The weekend after George Floyd was killed by police officers in Minneapolis, like in hundreds of other cities across the country, protests against police brutality swept Chicago. Thousands marched downtown and in neighborhoods across the city to demand justice not only for Floyd, but for the thousands of people, especially Black Americans harmed by police in every corner of the United States.
That weekend, between May 29 and 31, the Chicago Police Department made 2,172 arrests, according to public records released by the CPD. The Reader‘s analysis of these records shows that the vast majority of these arrests, over 70 percent, were of Black Chicagoans. Meanwhile, Chicago, as a city, is not majority Black, with just 32 percent of the city identifying as Black and 45 percent as white. Of the arrests made over the weekend, 16 percent detained were categorized as Hispanic and 18 percent as Asian or Pacific Islander. Only 10 percent arrested by CPD were white.
Even more starkly, nearly 80 percent of the 106 arrests made to enforce curfew on the nights of May 31 and June 1, the first two full days of curfew enforcement, were of Black Chicagoans. Meanwhile, 11 percent were white, and 9 percent were categorized as Hispanic. As the curfew continued over the following week, enforcement arrests grew even more racially disparate. Police targeting Black Chicagoans isn’t new. For as long as policing has existed in Chicago, Black residents have been stopped, arrested, and jailed more than their white counterparts and are overwhelmingly likely to be on the receiving end of police use of force.
Damon Williams, an organizer with the Let Us Breathe Collective was one of the people arrested that weekend. He was detained on Chicago’s south side, on 53rd St. “I was slammed to the ground many times, beaten with a baton, slammed directly on the top of my head,” said Williams.” An officer also kneeled his knee into my neck with his full body weight, pressing my face into the concrete. Then I was taken to the jail on 51st Street.”
He added, “all of us arrested were Black.”
Numerous reports by protestors stated that that the racial breakdown of these arrests, in addition to being unrepresentative of the city’s population as a whole, are also unrepresentative of the weekend’s protests, which were similarly not predominantly or majority Black. One protester, who wished to remain anonymous, explained that at protests downtown, “the crowd was mostly white, [at least] on the front lines.” Vitaliy Vladimirov, who attended a protest on Fullerton Avenue, remembered that protest’s attendees as about 85 percent white.
Protesters also said police officers repeatedly escalated calm demonstrations, directing violence toward many who weren’t even engaging with officers, which only increased when National Guard members joined police ranks.
“On a bridge [downtown], I saw a police officer grab at a woman’s hijab and yank her down. I saw two Latina girls, probably in their late teens, get kicked multiple times by officers. They were really short, barely five feet [tall] so every time they were kicked or hit with those plastic shields, it hit them in the stomach or the chest and they flew backwards,” remembered one protester. “Officers in riot gear and SWAT teams lined up on the street near the Chicago Theatre and the protestors there, who were primarily Black, saw something get sprayed in our direction. I don’t know if it was pepper spray or water hoses, but none of us stuck around to find out. I don’t think I’ve ever run that fast in my life.” The protester also witnessed police dragging a white man to a police car and beating a young woman with batons and other riot gear.
On the north side, police presence wasn’t any less overwhelming. Vladimirov said the protest he attended wasn’t large, with about 200 attendees, “but there must have been nearly 100 cops on all sides,” he remembered. “It was an overwhelming response given that, by then, we knew of the mayhem elsewhere in the city. The police number in relative size to the protest was excessive . . . the scariest part was the massive police line at Division, where officers used trash trucks and the National Guard made a line of tanks [to corral protesters].”
On the South Side, the police violence continued. “I was part of a group of protesters that were pretty publicly abused,” said Williams. “Police had attacked a man near a store and a group of us organizers were doing cop watching, know your rights work, and advocating for the man attacked when the police started beating three or four women with batons and shields. They slammed us to the ground, they brutally beat another activist and held him in a chokehold. As we were deploying strategy and demanding that they leave us alone and let people go, they attacked us further. My experience with the police is that anything beyond being submissive is seen as a threat, something that needs to be attacked.” A month later, Williams is still experiencing symptoms of the concussion he sustained when thrown to the ground by police that day.
“They never read me my Miranda rights,” he added. “There was no communication of what [law or ordinance] I violated or what I did wrong outside of trying to protect my body, standing my ground, and being in the streets.”
Chicago’s Civilian Office of Police Accountability (COPA) has received 162 complaints regarding police conduct from protests over the last month, the majority of them from the first weekend of citywide protests: 56 percent of these complaints were about excessive use of force, 23 percent were for Fourth Amendment violations or improper searches, and 11 percent were for verbal abuse. So far, six CPD officers have been relieved of the policing powers based on COPA’s recommendations from these investigations. CPD’s Bureau of Internal Affairs (BIA) received an additional 242 complaints.
COPA stated that officers shielding their identities to avoid prosecution and CPD’s code of silence, the cultural pressure within the police department to not report on colleagues’ misconduct, have posed steep challenges for their investigations.
State’s attorney Kim Foxx, in an interview with the Reader, noted, “We’ve seen some instances of aggravated battery to police officers. Last year at this time, we had maybe seven burglaries. This year we have forty. . . We also had 18 homicides in one day, which is unprecedented violent crime in the city of Chicago. We’ve seen a number of people who were arrested on gun violations, we saw a number of people who were referred for charges of burglary, the colloquial ‘looting.'” Of the 934 felony arrests that were made between May 29 and June 8, 226 were for burglary, according to data from the state’s attorney’s office.
“But a significant portion of arrests made over the weekend were municipal ordinance violations like disorderly conduct and violation of curfew,” said Foxx.
Indeed, a Chicago Appleseed analysis of arrest information released on the Chicago Police Department’s data portal found that the majority of the weekend’s demonstration-related arrests were for peaceful protest actions rather than property damage, “looting,” or assaults on police officers, contrary to earlier claims from the police department. CPD had stated that looting made up the majority of arrests that weekend. At least two-thirds of the “likely-protest-related charges” from the weekend were for disorderly conduct, described in CPD reports as “assembly of greater than three persons and/or breach of peace.”
The analysis also found that, although protests and “looting” were reported in nearly every neighborhood in Chicago, arrests were overwhelmingly made Downtown (Police District 1) and on the Near North Side (Police District 18). The Reader‘s analysis confirms these findings. Between May 29 and 31, 517 arrests were made downtown, 466 arrests were made on the south side, 498 arrests were made on the west side, and the largest number—690 arrests—were made on the city’s north side.
When it comes to curfew arrests, the police stated, “CPD’s enforcement of the citywide curfew was universal, regardless of race or neighborhood. Following the increased violent and criminal activity on Saturday, May 30th, the overwhelming majority of emergency calls during this time period were from Chicago’s South and West Sides, which is why the Department deployed more resources to those areas.”
The Reader‘s analysis of public records requests data, however, found that nearly 75 percent of curfew arrests made in the first few days of enforcement were made on the north side. Of these, 64 people were arrested in CPD’s 19th district, which includes Lincoln Square and Lakeview, and the neighboring 18th district, which includes Lincoln Park and the Near North Side. An additional 16 percent of arrests were made on the west side, 6 percent were made on the south side, and 5 percent downtown.
“All of this is a statistical reflection of the political reality of policing in Chicago, and in America, that it is both violent and racist,” explained Williams of policing practices that criminalize people of color’s presence in predominantly white neighborhoods and feel like a constant occupation in Chicago’s predominantly Black and Brown neighborhoods. “That is why we need to have the conversation of divesting from and defunding these systems and building new systems within the tradition of abolition.”
Protest attendees also said that the city’s actions made it much harder for residents of color to avoid breaking the hastily declared curfew, as police trapped protesters on bridges over the Chicago River. The city later raised these bridges, leaving many people who tried to leave downtown for the south or west sides stranded. Protesters also explained that CTA closures heavily impacted nonwhite neighborhoods, and those who attempted to help Black and Brown protesters comply with last-minute curfew declarations were targeted by city officials.
Once arrested, many detained faced difficulties in getting legal aid or contacting family. “I was chained to a bench for about three hours while they stumbled through paperwork trying to process me and argue with me,” Williams explained. As a longtime organizer, Williams was lucky to have the support of community members and City Council members alike to get him released, but was still detained for nearly eight hours. The two young men he was detained with had to wait nearly five hours before their parents were contacted. “For young people, an adult is supposed to be contacted immediately,” said Williams. “The experience of these two teenagers, who were just in the wrong place during a day of chaos, I think is really emblematic of what policing is.”
In response to these practices, The Cook County Public Defender’s Office and several Chicago activist groups are suing the city of Chicago for preventing those arrested from making phone calls and receiving legal support after their arrest, a practice that leads to, “coercive interrogations and even torture,” as the Public Defender’s Office stated in their complaint. They point out that these issues are especially pressing in Chicago, which is known colloquially as the false confessional capital of the United States.
The protest arrests have already resulted in a spike in the Cook County jail population, which, after reaching a record low population of 4,026 at the height of the pandemic, reached a population of 4,528 by June 4, a direct result of the arrests made at protests. Those in the jail remain at high risk for contracting the coronavirus, with just one new case necessary for another mass outbreak at what was one of the largest hotspots earlier in the pandemic. Through a help and information line run by the Chicago Community Bond Fund, those in the jail have reported lack of adequate sanitation, testing, and social distancing measures, according to Matt McLoughlin, who runs the hotline.
These racial disparities in arrests during protests come on the heels of similarly disparate enforcement by police of social distancing rules during the early days of the pandemic, despite repeated statements from Mayor Lori Lightfoot that Chicago police enforced social distancing ordinances equally across the city, “with an eye toward equity.” At a press conference on May 26, Lightfoot stated, “Based upon the statistics we’ve been keeping for weeks, those dispersal orders are happening all over the city—and yes, in white areas, in Latinx areas, in moneyed areas of the city.”
Data from another public records request sent to the police by the Reader showed that of the 22 arrests enforcing social distancing for which the CPD released racial data, 90 percent arrested were Black and the remaining 10 percent were white. All arrests occurred on Chicago’s south and west sides, in the neighborhoods of Humboldt Park, West Garfield Park, and Woodlawn. CPD did not release data on race for the 14 citations issued, but all citations occurred in Chicago’s south, west, and far north sides where many of the city’s nonwhite populations live. The mayor’s office did not respond to multiple calls for comment on the Reader‘s analysis. v