Mary Powers has been butting heads with the Chicago Police Department (CPD) for more than 40 years. In her work with Citizens Alert, a police-accountability activist group started in 1967, Powers has been directly involved in policy changes within the CPD. She has also been active in the fight for LGBT rights.
The Michigan native graduated from the University of Wisconsin and eventually moved to Chicago. She worked briefly at the American Red Cross before taking a position at Western Electric as an employee counselor in the late 1940s. It was there she first felt a pull towards activism.
"In that counseling role, I was fortunate enough to build enough confidence in the people I was working with that they confided in me their personal problems," said Powers, 90. "At that point, people were losing their jobs [because of their sexual orientation]. This was such a moving and compelling situation, I began to feel involved in the issues of this community right then."
Later, this work inspired Powers to support the formation of the Illinois Gay and Lesbian Task Force, an activist group that fought for equal rights for LGBT citizens in Chicago.
Her involvement with Citizens Alert began shortly after the 1969 raid on the Black Panthers' apartment on Chicago's West Side. Powers and a few of her neighbors from Winnetka walked through the raided Panther apartment after the raid and were appalled at the destruction.
"We were all so shocked that we decided to get involved and do something," said Powers.
Powers saw a flier from the Alliance to End Repression, a coalition of social-activist task forces, advertising an open meeting at DePaul University to galvanize citizens against the structures that lead to their own repression. Powers chose to join a board directly involved in monitoring and fighting what activists felt were overreaches of power in the criminal justice system. Shortly after the meeting, the group became a part of Citizens Alert in an attempt to tackle perceived abuses of power in the CPD.
"It was really challenging, but at the same time empowering," Powers said. "Because at first, it really felt like the public had no place, so that really gave us the impetus to say 'Oh yes we do!'"
Part of asserting themselves in the criminal justice system included directly confronting the structure of the CPD. This included monitoring meetings of the Chicago Police Board.
Powers said, "These meetings were a totally closed operation when we discovered them. After going to our first meeting, we let them know we were coming back."
After Citizens Alert became involved in these meetings the Chicago Police Department moved them to an auditorium at the Police Station. This move was the first of many tangible changes in how the CPD interacted with the public.
"For years we organized people to go to the police with their problems and challenge policies and practices and question the budget," said Powers. "In the beginning, they ignored us, but they began to recognize the public's right to attend these meetings...We were able to make the police force recognize the value of interacting with the public through those police board meetings."
Over the next four decades, Powers and Citizens Alert had a significant impact on a number of police policies in Chicago. Beyond publicizing the monthly meeting of the Chicago Police Board, Citizens Alert spearheaded an accountability campaign in the Cook County Medical Examiner's office. Powers said the office was perceived as a tool of the CPD for whitewashing deaths related to police brutality.
To combat this, Citizens Alert organized a two-year public education program on the Medical Examiner, which led to a successful referendum to replace those in the coroner's office. In order to continue accountability after the campaign ended, Citizens Alert received notification from the CPD of every death in custody to monitor the autopsy and assure the families were notified.
Citizens Alert also fought to mandate videotaping of police interrogations.
"As the years went on, we had really good, supportive relationships with the police where they recognized that public cooperation was important to their success," said Powers. "That was a major change."
While Citizens Alert functioned independently, the organization worked under the broader umbrella of the Alliance to End Repression and its partner advocacy groups. It was through the Alliance that Powers became involved with the Illinois Gay and Lesbian Task Force. Powers volunteered for the Alliance's Observer Program where she monitored the police at the early Pride parades.
"For many years when it was really necessary to demonstrate on the street about gay and lesbian issues, the police were always there with heavy surveillance, so the Observer Program would appear at many of those occasions when asked to do so by the community, wearing our Citizens Alert volunteer armbands and recording every bit of interaction between demonstrators, the police and the public," Powers said.
In 1992, Powers was inducted into the Gay and Lesbian Hall of Fame as a friend of the community. She was honored for her work advocating formal training for Chicago police officers on LGBT issues and developing training materials for the CPD.
"Receiving the award was wonderful," said Powers. "I believed firmly in what I was doing, so I didn't expect anything [in return]. I just needed to do that."
Powers is still active in Citizens Alert. The organization recently celebrated its 45th anniversary and moved to an office at the Jane Addams College of Social Work on the UIC campus. Powers continues to advocate for open communication and supportive relationships between the CPD and Chicagoans.