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For young protesters against police violence in Chicago, it's personal

Chicago activists say the protests aren't just about the recent release of controversial police videos. They're about their own experiences with racism, violence, and poverty.

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    Protesters demonstrate in Chicago in response to fatal police shooting of teen Laquan McDonald, Nov. 27, 2015.
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As LaCreshia Birts got ready to join in protests against police brutality in Chicago Friday, her family was at the front of her mind.

“My father was incarcerated for most of my life, and my uncle was killed by the police when I was just 10 years old,” says Ms. Birts, who is in her mid-20s. “My family’s experience with the justice system is the reason I’m an activist. I’m doing this because I’m personally invested.”

Weeks after the release of the police shooting videos of Laquan McDonald and Ronald Johnson, young black activists continue to hold almost daily protests in Chicago. For many of these activists, like Birts, the protests aren't just about the recent police videos. They're about their own experiences with racism, violence, and poverty. Activists and researchers alike are pointing to those personal experiences to explain the successes and resilience of the Black Lives Matter Movement in Chicago so far.

On Thursday, the University of Chicago announced that it will build a Level 1 adult trauma center on its South Side campus. The predominantly black area of Chicago has been without a trauma center for decades, and gunshot victims and other severely injured people have had to travel miles away to receive medical help.

The call for a South Side trauma center was adopted by many activists on the streets in recent months as part of a wider campaign against racism and poverty. Thursday’s announcement was claimed as a victory by FLY – Fearless Leading by the Youth – which had campaigned for a trauma center for five years. FLY is a program of the group Southside Together Organizing for Power.

Protesters again plan to march Friday in Chicago’s downtown in what is being called a “citywide walkout.” In the three weeks since activists began marching, Chicagoans have seen their police superintendent step down and their police department become the target of a federal civil rights investigation, as well as the announcement about a South Side trauma center. Activists say they will continue to call for the resignation of Mayor Rahm Emanuel and Cook County State’s Attorney Anita Alvarez.

Twenty-something Veronica Morris-Moore is a leader of FLY. She says that while growing up on the South Side, she understood well the problems her community was facing.

In her senior year of high school, two of her classmates were shot and killed. One of them was killed by a police officer, she says. Then, in 2010, a fellow FLY activist was killed in the crossfire of a drive-by shooting. Although he was shot only a few blocks from the University of Chicago’s South Side hospital, he was taken to a hospital with a trauma center downtown. He died during the 11-minute ambulance ride.

“Knowing people who’ve been shot and seeing and knowing what poverty is has informed how I organize,” Ms. Morris-Moore says. “I’ve lived these conditions. It’s not the same as reading studies or something like that.”

University of Chicago political science professor Cathy Cohen has been studying black youths for more than a decade, and she says that black Millennials’ experience with the police, justice system, and violence differs greatly from that of their white and Latino peers.

In a 2009 study conducted by Professor Cohen’s Black Youth Project, 54.4 percent of black people ages 18 to 29 said that they or someone they knew “experienced harassment or violence at the hands of the police.” In contrast, 32.9 percent of whites and 24.8 percent of Latinos in the same age group responded likewise. Young black people were also much less likely to trust the police and much more likely to know someone who had been the victim of gun violence in the past year.

These differences help explain the popularity of the Black Lives Matter movement, Cohen says.

“We know that young people of color face far greater challenges, whether it’s unemployment or a lack of a good public education and really detrimental and dangerous interactions with the police in their neighborhoods,” she says. “I think that’s one way people can begin to understand the outrage and why so many young people are willing to go to the streets at this moment to demand accountability, respect, and an overhaul of the structure of policing in a city like Chicago.”

The black activists marching in Chicago are a diverse crowd: Some are middle-class students while others are poor and have not attended college, Cohen says. The thing that has brought them together as a movement, however, is their shared experiences with racism.

“The unifying framework is that sadly, they’ve all experienced different manners of brutality in their lives and they’ve decided that they have the willpower and the knowledge and the ability to mobilize their communities,” Cohen says.

Older black activists in Chicago have taken note of the drive of young activists like Morris-Moore and Birts. Last week, Laquan’s family spoke publicly for the first time since the release of the police shooting video and expressed their gratitude for the young activists advancing the cause of Laquan and others.

“I want to thank the young people that have marched for justice day after day after day after day,” said the Rev. Marvin Hunter, Laquan’s great-uncle. “They were marching because each and every one of them could feel the pain of the Hunter family on a personal level, because they’ve all experienced it: police brutality. And nothing is being done about it over and over and over again.”

Laquan was 17 years old when he was shot 16 times on Chicago’s Southwest Side in October 2014. A white Chicago police officer has been charged with first-degree murder in the case.

Morris-Moore says that the past month has shown what a “formidable political force” young black organizers can be.

“The fact that the University of Chicago has finally after five years listened to what young black people have to say should show everyone that angry, young black organizers are absolutely credible,” she says. “Because we are the ones facing the problems, we are able to come up with a solution that best fits our needs.”

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