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Tensions high as downtown Chicago aims to pick up the pieces, police try to enforce curfew

‘We have to turn our pain into purpose,’ Mayor Lori Lightfoot said. But as night fell, fires started burning on the South Side, looting continued outside downtown and suburbs were hunkering down.

A woman gives a Chicago police officer the middle finger during a protest at 53rd Street and Lake Park Avenue in Hyde Park on the third day of protests in Chicago over the death of George Floyd, who died in police custody on Memorial Day in Minneapolis.
Ashlee Rezin Garcia/Sun-Times

Chicagoans began to pick up the pieces Sunday. They began to sweep and take stock. They revealed their anger, their compassion and their resilience.

And they braced themselves for fear that the looting, burning and historic rioting seen Saturday in the heart of Chicago might not be over. That it might even spread.

As the sun set Sunday, exactly that appeared to be happening. In the span of an hour, fires started burning in buildings at 47th and Indiana and 91st and Baltimore — blazes broadcast by ABC7’s news chopper. Smaller fires broke out at 93rd and Drexel, and 54th and Wentworth, too.

What had been a peaceful protest suddenly became testy near 53rd and Lake Park Avenue, and protesters clashed with police in River North. Spot-looting that had been taking place all day at stores and strip malls outside downtown had spread to some suburbs, where police departments took precautions by issuing curfews just as Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot had done the night before.

Protesters gather in Daley Plaza in Chicago on Sunday.
Pat Nabong/Sun-Times

By 9 p.m., a crowd stood still at North and Wells in Old Town, peacefully defying the city’s curfew. But it gradually dispersed. Another crowd in Hyde Park remained on the streets long after that.

Amid it all, there were questions about whether the violence was being fueled by extremist groups trying to exacerbate racial tensions nationwide in hopes of dividing the country.

The city cut off access to the Loop from anyone who didn’t have a legitimate reason to be there, and nearly 400 Illinois National Guard soldiers moved in for a “limited” support mission. Bridges went up, expressway ramps closed and trains halted.

This was Chicago, one day after another national convulsion over race erupted into violence in cities across the country, months into the coronavirus pandemic.

Lightfoot seemed to fight back tears Sunday as she discussed the Minneapolis police killing of George Floyd and condemned the violence that police said led to 240 arrests and 20 injured police officers on Saturday night into Sunday morning. She referred to the nation’s “original sin” of racism, and she said, “I stand shoulder-to-shoulder” with peaceful protesters. But, she added, “I’m also hurt and angry at those who decided to hijack this moment and use it as an opportunity to wreak havoc, to loot and to destroy.”

“In this city, we care for each other,” Lightfoot said. “We’ve seen that, over and over again. This is a time for us to unite. We have to turn our pain into purpose.”

Lightfoot’s office re-affirmed Sunday a daily, citywide curfew for all residents and visitors from 9 p.m. to 6 a.m. “until further notice,” a move quickly challenged by the ACLU of Illinois. Suburbs followed suit.

“Any curfew must be limited to the specific places in the city where there is imminent threat of danger or harm, not the entire city,” the ACLU said in a tweet. “The broad and vague nature of this order — and the suggestion that it is indefinite in time — invites arbitrary and discriminatory enforcement. We encourage the mayor to rethink this strategy immediately. The ACLU of Illinois is exploring all options including litigation.”

Lightfoot, a former federal prosecutor, said, “With due respect to the ACLU, I know what we need to do to make this city safe, and I’m going to make those calls, every single time.”

The mayor’s office also announced Sunday morning that the Chicago Police Department and other agencies would cut off access to the central business district and Loop, allowing in “only employees whose businesses are located within the designated boundaries, individuals who reside in the surrounding area and residents engaged in essential activities” as defined in city code.

Broadly speaking, the boundaries of that limited area include Division Street to the north, 26th Street to the south, Lake Shore Drive to the east, and Canal and Halsted streets to the west.

Sunday began with the Chicago Transit Authority suspending trains and buses coming in and out of the Loop. By Sunday night, it announced it would suspend all buses and trains “at the request of public safety officials.” Metra announced no trains would run Monday.

The Illinois State Police also announced a series of expressway ramp closures on its Twitter feed.

Meanwhile, Gov. J.B. Pritzker ordered 375 Illinois National Guard soldiers into active duty for a “limited mission to help manage street closures.” The governor told reporters that “stringent parameters on use of force” had been given to the Guard.

“With regard to protestors who are exercising their First Amendment rights, the Guard has explicit direction not to interfere,” Pritzker said.

Lightfoot said she called Pritzker early Sunday morning to ask for help from the Guard. Pritzker said 125 members were immediately engaged and others were on their way.

“Their job is to provide a perimeter,” Pritzker said. “They’re not going to be on the front lines … They’re really there to provide a perimeter so the center of the city doesn’t get overtaken.”

The governor also said 150 State Police troopers were sent to help the Chicago Police Department. Cook County Sheriff Tom Dart also said 80 sheriff’s police officers had been mobilized to assist Sunday.

The FBI and U.S. Attorney’s Office also acknowledged that they are engaged with local law enforcement in the wake of Saturday’s riots. Lightfoot said Sunday that, “the FBI is very much involved.”

“There’s no question that some of the destruction that happened last night, particularly the arson, were absolutely organized and coordinated. We’ll learn more about this over time as the investigation takes its course, but I’m confident of that so far.”

Other community leaders spoke out Sunday, including Ghian Foreman, the president of the Chicago Police Board. He channeled the frustration of the city in remarks he said were unprepared during one of Lightfoot’s press conferences. He said, “this is especially tough for me because, as a young black man, being the president of the police board, the buck stops with me when it comes to accountability for police.”

Foreman commended the professionalism of Chicago’s police officers, telling Supt. David Brown, “I would not have had the same restraint that many of your officers showed last night.”

“And at the same time, I understand the frustration of the community,” Foreman said. “People are tired. People are tired of this. And mayor, yeah, our kids are watching. But so are our ancestors. I can’t help but think about my grandmother telling me stories of her house being bombed and what they fought for to get me in a position to stand up here today. I’m not here because I’m the police board president. I’m here because I love you. That’s why I’m here. One day I won’t be a police board president, but I’ll be a dad. I’ll be a son.”

He ended his remarks by saying, “let’s use these superhuman powers. Brothers, hermanos across the city … the men. Somebody else can ask the women. Me, I’m asking the men to stand with me today. Let’s hold down our communities. That’s what I’m asking for.”

Saturday’s riot quickly drew comparisons to the upheaval of the 1960s in Chicago, including the clash between police and protesters outside the 1968 Democratic National Convention, as well as the West Side riots that same year that followed the assassination of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.

Among those who drew such comparisons Sunday was Cook County State’s Attorney Kim Foxx, who spoke about watching the video of a Minneapolis police officer leaning with his knee into George Floyd’s neck. Foxx said the officer did so casually, with his hand in his pocket.

She said “we casually accept, with the hand in our pocket” that the level of discrimination at the time of those riots in the 1960s exists today.

She said it is accepted “with a hand in our pocket, looking into the camera, as though nothing’s gonna change.”

Contributing: Tyler LaRiviere, Pat Nabong, Madeline Kenney, Lizzie Schiffman Tufano