Students share petition calling to reopen investigation into shooting of NU student Bobby Russ by police 21 years after his death


The Justice for Bobby Russ petition page. Russ was shot and killed by a police officer on June 4, 1999, while driving to visit his mother. He would’ve graduated later that month.

Daisy Conant, Assistant Campus Editor

Twenty-one years ago, a Chicago police officer shot and killed Bobby Russ — a black Northwestern senior less than three weeks away from graduating — as he drove down the Dan Ryan Expressway to visit his mother. Now, Northwestern students and community members are circulating a petition demanding justice for his death.

The petition, started by Medill junior Duncan Agnew, calls on Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot and Chicago Police Department Superintendent David Brown to immediately remove Van Watts IV, the officer who killed Russ, from the police force and open a new, independent investigation into Russ’ killing.

Agnew said he first learned the story of Russ’ killing by police Thursday morning, when his mother forwarded him the link to an Inside NU article chronicling the student’s life and death. Russ was also an accomplished football player.

“I just was so disgusted as I read through (the story) and to find out that this Chicago police officer is still employed by the department to this day, and he only faced a 15 day suspension when this happened back in 1999 for ‘procedural violations,’” Agnew said. “I think the present moment definitely kind of combined to make this petition gain traction.”

As of Friday afternoon, more than 1,200 people had signed the petition, including Weinberg first-year Fikayo Fagbemi. For her, signing and sharing the petition meant acknowledging the many black people whose lives are “thoughtlessly cut short without a movement or a hashtag.”

She added people often see the list of names of black victims of police brutality without thinking of those who have been forgotten and haven’t received justice.

“Before today, I had no idea who Bobby Russ was,” Fagbemi said. “I had no idea that he attended my high school, lived in my town and now attended the same university as me. I chose to share this on Twitter because it hit close to home. It felt like his promising future was not only taken away from him, his family, his friends, but also his community, our community.”

SESP senior Demi Oluyemi also signed the petition, citing Northwestern’s lack of appropriate response to issues of police brutality despite the fact that members of its own black community have been victims to it.

She added she was appalled and worried that Watts still works for CPD. Staying silent on the issue isn’t helping, she said, especially when those with more privilege can use their voices to speak up.

This isn’t the first instance the Northwestern community has spoken up about Russ’ killing. When a preliminary investigation just days after Russ’ death concluded the shooting was justified, African American studies Prof. Martha Biondi and former history Prof. Adam Green led a group of faculty members to City Hall, delivering a letter signed by 150 colleagues to then-Mayor Richard M. Daley calling for further investigation into the incident.

In coordination with the petition’s call to reopen the investigation, Agnew said he hopes to contact Northwestern administrators to make some sort of statement or put pressure on the city of Chicago.

Yet Auston Anderson (SESP ’18), Russ’ cousin and former Northwestern football player, remains skeptical that justice will end up being served through the petition. Anderson said he continually tried to bring up Russ’ death to Northwestern coaches while playing for the program, but “it gets shut down every time,” noting the only time it was mentioned while he was at NU was when the team wore Rose Bowl throwback jerseys. He added that the staff also won’t let him get Russ’ jersey.

“I think NU athletics can do a better job of honoring the dead black people from the program, or at least try to act like they care,” Anderson said in a text. “It’s a little too late now, 20 years later.”

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Twitter: @daisy_conant

Clarification: The article has been updated to include that Anderson did note Russ’ death was mentioned once during his time at NU, when the team wore Rose Bowl throwback jerseys.