The Illinois Tactical Officers Association (ITOA) held a 5-day long SWAT training and weapons expo in Hoffman Estates, Ill., from Oct. 9-13. They have a long-time affiliation with the Chicago Police Department and the Cook County Department of Homeland Security and Emergency Management (DHSEM). ITOA invited extreme-right conservative Dr. Sebastian Gorka to speak at the conference and weapons expo.
Gorka claims to be a counterterrorism expert and has advised the CIA, the Office of Secretary of Defense, and the Commandant of the Marine Corps, among other institutions of violence. ITOA trains local police and even Emergency Medical Technicians like one would train a tactical squad in the military. Providing military weaponry and equipment to the local police, ITOA is right at the helm of enabling police brutality within and beyond Chicago.
ITOA has been able to organize 28 conferences without disruption or resistance from the community. This record was broken on the 29th annual conference. Various youth organizers — including For The People Artist Collective, Assatas Daughters, Organized Communities Against Deportations, and others came together to issue a statement of opposition against ITOA and what it stands for.
Their statement was supported by 20 organizations, including the Chicago branch of the Council on American-Islamic Relations. This was the first time CAIR combined their messaging with a movement centered on police violence and militarization, marking a huge important step in bridging solidarity. The statement outlined major reasons to stand against ITOA, including their propagation of “toxic racism and Islamophobia.”
In light of severe tax cuts on mental health institutes and schools, the city of Chicago’s insistent spending of $4 million per year on the Chicago Police Department is appalling. ITOA uses some of the same schools that were shut down as training grounds for Cook County police officers, a slap in the face to the importance of funding education.
CAIR-Chicago held a conference on Oct. 6 to organize against ITOA in combination with Black Lives Matter Chicago, the Arab American Action Network, Center for New Community, Organized Communities Against Deportation, and the American Friends Service Committee. On Oct. 9, the first day of the ITOA training, many of the same group of organizers held the “Downtown Solidarity Rally to #StopITOA.”
A few hundred people attended the rally, listened to speakers discussing intersections of local and international police and military violence, and chanted powerful messages of resistance and solidarity. After the rally, the organizers, 13 females and 2 males, chained themselves to each other, forming a hard blockade, a symbolic representation of the oppression caused by ITOA and police brutality.
I spoke with Hoda Katebi, Communications Coordinator of CAIR-Chicago, artist with For The People Artist Collective, and activist fashion blogger at JooJoo Azad — as well as a Muslim Girl Staff Writer. Katebi was one of the 15 organizers arrested for forming the hard blockade. She was able to give me a personal account of the chain of events that day. Hoda described the slogans chanted during the rally: “Police and the military go hand in hand! Unite to disarm, unite to disband!” and fiery ones like, “We don’t need your guns, we don’t need your fists, police and the state are the real terrorists!” and “Cops, SWAT, and soldiers, do yourself a favor — stay the fuck away from our Muslim friends and neighbors!”
Several chants referred to both the Dakota Access Pipeline and transgressions in Palestine, connecting local police militarization to the role the United States plays in hyper-militarization beyond American soil: “No borders, no pipelines, no prisons, nor police!” and “Standing Rock to Palestine, occupation is a crime!”
Following the rally, all 15 chained protesters enacted the blockade, were arrested, and released after being charged for misdemeanors. I asked Hoda what the police reaction to the protests was like. She responded that they were angry, as expected, and as a seasoned protestor, she’d noticed they took it more personally and acted more aggressively when the protest was against police brutality. She noticed their different way of handling her own group that day. The Muslim and Arab protestors, including Hoda, were detained the longest after arrest.
The protesters were aware of their impending arrest, their purpose being to, in Hoda’s words, “bring to the center of the city — quite literally — harmful training and institutions that are often ignored by those not directly affected by it.” The frustration people face when traffic is blocked is only a tiny, tiny fraction of the absolute desolation police brutality has caused in the country.
An intriguing insight I heard from Hoda was that the way law enforcement handled their street blockade illustrated the very point the protesters were making. For just 15 chained, essentially stationary protesters, well over 45 law enforcement officers were dispatched. When the police were unable to break the lock boxes, they called the fire department. Neither had tools strong enough to disable the chains, so SWAT was brought in. The availability of such strong weaponry was played out on the streets of Hoffman Estates. Why are such military-style weapons even in use on the streets?
Hoda described her personal experience of being arrested in detail. Though they were standing and weaponless, the protesters were treated with excess aggression. The officer cutting her lock box unnecessarily slammed down on her foot with his own — and when breaking the chain on her left wrist, he used pliers. Though he had more effective tools at his disposal, he chose the pliers, which caused excruciating pain, despite her yelling at him to stop, and despite her complying with the arrest.
As her handling officer handcuffed and took her to the van, he openly complained to his fellow officers: “Why do I have to handle the foreign one? I can’t even pronounce her name,” adding literal insult to injury.
Though a Palestinian woman and Katebi were arrested second and third, they were detained the longest, the Arab woman leaving second and Katebi released last. This was unusual because it is common practice to release people in order of arrest after being held for such misdemeanors. The excuse given to her by officers for the delay was that they couldn’t get FBI clearance to release them. Funny how the only two names they “couldn’t” process were culturally Muslim ones.
When Hoda was brought into the department, she was isolated from everyone else in a glass box and surrounded by officers working at their computers. Intimidation tactics were in full display as officers spent a good 45 minutes arguing about whether she should take her headscarf off for her mugshot.
With the possibility of having her clothing forcibly removed from her dangerously close, Hoda argued too, telling them it was her religious right to wear it and that her rights were being compromised. After the traumatizing experience of having her rights in their hands instead of hers, Hoda expressed to me that she intended to debrief with her organization about the need to have proper “mechanisms in place for Muslim hijabi women.” They need to be trained on how to be arrested while wearing the headscarf, to know their rights and be prepared to deal with intimidation tactics specifically designed to humiliate them and their religious garb.
Hearing Hoda’s account had me thinking deeply about how high the stakes are. The protesters against perpetrators of police brutality had to prepare to face the very brutality they were protesting. It was a tremendous risk to stand in front of so much law enforcement, unarmed and compliant, eerily like the many others that have done the same but not survived to tell their stories.
It is against those unjust murders, against those officers that reacted “in the heat of the moment,” against the system that enables them to do so that these protesters stood. The sheer injustices faced by Black Americans are shattering. To stay quiet in the face of this issue is to be compliant with the violence.
Hyper-militarization is a problem both here and on foreign soil. It affects everyone. The activist approach, therefore, must also be unified. Muslims and Black Americans, are not, of course, mutually exclusive, so this level of teamwork is long due. The significance of this moment is not lost. Activist voices are amplified when they come from different backgrounds. Awareness is also increased; those who had not previously made solidarity with Black Lives Matter a priority may do so when alliances between diverse organizations are created.
It is absolutely crucial for minorities to stand together, not against each other. As cliché as it may sound, we are stronger together — and the solution to our problems can be created with our pool of knowledge, drive and heart.