“Chain Reaction: Alternatives to Calling Police” was a grassroots effort organized in Chicago from 2011–2013 by members of Project NIA and the Chicago Prison Industrial Complex Teaching Collective. We founded this participatory research and popular education project with the goal of supporting conversations about alternatives to calling police on young people. When police intervene in situations involving youth, ranging from loitering and petty crimes to violence, police involvement typically sets off a chain of events that can have far-reaching effects on a young person’s life. Chain Reaction is a volunteer-run, youth-driven project that aimed to interrupt that chain reaction in the city of Chicago; now it mostly lives as a web resource at www.alternativestopolicing.com.
We started by documenting the effects of policing from the perspective of young people in Chicago who have had direct encounters with police. Then we hosted an open listening session in downtown Chicago about the project, asking to reflect upon a set of questions: What is the chain reaction that we would ideally like to create in response to fear, violence, or harm?What resources do we already have in our communities to begin this chain reaction? What alternatives to calling police exist for those considering relying on police interventions with young people? What alternatives would we like to create? Finally, Chain Reaction created a “how-to” and curriculum so that others can replicate this project and use it to explore alternatives to policing in their own communities. We hope more listening sessions will happen in Chicago and that our resources will be used across the country.
Chain Reaction is an offshoot of Project NIA, a project that works to end juvenile incarceration by supporting community-based alternatives to the criminal legal system. Founded in 2009, NIA combines education and advocacy with direct work in Rogers Park, supporting community accountability and helping youth stay out of the criminal legal system.
Chain Reaction prioritizes collecting and disseminating personal narratives rather than statistics because we think they are more powerful and inspiring, and because the process of storytelling itself can be empowering. Our goal is to spark discussions around alternatives to calling the police when things go wrong. While statistics can back up our point that youth of color are disproportionately being arrested and locked up, personal, individual stories allow listeners to think about the series of events that led to a young person having an encounter with the police and the negative reaction that was sparked by that encounter. We can then use the stories to think about where adult allies could have intervened, or what we would like to have happened differently.
We don’t believe there’s one answer to the question, “What is the alternative to calling police?” Answers to violence, oppression and state repression must be community-driven and created in response to the needs of an individual community, geographic place and situation. We encourage communities to use the audio and video pieces and the curriculum to facilitate conversations to identify alternatives that already exist or to dream up new ideas for responding to harm and violence.
We have also found that talking about “alternatives” can be a limiting framework. Rather than imagining a system of justice that includes police and gradually integrates “alternatives to policing” in the form of reforms, we must imagine that a world without prisons and retributive justice. We must imagine a world rooted in just relationships and strength in reconciliation and mutual support, a world that works against scapegoating and towards an indestructible fabric of community. Without this foundation, any “alternatives” we dream up run the risk of continuing to perpetuate the same violence and systems of coercive power we are fighting against. We hope that the conversations sparked by our Chain Reaction resources help people imagine new ways of cultivating communities of belonging and collective power.