(Here is the latest installment in our Long Reads series – Sarah’s personal story about being an America living in America right now.)
This week in America is happening because last week in America a police officer murdered George Floyd.
I have lived in Chicago ten years this summer. During my decade in Chicago, I have attended many large-scale gatherings, from music festivals to sports parades. In 2016, I was in Grant Park when five million people descended on the city to celebrate the Cubs’ World Series victory. In 2017, I was downtown when a quarter of a million people gathered for the first Women’s March. I’ve seen big—and I mean BIG—crowds swarm the Loop, the central business district, and every time I have walked away, peaceable and unscathed, riding the L home, just as I rode it into the Loop. Not so on Saturday, May 30.
I arrived at the demonstration as I always do, via the L (elevated train). It is by far the most convenient way to get around Chicago, which isn’t saying much because the L is kind of rickety, frequently smells of urine, and is currently a minefield of no-touch social distancing due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Still, it’s the best and cheapest way to cover the miles between my home and the Loop. The demonstration was organized by the Chicago chapter of Black Lives Matter and was set to start in Federal Plaza at two o’clock and anticipated to end at five. It was a large crowd made to seem bigger by efforts to maintain some distance between demonstrators, and there was also a car parade blaring horns and holding signs out their windows. I’m not sure exactly how big the crowd on Saturday was, but it was in the thousands, though far from the biggest crowd I’ve seen in Chicago.
It started out well. We were there to recognize George Floyd and protest the ongoing epidemic of police brutality in America, particularly the deaths of Black Americans at the hands of police (a sharp sting in Chicago, as we remember Laquan McDonald, murdered at seventeen). The feeling was the sort of steely determination that comes from a lot of people agreeing on a single point and resolving to do something, anything, to direct their energy in a unified way. The Women’s March had a similar feel to it—charged and uplifting in its purposefulness. We’re doing something! Maybe this will matter! The demonstration Saturday was energetic and peaceful.
There were police, of course. There always have been. Bike cops roll next to the marchers, maybe mounted police lined up off to the side somewhere, a kind of idle warning not to get out of hand. (Stop making animals be narcs.) And though in the past the crowds have been big, I don’t remember seeing cops in riot gear. Maybe they were there, at the Women’s March or the Cubs parade, but I can’t recall them, so they must not have been numerous. (Let’s be real, even a quarter of a million predominately white women won’t draw the riot gear.) I just remember seeing officers positioned along the rally routes to protect the flow of traffic, both pedestrian and vehicular, and maybe issue a half-hearted, “Hey come on, don’t do that,” when drunk assholes started scaling trees, traffic lights, bus stops, and cars during the Cubs celebration.
Saturday, though, there was riot gear. It struck me as a little odd, because nothing had happened except that people gathered at the predetermined time and place, but already other cities, such as Minneapolis, were seeing protests turn ugly, and the night before in Chicago there was some half-hearted vandalism in the Loop. Okay, I thought, preventative measures. Everyone is on edge right now. Naïve, I know. But it’s hard to imagine the thing happening to you in your home, and not just on the news. I’d seen Chicago cops keep their cool in the face of much bigger—and INCREDIBLY drunk—crowds, why worry about a few thousand demonstrators? After all, there was some vandalism and looting during the Cubs celebration, the cops made a few arrests, no one called in the National Guard. But the longer this demonstration went on, the more cops there were, and then riot gear started making an appearance. This whole thing was about police brutality, and we were already seeing escalations in other cities—why be provoking?
I know the answer to that question, but my point is, much, much larger crowds have gathered in Chicago for much more raucous rallies and not attracted this kind of police presence. It was unnerving. The demonstration wound down, but there were a lot of people and a lot of energy, so we kept going, spreading along the river front, Trump Tower looming just across the bridges. Some people began breaking off in that direction, and other people joined up with a parallel demonstration that occurred on Michigan Avenue. That one started at five, giving the people who wrapped up the Federal Plaza rally somewhere to go and continue demonstrating. That demonstration was also peaceful.
But things were already starting to escalate, with the occasional bottle of water lobbed out of the crowd toward the cops lining the roads and intersections, and cops hassling people, bumping and body-checking demonstrators as they needlessly corralled the crowd—the crowd that was mostly just milling around with strong “what do you want to do now” energy, amplified by everyone spending two and a half months cooped up inside finally getting out on a nice day. A group of energetic twenty-somethings I’d been marching near all afternoon discussed plans for future rallies and ongoing activism throughout the city. They decided to join the crowd moving toward Trump Tower, but my friend and I wanted to leave, so we had to get to an L station.
Two problems: Cops in riot gear were EVERYWHERE, and the L stations in the Loop were closed. Any large crowd I’ve ever been part of has taken longer than half an hour to disperse, so for the life of me, I cannot figure out why the L was shut down through the Loop so early. In the past, the trains have been stopped in anticipation of, er, trouble. During the reading of the Laquan McDonald verdict, we got dismissed from work early to ensure everyone could get home, in case the trains were stopped. But to stop the trains before anyone even has a chance to leave? My only explanation is very conspiracy-minded, but it felt like we were being trapped.
And then bridges starting going up. The bridges connect the Loop and the north and west sides of Chicago. They are picturesque and are a popular spot for wedding photographs, and every morning on the way to work I cross the LaSalle Street bridge. It’s my bridge, with its stately bridge houses and striking view of the Chicago urban canyon, and perfect length to collect thoughts before the workday. It raises occasionally to let sailboats pass through, but the LaSalle Street bridge has never failed me when I need to get from one side of the river to the other. But on Saturday, it was up. And then I really felt trapped. I turned to my friend and said, “We have to get across the river right now.” We crossed at State Street, and one group of demonstrators held the Wabash bridge for a while, letting more people get out of the Loop—which had essentially turned into a dragnet. Here is a video of the Wabash stand-off, with a warning for police violence:
There was no version of May 30 that ended peaceably in Chicago. It was impossible. The deck was stacked against us from the moment we decided to go to the demonstration. This is not a demonstration that got out of hand and THEN the cops showed up, this is a demonstration that was going along fine UNTIL the cops showed up. And if that isn’t a perfect metaphor for Black Americans’ experience with policing, I don’t know what is. We didn’t stand a chance of getting out of the Loop without confrontation, and the cops certainly weren’t there to protect us.
I have had the immense, life-long privilege to move through life without fearing the police, but Saturday I was dodging cops like a game of Frogger, my movements not guided by knowledge of the Chicago streets, but simply by which ways were clear of cops, and which weren’t. As I walked home, watching the situation downtown escalate on my phone, I cried, overwhelmed by the inevitability of it. The afternoon was so powerful, so moving, and the evening was so frantic and pointless, and the night got even worse. But not once did I fear my fellow demonstrator. I feared those blue helmets. And I can’t imagine what it’s like to move through every day carrying that fear inside you, seeing no safe paths, only ones of greater or lesser harm. I do know that kind of fear isn’t sustainable, and an entire community cannot be expected to endure it indefinitely. There must be an end.
This week in America is happening because George Floyd is just the latest in a long and terrible line of Black men and women victimized by systemic and systematic violence against Black Americans that stretches back to 1619, when the first enslaved Africans were transported to the Jamestown colony. This week in America is happening because America once drank from the poisoned well of slavery and that poison resides inside us still, an ulcerous wound that festers beneath the surface of every facet of American life. The only way to heal, though, is to lance the infection and let the poison drain. Let this week in America be the first healing cut.