I was 14 the first time I’d ever walked through the main entrance of Whitney M. Young Magnet High School. It was August 2012, on orientation day for the incoming class of 2016. My mother and I had commuted about an hour from our apartment in Uptown to get there. 

We entered through a metal detector being monitored by a Chicago Police Department (CPD) staffed Student Resource Officer (SRO). I recall the assembly we attended: a legion of hyperactive soon-to-be freshmen shuffled into the theater to hear our principal, Dr. Joyce Kenner, wax poetic about the history of the school, its alumni — Michelle Obama, most notably —  and us, the school’s future. 

Dr. Kenner was careful to use the entire name, Whitney M. Young, of the civil rights leader for which the school is named. The school was established in 1975 at the request of community members who wanted a vacant lot at 211 S. Laflin to be turned into a school following the riots of 1968 after the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. 

This past weekend, 211 S. Laflin was the site for the #BreakThePiggyBankChicago protest, a demonstration aimed at ending a recently modified $15-million CPD contract with Chicago Public Schools (CPS), a contract that put SROs in schools, and redirecting CPD’s $1.8 billion annual budget toward investment in schools and the community. 

The demonstration was a collaborative effort among abolitionist organizations including GoodKids MadCity (GKMC), The #LetUsBreathe Collective, Black Abolitionist Network (BAN), Chicago Freedom School, BYP100, Black Lives Matter Chicago, BLCK Rising, The International Black Freedom Alliance, Chi Resists, Lifted Voices, Boricua Resistance, Chi Nations, Chicago’s Afrosocialist and Socialists of Color Caucus, U.S. Palestinian Community Network, Brave Space Alliance, and the Chicago Alliance Against Racist and Political Repression (CAARPR). 

The list of organizations may seem overwhelming for a single action, but the result of the combined forces was perhaps the most well-organized and impactful youth-centric demonstration that I’ve ever witnessed.

Photo by Darius Griffin // The TRiiBE
Photo by Darius Griffin // The TRiiBE

It was my first time walking up to the corner of Jackson and Laflin since I picked up my cap and gown in 2016. The crowd of about 400 attendees surrounded speakers from various backing organizations, as well as CPS students who gave their own testimonials. Jalen Kobayashi, a Whitney Young class of 2019 alum, artist and an organizer with GKMC, was the first to speak. 

“This school was named after Whitney M. Young, a civil rights activist, a freedom fighter, executive director of the Urban League and president of the National Association of Social Workers, fighting against employment discrimination, [and] we’re out here with our ancestors,” Kobayashi said. “I can’t go outside to lunch without being followed by the police. I can’t go in school without being checked for my I.D. several times,”

Kobayashi’s accounts of an outstanding police presence in and around the high school rings all too familiar to my ears. Whitney M. Young sits across the street from the CPD’s Training Division and is thus surrounded by a police presence throughout the campus. 

Aside from the SROs that monitor the school’s entrances, it was not unusual during my time at Whitney Young for police training to take up space on campus or disrupt the flow of the school day with false alarms, sirens or lockdowns.

Jalen Kobayashi, a Whitney Young class of 2019 alum, artist and an organizer with GKMC, was the first to speak at the #BreakThePiggyBank protest. Photo by Darius Griffin // The TRiiBE
Alycia Moaton is a youth organizer with GoodKids MadCity. Photo by Darius Griffin // The TRiiBE

Kobayashi and Alycia Moaton were each part of the more than 20 protestors who were arrested during demonstrations on Aug. 15 following the police shooting Latrell Allen in Englewood. Moaton, also from GKMC, added: “When we say ‘protect Black and Brown lives,’ we don’t mean after the fact,” she said. “Don’t wait until we’re a hashtag. This is happening right now.” 

Before the march began around 7:30 p.m., organizers went over housekeeping notes regarding behavior during the march, plus designated medics, safety and the demands that the protest aims to bring attention to. 

Jae Rice — aka DJ Dapper — of Brave Space Alliance, led the group in announcing the group’s demands. “We are fighting for… ,” Rice began. “…the city council to defund CPD by 75 percent, and invest those funds into social services and community programs. We want CPD out of CPS!”

Of all the protests I’ve covered throughout this summer’s uprisings, this was one in which the audience was younger-leaning, and more racially diverse, as opposed to other predominantly white-attended actions that were simply led by people of color. 

At #BreakThePiggyBank, demonstration marshals, who were mostly white, surrounded the outside of the parade on bikes, their neon green vests creating a distinguished barrier between police and protesters. As we moved north on Laflin toward Adams, the police presence gradually increased, going from about two cars and a handful of bike cops during the rally, to a legion of officers sitting on side streets, riding bikes alongside, and even undercover during the march.

Photo by Darius Griffin // The TRiiBE
Photo by Darius Griffin // The TRiiBE

The chants of the march pulled no punches from not only the institution of policing, but also from the residents of the area. In 1975, when the high school was first founded, the surrounding neighborhood, as well as the school, had a greater population of Black people. 

Now, the Near West Side is another product of gentrification. White residents left their homes or watched from their balconies as protesters headed north on Bishop chanting “Fire! Fire! Gentrifier!” and “Black people used to live here” over megaphones pointed directly at their condominiums.

As nightfall grew closer, the police presence only increased. The march reached the intersection of Washington and Bishop, right on the corner outside of the Chicago Patrolmen’s Federal Credit Union (CPFCU), and officers in riot gear lined the street, blocking any further advancement. Behind the line of officers and across the street from the CPFCU, is the office of the Fraternal Order of Police, where a police riot vehicle, and additional squads of riot police are stationed outside.

“I don’t see no riot here! Why are you in riot gear?” 

The cries from protesters became more fervent as the march reached a fever pitch, and demonstrators circled around some organizers carrying pinatas. There were three pinatas in total, each in the shape of a pig.

Photo by Darius Griffin // The TRiiBE
Photo by Darius Griffin // The TRiiBE

One of the organizers, Christopher Brown — aka ThoughtPoet — invited three Black trans women to the front to begin the destruction of the pinatas. Each pig was demolished one at a time, each one filled with play money, representing the nearly $2 billion dollars that the city earmarks for CPD. 

The crowd rejoiced even louder each time a pig pinata was mangled, and music began blaring over speakers in celebration of the dismantling of the symbolic pinatas. A swag surf ensued, and joints were passed as the protesters were completely surrounded by CPD officers on all sides, cutting off any advancement. That seemed to be fine with the organizers: their statement had been made, and shortly after 8:00 p.m., instructions began on exiting peacefully. 

First, the march headed back to Whitney M. Young, this time to the corner of Laflin and Adams. Then something happened that I’d never witnessed at the conclusion of a protest; organizers began setting up rides for demonstrators to get home safely. Protesters who were going in the same direction were separated by direction: West, South, North, East, and those who had additional space volunteered their seats for carpools. 

“Who keeps us safe? We keep us safe!” 

It was a chant that I hadn’t heard before the summer of these uprisings, and specifically prior to police conducting mass arrests of protesters, who were often detained for days at a time. Just last week, officers were caught on video surrounding protesters downtown, and preventing them from leaving the area, a tactic called “kettling.”

One of the organizers, Christopher Brown — aka ThoughtPoet — invited three Black trans women to the front to begin the destruction of the pinatas. Photo by Darius Griffin // The TRiiBE

ThoughtPoet was one of the first organizers to be detained by CPD back in June during a protest in Hyde Park following the police murders of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor.

“I’m just trying to make sure everybody get the fuck home now,” he told me. 

His concern is of the dangers of the police, more than anything else, it seems. News of police officers and federal agents in Portland abducting protesters into unmarked vehicles has made national headlines, and Chicago activists have discussed in the past how they’ve been harassed by law enforcement in the aftermath of these political actions. 

In a march to the home of CPS board member Dwayne Truss, in protest of the CPS contract with CPD on Aug. 21, Destiny Harris of BLM Chi voiced that same concern. 

“We don’t want anyone being picked up or f***ed with by police after this,” Harris explained as she gave instructions on how to disperse. 

The protest outside of Whitney M. Young ended without any violence from CPD. However, as I was leaving the area, still swarming with police officers, I couldn’t help but recall Kobayashi’s words about how it felt being a student at Whitney M. Young, feeling constantly monitored and restricted by police. 

I am reminded of that feeling throughout most protests; but this one felt different. The threat of police violence looms menacingly over demonstrators, with no real idea if, at any point, the police would deem the crowd too rowdy, and descend onto it as if it were a riot. 

That threat felt more present throughout this protest, one with quite minimal aggression from protesters, and a well executed, peaceful plan. 

Without even a potential threat of violence from protesters, the chant “I don’t see no riot here! Why are you in riot gear?” becomes a genuine question.

is a staff writer with The TRiiBE. Email him with news tips.