Chicago is a key site in the movement against the epidemic of police violence that continues to leave the lives of Black people in its wake. From the killings of Rekia Boyd and Laquan McDonald by Chicago Police Department officers to the more recent video evidence of the department’s outrageous mistreatment of Black women like Anjanette Young and Martina Standley, the Windy City is home to much of what fueled the national uprisings against racist policing in 2020.
The documentary film Unapologetic, which premiered last fall at festivals around the country, movingly captures the energy of activists in Chicago who have long been a heart of what’s driving this movement even when they aren’t making national headlines: young Black women. Directed by Ashley O’Shay, Unapologetic spotlights Janaé Bonsu and Bella Bahhs, two police abolitionists in the city who have taken to the streets over and over again to protest against the state violence experienced by Black Chicago residents and agitate for the end to a system of policing and incarceration they see as primarily punitive and destructive to Black communities.
Though movements against racist policing often feel like they will always be relevant in the U.S., last summer’s national protests marked an evolution in the continuing conversation about how police treat Black Americans—a conversation that has since been further punctuated by the markedly hands-off policing white insurrectionists received during their takeover of the U.S. Capitol last week.
Last year, Black Lives Matter became a call that was grudgingly and briefly accepted by most Americans—rather than outright rejected as somehow offensive—and the work of activists who’ve been pushing for the end of bloated police budgets and the redirection of funds to community-based services became a relevant policy discussion during the presidential elections. Still, the push to “defund police” has garnered considerable pushback, even from former President Barack Obama.
But defunding the police is not just a slogan, say the women featured in Unapologetic—it is a strategy and demand.
“What scares people about it is that they don’t know what it means,” Bonsu told The Root in an interview. “They say, ‘if you defund the police, then who’s going to keep us safe?’ But police don’t prevent violence.
“It’s people that have been impacted by the violence that is policing that are calling for defunding,” she pointed out.
Bahhs, who in the film movingly shares how mass incarceration and the war on drugs has personally affected her and her family, echoed the same, adding that the call to defund police is ultimately about moving money towards education, healthcare, jobs and housing programs that actually support communities beleaguered by poverty and the violence that often accompanies it. “We are demanding what we know will be a lifesaving policy,” she said.
Saving lives is at the core of the work the two are doing as activists. In Unapologetic, you see them leading protests on the streets of Chicago, calling for accountability at meetings of the city’s police board, and, at one point, disrupting a restaurant full of mostly white patrons having brunch (one of whom complains to police that the protesters disturbed his meal), all to trumpet the cause of justice for young Black people killed by police in the city.
“We are not trying to convince people that we deserve to live,” Bahhs said to The Root of their no-holds barred activism. “We are attacking a corrupt and abusive ideology that manifests as American police and American government, we know this is fueled by racism.”
The documentary itself highlights how policing and incarceration systems work together to maintain a status quo that is hostile to Black lives, generally. Bahhs and Bonsu, working with the Chicago chapter of the youth activist group BYP100, often lead with the experiences of Black women in their call for police accountability.
That’s because it is critical to “tell more complete stories, and make more complete demands,” says Bonsu, by not presenting Black men as the prototype of who experiences violence from the state. The injustices meted out to Black women like Breonna Taylor and the harrowing video footage of Anjanette Young being traumatized by police while naked in her Chicago home, underscore the truth of this.
Bonsu and Bahhs also say that they are building on a tradition set by civil rights activists like Ella Baker, whose example of Black female-led leadership represents the world they are working to create.
“We drive solutions and strategies that are not rooted in war, not rooted in patriarchal violence,” Bahhs emphasized.
In the documentary, Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot is seen in her previous role as president of the city’s police board disparaging what she describes as the “ease” of protesting versus coming up with real solutions to address police violence, after scenes in which the young activists push for the firing of cops who killed Boyd and McDonald. Dante Servin, who shot 22-year-old Boyd in 2016, has since resigned from the CPD, while the officer who fatally shot Mcdonald was found guilty of second-degree murder in 2018.
While Lightfoot has moved up the ranks in terms of leadership, she still continues to equivocate in her responses to police violence and undoubtedly did a disservice when she suggested the crop of engaged and passionate activists featured in Unapologetic are only moving through the streets and making noise while offering no alternatives to what they are fighting against.
Bahhs, whose focus on decarceration is informed by the damage she’s seen the war on drugs wage on Black families and communities in Chicago, is for imagining an approach that is the opposite of war.
“I’m thinking about divesting from incarcerating people for drugs and investing into a society where people aren’t dependent on drugs for their well-being,” she said.
The activists also see Black people taking more of a role in preventing and intervening in violence in our communities through bystander intervention and holding people who cause harm to account for their actions in our own social circles.
“Some of the rapists and murderers are your cousins and your uncles and your homie,” said Bonsu. “It’s also working in our communities to build processes for transformative justice.”
The two recognize that the movement they are a part of has gained both unprecedented national support and opposition, and they believe this is a testament to its viability, whatever the political chattering. As long as Black people’s lives are treated as if they don’t matter in this country, the movement to challenge the forces that maintain that reality will keep going—through the work of the people who are unapologetic in calling for change.
Watch an upcoming virtual screening of Unapologetic, hosted by the Film Festival Alliance, tonight Saturday, Jan. 16, at 8 p.m. ET