Divisions over Chicago protests highlight challenges for activists and police

By Mark Guarino

August 15, 2020 at 4:30 p.m. CDT

CHICAGO — An unexpected wave of looting throughout Chicago’s downtown business district last weekend has led to heated debate about who was responsible for the violence here, involving almost all of the city’s major players: the police department, the Cook County State’s Attorney Office, the Circuit Court of Cook County, business leaders, downtown property owners, state officials and Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot.

The divisiveness also has wound its way to social justice activists, as demonstrated here Saturday when an expected major rally in support of the Black Lives Matter movement was shouted down and splintered when local business owners denounced activist groups for causing problems on the city’s streets rather than solving them.

At a midday rally on the city’s South Side that was to include a four-block march along the Dan Ryan Expressway, as speakers from various activist organizations spoke on topics of police reform, a separate group showed up to disrupt the protest.

“We need black power, not Black Lives Matter,” said Khalil Lofton, CEO of a wholesale company in the Englewood area. He said the week-long looting that followed the killing in Minneapolis of George Floyd in May destroyed essential businesses in his neighborhood. Now people can no longer bank, or buy groceries or clothing, he said.

“All in the name of Black Lives Matter,” Lofton said Saturday, blaming the looting and unrest on people from outside the neighborhood. “We didn’t ask people to come protest.”

His accusations proved to be accurate: The Chicago Tribune reported Saturday that of the 43 defendants who appeared in bond court this past week facing felony charges related to Monday’s looting on the “Magnificent Mile,” all were either convicted felons, college students, or out-of-work parents. None were from Englewood, where the tension with police originated Sunday afternoon after a police-involved shooting there.

Speaking through a megaphone, Lofton drew the crowd away from Rabbi Michael Ben Yosef, a co-organizer of the march. After a tense back-and-forth with dueling megaphones, both men met in the middle and exchanged business cards. But Yosef quickly turned and led the crowd away from the expressway ramp and east into the streets of the adjoining Bronzeville neighborhood.

That change of plans was evidence of another phenomenon in Chicago: The many protest groups lack cohesion.

In 2018, a Catholic priest led protesters down the Dan Ryan to bring attention to the gun violence that was plaguing the city. But on Saturday, Yosef could only summon a group of about 100 people and was not successful in blocking the highway. At the same time, more than 20 other activist groups had coordinated at least four separate marches in other parts of the city.

Eric Russell, a coordinator of the Dan Ryan march, said the purpose of the event was more about “putting out the message” than it was about the number of people who showed up. He said that he does not support lawlessness but that people should not be shocked when looting begins.

“Unrest. That is the voice of the oppressed,” Russell said.

There was an overwhelming Chicago Police Department and Illinois State Police presence on Saturday, as they protected intersections along the planned march route after Chicago Police Superintendent David Brown said all officers would work 12-hour shifts with no days off. Lofton took note of the irony: “You say ‘defund police’ but all you’re doing is giving police overtime,” he shouted through his megaphone.

Marcher Daniel Blalock, 38, who carried a painting he had made of President Trump, said that he was discouraged by the turnout and that he felt activists were “afraid” of committing to take more dramatic action.

“This is a step forward,” he said. “But it is not good enough.”

There are no signs tension here is abating.

Gun violence remains rampant — the police department reported a 51 percent increase in homicides and a 47 percent increase in shooting incidents by the start of August compared with the first seven months of 2019 — and there have been two separate waves of looting downtown since June.

Lightfoot, Brown, and Cook County State’s Attorney Kim Foxx presented a unified front Friday, after earlier in the week Lightfoot and Brown complained that Foxx’s office and the Circuit Court needed to set higher bails, charge more felony cases, and do more to keep repeat offenders from being cycled through the court system.

Foxx said the finger-pointing was unnecessary and defended her office, saying only a third of the cases this summer brought to her office were worthy of felonies.

“Our office is not in the arresting business,” she said. “We get cases when they are brought to us.”

Foxx said Friday that the 43 felony cases her office is pursuing are in addition to the 350 felony cases related to looting and protests that have been presented to the courts since May. Lightfoot and Brown announced a special task force focusing on looting that is in partnership with the FBI. On Saturday, the task force announced the arrest of Aaron Neal, 20, who broke into an ATM with a hammer Monday and live-streamed it on social media. He is charged with two felony counts of burglary and criminal damage to property.

Many business leaders and state and local officials have been warning that Chicago is at a breaking point. Steven Levy, the president of a property management firm that represents 100 downtown condo associations, sent Lightfoot an open letter last week saying that homeowners “do not feel safe” and are “adjusting their routines out of fear.”

“This is not a way to live, and I can’t fault homeowners when they tell me they’re considering leaving Chicago,” he wrote.

The Chicagoland Chamber of Commerce also posted an open letter, saying that “the violent action we have seen cannot be tolerated and those that have participated in criminal activity must be held accountable and prosecuted to show our business owners and their customers that Chicago is still a safe and good place to work, shop and live.”

The city could face another test next Saturday, when Black Lives Matter organizers are planning an early evening march starting in Millennium Park and continuing up Michigan Avenue through the commercial district where Monday’s looting took place.

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