Demonstrations started ramping up in downtown Chicago Saturday afternoon, kicking off a day of protests and rallies planned amid concerns that federal agents could try to quell unrest and commit civil rights violations like those alleged in Portland, Oregon.
While protests against police brutality and systemic racism have raged for months, the afternoon started with a rally in support of police in Grant Park at the site of a Christopher Columbus statue Mayor Lori Lightfoot ordered removed early Friday following clashes between cops and protesters.
About 2 p.m., a few hundred people gathered and criticized Democratic politicians including Gov. J.B Pritzker, Cook County State’s Attorney Kim Foxx and Lightfoot, who radio shock jock Erich “Mancow” Muller called “a little communist.”
Jimmy Lee Tillman, a Republican and one of the few Black people at the rally, told the crowd that the city needs federal intervention. He referenced President Donald Trump’s pledge to send federal agents to fight the city’s violence.
“We need the ATF here, there are too many guns on the street. We need the DEA, there are too many drugs on the streets. And we need the FBI, there are too many unsolved murders on the street,” he said.
Though activist groups have voiced concern that federal agents could try to suppress protests, there was no clear sign of a federal presence at the downtown Chicago events Saturday afternoon.
Sol Gasca and Angelica Sanchez, who described themselves as wives of Chicago cops, said they came to support their husbands. It has been a difficult year for the department, they said, and they live in constant fear for their husbands’ safety.
“It is very difficult,” Sanchez said. “When they go to work every day, we don’t know if they’re going to make it home. We’re here because all the police aren’t bad. Our husbands are two of the many, many good ones and we’re proud of them.”
While the rally’s official cause was supporting cops, it largely served to support various local Republican candidates for office.
John Catanzara, the frequently-disciplined cop who leads the Chicago Fraternal Order of Police, wore a “Cops for Trump” shirt and said, “We need to push back on the politicians who are ruining this city, county and state.”
Tom McKenna, 73, said he was a cop during the riots at the 1968 Democratic National Convention and remains ready to back the police.
“I can still swing a (expletive) night stick,” he said.
The rally was held at the site of one of the Columbus statues Lightfoot said she removed “until further notice” for the safety of cops and protesters. Activists have complained that the statues symbolize oppression and violence against Indigenous people; the statues’ advocates have defended it as honoring a pioneer and hero to some Italian Americans.
Counterprotesters stood across the street clanging cowbells, and the two sides shouted at each other while police formed a wall between them. Though animosity between the groups was clear, there were moments of harmony. A man wearing a vagina costume was joined by a man dressed as movie pirate Jack Sparrow, and the pair had a civilized debate with a woman over what constitutes a socialist.
That was an exception, however. Toward the end of the rally, a knot of counterprotesters approached the fence separating them from the pro-police crowd, getting in a close-quarters shouting match until police moved the counterprotesters back.
Erik Love, a Black 27-year-old who said he is an Army veteran, briefly found himself in the middle.
“That’s literally the scariest thing I did all year, walking in between the police officers, blue lives matter and Black Lives Matter,” he said. “I don’t think I’m going to do that again.”
Meanwhile, demonstrators began to gather about 2 p.m. at the other end of the park in anticipation of a Black Lives Matter event later in the afternoon.
Some strung yellow caution tape on the trees along Columbus Drive, hoping to set a perimeter that would keep protesters with opposing views separated.
“We don’t want to make mistakes,” organizer Rabbi Michael Ben Yosef of Tikkun Chai Inter-National said. “We don’t want this to be (a chaotic event). We want it to be totally different.”
The small crowd there included yellow-shirted representatives of the Wall of Moms. The local mothers made plans to offer a human wall to protect those protesting police brutality and racism after a similar effort in Portland attracted widespread media coverage.
Getty Kasole, a relative newcomer to street activism, advised the moms on how to conduct themselves, including being mindful of how others might view their actions. Skipping away from trouble, she said, is less panic-inducing than running. Kasole said she has been to about 10 protests since May, and none had fallen into chaos. She wanted to keep that streak going.
“My goal here is to keep people safe,” she said.
The competing protests came the first weekend after Trump announced that he planned to send a “surge of federal law enforcement” to Chicago, among other cities, to combat violence. Attorney General William Barr said hundreds of federal agents could take part in Chicago and engage in “classic crime-fighting” actions such as investigating homicides, gangs, gun crime and drug trafficking organizations. The new agents would include members of the FBI, U.S. Marshals Service, the Drug Enforcement Administration and Department of Homeland Security, among others.
Despite the authorities’ stated goal of battling violence, activists have voiced fears that the agents will instead push back against protesters. Lightfoot has expressed both cautious optimism and skepticism of Trump’s motives. She has said Chicago would not welcome the kind of force documented on camera on the streets of Portland, where agents appear to have arrested protesters and hauled them away in unmarked vehicles.
Federal agents there have fired rubber bullets and tear gas, and their presence has magnified protests that started after the death of George Floyd under the knee of a Minneapolis police officer in late May.
Protests in Chicago over the last two months have fueled allegations that police have abused protesters. Those accusations have come alongside complaints from police who’ve said dozens of cops have been hurt and and alleged people have thrown rocks, frozen water bottles and explosive devices at officers.
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