Coco’s Door

Catherine Means and her children outside her apartment.

Catherine Means—Coco—and her children outside her apartment at 3544 South State Street.

Catherine Means has a great view. Known as Coco to her friends, she lives on the tenth floor of 3544 South State Street at the Stateway Gardens public housing development. The scene framed by her living room windows takes in the Bronzeville neighborhood and in the distance the blue of Lake Michigan. It is dominated by the administrative headquarters of the Chicago Police Department. Located two blocks away at 35th and Michigan, the 100,000 square foot structure is a powerful presence—especially at night when it stands illuminated amid dark streets.

Coco is twenty-five years old. She has two daughters—Aquanique, five years old, and Unique, seven months old—and has lived in her two bedroom apartment since 1996.

On the evening of Friday, November 2, she and her children were visiting her sister in North Kenwood—”We were having fun, playing cards and all”—when she received a phone call at about 10:00 PM from a neighbor.

“You need to come home,” the neighbor told her. “The police just kicked in your door.”

Coco called a cab and returned to Stateway.

“I left my kids at my sister’s house, cause I didn’t want them to see it. When I got back to the building, I could see from the street that my door was open. The elevator wasn’t working. So I ran up the stairs to the tenth floor and through my door—I didn’t have to open it.”

Coco's front door after police kicked it in.

Coco’s front door on the night of November 2. Using a disposable camera, she documented the damage done by the police.

In the living room the sofa had been upended, and a large ceramic statue of a cat lay smashed on the floor. In the bedroom she shares with her baby, drawers had been emptied. Clothes and diapers were scattered on the floor.

“When I came into the apartment, a cat jumped out at me from my front closet. There were two more cats in the back. I started making noise, and some rats ran out.”

“The cats chased the rats in?” I asked.

“The rats probably chased the cats in,” she replied.

Other intruders, she suspects, also entered her apartment, after the police left. Some food (“lunch meats and chicken”) was missing; also an old stereo, a broken VCR, and her children’s rings had disappeared. “Little things,” she said. “The sort of stuff a resident would take.”

DiMario Nichols, Coco’s cousin, lives in the building. He encountered the police just as they were about to enter the apartment.

“I was going up to her place to get something to eat,” he recalled. “I came up the stairs and saw the police knocking on her door.”

Four officers stood at Coco’s door. Behind them, the police headquarters glowed in the near distance. One of them had a sledgehammer. His name, according to DiMario, is Macintosh.

“Macintosh began to hit the door. One, two, three, four times. Then he saw me and yelled, ‘Get the hell away from here before we lock you up.’ One of them followed me to make sure I went back down the stairs. As I walked away, I heard them hit the door a fifth time. ‘We’re in,’ one of them said.”

The police appear to have found nothing in Coco’s apartment. They made no arrest. Having smashed in her door and damaged her property, they made no effort to contact her.

She contacted them: she called 911 and reported that her apartment had been broken into.

Half an hour later, two police officers appeared at her damaged door.

“Who do you think would do this to you?” one of them asked.

“I know who did it—the police.”

“You can’t just say that, ma’am,” one of the officers protested.

They gave her a piece of paper—”General Offense Case Report #661465″—that describes the offense as “burglary” and “forcible entry.”

“Don’t touch anything,” they told her. “We’re going to send out a technician to get fingerprints and take pictures.” No one came. Coco called the police again. Two hours later the same two officers returned. “Don’t worry about it,” they told her. “You can clean up your house now.”

Coco's smashed front door and overturned baby stroller.
Smashed ceramic statue in Coco's apartment.

Ceramic cat statue in pieces on the floor, after the police searched Coco’s apartment.

Coco restored order to her home. “I cleaned up the mess. I put my ironing board across the door so that rats wouldn’t come in. Then I put the door back together like a puzzle, locked it, and went to sleep.”

The next day a janitor jerryrigged the fragments of the door together with a piece of plywood.

Coco has had other recent encounters with the police. A month ago officers came to her apartment. “A boy had come up here, but he didn’t have drugs or nothing on him.” Words were exchanged. The officers handcuffed her in front of her children. “They told me they would call DCFS and have them take away my kids.” They patted her daughter down and checked her baby’s diaper for drugs.

“My daughter doesn’t like the police, cause they’re always being rude around us. That’s sad. Most little kids like the police, but she doesn’t.”

Coco doesn’t want her family to be a casualty of the ongoing maneuvers of the police and counter-moves of the young men, some of them friends of hers, who sell drugs in the lobby and flee up into the building when the police approach.

“I don’t let gangbangers into my house like some people do. I have a five-year-old child and a seven-month-old baby. If I let those boys in my apartment and the police find drugs or guns and I get put out, they’re not going to find a place for me and my children to live.”

When the police come to her door, Coco said, she lets them in. “If I were home that night, I would of opened the door for them.” She doesn’t understand why it was necessary to break down her door with a sledgehammer; nor why, having done so and found nothing, the police didn’t contact her and apologize.

“What they did was rude,” she said. “Very rude.”