Every time you come down the street with those f---ing flags, this is what you’re going to get,’ " said Mr. Mobley.
The police didn’t discriminate as men, women and some of the children, fell victim to their attack. There is one scene where an officer in a red shirt is punching, kicking, elbowing and even kneeing the individual under the pile, who turned out to be a 15-year-old young man from Detroit. However, no one from New Era can recall any of the Black officers engaging in the same behavior as their White counterparts.
"The Black officers were nowhere near as aggressive as the White officers. They were not aggressive at all," explained Mr. Mobley. "There was no tension between us and the Black officers and there never has been. When we’re out in the streets and the Black officers see us, they’ll ask what we’re doing, we’ll let them know, and they pretty much salute us. But with the White officers, they’ll mock us and you can see the disdain that they have for us in their eyes. But I think the Black officers are sympathetic to our cause and they know what it is we’re trying to do."
All told, nine arrests were made, with four members of New Era Detroit charged with felony assault and detained for several days in the Cook County Jail while waiting to post bond amounts ranging from $30,000 to $50,000.
But while in the jail, Zeek, founder of New Era Detroit, continued to do the work alongside his New Era Detroit brethren, adhering to their organizational motto of, "It don’t stop."
"We got locked up on Saturday and stayed in the police station until they shipped us off to the county jail on Monday morning," said Zeek, who didn’t offer a last name. "Surprisingly, the brothers in Cook County [jail] knew who we were. They’d heard about some of the work we were doing in Detroit that made national news, and some were familiar with the Chicago chapter. We got really good treatment from our people, and if you know anything about us, when we get in there we’re gonna start talking. We’re gonna try and change that environment by lifting our people up and changing the narrative. We talked to a lot of the young kids in there, and there’s so many. It’s like the equivalent of 15 high schools. That’s how many young, Black boys are sitting in the Cook County Jail right now.
"Some told us that they were working in the kitchen to try and make their bonds. They made like $2 an hour, which is taxed, and comes out to like .35 cents. It’s like modern day slavery in there. That’s the best way I can put it. The Cook County Jail is one of the worst county jails I’ve ever been in. It’s a plantation, but we got a lot of love from our people in there."
The criminalization of Black organizations
"At the end of the day, the police are a paramilitary force that occupies our communities to make sure that we stay in line," Kofi Ademola of Black Lives Matter Chicago told The Final Call. "They’re there to make sure that we don’t rise up or rebel. The police are the state’s first line of defense to keep us in our places. When you have a group like New Era talking about Black economic development and Black power, that’s problematic for the police."
One would think that the police would be behind these kinds of movements as it lightens their load and makes their job easier. However, criminalizing Black men and women is big business, and any disruption to that is frowned upon by law enforcement, said some activists.
"The strength and self-determination of these brothers and sisters in New Era gives the oppressor a look at free Black men and women desiring justice," said Jeffrey Muhammad, student minister in the Nation of Islam and member of the Justice or Else! movement. "To no longer use prior methods of civil disobedience and to have a look of Black nationalism brings fear to our former slave masters. Flying the flag of the Hon. Marcus Garvey—and not the U.S. flag—represents Black people, and brings out the mindset of White supremacy."
The clash was not broadcast through the mainstream media and took almost two weeks to reach a larger audience, primarily through social media. New Era called the lack of coverage a deliberate "media blackout," and feels there is a very distinct reason for it.
"They don’t want the Black liberation movement to swell the way we’ve seen happen in recent years," Sis. Mina explained matter of factly. "If you consider what has been going on since 2012 with cellphone videos capturing police assaulting and even killing unarmed Black men and women, you saw a huge protest movement take place across the nation and even around the world. It put the police on blast. It put racism on blast, and White Americans do not like being called racist, so they put the onus and blame on Black people. Anyone who tries to silence you about your personal experience in this country, because it makes them uncomfortable, that’s a racist act in itself because they don’t want to acknowledge or admit it."
Added Mr. Mobley, "We know that there are a lot of industries and institutions that have been founded and thrive on our dysfunction. So, when we get to tampering with that by trying to preach unity and love among our people, we’re going to encounter some resistance."
What’s next for New Era?
The events on April 1, 2017 have made New Era more unified and enthusiastic about its work.
In February, Zeek and members of New Era Detroit, with the assistance of Student Minister Troy Muhammad of the Nation of Islam’s Muhammad Mosque No. 1, had an opportunity to meet with Minister Louis Farrakhan who told them they are on the right path and would find people ready to help with their work.
The Chicago Police Department said that the Independent Police Review Authority is investigating the events of April 1. They also said that they reached out to members of New Era Chicago to determine how both parties could work together in the future.
The city police issued the following statement: "(The Chicago Police Department is) committed to working with residents to protect their First Amendment rights and ensure their safety as well as that of the surrounding community. As is practice, officers were monitoring the gathering throughout the duration of the event to ensure the safety of the participants and community, and that roadways remained clear for vehicle traffic. CPD has attempted to contact the group’s organizers to ensure future events remain peaceful and safe."
The Chicago chapter of the National Lawyers Guild committed to providing legal support for the four New Era Detroit members charged with felonies and who will have to return to Chicago for their first official court date on Monday, April 24.
"Them being charged with felonies falls on Kim Foxx’s office, and it’s going to be up to her to uphold justice," Mr. Ademola said of Mrs. Foxx, a Black woman, who is the newly elected state’s attorney in Cook County. "She needs to go over this case with a fine-toothed comb to see if these people’s civil rights were violated from the police using a law as a weapon against our people to suppress us."
Another supporter is Pat Hill, a 21-year veteran of the Chicago Police Department who is now a police accountability advocate. She offered some helpful advice for New Era members on how to properly deal with the police moving forward.
"Any gathering like that is going to be intimidating because as you can see, most of those officers in Englewood are White," Ms. Hill told The Final Call. "The best thing to do moving forward is to not get permission from the police, but to give them notification. Contact the community policing office and let them know they’re going to be doing a cleanup in whatever community they’ll be in. Now the department has been put on notice that people are planning to act out their constitutional rights. What you end up doing is flipping the script and end up making the police be your escort as opposed to your antagonizer."
As for the future of the New Era movement, its members are committed to empowering Black people and building a true community.
"New Era is a movement for the people," said Zeek. "It doesn’t matter if you’re Christian or if you’re Muslim. It doesn’t matter what your belief is. As long as you believe in the betterment of Black people, then we can work together and we should be working together. What we’re doing is for all of us, not just ourselves."