Pepper spray clouds the air at Randolph and Dearborn Credit: Dominic Gwinn

“It’s the army! Bro, they’ve got the army out here!”

It wasn’t the army. But the presence of a SWAT team was enough to send ripples through the crowd that Saturday, August 15. Protesters and reporters both put on goggles and helmets after hearing a call over the radio for the gas team.

The police-protester altercations that followed have now been dissected from multiple angles. The subsequent kettling incident, while then widely reported on, was quickly minimized. As some of the city’s own aldermen went to the media to target activists, Mayor Lori Lightfoot threw her support behind the Chicago Police Department’s narrative. Video of a protester hitting a cop with a skateboard was broadcast widely, while unprovoked violence against teens went largely ignored, bolstered in part by police claims that more officers than protesters were injured.

After a spring and summer blazing hot with violence, it has become frightfully easy for our attention to drift from one incident to the next, for us to become desensitized to the images of police committing increasingly brutal acts of violence against protesters who, in some cases, couldn’t put up a fight if they wanted to. 

Our comfort with bite-sized news briefs, coupled with the lightning-fast pace of social media, has led some of the most complex and haunting human experiences—rowdy street rallies full of righteous anger and chaos, followed by weeks of messy trauma and unforeseen consequences—to be distilled into mere echoes of what they really are.

But we don’t want what happened on August 15 to be lost. 

The truth, as we saw it, is this: Chicago police attacked nonviolent protesters, many of them high school students, as they were trying to leave an area of the Loop they’d been forced into by raised bridges and lines of advancing officers. Our photos, newly released video footage, and accounts from protesters and witnesses point squarely to the police as escalators of violence. And they speak volumes about the danger of dissent at this time in our history.

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‘How the fuck am I supposed to instigate?’

The protest began at Millennium Park at 4 PM. Activists marched north to Michigan and Wacker, until police rerouted them south to Randolph. CPD pushed protestors west and south again until the kettling incident at LaSalle and Adams. Along the way, confrontations between officers and protesters escalated, always with officers as the aggressors.

As protesters left Millennium Park, a woman juggled both her meal and her smartphone at the back of the march. Officers on bikes began pushing against the rear of the group, accusing students of “instigating.”

“Sir, I’ve got my dinner in one hand and my phone in the other, how the fuck am I supposed to instigate?”

One teenage organizer noted that with the bridges all up, there really was nowhere activists could go to cause trouble. They were outnumbered from the start, and their plan had never been to ambush police. She also said officers made no attempt at a conversation, though they did call the students “thugs” and “criminals.” 

When protesters heard about the arrival of SWAT, they quickly dug through their bags for umbrellas and ponchos, fearing the deployment of tear gas, pepper spray, or both. Minutes before, a police captain had shoved his way through the group attempting to protect the intersection of Michigan and Wacker. He forced his way through to the other side despite having clear, body-free routes around the outside of the rally. 

Simultaneously, it began to drizzle.

Police superintendent Brown’s version of events points to umbrellas as “tools of agitators,” deployed to hide projectiles. However, scuffles broke out only after police had already assaulted activists unprovoked, yanking their bicycles and umbrellas away. Brown also described the protective donning of goggles and ponchos as a “change of appearance.” After scattering the crowd with chemical agents, police surrounded people, forcing them back south on Michigan Avenue. Commanding officers barked orders to their ranks, yet gave no discernible directions to protesters. 

Commanding officers, including Superintendent Brown, assess the situation on Randolph Street.
Commanding officers, including Superintendent Brown, assess the situation on Randolph Street.Credit: Dominic Gwinn

‘To ensure public safety’

After stopping at Randolph and State for a demonstration punctuated by chants of “1-2-3-4-5-6-7-8-9-10-11-fuck 12,” protestors walked west on Randolph. A block later, police suddenly rushed them from behind, hitting them with their shields and batons. 

They then unleashed a dizzying amount of chemicals, all the while watched by superintendent Brown and Glen Brooks, CPD’s director of community policing. Videos show police deploying trigger pulls of pepper spray no fewer than eight times in the span of one minute during the attack on Randolph. I asked CPD exactly how many times they used chemicals that evening. They declined to answer, stating only, “at times, OC [oleoresin capsicum] spray was the appropriate tool to use to ensure public safety.”

OC spray—widely known as pepper spray—is not to be confused with tear gas, a different riot control agent composed of different chemicals. The “gas team” is trained in deployment of both agents, but tear gas has rarely been used at Chicago protests. The geography of the downtown area limits its use substantially, as it can be easily sucked into air systems of residences and businesses. Pepper spray can be aimed at protests in a variety of ways—as a quick spray, a jet, a mist, or even in a fog—one reason it is often mixed up with tear gas. Videos show toxic clouds spewing from officers’ individual handheld devices, from larger cans wielded by SWAT, and from cone-style guns that spray in a wide arc. In other cities, it has been fired at protesters and press in a projectile form known as pepper balls. 

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According to CPD’s chemical weapons use order, separate tactical response reports (TRRs) should technically be filed for every deployment, each of which must also be individually justified. Only Brown or his designee can authorize use of chemical agents against noncompliant crowds. While police have not confirmed who authorized use that evening, Brown or a designee, they did confirm that Mayor Lightfoot was “briefed throughout the day,” as is standard protocol.

Pepper spray can cause bronchospasm (a tightening of the muscles that line the airways) in people with preexisting conditions like asthma and COPD. Dr. Dakota Lane, emergency department physician and medical director of the Chicago Street Medic Alliance, said it absolutely could have contributed to asthma attacks witnessed that evening. It also has been linked to increased risk of respiratory infection. When protesters cough after being sprayed, they can expel potentially infectious secretions, and ripping wet masks off for treatment leaves them unprotected. Additionally, asthma is more common in the Black and Latinx communities, creating a perfect storm for respiratory distress for POC activists, many of whom are also already more susceptible to COVID-19 infection. On top of everything else, because pepper spray is manufactured and sold in many formulations with minimal regulation, it can be difficult to determine the exact amount of irritant individual protesters have been exposed to. This complicates treatment in the field.

A., a young activist we’re identifying only by her first initial, was one of those who had an asthma attack that night. She is biracial and was told to stay back from the perimeter to allow white allies to bear the brunt of police violence. She often ignored the suggestion. She was hit directly in the eyes with OC spray multiple times. Inhaling it felt like “being in the kitchen when someone is cooking chiles, except they shut all the windows and doors, and they’re holding your face just over the hot pan.”

Inside the kettle at LaSalle and Adams, a protest medic rinses someone’s eyes.
Inside the kettle at LaSalle and Adams, a protest medic rinses someone’s eyes.Credit: Dominic Gwinn

When she felt an attack coming on, she tried reaching for her inhaler, but in the chaos, sucking down albuterol just wasn’t happening. She couldn’t see well enough to locate it anyway. Pulled along by strangers, with no clue where she was heading or what was happening around her, all she could hear was the sound of boots on the ground—and seemingly endless screaming. 

When A. finally regained some ability to see inside the kettle at LaSalle and Adams, she was surrounded by police. Some were holding assault weapons. Immediately descending into a panic attack, she did her best to engage in deep breathing exercises with her skin on fire. “I had no idea what happened to the rest of the protesters…if they escaped or got rounded up during the times they would rush us.”

When asked if she had anything else to add at the end of our conversation, she responded delightfully, “Fuck Lori Lightfoot.”

While deaths from exposure to pepper spray are rare, moderate to severe injuries are not. The risks go up in enclosed spaces without means of egress, and unleashing any chemical agent on panicked crowds can carry the risk of sparking a stampede. The lack of transparency from manufacturers and law enforcement about exact formulations is also a public health concern, and the body of medical literature surrounding OC agents specifically could be more robust. Ironically, the violence of summer 2020 may provide researchers a better opportunity to study its effects.

“The video evidence that shows police squeezing protesters and medics and press together at the side of a building is an extremely, extremely dangerous scenario,” Lane, the ER physician, said. “Unquestionably, it is a very poor decision and a dangerous decision to be using a respiratory irritant during a pandemic with a virus that’s transmitted by respiratory means.”

Lane was also dismayed by reports that officers targeted medics throughout the protest. Photos and video capture medics being shoved to the ground, hit with batons, and sprayed directly in the face.

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‘We just want to go home!’

As officers pushed protesters further west, the injured struggled to keep up with the front of the group, and at LaSalle, police broke into a full run, reaching out with their batons to strike at the slowest. One protester commented, “it was like they were looking for an excuse just to hurt people.” 

At LaSalle and Adams, protesters, legal observers, and members of the media were kettled together for 45 chaotic minutes at the end of what many have said was their most violent and horrifying protest of the summer. Injured protesters cried and begged to be released. Medics did their best to treat injuries with minimal supplies. Officers searched bags without cause, while taunting people. 

Early on in the squeeze, people began chanting, “We just want to go home!”

From outside of the kettle, screams floated up the corridor of skyscrapers. I could just barely make out people being torn away from the group, kneeled on, and arrested. Inside, at least one person had a severe asthma attack, and people mobilized to help her. Without warning, police crushed the group tighter, packing them in like sardines in air thick with coughs and chemicals.

Police gave little to no clear direction until the end of the mayhem, including a dispersal order shouted inside the kettle to protesters who had nowhere to disperse to. By that point, I had been screamed at, told I wasn’t legitimate press, and had my belongings ripped from my hands and stolen, but I was never touched—a combination, certainly, of both white lady privilege and dumb luck. After hiding behind a dumpster in an alley, one photojournalist outside of the kettle ushered a young girl in a poncho to safety. Crying and coated in pepper spray, she had lost her friends. 

A police officer films the kettle and bag searches at Adams and LaSalle.
A police officer films the kettle and bag searches at Adams and LaSalle.Credit: Dominic Gwinn

Just before 8 PM, the final bag searches wrapped. The lines of police parted.

Activists reported being teased by officers (“Thanks for visiting Chicago!”) on their way out. Detained reporters reunited, some of them escorted by officers, and headed to a safe location to rinse their burns. 

Injury reports provided by the Chicago Fire Department after protests never give a complete picture for several reasons, one being that police always have their medical care paid for. They can quickly seek treatment for even the most minor scrapes.

Bruised and bleeding protesters, on the other hand, often avoid seeking medical attention. They’ve heard that police sometimes work in tandem with CFD to locate injured activists for arrests. Street medics confirmed it’s happened at Chicago hospitals after other protests this summer. Beyond that, the chaos itself leads many to opt to tend their injuries at home. Unlike police, they don’t always have vehicles waiting to whisk them away. 

Police arrest two activists who appear to have been hit with OC spray. In an arrest maneuver known as “raking,” they dragged protesters along the pavement to handcuff them behind the skirmish line on Randolph Street.
Police arrest two activists who appear to have been hit with OC spray. In an arrest maneuver known as “raking,” they dragged protesters along the pavement to handcuff them behind the skirmish line on Randolph Street.Credit: Dominic Gwinn

One medic I spoke with estimated he treated around 18 people throughout the night. Most had been burned by pepper spray. Some had been shoved and hit. At least one protester was transferred to jail after leaving in an ambulance not far from the kettle. Activists and medics found him sprawled under a bus shelter with a head injury, bleeding and disoriented. He couldn’t stand, and EMTs had to cut his backpack from his shoulders before loading him onto a stretcher.

As the wounded rounded the corner of Randolph and LaSalle, an EMT unit threw water bottles to protest medics just before police began their full-out chase. Another protester I spoke with said her companion, who also had a head injury, waited until the next day to seek a CT scan from her primary care provider. They were both struck in the face and head with batons:

“My lip was bleeding and bruised, and I developed four bruises on my arms. My companion suffered severe bruising on her side near her kidney, left shoulder, left arm, and left calf. An officer hit her over the head, and she fell to her knees. I helped a medic give first aid to a woman who had been pepper sprayed. My companion and I did not receive first aid on the scene as we were not aware of our injuries until we changed later in the evening.”

Activists I’ve spoken to since August 15 say they’re staying away from Loop protests for a while, meaning police probably succeeded at what they set out to do that day: intimidate demonstrators away from the central business district. 

Eerie normalcy washed over the streets as the final people detained were allowed to leave. Restaurants and bars were still active, their patrons illuminated blue by strobing squad car lights. Tourists trickled along. A medic soaked with water and pepper spray, holding his respirator and “looking like absolute shit” (his words), walked with a protester around the Loop, searching for a bridge that was down so they could proceed to a hospital:

“We walked by the people who obviously were out for dinner, or walking over the bridge. And people going underneath us in a boat with party music and people drinking on it. It was so surreal. But I managed to get her into the hospital, and someone came and picked me up.”  v