BRONZEVILLE — It’s just after 9 p.m. when Marquinn McDonald gets a call from a student in his self-defense class. She’s asking him to check out a disturbance on an otherwise quiet block in Bronzeville.
McDonald says he’ll be en route soon, warning his student to be safe. The calls are routine now, and he answers each one.
McDonald has been patrolling the streets with the help of a small, dedicated group of volunteers since 2018. After a hiatus, the patrol resumed in May as looting devastated several Chicago neighborhoods and violence here spiked to its highest levels in the city since the 1990s.
As Americans grapple with the role of policing and impacts of police violence, some Chicagoans are trying to take matters into their own hands. They are revitalizing block club networks and watch groups to oversee their neighborhoods, modeling how community safety can work without typical police intervention.
“We don’t need police. We’re capable of policing ourselves, and this is how,” McDonald said.
‘They know I’m coming in peace’
On this humid mid-July night, McDonald is joined by five other men, all wearing bright green safety vests. The group could easily be mistaken for a construction crew heading home from a late shift, which is also part of the strategy, McDonald said.
Some days there might be another car or two joining the watch. Other days, it might be him and a couple of volunteers piled into his late model sedan with a Pan-African flag in the rear window — a key component of McDonald’s deescalation strategy.
“People see the red, black, and green flag and their attitude changes,” said McDonald, who runs Quantum Martial Arts and Fitness in the South Loop. “They know I’m coming in peace.”
The group uses old school walkie-talkies to communicate and relies on location-based safety alerts from the Citizen app to decide where to go.
They stay away from areas reporting gun activity — “we don’t carry guns and you don’t know what you’re gonna walk into” — opting for more manageable situations: Boys throwing rocks at a building, an unaccompanied woman waiting for a late night bus, a domestic dispute between a young couple, which ended with the boyfriend going to therapy.
“The young man needed someone to listen, someone to hear him out. We gave him that, but we also let him know that what happened couldn’t happen again,” McDonald said. “And it hasn’t.”
Watch members also function as independent witnesses — someone there watching the police and those they are apprehending.
Spurred by instances of police inaction, McDonald said he thinks police departments should be defunded. The night before, he received a call from a friend saying a group of men were harassing women as they exited the Garfield Red Line station.
He headed to the scene. State troopers were also there, but they didn’t initially intervene, McDonald said.
“There were state troopers on the platform investigating an incident, and this is happening literally feet away from where they are. And they didn’t do anything until a woman got knocked out by one of the guys,” McDonald said.
“We were outnumbered, but we managed to get her help and medical attention. It was clear she had some mental issues, and the officers wouldn’t arrest the man because she was unable to cooperate,” he said.
For the South Side native, this volunteer work is a calling to McDonald. He toyed with the idea of becoming a cop — at one point joining the police academy — but realized it wasn’t for him. He felt the institution was too corrupt to affect any real change. It went against his pacifistic nature.
McDonald felt his talents would be more useful in the community, mentoring students at Fenger Academy and Hirsch High, teaching women and girls how to defend themselves and creating a group that truly believes in taking care of its own.
“We’re just brothers in the area bringing security and safety to the community,” McDonald said as he waits for a fellow patrol member to come down from his apartment. “We can’t do it all, but we want to look out for our people.”
‘There’s nothing like a quick patrol’
With his own watch group up and running again, McDonald is branching out to help other residents looking to the same.
After a series of carjackings left Southeast Siders on edge, residents there are looking to start their own patrol group.
In a community alert, police said the alleged perpetrators are teens and pre-teens as young as 10 years old and behind at least two dozen carjackings in the Park Manor, Chatham, Calumet Heights, South Shore, Pill Hill and Stony Island Park neighborhoods between June 23 and July 18.
Andre Russell, who lives in Chatham and sought McDonald’s counsel, told Block Club he has seen increased police presence around his “generally quiet” neighborhood but he still wants to assemble a team of neighbors to volunteer a few nights a week.
“There’s nothing like a quick patrol. Just take a couple of hours at night or during the day to just play your part,” Russell said.
“If they don’t know they’re being watched, they might make a mistake. Or, if they do know they’re being watched, they may not do something and go somewhere else,” Russell said. “The whole idea is to make these people too uncomfortable to try to do something they should get away with.”
McDonald’s team patrolled Russell’s neighborhood one night in hopes of getting to the kids before the police. Some speculate the kids are part of a larger, sophisticated ring, but McDonald said he is convinced they’re just looking for excitement.
If the teens are apprehended, McDonald said he wants it done without any suspects or police being harmed in the process. That’s why part of the work McDonald and his volunteers also do includes monitoring traffic stops or other police-involved incidents.
“We want to make sure everyone gets home safely and in one piece,” McDonald said. “At the end of the night, everyone should be able to walk away.”
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