‘We Can’t Breathe’: Chicago’s George Floyd Protests

Thousands of people gathered in Chicago on Saturday to protest in response to the death of George Floyd, a black man who died in the custody of the Minneapolis Police Department, as well as several other police killings of unarmed black Americans. These protests have erupted throughout the country in cities such as Minneapolis, Los Angeles and New York City.

The United Nations High Commissioner on Human Rights said in a statement that authorities in the United States need to take “serious action” to end the killings of unarmed black Americans at the hands of law enforcement.

One of the four officers involved in the incident — Derek Chauvin — was arrested and charged with third-degree murder and second-degree manslaughter.

Around 8:30 p.m. Saturday Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot held a press conference where she established a curfew beginning at 9 p.m. Saturday running through 6 a.m. Sunday as a response to the violence that had broken out after the official Black Lives Matter Chicago protest had ended.

“What started as a peaceful protest has now devolved into criminal conduct,” Lightfoot said. “I want to give praise to those here in Chicago and across the nation who have come together peacefully. … I want to express my disappointment and total disgust at the number of others that came to today’s protest armed for all out battle.”

During the same press conference, Chicago Police Superintendent David Brown — who was on the streets with officers throughout the day — said an officer had suffered broken bones as a result of Saturday’s protests. Police vehicles were also set on fire and several windows on State Street were broken.

Saturday afternoon’s protests and car caravan — which were organized by the Chicago Alliance Against Racist and Political Oppression, Puebla Sin Fronteras and Black Lives Matter Chicago — began in Federal Plaza just after noon and moved along Dearborn Street as the day went on. 

The Facebook event for the protest had 11,400 thousand people who had marked themselves as “going” or “interested.” By the time the car caravan arrived, several thousand protesters had filled Federal Plaza and spilled into the nearby streets.

Shortly before the car caravan arrived, Ariel — a Black Lives Matter Chicago organizer who was only identified by her first name at the protest and on social media — said the organizers “do not intend for this protest to be violent,” but noted the police watching over the crowd were carrying wooden batons. Some officers already had them in hand.

Vera McDonald, a 65-year-old Oak Park woman, said the initially peaceful protest in Federal Plaza was the kind of support the cause needed. 

“[I am here ] to be a part of a group as peaceful in saying ‘this is not acceptable,’” McDonald said. “We need support like this. Not crazy violence, looting, [and] robbing but people coming together like this and letting them know.”

When asked about what more could be done, she turned her focus into her own community and to the struggles it faces. One of the most prominent in her mind was homelessness — black Americans make up 40 percent of the United States’ homeless population while representing only 13 percent of the country’s total population.

“It doesn’t stop here, we have to leave here and do more,” McDonald said. “We need to come together as a community in Oak Park, we do a lot of social justice, but there’s so much more to be done. There’s homeless people everywhere you walk. We need to take these people off the street.”

The protest moved north down Dearborn Street where the protesters began to loop around the Richard J. Daley Center (50 W. Washington St.). The sidewalks and streets were filled with people both on foot and in cars carrying signs and passing out water bottles to each other.

Dana Grisolano, an East Humboldt Park resident, brought both her support and a crate of water bottles to share with other protesters to the event. She had stationed herself on the street near the Daley Center where protesters circled the building.

Free water bins and other donation boxes had been set up at several different places around the city, with several popping up in Federal Plaza during the initial protest.

What began as just water Grisolano brought soon turned into a communal collection of snacks, drinks and even feminine hygiene products.

“More people have been adding than taking,” Grisolano, 26, said. “It’s not surprising to me, everyone seems to be trying to do their part and contribute.”

Aiden Raúl, a Logan Square military veteran, compared the killings of minorities by law enforcement with his time serving. He said the issues the public faces with the police aren’t as prevalent in the military because those the military faces are usually armed and in a designated combat area.

“I am tired of seeing all these unjust killings of people of color,” Raúl, 23, said. “We are here and we want to see justice for George Floyd. … The military is completely different because we deal with foreign threats and usually our deployments are to a warzone. Here you’re dealing with American citizens, citizens who are unarmed.”

After the organized protests ended at 5 p.m., protesters broke off in several directions with a large group focusing on the bridge near Trump Tower (401 N. Wabash Ave.). About two hours later, police began to move the protesters away from the river by pushing them down State Street. 

As the protesters moved down State Street, some began to break the mostly glass storefronts and started looting. Two police vehicles — one near the Chicago Theater and the other near the intersection of Madison and Dearborn — were set ablaze. After a few small explosions, Chicago fire crews were able to put out the fires.

The death of Floyd has drawn comparisons of similar tragedies in Chicago, such as the killing of Laquan McDonald, who was shot 16 times in the back by a Chicago police officer. During a May 28 press conference Mayor Lori Lightfoot said the situation reminded her of the 2014 killing.

The Phoenix reported that Lightfoot was appointed by former Mayor Rahm Emmanuel to the Police Accountability Task Force to examine the practices of the Chicago Police Department, which eventually led to a Department of Justice investigation into the city’s law enforcement.

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