This story was originally published by The Chicago Reader.

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Frank Chapman, 80, has been a revolutionary organizer since the 1960s. He is currently the educational director and field secretary at the Chicago Alliance Against Racist and Political Repression (CAARPR) and a leader in the campaign for an elected Civilian Police Accountability Council (CPAC). CPAC and the Grassroots Alliance for Police Accountability (GAPA) were instrumental in the fight to establish democratically elected civilian oversight of the police, which was passed in a 2021 ordinance. 

In the late 1960s, the Black Panther Party sparked the first citywide attempt to establish community control of the Chicago police. It culminated in a 1973 conference that included speakers such as Dick Gregory, Fannie Lou Hamer, Renault Robinson, Bobby Seale, and Bobby Rush, as well as a ballot-measure effort to get elected, citizen-led police boards in every district. That effort was ultimately defeated by then-mayor Richard J. Daley’s Democratic machine.

In recent years, killings by Chicago police and the widespread protests and rebellions that took place in the wake of the murder of George Floyd by Minneapolis police reinvigorated the local movement for community control of the police. The latest chapter in organizers’ efforts will come to fruition on February 28, when, for the first time ever, three people will be elected to serve on police district councils in each of the city’s 22 police districts.  

In 1961, Chapman was wrongfully convicted of murder and armed robbery and sentenced to 50 years in the Missouri State Penitentiary. While incarcerated, he began studying the law, reading revolutionary literature, and following the advances of the civil rights movement by reading Ebony and Jet. Chapman helped start a movement to desegregate the prison, where Black prisoners were subjected to “horrid and ridiculous” conditions. He reached out to politicians and activists and ultimately got in touch with Angela Davis, a key organizer in the Black Power movement and communist professor at the University of California, Berkeley. In 1976, Chapman was paroled and has been part of the struggle for liberation ever since. “I’ve stayed committed to this movement,” he says, “and I will continue to stay committed to it until I die.”

The Reader recently spoke with Chapman about the movement to establish community control of the Chicago police. What follows are his words, which have been edited for clarity and length.

The struggle for community control of the police, or CCOP as it became known, started in Berkeley, California, around 1968, led by the Black Panther Party, some of the members of Students for a Democratic Society, and other progressive people in the community in the Bay Area. By the time it got to Chicago, Fred Hampton [the deputy chairman of the Illinois Chapter of the Black Panther Party] was in the struggle and very, very conscious of what he was doing. He built the first Rainbow Coalition in this city by fighting around this issue of community control of the police. 

It became a real serious campaign shortly after Chairman Fred was murdered by the police in December 1969. The campaign was really formed from a broad base. It was a multiracial coalition consisting of the Black Panther Party, the Alliance to End Repression, the NAACP, the League of Black Women, the Chicago Peace Council, the Midwest Latino Conference, and the American Indian Movement. 

The goal of the CCOP was to build a people’s political machine of Black, Latino, Native American, and white working-class people to take control not just of the police but of their respective communities. The campaign united and cooperated, pooling resources to attack the local power structure at all its vulnerable points, and they considered police violence and terror to be one of the most vulnerable. 

They organized a voter registration drive precinct-by-precinct to get CCOP on the ballot. And we learned a number of things from that campaign, specifically that beating a powerful machine requires a tremendous amount of energy and resources and dedicated grassroots organizers. And while that [CCOP] movement had some of that, it did not have enough. In the wake of that defeat, CCOP shifted its tactics to trying to get progressive activists elected, such as Cha Cha Jimenez from the Puerto Rican Young Lords [who ran for 46th Ward alderman], or Black Panther leader Bobby Rush [who served in Congress until his retirement this month]. These candidates campaigned on a platform of greater community control by calling for such things as a community zoning board to combat gentrification, community escrow programs to combat slum lords, and other community service programs. They weren’t just talking about community control of the police. By and by, these movements were diluted in terms of their demands and so on, and over a forty-year period, they were all but forgotten about. 

[Winning] requires more than just having a broad concept about community control in general, and of all the different things CCOP fought for. It requires building a real, serious grassroots movement that’s rooted in the neighborhoods and communities, where you have tens of thousands or hundreds of thousands of people believing in bringing this change about and willing to fight for it. That’s what our movement [Empowering Communities for Public Safety] accomplished. And we would not have accomplished this had the way not been paved for us by Fred Hampton and others.

In March of 2012 Rekia Boyd, a 21-year-old Black woman, was murdered [by Dante Servin, an off-duty CPD detective]. The community was outraged about this. It happened right around the same time that Trayvon Martin was murdered [by George Zimmerman in Florida]. So there was anger in the air already. The Chicago Alliance Against Racist and Political Repression and other organizers held a meeting, and we decided to launch a movement calling for an all-elected civilian police accountability council. When we started out with our first public meeting, we had about 150 people. We decided that there was a good indicator of what the people in the community want, because all those 150 people were, in fact, victims of some police crime or another. 

We began to go into the communities on the south side and on the west side. For seven years, we collected signatures from people, demanding community control of the police, demanding an all-elected Civilian Police Accountability Council, known as CPAC. And in those seven years, we did not just have folks sign; we talked to people. 

By the time the George Floyd rebellion broke out, we had already collected about 60,000 signatures here in the city of Chicago. We had some signatures in every ward, and we had over 1,000 signatures in 38 wards. So we were a mass movement when the George Floyd rebellion broke out. The first demonstration that we had in the wake of the George Floyd rebellion, we had over 4,000 cars in caravans and damn near 30,000 people on the ground. So that was a very massive movement that made the powers that be in the city say, “Okay, we will talk to you, we will negotiate with you about doing something about this problem.”  

When she was running for the office, Mayor Lightfoot said that she was going to do something about this within 90 days after she was elected, and a year later still nothing was done. A year later. So, we formed a united front with the Grassroots Alliance for Police Accountability, and Empowering Communities for Public Safety is what we called ourselves. That also became the name of the ordinance that we got passed: Empowering Communities for Public Safety. 

That was a historic advance for our people, and it took us overcoming a lot of differences within our movement about what police accountability should look like. And so in the ECPS ordinance are some basic agreements that we had to have in order to go forward: we had to have a well-defined voice in saying who polices our communities, and that voice had to be democratically elected by the people.

Frank Chapman // Courtesy ECPS Coalition

The first phase of that struggle, which we’re now in, is getting ECPS implemented. And that means getting not just movement people but getting the people in the communities that are most devastated and impacted by police tyranny, getting those people involved in this fight and getting them to run for these positions of councilors in the police district councils. 

Nothing in the history of our country has been done like this before. This is the result of us actually creating a law that empowers our people in the communities to have a  decisive voice in saying who polices our communities and how our communities are policed, and this will be done through a democratic election. 

It’s never been a democratic option before for our people to say who polices our communities and how our communities are policed. We have been living under police tyranny for 100 years in this city, going all the way back to the 1919 race riots when the police joined white mobs to murder us in the streets. So this has never happened before. Not only has it never happened before in Chicago, it’s never happened before in the United States. 

And therefore, we put a high priority on these elections. The people who don’t want this to happen are the Fraternal Order of Police and some of the alderpeople who cosign everything that they say and even, to some extent, the mayor’s office itself, which was forced to come as far as they could on this. They fought us all the way. We negotiated every line of the ECPS ordinance with the mayor’s office. I can tell you because I was sitting at the negotiating table. We had to fight for every line that meant something to our people. We won some of those fights, and we lost some of them. 

I think the FOP realizes that they’re not the most popular group in south-side and west-side communities, because people in these communities are acutely aware of the harm that they bring: they have lost family members, both in terms of being killed and brutalized. They have lost family members in terms of being incarcerated for crimes they did not commit when John Burge was operating his torture crew—they tortured and forced hundreds of people to confess to crimes that they didn’t commit, which means that they left hundreds of people who actually committed those crimes on the streets. So these are the abuses and excesses that have been deeply felt by the Black and Brown communities of the city, but especially the Black community. All you gotta do is look at statistics; they tell the truth, that we’re overwhelmingly impacted by this, more than any other community in this city. That’s why the FOP don’t have a lot of [ballot petition] challenges on the south side and the west side, openly, that is, because they realize that they’re not that popular in these communities where they have been the perpetrators and the defenders of police crimes for decades.

What [the FOP] do have are people who they influence in these communities, who we expect them to back. We’re going to beat them at the ballot box. That’s where we want to beat them because we want this to be a democratic option that is used by people to get this done. So we’re saying we win at the ballot box, or we’ll catch the bullets later. So it’s really like Malcolm X once said: “the ballot or the bullet.”

We are very confident that we will win, because our people are sick and tired of being sick and tired of the police committing crimes in our communities and going unpunished. This was a democratic option all the way around, where we say not only who polices our communities, but how our communities are policed, so that the real safety needs of our community can be responded to appropriately. And that means not shooting down people with their arms raised in the air in the posture of surrender, like Adam Toledo was, or shooting people that have a little penknife like Lacquan McDonald did, several feet away from you, yet you put 16 shots into him. 

We don’t need that kind of policing in Chicago or anyplace else in this country. And only we the people can stop it. This is a movement that has to begin in the cities, at the local level, where we the people have our hands on the levers of power and we can change this.

is the news editor for the Chicago Reader.