Just minutes before the Chicago Police Department released a video Tuesday of a white police officer shooting a black teenager to death, several groups of black activists marched to Cook County state’s attorney Anita Alvarez’s office on the near west side of Chicago to attend a community forum. She had waited too long to charge officer Jason Van Dyke for the murder of 17-year-old Laquan McDonald, they said. It was more than a year after the October 2014 shooting and the charges came only after a judge had ordered the release of the video showing his death.
But the activists declined to give interviews to reporters flanking them during their public demonstration. One woman told a journalist he was taking up “valuable black space in an action about black suffering.” After not being allowed into Alvarez’s community forum, the protesters regrouped at a nearby gallery and asked reporters to stay out of the “strictly black-only space.”
Veronica Morris-Moore, an organizer with Fearless Leading by the Youth (FLY), told reporters, “This is a space where black people are trying to process this right now. . . . I understand this is a public sidewalk but I need you to respect these people in here if you want to talk to them . . . [and] not look like you’re here to capture a circus show.”
This desire to protect not just black lives but “black space” is a tactic that has been embraced by activists and explored by writers in recent months, starting with the highly publicized incident at the University of Missouri when a young journalist was barred from an activist camp on the campus quad, and later at Loyola University, when students stood in solidarity with Mizzou organizers by barring media from a public event on the Chicago campus.
Claims to “black-only” space are as much a defense as they are an action, activists say—a defense from manipulative messages, as well as a proactive strategy to reclaim the protest narrative. A distrust of media, political figures, and public opinion has grown in the absence of meaningful reform.
Chicago’s organizers drew this connection during last week’s protest, when an activist next to Morris-Moore told a man livestreaming the protest on his phone to “stop filming—she said stop.”
Morris-Moore continued to address reporters and onlookers: “I’m asking if you could respect us. . . . You don’t have to, but if you have any half of decency in you, please leave. Don’t stand here.”
In the weeks leading up to—and the days following—the release of the Laquan McDonald video, young black activists from groups including FLY, Black Youth Project 100, Assata’s Daughters, Say Her Name, and Black Lives Matter had intentionally stepped away from establishment figures. Organizers declined an invitation from Mayor Rahm Emanuel on Monday to discuss the video’s release. They called for a media blackout of the “black-only” march on the night the video was released.
“Black people please meet at Roosevelt st and Halsted Ave at 5:30pm. This is a space for Black rage for Black people,” a BYP100 Facebook event page read.
The call for a black-only protest space prompted both support and opposition from allies of all races:
For some, the request for “safe spaces” seemed as foreign as it did unnecessary. Why advocate for the racial segregation that blacks had spent so long fighting? Why hold allies of all other colors at bay?
“We need to figure out how black people can get space, understanding that space is also time. Black people, especially poor black people, do not have space to heal from [trauma] or even combat [police violence]. Time is a luxury,” LaCreisha Birts, an organizer with BYP100, said in an interview.
It’s a sentiment that some people had trouble understanding. Presidential hopeful Donald Trump has dismissed demands for black space as “crazy” and said Black Lives Matter protesters are “looking for trouble.”
“They wrongly assume we all enjoy such luxury and are blindly seeking something even more extravagant,” author Roxane Gay wrote in a New York Times column. “They assume that we should simply accept hate without wanting something better. They cannot see that what we seek is sanctuary. We want to breathe.”
The rejection of establishment politicians, media, and nonblack people served two main purposes, according to interviews with members of several activist groups: to create black-only spaces that would make it easier to grieve the loss of black lives and to retake the narrative of the “black man or woman shot by white officer” story, which they said had been hijacked to create a spectacle worthy of mass consumption. Activists were fed up with media accounts that they said had twisted their message in order to inflate page views, without giving voice to their demands, including calls for Mayor Emanuel, police superintendent Garry McCarthy, and Alvarez to resign and for Chicago as a whole to invest in the economic and educational opportunities of disenfranchised communities of color.
For example, while the activists planned memorials and public demonstrations, city officials emphasized a call for peace:
“People have the right to be angry. People have the right to protest. People have the right to free speech, but they do not have the right to commit criminal acts,” McCarthy told reporters at a press release designed to mitigate any violent response to footage of McDonald’s death.
“We are prepared to facilitate people’s First Amendment rights to free speech, but we will be intolerant of criminal behavior here in the city of Chicago,” he said.
The underlying assumption, activists said, was that young black people are likely to riot and commit criminal acts. By spreading the pleas for peaceful protest coming from public officials, they said, media was endorsing the idea that violence was impending.
But there were no riots. With few exceptions, the peaceful protests were filled with chanting, spoken word, and over the weekend, a rejection of Black Friday consumer culture as it traveled down the Magnificent Mile shopping district and throughout downtown on five consecutive days.
“We are organizers—we are strategic, not random people who show up to a march,” said BYP100’s communications director Camesha Jones. “People have a right to protests. We support that—it’s righteous rage.”
But just as public officials and the media fetishized black anger, organizers said, so too did they sensationalize black death, creating an unending loop of violence made normal by round-the-clock coverage. Nowhere was that as blatant as in the highly-criticized-then-deleted tweet from the Daily Beast with a GIF of McDonald dying on video.
— Katie Mack (@AstroKatie) November 25, 2015
#BeforeYouWatch know Black death is not a spectacle. it is a brutal truth. it is not a joke. it is normalized but it should not be normal.
— BLACK POWER ranger (@MalcolmLondon) November 24, 2015
Later in the week, Morris-Moore described her mixed feelings on the media’s interactions with activists: “Media has both been doing harm to our cause and at the same time getting our message out there.”
Multiple activists said the biggest problem was that reporters only showed up to big protests and demonstrations to cover the mayhem aspect, rather than discuss the causes for which organizers advocate on a regular basis.
“Who is interested in covering this in an objective way—and who has an angle they are trying to perpetuate?” Jones asked.
Of the hundreds of protesters who filled Chicago’s streets Tuesday night, police arrested five on charges ranging from resisting a police officer to aggravated battery. (The most serious charges were reserved for Dean M. Vanriper, a 38-year-old white man from Murrieta, California, according to police.)
Those arrests are the statistics media will focus on, according to Jones: “They are focused on the violence and not the demands. That includes the violence of the police and suspected violence of protesters.”
“One of the things that media gets wrong, for me, is that the movement for black lives only sees police brutality as a problem and doesn’t have a scope or sphere about what community violence looks like,” BYP100 organizer Max Boykin said. “We see community violence and we see it as part of this larger problem of state violence against black bodies.”
Organizers with several Chicago-based activist groups joined hands outside of the Cook County courthouse November 25 for the release of BYP100 member and acclaimed spoken-word poet Malcolm London, who was charged with aggravated battery by police the night before—charges that were later dropped.
“We are poised to march as long as needed,” said BYP100’s Charlene Carruthers, as a crowd of activists waited for another protester to be released from court. “This did not start last night, and it didn’t end last night. We are marching in protest of constant, structural racism by the Chicago Police Department.”
The marches will no doubt continue, but the young organizers may not have to wait long for media and political allies to fall in line. Even now, major news outlets and politicians are calling for some of the same measures groups like BYP100 and Black Lives Matter have pushed in recent months, including a federal investigation of the Chicago Police Department and the firing of McCarthy and Alvarez.
If and when those demands for accountability become mainstream, the difference between public space and black space may not seem so far apart after all.
This report was published in collaboration with City Bureau, a Chicago-based journalism lab. Additional reporting by Ronald Reese, Michael Key, and La Risa Lynch.