In robbery-plagued Chicago, community meetings draw packed houses, claim of ‘propaganda’

CHICAGO — Aldermen representing robbery-laden Chicago neighborhoods took significantly different approaches this week as they faced sometimes angry crowds at separate community meetings.

At one meeting, two aldermen apparently tried to control the narrative by only answering screened questions that they said were submitted in advance.

At another session, a different alderman sat in the firing line for an hour-long meeting, then stuck around for another hour to talk with anyone who cared to continue the conversation.

While we have not heard from anyone who believes either meeting generated solutions, it is clear that residents left one feeling they had been heard while people at the other felt they got played.

‘Propaganda’

As residents arrived at New Life Community Church for a “public safety town hall” with Ald. Daniel La Spata (1st) and Ald. Jesse Fuentes (26th), on Monday evening, they were invited to head downstairs to meet with “local leaders.”

There, representatives from activist groups greeted them and distributed promotional materials.

“It was all very political in defense of [Mayor Brandon] Johnson’s agenda, as I kinda expected,” an audience member told CWBChicago. They returned to the meeting hall and waited for the main event.

Once it started, the community group representatives formed a panel and discussed how they prevent violence.

“It took forever because it was as if they were trying to convince the crowd that alternatives to policing are the solution to the crime wave,” recalled the attendee. 

“They also had the police wait 30 minutes before making their introductions, so the focus would be more on the community groups. It was as if there wasn’t a violent crime wave sweeping many parts of the city, and it was just another Monday night. I was shocked.”

The fireworks began when the organizers announced they would only be fielding questions selected from those submitted in advance by people who registered to attend.

“That set off many people in the crowd who began questioning, ‘Is this a town hall if we cannot ask questions?'” recalled the audience member. “‘Great, so you’re only going to answer questions that you cherry-picked?'”

One observer became so upset that he walked out as he shared his personal experiences with La Spata.

Some media outlets said the man had been ejected from the forum, “but that is not what I saw,” the audience member told us. “He simply said this whole thing is a propaganda event for La Spata and walked out.”

The pre-selected questions were all “softballs,” recalled the attendee. “What can the community do to prevent violence? What investments in the community are needed to prevent violence?”

“I am fairly progressive on many issues,” the audience member told us. “But this group was so far out there, it was infuriating.

“Audience members started objecting. The organizers were constantly trying to talk over them. ‘There are no questions from the audience allowed.’ ‘Please be respectful of the rules.”

“I was watching Jesse Fuentes and La Spata the whole time,” recalled the audience member. “I will say that Jesse did seem to care that the crowd was upset and was very willing to engage in dialogue. La Spata sat there with a stunned, almost sad expression on his face.”

“As the crowd was clearly disinterested and starting to thin out, Fuentes said, ‘We’re going to change course and allow questions from the audience as soon as we get through the next panelist.'”

“Everyone showed complete respect for all the organizations trying to prevent violence but kept saying, ‘That is a long-term solution; prevent the next generation of criminals from turning to crime. We are being robbed left and right, all hours of the day.'”

“During the event, the alders’ staff were going up and down the aisle, handing out flyers. I wish I kept them, but I threw them out,” the audience member continued. “On one of them, I read, ‘What is being done right now to prevent violence by Alderman La Spata?’ And, I kid you not, the first two things were full implementation of the SAFE-T Act and helping push the mayor’s investment in underserved communities. I have never seen anything like it.”

La Spata’s office did not respond to an email seeking input for this story and a copy of the flyer.

Packed house

About 150 people attended Wednesday’s regularly scheduled community policing (CAPS) meeting in Bucktown—about 140 more attendees than the CAPS two months ago.

“It was a very intense meeting, with the line going out the door of the fieldhouse even after (the) meeting started,” Ald. Scott Waguespack said yesterday. He estimated that, including Zoom users, 200 people attended.

About 150 people attended a community policing meeting in Bucktown on September 27, 2023. | Provided

“People were angry, scared, and wanted answers, but appreciate the officers in the district and what they are doing.”

Across Chicago, robbery reports are up 24% from last year and 30% from 2019, the last year before the pandemic. But the story is much worse in the Shakespeare (14th) District, which includes Bucktown. Robberies there were up 53% as of September 17. They’re up 96% versus 2019.

The hour-long CAPS meeting ended at 7:30, but Waguespack said he stayed until 8:45, answering questions and talking with anyone who wanted to continue the conversation.

An audience member told CWBChicago they felt few solutions surfaced during the meeting.

“From the CPD side, it was basically, ‘Often, when you see a robbery or attack, people would rather record it on video. Please call 911!’ ‘If you see someone wearing a ski mask in 70-degree weather, please call 911. That is a suspicious person. Please call!'”

One resident, who appeared to be in his 60s, revealed that he only takes his credit card, ID, and phone when he walks to Walgreens.

“I’ve heard robbers may get angry with you and hurt you if you don’t have anything, so do you recommend I take something of value?” recalled the audience member who shared their observations with us.

The CPD sergeant’s response: Sure. You could put a few dollars in your wallet and give that up.

Some residents complained about the Chicago Police Department’s vehicle pursuit policy, which puts all responsibility for negative outcomes on the backs of police officers. The policy also states explicitly that no officer will ever be penalized for not pursuing a criminal.

Waguespack told the gathering that, after trying to meet with Johnson early in the new mayor’s term, the two finally got together a few weeks ago.

The audience member recalled Waguespack saying he encouraged Johnson to condemn the increasing violent crime publicly and even shared Johnson’s email address so residents could contact the mayor directly.

“People want to hear the mayor and officials join in condemnation of crimes. They want more enforcement of crimes but also prosecution and adjudication that leads to jail time for violence,” Waguespack said.

The alderman also noted a significant change in the City Council since he joined the body in 2007, such as members who actively seek to abolish the police, said the audience member.

Recalling the ward’s success in tackling entrenched gang problems, Waguespack encouraged residents to fight back, and, with time, the neighborhood will return to a good place.

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CWBChicago was created in 2013 by five residents of Wrigleyville and Boystown who had grown disheartened with inaccurate information that was being provided at local Community Policing (CAPS) meetings. Our coverage area has expanded since then to cover Lincoln Park, River North, The Loop, Uptown, and other North Side Areas. But our mission remains unchanged: To provide original public safety reporting with better context and greater detail than mainstream media outlets. Our editorial email address is news@cwbchicago.com