While waiting for a bus at St. Sabina Church, Loraine Woods-Lewis became emotional thinking of her son who was murdered in 2013.
She saw Saturday morning’s controversial Dan Ryan protest as “the only way we can be heard.
“Things haven’t changed in five years,” Woods-Lewis said. “I’m here to make noise.”
Woods-Lewis made herself heard along with thousands of other protesters led by the Rev. Michael Pfleger, who pressured the Illinois State Police into shutting down inbound traffic on the city’s busiest expressway after officials tried to keep two lanes open to vehicles during his anti-violence protest.
“The people won today,” Pfleger said at the end of the march, which Chicago police said ended without any arrests or hospital transports. “Today we got their attention, now we want action.”
Some who marched had lost children, godchildren and grandchildren, nieces and nephews, friends and role models, and their absences — and the gun violence that took them — created holes in their communities, marchers said.
Protesters clutched signs bearing the faces of slain loved ones or emblazoned with slogans like “Demand justice.”
The morning started with confusion and tension when Gov. Bruce Rauner’s office issued a statement claiming protest organizers had agreed to limit their march to the shoulder of the Dan Ryan allowing traffic to pass — a claim Pfleger called a “lie.”
State police — who have jurisdiction over the city’s expressways, and initially warned that they would arrest anyone who marches onto the Dan Ryan — said Saturday they would “accommodate the marchers and provide them with limited access.”
Before marchers stepped off, Chicago police officers stood at the ready on the 79th Street ramp, creating a human barrier to block protesters from oncoming traffic. Hundreds of marchers were bused from Pfleger’s St. Sabina Church to 79th Street ramp, and several thousand protesters spilled onto the expressway around 10:15 a.m.
But 30 minutes in, the march ground to a halt near 76th Street as Pfleger, flanked by demonstrators and with the Rev. Jesse Jackson at his side, confronted the line of police, demanding troopers close down the remaining two inbound lanes for a full expressway shutdown.
Some protesters grew impatient, chanting “Shut it down!” while others danced to the rumblings of drums near the back of the group.
Aldermanic candidate Anthony Driver and another demonstrator threatened to force the closure of the two open lanes by breaking police barriers. They were warned they might be killed by a speeding car if they did so.
“They are killing us already!” Driver said. “There shouldn’t even be a negotiation. They knew we have been planning this march for over three weeks. These lanes should have already been shut down.”
For more than half an hour, Pfleger and other marchers helped pass out water between talks with police, before state police agreed to shut down all inbound lanes for the march about 11:30 a.m.
Afterward, Pfleger credited CPD Supt. Eddie Johnson with helping force the issue, saying Johnson “stood up to the state police to let them know it was now a matter of safety.”
It wasn’t clear who made the final call to close all traffic, but Rauner sent out an angry tweet calling the shutdown “unacceptable.”
Johnson then got involved in the protest himself, marching arm-in-arm with Pfleger and Jackson, as the protest continued peacefully toward the intersection of Marquette Road and State Street.
In all, the inbound Dan Ryan was entirely shut down for a little over an hour before the rally was completed and traffic reopened about 12:40 p.m.
In the weeks leading up to the shutdown, Pfleger and protesters faced threats of arrest and pleas from police officials to not march on the Dan Ryan, one of the city’s main arteries. Johnson had joined ISP Director Leo Schmitz in calling on Pfleger to abandon plans, saying they had to to pull 200 officers out of violence-plagued neighborhoods to provide support along the march route.
Pfleger rejected calls to change plans.
“Our plans are exactly what we’ve been saying for several weeks,” Pfleger said. “We’ve come here to interrupt business as usual. To let people know that we are here to disturb the comfortable. I’m sorry for the inconvenience, but children are dying.”
Rauner spokeswoman Patty Schuh released a statement early Saturday saying “a comprehensive plan to allow controlled access to the shoulder of the Dan Ryan Expressway for a peaceful protest against Chicago’s violence was negotiated and approved by all stakeholders.
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“Our primary concern is — and remains — the safety of the marchers, motorists and people of Chicago. We want their voices to be heard, not more senseless loss of life,” said Schuh, who claimed the agreement was reached Thursday. “We are taking every step necessary to ensure public safety and free speech. Those who choose to ignore the agreed-to boundaries of the planned march will face legal consequences and the dangers of an open expressway.”
Pfleger fired back at the governor’s office as marchers took to the expressway.
“The governor is lying. So we came out to make sure people know that we did not agree to that,” Pfleger said. “There was no agreement. The governor called yesterday and asked us if we would go on the shoulder of the road and I said absolutely not.”
Police officials eventually relented and closed off all inbound traffic for “crowd and traffic safety,” Chicago police spokesman Anthony Guglielmi tweeted.
“We had clear parameters that allowed the protestors to be heard while respecting law and order,” Rauner tweeted. “Instead, they chose instead to cause chaos . . . I am calling on the Mayor to take swift and decisive action to put an end to this kind of chaos.”
Mayor Rahm Emanuel fired back with a tweet of his own, saying it was “a peaceful protest” and urging Rauner to “delete your account.”
“The mayor’s hope is that today’s march may make someone realize they shouldn’t pick up a gun to settle a dispute, and if that happens the peaceful march the governor called ‘chaos’ will unquestionably be worth it,” Emanuel spokesman Matt McGrath said in an email.
Rauner later commended authorities on a “great piece of community police work today by ISP and CPD.”
Pfleger said now the youth want meetings “with the governor, the mayor, and all candidates running for those two offices to hear the plans to equal the unequal playing fields of the South and West sides of Chicago.”