Over the past six years, the Edwin F. Mandel Legal Aid Clinic of the University of Chicago Law School collaborated with residents of the Stateway Gardens public housing community in a police accountability project. Working with Stateway residents, writer Jamie Kalven documented instances of police misconduct on the ground, while Professor Craig Futterman and his students pursued strategic litigation. Over time, this partnership gave rise to five federal civil rights suits. The most recent of these, Bond v. Utreras, was settled last month and figures centrally in the public discourse in Chicago about police impunity and accountability.
When we began this initiative, Stateway Gardens, together with the Robert Taylor Homes to the south, constituted the largest concentration of public housing--and poverty--in the nation. In the course of our involvement there, community members were relocated and the high-rises in which they lived were demolished as part of the Chicago Housing Authority's "Plan For Transformation." Today the site is being redeveloped into a mixed income community.
The experience of working on the ground at Stateway during these years unsettled our categories of analysis and deepened our questioning. At the outset, we worried that citizens contending with so much--destruction of their known world, forced relocation, the hopes and fears associated with redevelopment-- would not give much priority to issues of police accountability. We found, on the contrary, that they not only cared intensely about these issues but saw police practices as an integral part of the "transformation" they were undergoing. They challenged us to understand the interactions between law enforcement and development, between "the war on drugs" as waged in their community and the restructuring of the central city, between abusive police practices and urban renaissance.
The purpose of "The View From The Ground" conference is to explore issues, themes, and lines of inquiry that have emerged from our immersion in the eight square blocks of inner city Chicago that were Stateway Gardens. It is designed to enrich public conversations about fundamental issues--race, class, gender, institutional denial and impunity--by grounding them in the realities of life in an inner city community at a time of "transformation."
Stateway Gardens no longer exists. The questions persist and demand to be engaged.