Safety Rally Sparks Campus Debate About Race & Policing

Following the death of a third UChicago student this year, a student rally for campus safety has ignited discussions about the role of policing in Hyde Park and beyond.

On November 16, a group of students organized a rally on the Main Quad to demand the university increase safety measures on the University of Chicago campus and in the Hyde Park neighborhood, following the death of recent UChicago graduate Shaoxiong “Dennis” Zheng, who was shot and killed during a robbery near campus on November 9.

The group of students, called We Want Safety, describes themselves as student volunteers and denies any organizational affiliation. The rally, which started in the Main Quad and marched to the Regenstein Library, drew dozens of UChicago undergraduate and graduate students and faculty as well as Hyde Park residents.

Zheng’s death was announced to the University community on November 9 via an email from President Paul Alivisatos and Provost Ka Yee C. Lee. “This is a deeply painful day for our community and our city,” Alivisatos and Lee wrote. “This afternoon we received the terrible news that a recent graduate of the University was shot and killed off-campus in the course of a robbery.” The email went on to say that the University was in close contact with Mayor Lori Lightfoot, Chicago Police Department Superintendent David Brown, other members of the Mayor’s team, and local aldermen regarding the safety of the campus and neighborhood.

On November 10, a GoFundMe page was created in Zheng’s memory by the Chinese American Association at Greater Chicago, which has raised almost $310,000 at the time of this writing.

On November 12, the university announced that a suspect, Alton Spann, had been arrested for Zheng’s murder.

Disappointed by the university’s response, a group of students, who had formed a group chat on November 9 to support Zheng’s family, created the We Want Safety website and began organizing the rally on November 13. They handed out flyers bearing the slogan “We are here to learn not to die,” and circulated a Google Form with details of the rally, urging the university community to get involved. Their demands, as listed on their website and the Google Form, are as follows:

  1. Extension of Free Lyft Passes hours.

  2. Extended coverage of the shuttle routes and stops in Hyde Park and shorter waiting times.

  3. Real-time alerts for ANY crime within the Hyde Park area, regardless of the victim’s affiliation to the University.

  4. Annual safety and security training for all students, faculty members, and staff.

  5. Life insurance for all university members who are not currently covered or provided with such options.

  6. Options for off-campus protections.

  7. Police accountability: [The UChicago Police Department (UCPD)] should send us regular updates on investigation outcomes following every security alert.

Another list of demands calling for increased police presence and surveillance systems was released earlier on November 11 in a faculty petition letter titled “A call for action to enhance the safety and security of our community.” The letter received 348 faculty signatures as of 9 AM on November 15 but was written by a “very different group,” according to an anonymous student rally organizer.

In an interview with Exploring Race, the anonymous organizer stated that the letter was initiated by faculty from the Statistics department and was “more police-directed” than the demands of the rally.

“We acknowledge the complexity of this problem [of policing],” the organizer said. They added that the demands of the rally aimed to provide short-term solutions for campus safety, while longer-term changes regarding police presence “need[ed] more input from the local community and other groups of students.”

However, some attendees felt police presence was equivalent to safety. “The shortage of policing…cause[s] so many tragedies, so we would like [the government] to at least increase the force of policing for the whole city, especially the campuses, to secure everybody’s safety,” said Alex Chen, a recent graduate of the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.

“We cannot just let the criminals enjoy freedom…[while] innocent people live in fear…We need the protection of [the] police,” said a rally attendee who wished to remain anonymous.

UChicago MACSS student Sophie Wang saw policing as a temporary option. “Currently there is no better solution,” she said. “It’s definitely a…compromise, so that’s how I understand [it].”

Some attendees were more skeptical of increasing police presence but saw attending as a way to make their voices heard.

“I would like to see less of a focus on asking for more police and more [focus on] free Lyft rides and stuff like that, because I think we should be able to...walk around without being in fear,” said a visiting postgrad from Ireland who did not wish to be identified. They added that they were attending the rally to show solidarity with those who had known Zheng.

Henry L. Cheng, a penultimate-year MAPSS student, shared a similar view. “[Some people] just think very simply, ‘We just want more police [and therefore more safety].’ I think that kind of demand is understandable but not acceptable...[on] a political level, I really do not think over-policing is a good way to protect the community.”

Dominic Robolino, a student at the Pritzker School of Medicine, also joined the rally in hopes of providing a different perspective. “Good Kids Mad City [and] Care Not Cops are organizations that are actually working upstream to ameliorate some of these socioeconomic conditions and things that [perpetuate] violence,” he said. “No one came anywhere to die. People don’t...go out to the grocery store to die, that’s nobody’s goal. I think [the slogan ‘We are here to learn not to die’] just stems from a sort of self-centeredness [detached] from the conditions that people experience on a daily basis.”

The rally has been met with conflict across campus from various groups and individuals.

On November 19, Care Not Cops, a campaign under UChicago United and Students Working Against Prisons calling for the abolition of the UCPD, rallied against policing and surveillance outside the Crown Family School of Social Work, Policy, and Practice on 60th and Ellis. The group also released a petition titled “WE DEMAND HEALING NOW,” demanding the reduction and disbandment of the UCPD, community initiatives to address gun violence, reparations for the surrounding neighborhoods, and the foundation of a department for Critical Race and Ethnic Studies and community centers at UChicago.

On November 20, the Organization of Black Students (OBS) at UChicago released a “Statement on Racialized Paranoia & Anti Black Rhetoric Within the UChicago Community” addressing the increase in racism and anti-Blackness on campus, and denouncing historical gentrification, violence, and divisions between Asian American, Black students, and residents of Hyde Park.

Previously, the anonymous submissions Facebook page UChicago Secrets had seen a spike in racist, anti-Black, and anti-Asian commentary, with some posts directly referencing the rally.

On November 30, the University held a Safety and Security Webinar for College Parents to answer questions about safety issues from parents. The administration also sent a “UChicago and Campus Safety” email to international students and parents on November 14 with a list of safety measures available on campus, but did not address issues of race or policing.

Resources on policing & abolition: