AUSTIN — On the same day Tae Dudley and his friends launched a violence prevention program in his neighborhood, he was assaulted, he said.
The group of young people organized a safe zone in a troubled part of Austin, an event where families could enjoy their summer in peace. But hours later, a Chicago Police officer charged with safeguarding the neighborhood attacked 20-year-old Dudley, bringing violence into the safe zones youth worked so hard to build, he said.
The June 23 kickoff of the anti-violence initiative, known as the Austin Safety Action Plan, began as a smashing success, organizers said. But hours after it ended, Dudley was swarmed by police, punched and cuffed without explanation, he said. He was never charged with a crime, police confirmed. He was given no warnings or orders before officers battered him, Dudley said.
The incident is now being investigated by the Chicago Police and the Mayor’s Office.
“I’m just trying to figure out why. What did we possibly do that was a threat? They didn’t tell me what we did wrong,” Dudley said.
The summer launch event at Austin Town Hall Park, 5610 W. Lake St., had food and music for neighbors to enjoy. There was also a basketball tournament and games like Jenga, bingo and spades aimed at building connections between young people and older people in the neighborhood, Dudley said.
“Everybody needs somebody at the end of the day. As a community we can help each other. If we can trust the people around us we’re rooting for them, we can get a sense of unity and empower each other,” Dudley said.
Organizers were excited about the large turnout and positive feedback from the launch event so they stuck around at the park after it ended with their friends and family, Dudley said. Around 10 p.m., officers approached the group and told the group to disperse, even though the park didn’t close for another hour, said Darian German, another anti-violence organizer. The Austin Safety Action Plan group partners with the Austin Police District, and most cops in the area know the people who were at the park, German said.
“When they first approached us, we thought they were just saying what’s up, on some cool stuff. But they were telling us we couldn’t be there. It was the first time we’d ever heard that… this was our get-together spot where we all grew up at,” German said.
The group got ready to leave and Dudley peeled off from the group going in another direction, he said. A few minutes later, the officers returned with several additional squad cars and rushed at Dudley, punched him and put him in cuffs, he said.
“They never said anything. They just bounced out the car, pointed at me. One of them got their gun out. … They hit me in the jaw and put their arms around me,” Dudley said.
Dudley feels the group may have been “labeled as gang-related activity because of our skin color,” he said.
When others in the community heard the commotion and saw officers “rough up” Dudley and shove other young people, they tried to deescalate by explaining the group’s community safety work, German said.
In a video after Dudley was cuffed, organizers yell at the cops “read his shirt.” Dudley’s shirt was the same one other Austin Safety Action Plan violence prevention organizers were wearing. It said: “Protect Our Hood.”
Officers eventually uncuffed and released Dudley before leaving with no explanation as to why the violent confrontation happened, German said.
Chicago Police declined to say why officers approached Dudley and would not identify which officers were involved in the assault. But leadership is aware of the incident and has opened an investigation, said Sgt. Rocco Alioto, a spokesman for the department.
German said the incident shocked the group.
“I was shocked at this because it had never really happened to us. We were trying to help [police.] Creating [the Austin Safety Action Plan] was us trying to better our city and that’s helping the officers. How are we supposed to work together if they’re doing things like that, harassing us?” he asked. “We’re not doing nothing but chilling in our community.”
These kinds of incidents shatter the trust between residents and the police, German said.
“If it can happen to us, it can happen to anyone,” German said. “We’re supposed to be trusting them with our lives. We’re supposed to feel comfortable around them.”
The young people behind the Austin Safety Action Plan were recently commended by Mayor Lori Lightfoot for their leadership in creating community-led solutions to stop the violence.
“We need to make sure we are listening to our young people… our young people are doing amazing things all over the city every day,” Lightfoot said at a recent press conference where German was invited to speak about the Austin Safety Action Plan
Young people should not be assumed to be troublemakers and many are at the forefront of fixing the problems in their communities, the mayor said at the press conference.
“We don’t want to paint every single young person in our city with the same broad brush because it’s not fair,” Lightfoot said.
The mayor’s office is working with police and community members to learn more about how the confrontation unfolded, spokesman Cesar Rodriguez said in a statement.
“[The Austin Safety Action Plan] is a valued partner who shares our commitment to creating safe spaces and reducing violence in the Austin neighborhood,” the statement said. “Everyone from the government to community organizations to city residents has a role to play in violence prevention.”
Now, the youth organizers are working to hold the officers accountable while ensuring their public safety project does not get derailed by the confrontation, they said.
The Austin Safety Action plan was designed to reclaim areas that struggled with violence by filling them with positive events and community-building programs based out of neighborhood hubs like the Austin Town Hall Park, the library and local schools. The project was initially started in 2021, and it was successful in reducing violence in the safety zone, organizers said.
Later in the summer, ASAP will have programs that “invest in our mental wellness” as well as peace circles, men’s groups, women’s groups and activities to promote physical health, Dudley said. The plan will “keep people engaged” in the community, which helps keep the peace, he said.
By offering activities and events that address the things people in the neighborhood need, ASAP aims to “create a designated safe zone and take back space that’s used for loitering and idle behavior,” Dudley said.
“There’s a lot of things we want to make a change with, like grocery stores and mental health,” Dudley said. “We want to be able to be safe so everybody can come out and have fun and be themselves.”
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