Activists for and against abortion rights stage dueling protests in downtown Chicago: ‘Two weeks ago, a hammer came down on us’

·4 min read

Dueling abortion protesters took over the streets and sidewalks of the Loop for hours Saturday afternoon, with a line of Chicago police bike units attempting to separate the two sides as they shouted competing slogans.

In total, hundreds of demonstrators from both movements streamed down main thoroughfares downtown such as Michigan Avenue, next to where the Taste of Chicago food festival was taking place, following an anti-abortion “March for Life Chicago” rally at Federal Plaza.

The March for Life protesters occupied the main streets while officers blocked counterprotesters on the sidewalk from getting closer, though at times some tried to breach the line of police bikes snaking between the two sides. One woman, angry she was blocked, yelled at the officers, while another man relented as a lieutenant wrapped his arm around his waist and pushed him back onto the sidewalk.

The crowd was bifurcated into a sea of yellow umbrellas — a symbol of opposition toward abortion rights — and a mass of green, the worldwide color of the abortion rights movement. A few advocates from the latter cause marched sideways so they could carry a large green banner reading “We Won’t Go Back.”

The protest took place following last month’s U.S. Supreme Court decision to overturn Roe v. Wade and end nearly 50 years of constitutional protection for abortion. In the absence of the 1973 landmark case that guaranteed the right to terminate a pregnancy, the matter of abortion law falls to the States. Illinois leaders have sought to reassure residents and other Midwesterners that the state would remain a haven for abortion access.

Earlier in the day, March for Life set up in Federal Plaza with four large speaker systems hanging from a stage to ensure its representatives’ voices would boom for blocks. Kevin Grillot, the organization’s executive director, thanked supporters for not giving up and said, “After 49 long years, Roe versus Wade is gone.” Applause ripped through the rally’s crowd.

Then Grillot attempted to hold a moment of silence for all the abortions performed in America, though counterprotesters had already amassed and interrupted the quiet with chants of “2, 4, 6, 8, abortion rights in every state.”

Another speaker who identified herself as “Jennifer” then began sharing her story of regretting an abortion. A circle of motorcyclists with the pro-abortion rights side revved their engines in attempts to drown her out, but she finished her speech.

Verbal skirmishes cropped up on the corner of Federal Plaza as the speakers kept going. A small group of pro-abortion rights protesters, yelling “my body, my choice,” followed a man with a megaphone shouting slogans against abortions rights and were told by someone else, “close your legs.”

Eventually, a Chicago police lieutenant told counterprotesters to leave the area or be subject to arrest, a directive that the crowd complied with as cops established a bike perimeter around the anti-abortion rally.

“Our Constitution says that everybody has the right to life, and abortion takes life away. So it’s just as simple as that,” a woman from Medinah, Illinois, who identified herself by “Nancy” only said in an interview. “The naiveté of these people, to think that they’re not killing somebody.”

Meanwhile, Jay Becker, an organizer for Rise Up 4 Abortion Rights, dismissed the conservative-leaning Supreme Court as “completely illegitimate” during a rally at Daley Plaza that took place ahead of March for Life’s demonstration.

“Two weeks ago, a hammer came down on us,” Becker told the crowd. “These Christian fascists in black robes put the value of a clump of cells above that of half of the population.”

One of the younger abortion rights protesters in the crowd was Destiny Vasquez, a 17-year-old student at George Washington High School on the Southeast Side. She said she has been organizing for this moment for the past year and is worried the Supreme Court decision will affect people of color the most.

“I don’t know why they’re going against basic human rights,” Vasquez said about the March for Life rallygoers she was prepared to confront. “If they really cared about life, they would care about what happened after that baby is born. We have a formula shortage, a food shortage. So much shortage-wise and we’re not focusing on what’s happening in real life.”

No arrests were made during the demonstration, a spokeswoman for Chicago police said.

ayin@chicagotribune.com