Chicago has been an active site of protests in the wake of the murders of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and so many others at the hands of police, joining almost every major American city in the uprising. But unlike other cities, where local governments have made concessions to the growing movement, Chicago’s has made next to none.
Mayor Lori Lightfoot has repeatedly dismissed demands to defund the police, to implement a Civilian Police Accountability Council, and to remove the Christopher Columbus statue that stood tall in the city’s downtown Grant Park. Further, the city’s response to protests has been brutal, with the Chicago Police Department arresting thousands during the first major weekend of the uprising in late May.
But the movement in Chicago has not been deterred. In June, a constellation of organizers and activists from various Black abolitionist groups formed the Black Abolitionist Network (BAN) to put forward demands for a #DefundCPD campaign. BAN also hosted a series of in-person mass resistance trainings the weekend of July 4. The training I attended in Gompers Park on the North side of the city saw over 300 attendees.
Following these trainings and the launch of the #DefundCPD campaign, BAN and other organizations, including Chicago DSA, planned a Black-Indigenous solidarity rally and march on July 17 to Decolonize Zhigaagoong, a word from the Native Anishnaabemowin language that refers to the land now called Chicago.
The action started with a rally at Buckingham Fountain and an acknowledgement that all land east of Michigan Avenue is unceded Niswi-mishkodewinan territory. It was a celebration of the solidarity between Black and Indigenous people. “I’ve dedicated my life to see the liberation of Indigenous peoples on Turtle Island,” said Dallas Goldtooth of the Indigenous Environmental Network. “I know that my fight is not whole unless I am also advocating for the liberation of Black people.”
It was also a call to action. “This is not the time for your respectability politics,” said Jae Rice of Brave Space Alliance. “Not when Black trans women are beheaded in the streets. Not when poisonous pipelines are being built on Indigenous lands. Not when police are given a budget of $1.8 billion to continue to lynch Black and brown folks.”
The crowd then marched down Columbus Drive towards its namesake’s statue and moved into the adjacent Grant Park. Once the entire crowd of a few hundred was entirely in the park, we stalled for a second. It was around this time that a comrade whispered to me: “That statue is coming down.” Shortly thereafter, the crowd advanced towards and encircled the statue, which was being protected by around a dozen CPD officers. A segment of the crowd began to throw water bottles at the police.
The police guarding the statue responded by breaking apart the large banners that were concealing protesters and swinging their batons at anyone they could reach. Protesters used the PVC pipes that had been holding the banners together to jab at the police and then lit fireworks, throwing them at the statue.
Jarred by the size of the crowd and the bombardment, the police retreated from the statue, totally overwhelmed. The crowd then swarmed around the statue and a select number of comrades began working on bringing Columbus down.
I would guess that most protesters did not realize there was a plan for civil disobedience or taking down the statue. It didn’t matter. It was impossible to be in that crowd, to have attended that rally, and to not then look up at the statue and see that it had to come down — even if, as Mayor Lightfoot had made necessary, by force.
I’m not entirely sure how long we held the statue; this part of my memory is most blurred. But for the short time we did, the feeling of empowerment was palpable. That the crowd had managed to force out the police was a testament to the fact that there were many more of us than of them, and that united in solidarity we were more powerful. It was terrifying and unmistakably beautiful.
Then reinforcements arrived. Cops began to encircle the crowd on the south end of the statue. Comrades with bicycles formed barriers to hold the line, with others on foot behind them, arms locked. I stood briefly near the front line where the most cops had begun to gather, but I was told to move with others and start adding to the line on the east side of the statue, where other cops were starting to move in. Not long after I moved east, CPD went on the offensive to break the south end of the line.
CPD in riot gear smashed their way back up to the statue, batoning and beating their way up while unleashing waves of pepper spray into the crowd. Dozens of cops swarmed, with many targeting protesters trying to get away or to receive medical attention. Neither de-escalation nor safety was their goal, nor was it even so much about protecting the statue itself; it was a violent rupture in response to the humiliation of temporarily losing control, their power directly challenged by a force united against them.
Once it was clear that the statue was lost and the crowd’s line of defenses crushed, organizers gave us the signal to march back towards Buckingham Fountain. The statue remained standing with many protesters injured, others arrested. Miracle Boyd, an organizer with Good Kids Mad City and a recent graduate of Chicago Public Schools, had teeth knocked out by a CPD officer. Boyd had been returning home after speaking at the rally but ran over when she heard the noise from the fireworks and police activity. She was attacked while filming a protester being arrested.
“I put my body on the line protecting friends and strangers,” Boyd told the press a few days later. “I take full accountability for my actions because I will not run. I will not run from the truth or hide behind any friends. I am responsible and will not let my past actions impact my future. I am brave. I am still a freedom fighter, who will not stop fighting for justice for myself, friends, and brothers and sisters of this generation. I will not allow the public to tear me down and humiliate me. I am not a menace, a hood rat, nor a rebel, but a dedicated freedom fighter.”
Mayor Lightfoot still has not addressed Boyd’s attack by CPD.
The statue’s removal, a symbolic gesture, should have been conceded by the city weeks ago. Lightfoot remained stubborn. But through sustained mass action, the abolitionist movement in Chicago forced her hand.
Just a week after the protest the City removed the statue of Columbus in the middle of the night, for concerns of “public safety.” “Temporarily” according to Lightfoot, although the statue seemed to have been damaged during removal. Temporarily or not, the political terrain of what’s possible has fundamentally shifted in Chicago.