AUSTIN — West and South side neighborhoods are reviving block club networks that empower residents to keep watch over their communities and deter crime — reducing the need for police intervention.
The watch groups have already worked for residents like Marquinn McDonald, who volunteered to patrol his area of Bronzeville as recent rioting and looting began.
“I believe in taking ownership of your community. …We have the right to look out for one another,” McDonald said. “The only way you’re going to have safe neighborhoods is by having everybody involved. The police is a reactionary force.”
Hyperlocal community watch groups were a part of organizer Amara Enyia’s platform in her bid for mayor last year. But now, as communities grapple with the coronavirus pandemic as well as unrest over police violence around the city, Enyia has started to put those plans into action.
Community watch groups emerged organically in Enyia’s Austin neighborhood, where many residents still belong to block clubs. The block clubs are a way for neighbors to keep an eye out for elders and children.
So when the pain and outrage against police violence at the George Floyd protests spilled over into vandalism, Enyia helped formally organize block clubs and other neighborhood groups to protect local businesses.
More than 50 people on the West and South Sides are now taking shifts to safeguard their own communities as part of Enyia’s block-watching program.
When incidents do surface, the neighbors jump into action. Each block now is connected with others doing the same work, so residents have far more collective support than they did as a standalone block club.
Enyia’s network keeps track of where monitors are, and also identifies which blocks are having frequent issues and need extra eyes and ears.
“We need to invest in strengthening the block club infrastructure that has people monitor their own blocks in their own communities so we don’t have to rely on police to keep us safe,” Enyia said. “And the city can actually help to fund the infrastructure to do that.”
‘People listen to those who can share in their burdens’
On the West Side, Pastor Robbie Wilkerson has helped Enyia’s block-watching program use the abundance of churches to make the area safer.
Wilkerson said the local faith communities have helped to monitor about 25 blocks in the area in collaboration with neighborhood groups like the West Side Health Authority and the Austin Chamber of Commerce.
The churches are also a gathering place for residents to coordinate the revitalization of the community beyond public safety.
“We utilize those houses of worship to be beacons of light and to galvanize the community, block-by-block, to pull together individuals who can help us do some community policing and organizing,” Wilkerson said.
Since the program started, the looting has slowed down, Wilkerson said. Volunteers live in the areas they monitor, so they can engage with potential troublemakers to help address the root of people’s frustrations that can lead to vandalism, Wilkerson said.
“People listen to those who can share in their burdens,” Wilkerson said. “That community messenger is a very powerful tool that I’m hoping that our government and our leaders will take notice” of.
McDonald had organized community safety initiatives in the past, so he knew Enyia’s block-by-block network would help stop people from damaging property and endangering neighbors in Bronzeville.
The first night McDonald went out, his patrol group came upon people breaking into a nearby MetroPCS shop. As soon as McDonald’s group showed up in numbers, the people who were looting fled.
In another incident, a woman in the neighborhood was being harassed by men as she was doing a food giveaway in the evening. She texted McDonald’s group because she felt unsafe.
McDonald’s group showed up quickly and did something police wouldn’t have been able to — they stuck around for hours to make sure she was safe through the duration of the giveaway.
McDonald’s group has also done wellness checks for kids and older adults in the area. They’ve even monitored police officers and reported misconduct to make sure the community is safe from police violence.
Investing in local communities to prevent crime instead of traditional policing, which responds after the fact, could save the city a lot of money, Enyia said.
The $1.78 billion budget for Chicago Police Department accounts for about 40 percent of the city’s operating budget. To help protect South and West side businesses from looting, the city shelled out an extra $1.2 million to hire 100 private security guards to monitor business corridors — the same thing Enyia’s network is doing for free.
A stronger community infrastructure supported by city dollars can make neighborhoods more resilient to pandemics, riots and everything in between, Enyia said.
“If we had already established that network … a lot of the damage from the looting could have been mitigated because you’d have had people ready to monitor and protect the businesses,” Enyia said.
The city has increased its community-based safety budget sevenfold since 2019 to $11.5 million, according to Mayor Lori Lightfoot’s office. The street outreach and trauma-informed victim services funded by that money is aimed at shifting away from a police first-and-only strategy for reducing violence, a spokesman for the mayor said.
But as cities like Minneapolis pull cops out of schools, and Los Angeles shifts as much as $150 million away from police and into communities, Enyia said the time has come for Chicago to follow the lead of grassroots organizers who are imagining alternatives to policing.
“We’ve been calling for the same things over and over,” Enyia said. “We cannot have public safety 40 percent of our budget. The status quo is expensive.”
Pascal Sabino is a Report for America corps member covering Austin, North Lawndale and Garfield Park for Block Club Chicago.
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