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Unrest after George Floyd’s killing left Lightfoot administration struggling: ‘We are so behind [it’s] ridiculous’

Leaked emails offer a window into a critical period of the mayor’s first term in office.

A Chicago Police Department SUV is set on fire near State and Lake in the Loop as thousands of protesters in Chicago joined national outrage over the killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis police custody, Saturday afternoon, May 30, 2020. Ashlee Rezin Garcia/Sun-Times

As a downtown protest over the police killing of George Floyd devolved into chaos late last May and gave way to months of unrest, an adviser to Mayor Lori Lightfoot directed a staffer to swiftly prepare a formal response that could be introduced to the City Council.

“Could you help draft a resolution condemning the killing of George Floyd and calling for justice for his family/acknowledging the history of violence that has disproportionately harmed Black communities/recommitting to the need for reform?” consultant Joanna Klonsky asked in a May 30, 2020, email addressed to Macgregor Lebuhn, a mayoral policy adviser at the time.

Klonsky’s email — sent five days after Floyd’s killing and apparently sparked by an urgent request from the mayor — came as the demonstration downtown turned into a full-blown riot, leading to Lightfoot’s controversial decisions to announce a curfew, restrict access to the area and lift the bridges over the Chicago River.

By the next morning, after wide-scale looting gripped the city, Lebuhn questioned the initial plan: “I don’t know if a resolution is going to meet the moment anymore — we need to put forward something substantive if we’re going to do anything on this.”

Chicago police officers clash with protesters near Kinzie and State as thousands in Chicago joined national outrage over the killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis police custody, Saturday afternoon, May 30, 2020.
Chicago police officers clash with protesters near Kinzie and State as thousands in Chicago joined national outrage over the killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis police custody, Saturday afternoon, May 30, 2020.
Ashlee Rezin Garcia/Sun-Times

“I don’t know but she asked for this so I think we should still do it either way,” Klonsky shot back in an apparent reference to Lightfoot, prompting Lebuhn and other staffers to hash out a draft complete with policy commitments over a series of emails that stretched until at least June 2.

That night, Lightfoot delivered a televised speech aimed at quelling the unrest in which she promised to institute a series of overdue police reforms. Ultimately, though, a resolution was never introduced, and the protests and looting continued in cycles throughout the summer.

Caught between police, protesters

The email thread exemplifies the Lightfoot administration’s at times stumbling response during a critical period of her first term in office. The messages were among a trove of hacked city emails leaked online last month by Distributed Denial of Secrets, a nonprofit whistleblower group likened to WikiLeaks.

City officials have declined to comment on the contents of the hacked emails. So did Klonsky and Patrick Mullane, a former mayoral staffer whose emails were exposed. Lebuhn and Michael Frisch, a former senior adviser to Lightfoot, didn’t respond to requests for comment.

Caught between a police department under fire and a protest movement calling for its abolition, emails show that city officials labored over finding the right tone, expressing a commitment to reform and ultimately appeasing the groups leading the charge.

“We have to have something that says protest is a healthy expression of a functioning democracy,” Daniel Lurie, the mayor’s policy chief, wrote to fellow city employees drafting a statement shortly after police officers pepper-sprayed demonstrators who descended on Grant Park on July 17 and nearly toppled a statue of Christopher Columbus.

“We are so behind on this [it] is ridiculous,” Lurie added.

Hundreds of protesters surrounded the Christopher Columbus statue in Grant Park on Friday. They attempted to pull the statue down and many battled with Chicago Police.
Chicago police responded with force after protesters attempted to pull down a statue of explorer Christopher Columbus in Grant Park on July 17, 2020.
Alexander Gouletas/For the Sun-Times

A series of other flash points led to confusion and showed officials were ill-prepared to weather the rising tide of allegations and criticisms lodged against the police department and its officers.

Kettling concerns

Police officials and mayoral staffers notably struggled to field questions about officers allegedly using a controversial tactic known as “kettling” during a downtown protest on Aug. 15 that led to violent clashes between demonstrators and police, resulting in 24 arrests and injuries to at least 17 cops.

Officers use the technique to herd demonstrators into a confined space to either make arrests or disperse a crowd. Asked about the incident on Aug. 17, Supt. David Brown said, “I haven’t heard those allegations that there was kettling going on.”

Police officers form a human barricade in Bronzeville during an anti-police brutality protest Saturday afternoon, Aug. 15, 2020. Protesters walked from Bronzeville to Grant Park, after police prohibited them from marching along the Dan Ryan Expressway. 
Pat Nabong/Sun-Times 

The following day, police spokesman Luis Agostini initially prepared a statement saying the police department “does not deploy or train in the crowd control tactic known as kettling.” Then, in a separate email a short time later, Don Terry, another police spokesman, made it clear that officers were trained on a technique that’s strikingly similar to “kettling.”

“In the Education & Training Bulletin of Sept. 2011, under Crowd Control Operations … you’ll find Column Movement to Encirclement. ‘The encirclement technique is used to contain a group of individuals and effect an orderly arrest,’” Terry wrote in the Aug. 18, 2020, email to Mullane.

Minutes later, Agostini sent a group of city employees a revised statement stripped of the key claims that officers aren’t trained on kettling and didn’t use the tactic during the protest. Later in the day, Mullane emailed Susan Lee, the former deputy mayor for public safety, including a revised version of the new statement along with Terry’s note.

“We just found the below in the training bulletin for CPD so I don’t want to say that officers aren’t trained on kettling,” Mullane said.

Doxxing debate

A day after the demonstration turned violent, Ald. Carlos Ramirez-Rosa (35th) also raised concerns about the police department making public the home addresses of two protesters who were arrested in an email addressed to Lightfoot’s Intergovernmental Affairs staff.

“I have heard from many Chicagoans who are concerned that this is doxxing on the part of the CPD. The tweets contain the residential addresses of two young women alleged to have harmed a CPD officer or CPD property in yesterday’s protest. Given the current climate, I and many others fear that these tweets invite rightwing extremists to target and harass these young women,” Ramirez-Rosa wrote in the Aug. 16 email, copying Lightfoot and Alds. Byron Sigcho-Lopez (25th) and Rossana Rodriquez Sanchez (33rd).

Ald. Carlos Ramirez-Rosa (35th).
Ald. Carlos Ramirez-Rosa
Sun-Times file

The following day, Lightfoot emailed staffers a directive: “You know my feelings about Carlos, but, there is no reason why the home address should be posted of any arrestee.

“We need the CPD to take down these posts, redact the street address and repost asap,” she added. “And going forward, they need to delete the street addresses.”

Ramirez-Rosa on Friday credited Lightfoot’s office for taking swift action and removing the posts, though he said it’s “unfortunate that CPD did it to begin with.” Overall, he claimed the administration’s answer to the unrest was “too heavy-handed,” namely the decisions to raise bridges downtown and temporarily cut off Chicago Public Schools’ food distribution program.

“There were a lot of things that harmed a lot of working Chicagoans, particularly those that were struggling to survive during the pandemic,” Ramirez-Rosa said.

Amid the intensifying protests, Klonsky also voiced her apparent frustration over the city’s response in an email to mayoral staffers.

“Now is the time to reset and be unifying,” Klonsky, who isn’t a city employee, wrote in the Aug. 16 email. “Enough of what divides us. Enough of the bridges being up and pepper spray and finger pointing. They need something to believe in and feel hopeful about.”

Two days later, city officials apparently sought to devise a plan to stop the bleeding.

Frisch emailed Mullane an invitation to a meeting to “coordinate efforts on public engagement with the protesting groups and discuss a strategy for listening, de-escalation, demands, etc. and related communications.”