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Arrested While Brown: Latino Obamacare Outreach Workers Condemn Racial Profiling

Two men were arrested in Chicago while canvassing in a predominately white neighborhood.

Kevin Tapia, left, and Felipe Hernandez, center, appear at a May 16 rally outside a municipal court in Chicago. The two outreach workers for Grassroots Collaborative were arrested in late March by Chicago police under suspicion of "soliciting unlawful business." They were talking with residents about health care coverage under the Affordable Care Act.
Photo Credit: Grassroots Collaborative


Similar to community outreach workers across the country in late March, Kevin Tapia and Felipe Hernandez lent their knuckles, shoe-leather skills and commitment to help others to an important task in Chicago.

They knocked on doors to raise awareness about the Affordable Care Act, the most sweeping health law in decades. It was March 25. The coverage enrollment deadline of March 31 was approaching – and the rush was on.

Tapia and Hernandez were in Chicago’s Garfield Ridge, a predominantly White neighborhood with older, retired residents. Tapia had just finished talking to a resident, when they were walking down the street. A Chicago police SUV with two officers rolled up next to them and stopped.

“Come here,” Tapia, 19, said, recalling commands from police. “Take your hands out of your pockets.”

Tapia and Hernandez, both Latino outreach workers for the community coalition Grassroots Collaborative, complied. Tapia watched police search his book bag. The officers frisked the two men.

It turns out that Tapia and Hernandez had been drawn into the process of when police officers do their work to protect the public. There was a catch, though: The men had set out that day to knock on doors of Chicago homes and talk with residents about healthy living, insurance costs and options under the Affordable Care Act.

Instead, under a clear sky on that afternoon, they faced questions from police: Who are you? Why are you here? Could you give contact information for your boss?

The officers put the young men, who answered the questions and gave the phone number of their supervisor, in the back of the white-and-blue police SUV. A police car – this one carried detectives – arrived on the scene. More questions followed.

Minutes after the detectives arrived, Tapia and Hernandez found themselves in handcuffs and sitting in the SUV. “I was telling them everything that I knew. They didn’t care that we were doing something good,” Tapia said.

Other thoughts entered his mind: “This is all insane. There was no reason for me to be in this situation.”

The police officers who responded to the scene that day are White, according to Grassroots Collaborative, an alliance that works on social justice issues.

From the Chicago police perspective, the city’s southwest side, which includes Garfield Ridge, had numerous door-to-door scams in previous weeks. Residents were on edge.

A person called 911, Chicago police said in a statement, to inform dispatchers of two men, knocking on doors and “possibly scamming elderly people.” The caller gave the location for Tapia and Hernandez and described their clothing. Tapia said he had a windbreaker and a black jacket.

“Police responded and found two men matching the exact descriptions,” Chicago police said. “The men could not provide any identification to show what organization they worked for, nor could they tell officers who their supervisor was.”

The officers – with the knowledge they had at the time – kept the handcuffs on Tapia and Hernandez.

Tapia recalled that at one point, inside the SUV, Hernandez asked: “Why were we arrested?”

The answer from police: Unlawful soliciting.

“They just said that. They did not mention anything else,” Tapia said.

As defined under the Chicago municipal code, “soliciting unlawful business” occurs when a person uses public space for such illegal activities as prostitution or selling drugs.

Inside the police SUV, subtle shock started to sink in for Tapia.

“It was the first time I had this type of encounter with the police,” he recalled. “I was at a loss of words. It was a loss of power. They had everything.”

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