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People behind the protests: Who is marching and why

Winter tends to keep Chicagoans inside, but a sense of purpose pushes some outside, despite the cold, to march in protest and be heard.

Some are protesting racism. Some are protesting the sentencing habits of sitting judges. Some are protesting crimes against humanity and the policies that allow such crimes to continue. Then there are the sit-ins against school closures and the ensuing violence that springs from forcing students to cross gang boundaries. And many are protesting specific instances of abuse of power, from the well-documented Chicago police torture cases to the issue of an off-duty officer who shot and killed Rekia Boyd in 2012.

The national stories of Trayvon Martin, Michael Brown, Tamir Rice and Eric Garner are only the tip of the proverbial iceberg, protesters say. A cursory survey of groups indicates that protests will continue well beyond Christmas — and that the youngest generation is definitely involved. And since the decision to not indict Ferguson, Missouri, police officer Darren Wilson came down, protests have happened daily.

“The zeitgeist is upon us,” says Steven Hawkins, executive director of Amnesty International. He was recently in Chicago to meet with Donda’s House and Hadiya’s Promise, two groups partnering with Amnesty for the “Write for Rights” program. “We were on the ground in Ferguson this past summer and we definitely saw the young people there highly organized and active. Young people are using social media to organize in new and exciting ways, whether it’s what’s going on here right now, or the protests in Hong Kong or the Arab Spring of two years ago. … It’s exciting to see some of that momentum here in the U.S.”

The “momentum” doesn’t look to go away. Credit Martin’s death for that. Ever since the unarmed, hoodie-wearing Florida teen was killed by a neighborhood vigilante who thought the black youth’s bag of Skittles was a weapon, kids around the nation have mobilized. Then they passed along video of other youth killed by police or self-proclaimed authorities. And just like Jet magazine was passed around — and ignited a nation — when in 1955 it first showed the mutilated, drowned and lynched body of Emmett Till, this new media provides a startling visual aid.

Ferguson certainly stirred the pot, but then came video of the choking of Garner by a white New York police officer who used a banned chokehold. And then video of the shooting death of a pellet gun-waving Rice in Cleveland by a white rookie officer who thought the black 12-year-old was an adult. And people are still sharing video of the death of Oscar Grant, an unarmed black father shot — face down — on New Year’s Day 2009 by a white transit police officer who testified in court that he had intended to draw his Taser but instead drew his revolver. [The acclaimed indie film, “Fruitvale Station,” tells that story].

“In the aftermath of the mobilization around Trayvon Martin, we saw a number of different youth groups emerge, and you’ve had an expansion in the capacity of young people to mobilize and organize,” says Cathy Cohen, professor and chair of the department of political science at the University of Chicago. “One of the amazing things about this movement is even though it’s led by primarily young blacks, you’ll find Latinos out there, Asians out there, gays, lesbians and queers. You’ll find people just resonating with this moment that they are going to fight back against a system and a state that has haphazardly take the lives of young people. ”

This new movement isn’t likely to stop for the holidays, Cohen adds.

“These young people realize they have to take liberation into their own hands,” she says. “They’ve had six years since the first black president, who has done some things for their community, but possibly not enough, and they’re realizing that power can only take you so far; and that mobilization and correction action is necessary.”

So, just who are the people who protest? Why do they do it and where do they come from? It’s tough to interview thousands, but easy enough to interview a handful. Here they are.

The teen

Jazeline Rodriguez, 17, a junior at Sullivan High School, has participated in discussions at school and her community center and has marched downtown for one Ferguson protest. She’s also active in the Mikvah Challenge, a group that teachers teens about how democracy works. Rodriguez is Puerto Rican and lives on the North Side.

Why protest?

“Remember when we first found out that Wilson was [not indicted] and they had the protest downtown? I was there. We had another protest in our school. We sat down on the ground and said this is how we’re gonna act out the scene of how many students die every 28 minutes. We also had a debate about it. And we had mock trials about it as well.”

How are teens dealing with what’s going on?

“I was talking to strangers and we were all in a circle and talking about how we would have done it [if we were police in Ferguson]. What are the pros and cons. I feel like African-American, Hispanic, South Pacific, North Pacific — we are human and we’re always considered as categories and labels. You would think 40 years ago this would be done with.”

Did you post your protest selfies to Twitter or Facebook?

“What? No. I use Snapchat.”

What do teens want out of this?

“Peace and respect.”

***

The young couple

Leif, 29, and Natalie Johnson, 30, have a 3-month-old and a 3-year-old. The Northwest Side family has participated in two protests. Natalie is biracial — Mexican and German. Leif is white, of Swedish ancestry. They marched with Resurrection Covenant Church and with another private group that publicly prayed while holding signs at Lincoln Square. Leif, who this month earned his Masters in Philosophy from Northeastern Illinois University, has participated in many more marches on his own.

Why do you march?

“I think the area of justice is something we both have always been interested in and always been in active in different ways. With the whole series of recent events, we just couldn’t not do something,” Leif said.

Is this a fad?

“I really hope it doesn’t stop by Christmas. I hope it doesn’t stop until something changes,” Natalie said.

You bring your children…

“One thing I read recently was about the role of the ally — the privileged ally — to go and open up spaces for the voices of the oppressed and not to be there with your own agenda by saying ‘all lives matter.’ With our children, we really want to be very intentional about teaching about the space they’re in and how that space is never really neutral. We are intentional about recognizing privilege in a way that doesn’t devalue their achievements,” Leif said.

What’s the end game?

“Some people would be happy with just the police officers getting indicted and serving justice, but I think there needs to be a radical reform of the way that we look at policing and prison. It needs to be overhauled in one way or another. We need to do something preventative. Something major,” Leif said.

***

The young man

William Calloway lives in the South Shore neighborhood. | Brian Jackson/Sun-Times

William Calloway, 25, a film student at the Illinois Institute of Art-Chicago, has been organizing “die-ins” through a group he calls Christianaire. His first-ever protest was on behalf of Trayvon Martin, and then he experienced NATO in Chicago. Since then, he has protested many times since, sometimes twice a day, and in every part of the city. The protests vary in topic. Calloway is black and lives on the Southeast Side.

Why is right now the right time?

It’s a time to really organize, strategize and to seek justice for everybody — not just black lives. It’s all lives that really matter.

Are you anti-cop?

I do want to shout out [to] the good officers for letting us exercise our First Amendment rights without harassing us. We are not against all officers. That’s impossible. We need officers to maintain law and order. But we are against people who abuse their authority. In the past 10 years, Chicago has paid over $500 million in civil suits, and that’s money that could’ve gone to other things. It’s almost a stimulus package they’ve paid out in lawsuits.

How’s school then? You filming all this?

“I am,” he says with a chuckle. “It’s hard to be active and record at the same time, you know?”

***

The father and son

Maurice Chapman, 56, and his son Joshua are new to public protest. They walked down 95th Street, with Trinity United Church of Christ members, to “take over” the 95th Street L station and bus depot. Maurice Chapman is a health administrator and 18-year-old Joshua is a senior at Lindblom Math and Science Academy. They are both black and live on the Far South Side.

Why march?

“It was an opportunity for me to participate in something and also to have Joshua identify with a cause. I think it’s important for him to be a part of that, to feel the overwhelming power of being united with a group of people,” Maurice said.

Do baby boomers have any responsibility in this?

“I consider myself to be rather engaged, but I don’t remember anything coming along that we felt we needed to march about. I think that’s part of the problem. I think that [when] my generation, the baby boomers, started achieving various successes, we didn’t pass the ball down to our kids in terms of things to continue to fight against,” Maurice said.

Joshua, how do you balance activism with school?

“I definitely wanted to go participate in a protest, and it was just that it would be at like, 7 at night and I wouldn’t get home from school until 6. As far as going forward, it would have to line up with scheduling. I don’t drive, so things would have to coordinate with my parents.”

Adrienne Samuels Gibbs is a reporter for The Chicago Sun-Times. She can be reached at agibbs@suntimes.com or on Twitter @adriennewrites