The police used pepper spray to subdue protesters attempting to remove the statue of Christopher Columbus from Grant Park.
The police used pepper spray to subdue protesters attempting to remove the statue of Christopher Columbus from Grant Park. Credit: Grace Del Vecchio

Just after 6 PM on August 15, 2020, the sun was beginning its descent in the gray sky. The air was humid and the pavement, wet from rain, radiated heat. The officers marched in lockstep south on Michigan, many unmasked, wearing the same black bulletproof vests and light blue riot helmets, banging batons on their thick shields. Their boots pounded the pavement in synchrony. They screamed “Move back!”

The few hundred protesters retreated to the intersection of Randolph and Michigan, three long city blocks south of where they first collided with police. One organizer chanted into a megaphone. “Let’s go!” they said, pointing west on Randolph. “I believe!” they shouted. “That we will win!” the crowd responded.

The line of police officers followed. Why weren’t they stopping? They stalked steadily, deeper and deeper into the heart of the Loop, insatiable in their pursuit. The maze of tall buildings and narrow alleys were sure to trap anyone who dared to attempt an escape. The protesters reached Randolph and State and were surrounded by bike marshals, those trained to help guide the crowd and keep them safe. The marshals used their bodies and bicycles as a wall between the protesters and the police.

After the crowd journeyed west on Randolph, some turned south on LaSalle. Then it happened. In front of City Hall, the wave of officers solidified, slamming against the protesters, shooting pepper spray on anyone who resisted the tide. The screams bounced off of the tall buildings and echoed through the Loop.

Throngs of protesters fell to the ground, many blinded and crying out in pain, while those standing struggled to protect them from being crushed. Others ran.

Kettling is a violent and dehumanizing strategy used to divide and conquer a crowd. To be kettled is to feel like an animal being corralled and subdued. You have no agency over your body. You move with the force or get trampled.

I was inside this crowd. I had already put my camera in my bag and pulled my protective glasses onto my forehead as the lenses fogged up. The unusually strong pepper spray had splashed onto my face and hands and seeped through my clothing. I worked alongside strangers to pick up a protester who had fallen to the ground after being drenched in pepper spray. I remember the screams and the faces of those around me, all of us unable to comprehend what was happening.

My hands were numb from the pepper spray for days after. Some protesters would tell me they could feel the burning for the next week.

Since May 2020, I had spent hours reporting on protests across the city. I followed young activists who refused to stay home in a pandemic because they dreamed of a better Chicago. The dozens of organizers, protesters, and journalists I spoke to about the summer said what was happening didn’t feel real, like we were in some kind of otherworldly, apocalyptic scene. So many times, even I thought, this can’t be happening again.

It’s the Reader‘s policy to blur the faces of protesters in photos and avoid publishing identifying details in stories. China Smith, Jennifer Nava, and Naira, the three organizers featured in this piece, are well known and consented to being in this story. One year after the uprisings began in Chicago, many are still processing the trauma of the summer. Many are still trying to heal.

“I really saw a lot of Black and Brown officers,” said China Smith. “It really struck deeply. Because we’re out here fighting for the movement, we’re trying to defund CPD, and I’m just looking at people who look like me.”

China Smith’s hair is often in long braids done by their own hands. They wear handcrafted jewelry made by themself or other local artists. The 19-year-old is also a poet who does oracle and tarot card readings. On May 30, they expected the protest in the Loop to be filled with those mourning George Floyd and the countless others who had lost their lives at the hands of police.

They traveled north by bus from their home in South Shore with two friends. It felt good to be with people for the first time in months, to be with friends who cared for them and the movement. “I was dealing with a lot,” they told me. “But I was so passionate about what’s going on that I was just like, ‘Nah, I need to throw myself back into this.'”

Downtown was bustling with masked protesters. The first thing Smith noticed was that although there were people of all ages, most were in their teens and early 20s. They took over streets, squares, and bridges, chanting passionately, making their presence known, and refusing to be overlooked. As they gathered near Federal Plaza, protesters delivered speeches about the fight against police brutality and for liberation. They held a moment of silence for nine minutes and 29 seconds, the amount of time it took former Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin to murder Floyd.

Smith remembered one of the poems that was performed. “It really made me feel alive,” they told me.

A caravan of cars arrived from Little Village, bringing with it hundreds of protesters who joined the marches on foot. Some cars continued to drive through the streets, honking and waving signs from their windows.

Smith looked for more friends in the crowd. It had been years since the high school senior started attending protests. They received guidance and mentorship on organizing from GoodKids MadCity, a Black and Brown youth-led organization which focuses on combating gun violence. “It really felt empowering to be around them,” they said. “They really helped me feel grounded in heated moments like this.”

Smith was on the front lines and felt the pressure to keep people together as they began to hear about an increased police presence. “Imagine like, literally being like fresh out of high school,” they said. “Even though there’s other young people, they’re still people who don’t know you. It was just really intense. I felt that really, really deep need to just protect everybody around me.”

While the notion of unity was very much alive in spirit that day, the protests were divided across the Loop. Complicating matters even more, phone signal was spotty. Protesters would occasionally see a post on social media or get a message from a friend, but it was nearly impossible to keep track of where people were and the size and intensity of the police.

Smith said something felt strange. A mob of officers would stand nearby, observing and following protesters. Then suddenly they’d leave. Then, in another part of the Loop, they would appear and watch and follow other protesters. They hunted like this the entire day.

The protesters eventually convened near the Trump Tower. Police created a perimeter around the skyscraper and the neighboring buildings. (Months later messages surfaced revealing that Eric Trump thanked Mayor Lori Lightfoot for ensuring the protection of the tower.) The officers closed in on the hundreds of protesters on the bridges leading up to the tower. Once again, the crowd was splintered into smaller groups. Smith was pushed and grabbed. They lost their footing as they wrestled with police officers to break free. In that moment, Smith came to a painful realization: the officers looked like them.

“I really saw a lot of Black and Brown officers. It really struck deeply,” they said “Because we’re out here fighting for the movement, we’re trying to defund CPD, and I’m just looking at people who look like me.” They continued. “I always wonder when will certain people come to the right side of the movement, or when will certain people wake up and realize why this movement is so crucial. It was like another fire was already lit under me.”

The police officers pressed forward, forcing protesters off the bridge and farther away from the tower. In only a matter of minutes, the situation had intensified. The officers who hours before were only observing were now kettling protesters, hitting them with batons and pepper spraying them. Those whose phones weren’t dead and had signal received a notice that CTA was shutting down. (For months, when discussing that day, you would get the question: How did you get out?) The bridges were up, highway and Lake Shore Drive exits blocked, Divvy bikes full, rideshares scarce and with fares surging to over $100. How was anyone supposed to get out?

It was utter chaos. Smith panicked and scrambled to find their friends. The looting began. Police cars were everywhere.

“We felt like we had just become protagonists on some weird TV show where we don’t understand the dystopia . . . a lot of things just felt like a dystopia,” said Smith. “To this day, it really just was like, yeah, this is what’s going on. This is the life that you’re living. This is how life is, this is reality, and it was just so sad, because we’re fighting for something good. And we were being harassed and tortured.”

While escaping proved to be nearly impossible, simply being idle was also dangerous. They would eventually contact a teacher who picked them up, but as Smith waited for a rideshare driver to accept their request, their conscience weighed on them. They had friends who had been arrested and they didn’t know where they were, and they were still in pain.

“This action [was] a super heavy reminder that you’re still Black,” they said. “You’re still a woman, you’re still a young person, and that you’re still going to be treated with the same amount of violence no matter how you approach police.”

“If there’s a bowl of Skittles and half of them are poison, you’re not gonna grab a handful and hope for the best,” said Jennifer Nava. “You’re not going to trust any of them.”

Jennifer Nava began organizing in middle school, when she fought to have a playground built in the empty space outside her school and to remove police and school resource officers from the building. But if you had told the 19-year-old that she would be among the mass of young protesters who were brutalized for attempting to remove a statue of Christopher Columbus, a symbol of America’s racist roots which had sat in Grant Park since 1933, she might have laughed at you.

On the hot evening of July 17, Nava and hundreds of others gathered around Buckingham Fountain in Grant Park for the Black and Indigenous solidarity rally, organized under the hashtag DecolonizeZhigaagong. There were whispers that the Columbus statue would be taken down. A naturally welcoming person, Nava cautioned friends who wanted to join protests because of her deep-seated distrust of the police. “It’s all of these extra steps of precaution and always being on guard now, every time you see a cop, it’s just instant,” she told me. “If there’s a bowl of Skittles and half of them are poison, you’re not gonna grab a handful and hope for the best. No, you’re just not gonna grab any at all. You’re not going to trust any of them.”

A stage was constructed in the space between Columbus Drive and the fountain. The long list of speakers and performers included rapper and prison abolitionist Ric Wilson and members of GoodKids MadCity, Brave Space Alliance, and Chicago Alliance Against Racist and Political Repression (CAAPR). The march began south on Columbus behind a collection of banners, some nearly six feet tall and spanning six or more bodies, with the messages “Defund CPD,” Black Lives Matter,” and “F12” (which translates to “fuck the police”). Some laughed as they moved their bodies to Megan Thee Stallion’s “Savage.” Others seemed unusually on edge.

The swath of protesters turned left off of Columbus and into Grant Park. They moved as one unit, playing music and chanting, and ascended the hill to the statue, which had been cloaked in a protective tarp since the end of June, for “protection” and to “discourage vandalism.” Police officers, holding their bikes, surrounded the statue.

Nava knew what was coming next. The police would not allow them anywhere near the statue. “When stuff escalates, a lot of times, the organizers that are there, they’re like, ‘OK, the youth are pulling back. We are leaving when things escalate.’ But this was like, ‘No, we’re standing our ground, this is the moment to stand your ground.'”

A group of protesters broke through the large banners and rushed up the hill. Others swarmed a shopping cart filled with cans, and threw the projectiles at the police officers guarding the statue. In retaliation, the police officers began hosing down protesters with pepper spray. The fumes were inescapable. Even those who weren’t hit directly choked on the airborne particles, which penetrated face masks.

Nava couldn’t see or breathe. Police had descended upon the crowd and swung their bikes and batons wildly, in search of any human target. Everywhere Nava turned she saw people her age and younger writhing on the ground gasping for air. There were far too many injuries for medics to treat.

When the police relented, protesters seized the moment and climbed up the sides of the statue and wrapped it in ropes. Lines of protesters grabbed onto the ropes and pulled together. But the control over the statue was short-lived. The number of officers had grown in the minutes since the protesters arrived in the park. Police scanners spread warnings of “mass arrests.” The officers again used pepper spray to subdue the assault on the statue.

Nava frantically searched for her friends. She had trained other organizers how to respond to police brutality, what to do when pepper sprayed or beaten with a baton, what to do when a friend is arrested. Nava finally found some friends and was able to get far enough away from the swarms of police to call an Uber back to her home in McKinley Park.

Nava woke up the next morning and stared at the residue of the numbers written in black ink on her arm, a common precaution in case a protester finds themself in police custody and in need of legal assistance and bail money. She rolled over, wincing, pepper spray still clinging to her skin. She remembered how the sunset was perfect, the sky colored in pink and orange hues. In a week Lightfoot, citing safety concerns, would abruptly remove the Columbus statue from Grant Park and another in Arrigo Park.

“When [cops] cover their faces, they’re usually getting ready to use some excessive force,” said Naira.

Naira usually came prepared for things to take a violent turn, because she’s no stranger to how police treat protesters. The 23-year-old has been protesting since high school. Just last year, she and three others founded the mutual aid group Blk Rising. But on the evening of August 15, she wore sandals and a tank top, her bare skin exposed. She expected the protest to be “chill.” The plan was simple: rally at the Bean, march, then go home.

“We went into it not really expecting anything crazy,” she told me. “In hindsight, we can assume that any time we organize anything downtown, it’s capable of becoming violent, because of the way the police is trained, and the way that they are assigned to protect those buildings and that property.”

When the speeches began in Millennium Park near the Bean, officers approached and told the organizers that they were not allowed to use large portable speakers in the park. Naira and the other organizers (and the park employee who was standing nearby) had not heard of this rule before. “They were going out of their way to nitpick,” Naira said.

Naira had noticed that the officers there were not in uniform. Dressed in all black, they stood away from the crowd and under the trees. The march began north on Michigan and the police kept close, but they always did, especially in the Loop.

Soon, the path forward was blocked. The Michigan bridge was raised and a city truck was parked in front of it. Officers lined Wacker on either side, blocking the protesters from turning left or right. Frustrated, Naira and the other organizers questioned the police. The officers refused to move or answer.

Bike marshals and white protesters formed a circle around the crowd, between the protesters of color and police. “Then they started putting on riot gear,” Naira told me. “Which made us afraid, so some of us put on glasses or face protection. Because when [cops] cover their faces, they’re usually getting ready to use some excessive force.”

As rain began to fall, protesters at the front lines opened umbrellas. An officer reached across the line of bikes. “One cop grabbed an umbrella and all of them started just grabbing umbrellas, destroying them,” she said. “Mind you, these umbrellas are not touching them. These umbrellas are in our own personal space. It’s not illegal to carry an umbrella. We weren’t weaponizing the umbrellas. We were simply using them in case they were going to pepper spray us—which they did.”

With the umbrellas gone, the protesters linked arms. “Then next thing you know, they just started deploying pepper spray and they didn’t spray any specific person or like someone on the front line was being aggressive and they spray them—that’s not what happened,” Naira said. “I literally looked up and I watched pepper spray get in my eyes. They just sprayed it into the air over the whole crowd. I wasn’t standing in the front. I wasn’t standing in the front at all and I still got pepper sprayed.”

She continued. “The police just start swinging [at] people, pushing people, shoving people. So the front line disperses, which exposed us who are standing further back.”

The once firmly planted barricade of marshals and protesters was disbanded, many choking and clawing at the pepper spray in their eyes, many nursing wounds from being hit by officers. One person thought their arm was broken. Milk and liquid neutralizers, which are used to help ease the pain of the pepper spray, were sparse. Naira didn’t have her goggles that day, and the bright red poncho a stranger had given her didn’t help much. (Later that week, she would have to take her platinum braids out to treat the burns on her scalp.)

Practicing a mindfulness technique, she forced open her eyes and tried to convince herself that the pain wasn’t there. She ran around the intersection, helping others do the same. Meanwhile, medics were under pressure to treat the mounting number of injuries. Their efforts were squandered when officers trampled over those being treated on the ground and destroyed their medical cart at Wacker and Michigan. “It’s probably one of the scariest things I have ever seen,” she said.

Naira urged the crowd back toward Randolph and Michigan. She ran alongside a few others, weaving through the streets, searching for a corner without police. They turned onto Marble Place, thinking the narrow street was an alley.

An officer rushed toward Naira, smashing his bike into her. She fell down on top of her megaphone, and the officer followed, crushing her with the weight of his bike. (She would later learn she sprained her trapezius muscles, which extend over the neck and upper back.) Her megaphone emitted a loud piercing sound that echoed through the street. Two of her friends sprinted over and started to pull her out from under the officer’s bike.

The officer stood up, stepped back, and moved his bike onto the leg of one of the protesters. Another officer grabbed the other protester, swinging them to the ground and hitting them repeatedly with their hands and batons before arresting them.

Naira screamed and begged them to stop. Another protester grabbed her and urged her to leave. She wasn’t safe there. No one was.

Naira and her friends went to the Chicago Freedom School, on State just south of Balbo. Then she went to jail support at 51st and Wentworth, where most of those arrested were held. Jail support is exactly what it sounds like: people wait in solidarity outside of a police station, or sometimes on the hard lobby floor. For example, the volunteer-run Chicago Community Jail Support sets up daily outside of Cook County Jail to provide rides and resources for those released. Sometimes volunteers pay for hotel rooms for those who don’t have places to stay. Naira spent the next three days outside of the station. She left once, for her mother’s birthday.

That protest, she told me, “changed the way that we imagined safety.” She explained that recognizing danger and choosing to remove yourself isn’t weak, but an act of preservation. “Before I had this mindset that if I don’t resist to my very last breath, I didn’t do my job. And after the Bean protest, seeing the trauma that, like, could have been avoided—not that it was any part our fault,” she said. “I just learned that it is OK to be like, I’m tired. It’s OK to be like, I’m scared or I don’t want to be here, I have a bad feeling, or I don’t feel like getting my ass beat today. I don’t feel like getting pepper sprayed today. And that’s totally OK. And we can go home and regroup and come back the next day.”

The murder of George Floyd exposed an immediate need for white people and non-Black people of color to educate themselves on race and mobilize towards dismantling white supremacy. But many posted their black square, closed the Angela Davis books, and returned to life under lockdown, absent of Black liberation. What was lost in the fog of a “racial reckoning” that swept across the nation is the reality that this process doesn’t happen overnight.

On April 15, 2021, the Civilian Office of Police Accountability released the video of Chicago police officer Eric Stillman shooting and killing 13-year-old Adam Toledo in Little Village. The next day, thousands gathered at the Logan Square monument for a protest. The massive crowd, which included teens and adults and families with children in strollers, marched through the mayor’s neighborhood.

I headed home as the crowd dispersed by the monument, thinking the night was over. But as I drove away, I saw videos posted to Twitter of a familiar scene. Things had escalated to something of a standoff between officers and protesters. Police had descended on the crowd. Journalists and protesters were injured. Two people were arrested. This can’t be happening again.

But it was. It felt inevitable, and I was reminded of what Naira told me. “Any place where there are protesters and police is liable to become violent,” she said. “No matter how peaceful we are, we always have to be prepared that there’s a possibility that we’ll get pepper sprayed. That there’s a possibility that we’ll get kettled. No matter what it is that we came there to do. [The police] have one agenda that’s consistent.”

But I’m also reminded of jail support, where so many go on so many nights like this. It’s a sobering juxtaposition of two definitions of safety: one from the city and police, the other from the citizens they’re supposed to protect. Police harm protesters, and the community responds by showing up in solidarity and camping out for hours or days until every single person is released. Some come straight from the protest, covered in pepper spray; others come from home having watched the news in horror. Through the suffering, mourning, and collective grief, the movement grows. In one brutal and beautiful summer the bridges went up, the statues came down, and we reimagined a better Chicago.   v