The Chicago Police and „Polish pride”

This summer a scandal broke out in Chicago over police harassing members of a particular ethnic group and the harassment has continued since then.

You might not have heard about this in the daily newspaper or on TV, because the people being harassed were not blacks or Latinos as you might think. They were Poles.

The Chicago police (mainly Irish- and German-American officers according to some reports) were pulling over motorists with a „PL” sticker on their car or vans in Polish neighborhoods that had ladders or other equipment attached that might show that the van was being used by a small independent contractor. The police figured these people were recent Polish immigrants and they were often right. Many of the small independent contractors and construction workers in Chicago are from Poland. The police would stop a vehicle and pull the driver out and threaten to have him deported. The driver would be allowed to go free if he gave the contents of his wallet to the officers. This apparently went on for quite some time, targeting both legal and illegal immigrants from Poland, most of whom were too scared to complain or did not understand their rights under the law. Finally, an internal police investigation caught the crooked cops.

Polonia’s reaction so far has been one of embarrassed silence (more on this in a moment). It seems that a lot of us are just unwilling to admit that we Poles can be treated this way almost 150 years since the first Polish community in America was founded. And treated this way by the police, no less! Maybe some of us think this is just a one-in-a-million case, an exception. That view is wrong.

When I first heard about this story, I was reminded of another story I heard a while ago. It was in the 1950s in Detroit. In those days, you could tell from a car’s license plate where the plate was issued. A young Polish American from Hamtramck (a city that was about as Polish as you could get) was driving through one of Detroit’s „better” neighborhoods one evening. A police cruiser saw his Hamtramck-issued plates and pulled him over. The reason? He was a Polish guy from Hamtramck. That was reason enough.

They frisked him and searched his car, even pulling up the back seat. The police took his driver’s license and threw it into some bushes so he had to crawl around in the dark through the bushes to find it. They told him to get lost, saying: „We don’t want your kind around here!” The frightened young man beat it back to the safety of home.

How often did this happen? Probably quite frequently, but back in those days no one recorded it and no one protested. Today, when ethnic and racial groups face such overt discrimination they protest.

Except, of course, for us Poles. We just let them kick us.

Had it been any other group targeted by the Chicago police, like African Americans or Mexican Americans, there would have been huge protests with TV cameras all over the place. Lawyers would have been filing class-action lawsuits. The city of Chicago and Mayor Daley would be falling all over themselves to make it up to the victims.

What has Polonia’s Chicago-based national leadership done? They asked the city very nicely to print an informational flyer. I wish I were kidding.

No doubt the mayor and the accused officers are laughing with relief at how little it cost them, and they didn’t have to stand in front angry Polish-American protesters to apologize while the TV camera recorded it all.

Can’t you just imagine them thinking how easy it was for them to buy off the „dumb polacks” with an informational flyer. They kicked us then and we did nothing. They kick us now and we do nothing. Guess what the chances are that we’re going to get kicked again in the future? So much for „Polish pride.”

It is apparently easier for some of us to hide our heads in the sand and hope it will all go away, but it happened in the 1950s, and it happened in generations before that, and it happens today. When is the last time you heard about Polish Americans marching outside city hall to protest anti-Polish bigotry? Obviously not often enough. A certain leader of American Polonia has even stated that he would never lead or even condone any such protests. Maybe if we just pretend it never happened it will go away, but in the meantime we might think about what it is doing to us and to our young people when we realize we won’t even stand up for ourselves when they kick us in the face.

These things don’t go away. It has been more than 40 years since the Detroit police pulled over that young Polish American I mentioned. He still has not forgotten that night and I know this only because years later he became my father.

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