The Links Between Policing and Environmental Justice

*This post is part of our new series on Black Ecologies edited by Justin Hosbey, Leah Kaplan, & J.T. Roane.

‘Fight the Power,’ Chicago Car Caravan – Justice 4 George Floyd (Flickr/risingthermals).

At 10:15 pm, on August 3, 2018, two University of Chicago Police Department (UCPD) officers cornered and shot Charles Thomas. In the aftermath, we learned that this was not the first time Charles Thomas had a mental health crisis. We learned that it was not the first time the world became too much. It was the first time he was shot. After three years as an undergrad at the University of Chicago (UChicago), he was pushed to the breaking point by a university that was founded on white supremacy and ableism. Even as I begin Thomas’ story with his struggles with mental health, I hesitate. I will not support false narratives that associate mental health struggles with a propensity for violence.

Rather, similar to Black Lives Matter activists’ chant of “People over property” – a powerful rebuttal that silenced detractors who delegitimized a movement for Black humanity, I view Thomas’ act of smashing overpriced apartment buildings as a form of protest. I imagine that the residents who locked themselves away and called the UCPD that night did so not because Thomas was vandalizing property, but because they were not fluent in the language of protest. Thomas’ destruction of private property amplified a moment where threats of gentrification and anti-Blackness converged, which threatened to erase Black culture from Hyde Park. A turn to Black ecologies allows us to see how systems of policing are created to preserve urban ecosystems at the defiance of Black lives.

As scholars J.T Roane and Justin Hosbey elucidate, Black ecologies charts Black peoples’ seemingly endless proximity to disaster. Black ecologies manifest in many ways; be it in the form of rising sea levels, landslides, or gentrification backed by police violence. Black ecologies is capacious enough to bear the histories of anti-Black racism and environmental degradation as two sides of the same coin. Thinking alongside Willie J. Wright, I understand Black ecologies as embodying how environmental habitats are used to enact and hide modes of anti-Black violence, describing how environmental racism manifests as the use of the environment to “mutilate, conceal and contain” Black people. Black ecologies links policing and environmental justice.

The UCPD has played a significant role in enacting violence against Black bodies in the name of urban conservation. On Chicago’s South Side, UCPD enforces the vexing relationship between university property, policing, and Black ecologies. What if we viewed the ravages of police brutality and militarization of Black ecologies from the same lens of urgency used when contemplating climate change’s potential threat (that disproportionately impacts BIPOC)? What if we realized that our dream of environmental justice will never be realized if all pollution is eradicated, but the police remain?

The disaster of state-sanctioned violence against Black people is part of a larger history of urban conservation practices steeped in white supremacy. From the 1919 Chicago riots, that killed young Black children accessing the white side of Lake Michigan, to the police murdering Rekia Boyd for being “too loud” and perhaps too unapologetically Black in a local park, it is evident that policing functions as a mode to preserve whiteness and wilderness. I read Thomas’ rage as a protest to the long-held valuation of the UChicago’s property supported by processes of gentrification and policing. The campus police’s use of excessive force is more about the preservation of the built environment than public safety. Unfortunately, this message is on brand for how the UCPD enforces the relationship between university property, policing, and Black ecologies.

The UCPD had early origins in the 1950s. UChicago had long prided itself as a garden in the city and a beacon of intellectualism in Chicago. In fact, the Board of Trustees advocated for Chicago’s campus to reflect this “city in a garden,” by investing in natural pathways, green spaces, and waterways, blending the built with the natural. The push for a garden campus was meant to attract students and faculty, and those affiliated with UChicago saw this access to wildlife as a rare and unique privilege of campus life. University officials grew concerned about how to preserve the university’s landscape with the increase of Black migration into Hyde Park’s surrounding neighborhoods. In 1952, Lawrence Kimpton, then university Chancellor, helped found the Southeast Chicago Commission (SECC), with the mission of urban conservation by driving out “crime and corruption from the neighborhood in which we live.”1

One of the SECC’s first tasks, under new executive director, Julian Levi, was to lobby the city to pass the 1953 Urban Communities Conservation Act. This Act allowed the university to use funds slated for urban renewal projects to conserve Hyde Park’s environment. Kimpton pushed for the development of high-income properties that would function as an “effective screening tool” to reduce the population of African Americans in the area. This strategically enabled the university to target and clear African American communities along 55th and 56th streets and increase its own land values. The university blocked public housing initiatives and eradicated hundreds of low-income Black communities, pushing thousands of Black people out of Hyde Park.2 The university imagined Black communities as the pollutants themselves. It harnessed the language of environmental preservation under the guise of maintaining the campus’s pristine quality, with one student famously advocating that the university ought to “build a wall around Hyde Park in order to convince students to attend the university.

Thus, the legacies of urban renewal grew exponentially with the privatization of neighborhoods. The union between state and private contractors within the university had stark implications for the Black residents who called the South Side of Chicago home. We see how Black ecologies can become manifestations of confinement in polluted areas, the exclusion from pristine areas, and the militarization of spaces to keep them white and wealthy.

Building on the success of this early private security initiative, the university invested in, and formalized, what is now one of the largest private police forces in the United States. A police force composed of 140 officers who have jurisdiction over 65,000 residents not affiliated with the university. The expansion of the UCPD has enabled the expansion of the university’s own borders, raising concerns about the effects of gentrification and continued land grabbing. While the language of urban renewal has passed, its vestiges live on. In 2015, a sweep of reports started coming out about Black residents and youth being stopped and harassed by the UCPD as they utilized the campus’s courtyards and other green spaces. Some reports have noted that 90% of the people stopped by the UCPD from 2015-2017 were African American. Campus police forces from Chicago and beyond have worked to instill a racial management of the built environment, the associated so-called “natural” environments, and protection of white wealth and property at the expense of Black lives.

As Thomas still navigates a punitive system that would delight in seeing him incarcerated for his act of defiance, I am compelled to think of the urgencies that these histories must bear on our present. As I navigate my own campus police force as a Black graduate student, I find myself dwelling on Thomas’ agitation against the built environment and its connections to black ecologies.  Thus, I read Thomas’ outburst of rage as a form of infrapolitics against the UChicago’s role as gentrifier at the expense and devaluation of black life in Hyde Park. The campus police’s use of excessive force had more to do with the preservation of the built environment than public safety. A message that is eerily on brand for the UCPD.

Even as I trace the historical linkages between policing and urban conservation, I return to this series on Black ecologies that push us to situate black ecologies as an abolitionist framework that moves beyond some of the historic violence I chart in my research. Conjuring Mariame Kaba, I cannot help but think that the true beauty in the turn of toward Black ecologies is its deep relations to abolition and futurity. Even as I write this piece, local residents and students in Hyde Park, in their mourning of #BreonnaTaylor have reignited the campaign #CarenotCops. #CarenotCops dreams of a world beyond policing, where the care of the community is in the hands of the people. Black ecologies prove that something radically different is always in the grasp of possibility. Even today, student organizers have taken over the UCPD headquarters to demand UChicago abolish the UCPD. As calls for the defunding of the police grow nationwide, it is important to include abolishing private police forces in those conversations. Black ecologies enable us to name these painful histories of anti-Black violence and the co-optation of environmental conservation in order to become critical to these conversations, thereby providing us clearer pathways to abolition.

  1. South East Chicago Renewal Project No. 1 (Chicago, Ill: Commission, 1954)
  2. Davarian L. Baldwin, “The “800-Pound Gargoyle”: The Long History of Higher Education and Urban Development on Chicago’s South Side,” American Quarterly 67, no. 1 (2015).
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Teona Williams

Teona Williams is a PhD student in the Departments of History & African American Studies at Yale University. Her research interests include U.S environmental history, political ecology, race and ethnic studies, environmental justice, digital humanities, and African American history. Follow her on Twitter @_ttwilliams.

Comments on “The Links Between Policing and Environmental Justice

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    Thanks for this wonderful

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    This is original, powerful analysis, in poetic language. Right on, Teona Williams. So glad for your perspective and your voice.

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    There is an equally disturbing version of this phenomenon in Portland, Oregon. During WWII, when local housing authorities refused to allow Black migrants (coming to the city to work in Kaiser shipyards) to live in Portland proper, the “city” of Vanport was created, on land on the Columbia River, in between Portland, Oregon, and Vancouver, Washington. Vanport housed workers of all races, and had integrated schools, as well as round-the-clock daycare and healthcare, to accommodate workers’ schedules (it was a sort of “socialism” driven by Henry Kaiser’s immense capitalism and warprofiteering; there was segregation in medical facilities and housing). Vanport was destroyed in a flood in 1948. Authorities downplayed the danger as the river swelled, so that residents ended up with little time and no support to evacuate. 15 lives were lost, and over 18,000 residents lost their homes and all their possessions. Vanport was also the site at which the institution now known as Portland State University (and now located in downtown Portland) began. In 2018, Jason Washington was shot and killed by PSU campus police. He was not on the PSU campus; he was breaking up a fight in a bar several blocks away. No officers were charged. PSU paid his family a large settlement. It took two years of demands from the community, including nightly protests here since the murder of George Floyd, before PSU finally agreed to “disarm” the campus police. Even activists who called for the disarming of the campus police (or the abolition of the force entirely) do not usually link the killing to the specific history of Vanport. But it is one of the ways the racist policies and practices of last century continue to manifest in this century.

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    Powerful analysis and so very timely. Thank you.

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    What an incredibly powerful and insightful piece! Thank you for telling a story that often goes untold. A story that is critical for the continue advancement of BIPOC. Thank you!!!

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    Very important connection between the relationship of policing and the role of universities in occupying space and taking power over Black communities. As a former UofC student, I definitely related to your essay. Keep of up the work.

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