As Trump deploys federal agents to Chicago, his toxic history with the city has officials, residents on edge

By Kim Bellware and Mark Guarino

July 21, 2020 at 9:10 p.m. CDT

CHICAGO — Federal agents will be deployed to Chicago for an anti-violence operation that is expected to bolster existing law enforcement efforts but won’t resemble the same heavy-handed tactics seen recently in Portland, Ore., Mayor Lori Lightfoot and a federal prosecutor in Chicago said Tuesday.

Although details on how many agents will be deployed to the city and when remain unclear, several state and local officials signaled their wariness at federal intervention ordered by President Trump, who frequently disparages Chicago and politicizes its gun violence epidemic.

Aggressive tactics used by federal agents to arrest protesters in Portland amid civil unrest have only deepened suspicions among Chicagoans that Trump will do whatever he can to project the image of a law-and-order president, even if it pushes the boundaries of civil liberties.

“We welcome actual partnership, but we do not welcome dictatorship,” Lightfoot (D) said during a news conference Tuesday. “We do not welcome authoritarianism, and we do not welcome the unconstitutional arrests and detainments of our residents, and that is something I will not tolerate.”

Lightfoot sent Trump a letter on Monday specifying areas where the city would welcome federal support, such as drug enforcement and tracing efforts for illegal firearms. After conferring on Tuesday with John R. Lausch Jr., the U.S. attorney for the Northern District of Illinois, the mayor said the city could expect agents from various federal agencies — including the Drug Enforcement Administration, the Federal Bureau of Investigation, and the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives — to be “plugged into existing agencies that will help manage and suppress” street violence.

Yet despite assurances that federal agents would be guided by the Justice Department and work in coordination with Lausch, few of Chicago’s leaders said they felt they could rely on plans crafted by an administration whose signature is unpredictability.

Chicago Alderman Matt Martin said city council members deliberated Tuesday over whether Trump’s rhetoric was political posturing or a serious threat. The summer before his election, Trump told then-Mayor Rahm Emanuel (D) that the National Guard should storm the streets of Chicago to quell violence.

“I don’t think it can be discounted” that Trump will send in troops, Martin said. “We’ve got to step back and be really honest and candid about the moment we are in. This is a president who doesn’t outreach his arms. This is pure political gamesmanship, whether he sends in troops or not; you can’t lose sight of the fact that whatever he does will be driven primarily by what he thinks the political benefits will be and not what is best for the city of Chicago.”

John Catanzara, the president of Chicago’s police union, praised Trump’s approach. After a protest Friday turned violent because of instigation by “vigilantes” attaching themselves to the demonstration, according to police, Catanzara wrote a letter to Trump asking for help to calm the “chaos” created in part by Lightfoot’s “failure” of leadership.

Reports that mysterious federal agents swept protesters in Portland off the streets in secretive arrests have sent a chill through Chicago’s activist community, with some fearing Portland is a test case for how far the Trump administration will go to suppress protests — especially when they concern issues of race and police accountability.

Activists are preparing by adjusting their strategies: avoiding protests after curfew or taking action with fewer than 50 people. Alycia Kamil, a 19-year-old organizer with the anti-violence group GoodKids MadCity, said activists are already vigilant because of the fraught history between protesters and Chicago police, and that the specter of a federal crackdown only reaffirms the importance of their demonstrations.

“[Authorities] think us not backing down is us being violent,” said Kamil, who used her middle name for safety reasons. “No — us not backing down is us being powerful and showing we have courage.”

State Rep. Will Guzzardi (D), whose district encompasses the city’s Northwest Side neighborhood of Logan Square, told The Washington Post that he has spoken to constituents who are “terrified by this news.”

“It feels so unprecedented and so beyond the scope of what should be acceptable in civil society,” he said.

But Guzzardi advised residents not to stay home from any planned protests.

“A hundred guys in fatigues can’t contain a whole movement. By our showing up, we protect everyone else who shows up. The more who are present, the safer all of us are,” he said.

“If a week from now a thousand Chicagoans have disappeared off the street, I might feel very different,” Guzzardi added.

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