Who Keeps Us Safe? Chicago Protests Reveal Contentions Around Safety — A Firsthand Account

This past weekend marked 12 consecutive weeks of Chicago protests following George Floyd’s death on May 25.

The protests have not only joined hands across the city, but they have invited Chicagoans, many for the first time, to actively engage with their city’s government and question its troubling history of policing.

But, as protests continue with steady momentum, the question of safety remains omnipresent. The answer for many activists and organizers is found in their battle cry, “Who keeps us safe? We keep us safe.”

And they may be right. Saturday’s protest exposed concerning contention amongst city officials on the very meaning of safety and who is deserving of protection.

This past Saturday, August 15, a Defund CPD and Abolish ICE action began at Cloud Gate in Millennium Park at 4 p.m. The protest was organized by Chicago Freedom School, GoodKids MadCity, Chicago Fuerte, Blck Rising, Increase the Peace and March For Our Lives Chicago. Their demands, released beforehand on social media, were as follows:

  1. CPD out of CPS
  2. Cancel the ICE Citizens Academy
  3. Reallocate [SRO] funds towards E-Learning and Community Centers
  4. Local Chicago Universities and Institutions cut ties with ICE

Social media apps like Instagram, Facebook and Twitter have become both tools of the movement, and leverage against it. A flier for this event was disseminated online, where information and demands were made available to the public before the event took place.


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Organizers also emphasized the importance of wearing face masks as Chicago and other cities across the US continue to grapple with the coronavirus pandemic and continue to see disproportionate rates of infection in Black and Brown communities.

Even before the protest began, police presence was pervasive. Squad cars lined Michigan Avenue and officers, some with badge numbers covered, were scattered around the perimeter of Millennium Park.

Some officers were dressed in traditional police uniforms, while others donned tactical gear and covered their badge numbers. Photo courtesy of Madison Muller.

At around 4:30 p.m., organizers called for protestors who were holding banners displaying messages like “Defund CPD,” to come to the front of the group. Soon after, the group mobilized to the intersection of Michigan and Washington where they formed a circle to read speeches and demands, effectively stopping traffic on all sides. Speeches focused on solidarity between Black and Brown Chicagoans, emphasizing the importance of unity in their struggle.

“We cannot ignore the nightmare our Black brothers and sisters are living every single day across the country,” one organizer said. “We shouldn’t have to be here during a pandemic, and we shouldn’t have to be worried daily if this will be our last day,” another continued.

As organizers stress the importance of solidarity between Black and Brown Chicagoans, a young man waves the Mexican flag. Photo courtesy of Madison Muller.

Jalen Kobayashi, an organizer with GoodKids MadCity, called attention to the Chicago bridges that have been raised since the previous Sunday, Aug. 10. From the beginning of this summer’s protests, Chicago’s bridges have been used to discourage movement to and from the downtown area. Along with raised bridges and closed expressway ramps, there has also been limited CTA service in the city.

The most recent restrictions were put in place following the police-involved shooting of 20-year old Latrell Allen in Englewood and widespread looting and destruction in the Loop. During Saturday’s event, at the request of CPD, the CTA also suspended the Green, Brown, Orange and Pink lines from 9 p.m. until 6 a.m.

At around 5 p.m. the march continued to head north on Michigan Avenue towards Wacker Drive. The group was flanked by police officers on bicycles, as well as bike marshals. Organizers were vigilant of group members’ safety, making sure to pause if the group was separated or if there was not enough protection in certain areas. Moving up Michigan Avenue they chanted, “Who keeps us safe? We keep us safe.”

The protest paused at the intersection of Michigan Avenue and Wacker Drive intending to continue east on Wacker. But, they were met with resistance from CPD, who had formed a blockade of officers and bicycles going eastbound towards Lake Shore Drive. To the north, the Michigan Avenue bridge was raised, and officers loitered on bicycles and in vans to the west. Law enforcement that was following the protest also began to push closer, restricting the group’s movement south on Michigan Avenue.

On Wacker Drive, protestors faced off with CPD to the east, but raised bridges and police reinforcement could be seen to the west. Photo courtesy of Madison Muller.

The police line blocking access east on Wacker Drive did not let pedestrians through, requiring proof of residency or work occupancy to move past the line. Many folks tried to get past, but were redirected without proper identification.

Bike marshals were called to the front to hold the line with police officers and protect the rest of the group. They also created a perimeter on the west side of the group, so that protestors were not vulnerable to law enforcement officers coming from the other side.

Officers began to bring in riot gear – helmets and shields – and SWAT team members stood behind the police line with higher ranking CPD officers.

A white shirt, distinguishing higher ranking police officers, stands surveying the situation behind the police line with the SWAT team. Photo courtesy of Madison Muller.

Anticipating escalation, bike marshals at the front began to open umbrellas so as to protect from potential use of pepper spray or tear gas. Over the course of the next few minutes, the gap between protestors and police officers closed. Officers began to grab umbrellas, throwing them into piles behind them.

The next few moments were a dizzying wave of chaos and commotion. SWAT team members and CPD officers pushed forward, spraying protestors with pepper spray and clashing with several members of the group. Quickly following the confrontation, CPD again retreated to reinforce their line, and protestors were left to tend to injuries in their wake. This stand-off continued for the next hour.

Police and protestors hold the line on Wacker Drive in the moment before escalating tensions lead to confrontation. Photo courtesy of Madison Muller.

After several altercations, organizers called for protestors to begin moving away from the police line. CPD followed, pushing the group south on Michigan Avenue. As the police force consolidated, notably, many officers were not wearing masks. CPD moved quickly towards protestors and journalists, causing many to run so as to not meet them again. Protestors chanted “Whose streets? Our Streets!” over the officers shouts of “Move back”.

After again pausing at the intersection of Michigan and Randolph to check on the group and boost morale, protestors moved west on Randolph. It was here that they were ‘kettled,’ cordoned off in a tight area, by law enforcement on LaSalle. This is where the protest turned.

Police presence as protestors moved south down Michigan Avenue and away from the standoff on Wacker Drive. Photo courtesy of Madison Muller.

Kettling is a controversial crowd control tactic used by law enforcement during large demonstrations. While protest and riot management usually focuses on crowd dispersal, kettling is instead crowd containment. This is not the first time this tactic has been employed during this summer’s protests, nor is it new to the city.

In a 2003 demonstration protesting the Iraq War, the same tactic was used and led to the arrests of several protestors. A federal court then held that the arrests were unconstitutional, and the city of Chicago settled the case for $6.2 million dollars.

Kettling has time and time again, proven to be incredibly dangerous — as it was on Saturday night. CPD gave two dispersal orders, but because they were kettled, the group was unable to leave, effectively trapping them on LaSalle.

Protestors were told to open their bags for searches and some young people were reportedly beaten and shoved to the ground by CPD, as can be seen in videos posted to Twitter. The escalation led to the arrests of several organizers, which sparked hours of jail support outside of stations on 18th and State and 51st and Wentworth following the Loop protest.

The response from police Superintendent David Brown added to the chaos. When asked about kettling on Monday, Brown said, “I haven’t heard those allegations, that there was kettling going on. There’s video captured. People can judge for themselves.”

Vashon Jordan Jr., an independent photojournalist who has been documenting events in Chicago for the last several years, was quick to share a video on Twitter that appears to show that Supt. Brown was present during the kettling. This has yet to be commented on by CPD, but Supt. Brown was at the protest.

Supt. Brown (right) speaks with Randall Darlin (left), the Deputy Chief of Operations. Photo courtesy of Madison Muller.

During the protest, CPD tweeted that they would be releasing video footage of the “initial incident that sparked [Saturday’s] violence and unrest.” The following day, Sunday, they released an edited video which makes several claims that were quickly refuted by other videos taken by protestors and journalists.

One claim the video makes is that group organizers “don ponchos to better identify themselves among the group,” but it is important to note that at the time it was raining and tensions were escalating, so it is likely they were preparing for the use of pepper spray. It also says that umbrellas were used to conceal the group’s actions — but again, it was raining and the group was anticipating the use of pepper spray.

The video uses arrows and closed caption text to point out key moments, but fails to point out the first moment of escalation, which happens at 0:53, and shows an officer grabbing someone’s umbrella. The video’s editing also makes it impossible to determine the succession of events in real-time. CPD’s first marked instance of escalation happens at 1:07, and shows an “individual lunging into the police line.” The video also shows an individual hitting an officer with a skateboard, he was charged with a felony. The officer involved sustained minor injuries and was treated at a local hospital, according to CPD.

At the line, police officers grabbed protestors’ umbrellas and removed them from the scene. Photo courtesy of Madison Muller.

In total, there were 24 arrests and four felony charges made during the protest. As of Sunday night, 18 protestors were released, two appeared in bond court, and two remained in CPD custody according to the National Lawyer’s Guild of Chicago.

It was reported late Monday night that another protestor who had garnered nearly 48 hours of jail support, was also released. In since deleted tweets, CPD posted mugshots, which included names and addresses of several arrested protestors, including an 18-year old woman. This is known as doxxing. The unauthorized posting of sensitive information, like personal addresses, also goes against Twitter’s privacy policy.

During an interview Sunday morning on CBS’ Face the Nation, Mayor Lightfoot address the situation by saying that, agitators “have embedded themselves in these seemingly peaceful protests and come for a fight.” She continued, “we are absolutely not going to tolerate people who come to these protests looking for a fight and are intending to injure our police officers — and injure innocent people who just come to be able to express their First Amendment rights.”

As bridges are raised, expressways are closed and CTA routes are restricted, a billboard at the Chicago Theater displays the message “Everyone’s Neighborhood, The Loop.” Photo courtesy of Madison Muller.

Several Chicago aldermen, state legislators and county officials took a different approach, issuing the following statement:

“We question the logic of spending police dollars on social media surveillance, pepper spray, and riot gear to beat teenagers while the directives of the federal consent decree go unmet and the murder clearance rate remains abysmally low. We are wholeheartedly with the protestors who have taken to the streets to demand a future free of violence. Many of these young people are themselves anti-violence activists who, like too many other Black and Latinx Chicagoans, have lost friends and family to gun violence. It is their right to protest, and it is our responsibility to listen.”

As elected officials and the the mayor’s office disagree on who is at fault, organizers, protestors and journalists worry about safety at the inevitable next event.

A protest planned for Monday evening was postponed, with organizers saying, “Due to Chicago police rioting against youth protestors last night we cannot, in good faith, lead people into that sort of violence and sheer lack of regard for human life.”

How to Help:

The Chicago Freedom School, one of the organizing groups from this protest, has a mission to catalyze youth-led social change. They provide training and education to young people and adult allies to create a more just world through liberatory education.

To support their youth leadership and social justice education programs, you can donate here.

Madison Muller is the Assistant Digital Editor at Better. A recent graduate of Northwestern’s Medill School of Journalism, she approaches our contemporary media environment with compassion and candor. She is interested in writing about the intersectionality of social justice issues in marginalized communities and environmentalism. Madison proudly supports Action Now, a community organization that empowers and uplifts residents on Chicago’s West Side.

She also encourages reading and supporting The Marshall Project, a non-profit news organization that seeks to create and sustain a sense of national urgency about the U.S. criminal justice system.