In a week like no other, thousands participated in local protests echoing national upheaval over the Minneapolis police killing of George Floyd — a 46-year-old black man suspected of passing a counterfeit $20 bill — just as Illinois took steps to return to normalcy by advancing to a new phase of the state’s plan to reopen from the pandemic lockdown.
“It’s really a revolution,” community advocate Ja’Mal Green told The Chicago Reporter. “This was that spark that made people step up all over the country, instead of folks just looking at one city and seeing what they do about it.”
Protesters took great personal risk to hit the streets as the coronavirus pandemic remains a reality hitting some communities harder than others.
“Illinois as well as other parts of the nation is coming off the peak of a pandemic that has disproportionately taken black lives, a pandemic that has caused record unemployment disproportionately in the black community,” Gov. J.B. Pritzker said in a press conference over the weekend. “It’s not lost on me that the peaceful protesters who have been out over the last few days weighed the risks of the pandemic against coming out to speak their truth, and they chose to gather anyway.”
But the uprising for systemic change and justice for the brutal death of Floyd, as well as the recent killings of African Americans Breonna Taylor by police in Louisville and Ahmaud Arbery in Georgia, was accompanied by a heavy law enforcement presence, chaos and widespread looting in what also became Chicago’s most violent weekend of the year so far.
Topics: Downtown protests | Looting spreads | Organized instigators | South and West sides abandoned? | Community food relief and cleanup | Police reform effort | Police misconduct at protests | Getting police out of schools | Small neighborhood businesses | COVID-19 super spreaders? | RIP Conrad Worrill
When large scale demonstrations in downtown Chicago turned volatile last Saturday evening in clashes with police, looting at stores in the Loop, and police vehicles vandalized, damaged and some set on fire, Mayor Lori Lightfoot announced a 9 p.m. curfew. In a press conference, Lightfoot urged peaceful demonstration, castigated participants who engaged in criminal activity, and applauded law enforcement. She also said 35 minutes was ample notice for protesters to get home as streets were shut down, several bridges were raised blocking people from crossing the Chicago River, and the Chicago Transit Authority suspended services in the Loop.
The next day, access to the Loop was further restricted, enforced by 375 Illinois National Guard soldiers deployed to the city, and CTA abruptly shut down all train and bus lines, stranding some far from home.
Looting spills over
Businesses were smashed into, ransacked and vandalized all across the city, suburbs and state after downtown access was blocked and the weekend descended into mass looting. By Monday afternoon, Pritzker declared nine counties as disaster areas, allowing him to mobilize more of the Illinois National Guard and other state resources to places wracked by chaos and destruction. Municipalities all over the state also issued curfew orders.
Provocateurs amid peaceful protests
Organizers and officials alike say fringe elements hijacked the large scale demonstrations, blaming organized groups for intentionally triggering violence and chaos in the midst of peaceful, multiracial demonstrations. Lightfoot enlisted federal authorities to investigate whether widespread looting and arson was an organized effort.
Several people have been federally charged in connection with looting and rioting in Chicago, including a man from downstate Galesburg for allegedly participating in looting and rioting in Minneapolis protests before traveling to Chicago with homemade bombs. A Pilsen man also facing federal charges was allegedly caught on camera setting fire to a Chicago police vehicle wearing a Joker mask during Saturday’s downtown protest.
South and West sides abandoned?
City leaders and the Chicago Police Department were criticized with questions about whether sealing off downtown forced the unrest and looting into neighborhoods. Although large numbers of officers were seen deployed at South and West Side hotspots, residents and news outlets reported observing officers standing back allowing looting to unfold.
Chicago City Council’s Black Caucus said that using the Illinois National Guard to block off the Loop made neighborhood business corridors an easy target for criminals. Aldermen complained that there were too few police in their wards to fend off criminal activity, with some suggesting that 3,000 National Guardsmen were needed to protect neighborhoods under siege.
Lightfoot vehemently denied the criticism. “There is no way we would let any neighborhood receive more protection than any others,” she said Monday. “We didn’t stand by and let the South and West sides burn, as some people are propagating.”
Communities step in to provide needed food and cleanup
Chicago Public Schools suspended its meal distribution program and the Greater Chicago Food Depository canceled all deliveries due to the unrest on Monday. Big box retailer locations like Target, Whole Foods, Walmart and CVS as well as smaller businesses that carry food items were temporarily closed as they dealt with the weekend’s damage and looted inventory, making groceries scarcer in underserved areas. Neighborhood groups, community organizations, and restaurants stepped in to get food to families in need. Volunteers supported cleanup efforts across the city.
Mayor announces 90 days of police reform
In a ‘State of the City’ speech Wednesday night, Lightfoot further addressed the events that had engulfed the city, spoke of how Floyd’s murder evoked a long history of police violence in Chicago, naming Quintonio LeGrier, Rekia Boyd and Jon Burge as examples, and announced a 90-day police reform effort. She also said her administration would pool together $10 million in funding for small businesses impacted by looting.
Police misconduct reported at protests
Shocking instances of police violence were recorded or reported amidst protests that saw heavy police presence and mass arrests. Lightfoot urged protesters who were mistreated by police to report misconduct. More than 250 complaints were filed against the Chicago Police Department, many of them from protesters, Block Club Chicago reported. Civil rights and community groups asked the court-appointed monitor overseeing CPD reforms to investigate and report on allegations that officers abused protesters. The Chicago Reporter detailed how at least one officer is being investigated for covering up his badge number and name tag during protests. Arrestees also allege that they were denied access to attorneys, Injustice Watch reports.
On a national level, Illinois Attorney General Kwame Raoul is leading a coalition urging Congress to give them broader authority to investigate unconstitutional policing, citing the cases of Floyd, Taylor and McDonald.
Getting cops out of schools
There’s a renewed push to remove police officers from Chicago schools following Minneapolis Public Schools’ decision to end its contract with the Minneapolis Police Department. CPS teacher Dave Stieber comments on the motivations for placing law enforcement in under-resourced schools and its impact on black students. A CPS community protest in Lincoln Park demanded the city defund CPD, an idea Lightfoot called “irresponsible” as police abolitionist organizers find fuel at ongoing protests, Chicago Reader reports. Kanye West attended a protest Thursday night against the district’s $33 million contract with CPD, organized by activist Ja’Mal Green.
A steeper recovery for businesses reopening in poor areas
Lightfoot said businesses and restaurants were eager to begin the reopening process as scheduled Wednesday after widespread looting, but businesses in underserved neighborhoods, many already reeling from pandemic closures, will face a steeper climb to recovery. Minority-businesses are less likely to be protected by adequate insurance policies. WBEZ profiles a stretch of West Garfield Park that was one of the hardest-hit streets during riots in 1968 now recovering from vandalism, looting and arson from the weekend. The Illinois Legislative Black Caucus is asking Prtizker to free up spending to help African American communities rebuild from both the COVID-19 pandemic and the looting.
Racial tensions confronted as protests spread across the city
Large peaceful demonstrations carried on in multiple neighborhoods all over Chicago and the suburbs this week but brought new reports of police misconduct. Community groups staged unifying marches and rallies in response to reports that black people were being violently targeted in Latino neighborhoods. In Bridgeport, residents say bat-wielding vigilantes are terrorizing peaceful protestors in the neighborhood.
Testing urged amid concerns of protests as super spreaders
With more large scale protests expected this weekend, officials fear that this week’s events will lead to a surge in COVID-19 cases just as the city and state advance in their reopening plans. Dr. Allison Arwady, who leads the Chicago Department of Public Health, urged protesters to self-quarantine for 14 days, especially if they weren’t wearing a mask, and state officials expanded free testing to anyone regardless of symptoms, urging anyone who participated in demonstrations this week to be tested.
You can see details and demographics of confirmed coronavirus cases in your ZIP code and state and county-level data on COVID-19 infections and deaths with The Chicago Reporter’s interactive trackers.
Rest in power
Beloved Chicago civil rights leader Conrad Worrill, who walked in the Million Man March, died Wednesday at 78. The writer, educator and former talk show host at Chicago’s WVON radio station was a founding member of the Black United Fund of Illinois.
Josh McGhee contributed to this piece.