The University of Chicago community protested Thursday the police shooting of fourth-year student Charles Thomas, who ran toward an officer with a metal bar while seeming to be having a mental health episode.
Graduate student union organizers who had previously planned a protest to demand that the University begin bargaining with them focused their action on the shooting. About 200 people showed up to the demonstration, which started at the business school and moved to the University’s International House, where President Robert Zimmer was discussing free speech with undergraduates at an event inside.
Protesters made noise at the windows of the building, at times making it hard for attendees to hear Zimmer inside. Zimmer said the shooting was tragic, but Dean John Boyer said it would be inappropriate to comment further at this time.
Kenwood Academy junior Alycia Kamil Moaton, with the anti-violence youth organization GoodKidsMadCity, called attention to the fact that the University has not released the officer’s name. The University did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
Moaton said there were multiple officers at the scene, as shown in the body-camera footage released by UCPD, and she said they could have restrained Thomas without shooting him.
“I’m confused as to why Charles couldn’t have been gently taken down by another officer and why he had to be shot on the scene that night,” she said. “Police need to be held accountable for their wrongdoings; they need to learn how to handle a situation when someone they are chasing down has a mental health issue.”
Activists criticized the University for putting the officer on a paid leave. They also criticized the charges against Thomas. He has been charged with aggravated assault of a peace officer and criminal damage to property, both felonies, along with criminal damage to property, a misdemeanor.
“The shooting on Tuesday of a student who was having an episode of mental illness is completely unconscionable but also not surprising given the climate here,” class of 2015 alum Kirsten Gindler said. “We need to disarm the UCPD.”
Multiple sources, including Thomas’ mother, have described the incident as a psychiatric episode. He was smashing the windows of doors and cars with the metal bar, prompting the officer’s to come to the scene. Thomas was still in the intensive care unit at Northwestern as of Thursday afternoon, his mother said, recovering from the gunshot to his shoulder.
Postdoctoral fellow Guy Emerson Mount, who teaches a course that Thomas is taking, led a discussion about the incident in class today.
“They were painful, hard conversations. The students are concerned about mental health, the University’s lack of support for mental health,” he said. “Everyone had nothing but amazing things to say about him. He’s known by his classmates as a kind student, a gentle student. There are many other ways this could have been handled, and the students are all very concerned.”
The University has not said if Thomas will face disciplinary action from the school.
A bodycam worn by the University of Chicago officer shows the moments leading up to the student shooting.
A source who is close friends with Thomas told the Sun-Times that he has been smoking marijuana very regularly in recent weeks, likely exacerbating the mental health episode. There is a history of bipolar disorder in Thomas’s family, his mother said, though she has never noticed any signs from her son. The source said Thomas has had one other psychiatric episode while high from marijuana. Another source said Thomas was very high from marijuana the night before the incident.
Friends have described Thomas as gentle and not a violent person. Thomas had been stressed with finishing his political science thesis, which his mother suspects contributed to the episode.
In the body camera footage, Thomas is seen wearing a mask over his head. A source said Thomas possesses a number of strange items like that.