Remembering the Intentionally Forgotten
Chicago artists and residents made a quilt embroidered with the names of people killed by Chicago police
Since 2008, 118 people have been fatally shot by the Chicago Police.
It’s a stunning, damning count of victims that includes the names of Laquan McDonald, Ronald Johnson, Rekia Boyd, and Dominique Franklin. These are some of the names behind the recent political insurgency and social movement aiming to dismantle a justice system that some argue has been "designed to fail."
City leaders and the police department seemingly never wanted this number revealed. There was no public list before a group of artists and researchers volunteered to dig through police reports and news articles to compile the list.
To add insult to the pain of uncovering this hidden truth, the names of these victims are not recorded either.
Rachel Wallis, an independent artist and activist, developed Gone But Not Forgotten, a community quilting project, to uncover and document the names and lives of individuals killed by the Chicago Police Department.
“We can’t talk about justice, or police accountability, nor reform, if we don’t even know the names or stories of the people killed by police,” Wallis said.
When a life is lost to the tragic and seemingly endless cycle of gun violence, its common to see public memorials faithfully assembled by friends and family of the victim(s). The power of these makeshift monuments lies not only in their raw emotion, but the confrontation they force us to have with the unavoidable reality of this crisis.
But how do we publicly honor those who were killed by police?
Wallis said she wanted the process to produce something that would bring the full scope of the problem into the public. Individuals memorials don’t offer a scope of the large trends and patterns in gun violence.
As part of the project, organizers put together six quilting circles in communities across the city this fall. Residents from surrounding neighborhoods gathered to embroider the names of victims on six point stars (modeled after the stars on Chicago’s flag). They discussed questions of transformative justice, police accountability, and community safety.
Chicago resident Krupa Patel said being in the circle gave a familial vibe to the process of reconnecting with quilting, a family practice in her home country of India.
"We’re stitching the names on cotton, which has historically been used to make clothes to keep us warm, and also picked by our enslaved ancestors. We are resurrecting this fabric and repurposing it by memorializing people."
The idea for making a quilt came from another project Wallis was involved in.
In April 2014, a group of 14 women revealed the product of a process that tried to answer that question. They created “Untitled (Homicide Quilt),” a quilted map of the city with the names of each of the city’s homicide victims from last year stitched into the neighborhood where a life ended.
After the press conference for the quilt’s unveiling, a reporter told Wallis that the names of people killed by police are not included in the yearly tally of gun violence deaths.
“I couldn’t believe it,” Wallis said. “How is it that no one in the city keeps a record of people killed by police?”
Wallis says the reason for that, lies in “respectability politics,” a the notion that all victims in police-involved-shootings are inherently criminally-minded people deserving of death.
Part of it also has to do with the lack of a culture of accountability for police, something Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel has had to apologize for in recent weeks. At a City Council hearing two weeks ago, Emanuel promised to stamp out the “code of silence” among police, the practice of officers covering up for each other.
The Chicago’s Independent Police Review Authority, or IPRA, has investigated nearly 400 police shootings (fatal and non-fatal) since 2007 and found only one to be unjustified, according to the Invisible Institute, a nonprofit that investigates police shootings.
Over the last decade, the city spent more than $500 million on police misconduct-related legal claims, including those involving police shootings, according to city data.
Wallis said the project, and the revelations it has made, would not be possible without the visible and powerful activism of young black people.
She partnered with We Charge Genocide, an organization of Chicago residents concerned about the epidemic of police violence against black people.
“It is the courageous, powerful and visionary organizing of young black activists in this city, that is going to save us from these unjust systems,” Wallis said. “In many ways, they already are.”
At the final quilting circle in Humboldt Park, community activist Ed Ward reflect on what the quilting process meant for him and the victims.
"It feels like having a conversation with the person whose names you’re embroidering. This is a way of extending their lives," Ward said. "You can have so much taken from you in life, but memory is something we can maintain and preserve collectively."