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Heartbroken South Side alderman doesn’t understand looting – or police response: ‘I think we should have had a better plan’

An extremely frustrated Ald. Howard Brookins Jr. lamented the extensive damage to businesses in his South Side ward and questioned why police had not done more to prevent it. 

Clean-up efforts were underway Monday in the 21st Ward, where Ald. Howard Brookins Jr. estimates that 95% of the stores that sell merchandise were looted over the weekend. Provided.

It took Ald. Howard Brookins Jr. the better part of two terms to convince Walmart to locate a store in his 21st Ward, but it took looters only a couple of hours to destroy it.

On Monday, an extremely frustrated Brookins lamented the extensive damage to businesses in his South Side ward and questioned why police had not done more to prevent it.

Brookins estimated 95% of stores that sell merchandise in the ward were hit by looters over the weekend.

Jewel, Home Depot, Marshalls, Dollar Tree, Dollar Store, Walgreen’s and TCF Bank were among those suffering extensive losses, to name just a few.

The looting was a heartbreaking setback to Brookins and other African-American aldermen, who know better than anyone how difficult it has been to attract whatever investment they’ve seen over the past two decades in their South and West side neighborhoods and how long it might take to replace it — if ever.

While Brookins was inspecting the damage Monday morning at one shopping center at 87th and the Dan Ryan, “people were still running in and out looting,” the alderman said.

The only police on the scene said they had been instructed to stand down, the alderman said.

Ald. Howard Brookins Jr. (21st) speaks to reporters during a City Council meeting in 2019.
Ald. Howard Brookins Jr. (21st) speaks to reporters during a City Council meeting in 2019.
Ashlee Rezin Garcia/Sun-Times file

Brookins said he could understand why police weren’t chasing after looters, but thought they should have at least told them: “Get the [bleep] out of here!”

It was a common concern of African-American aldermen on Monday after what they saw as a concentration of police resources directed downtown on Sunday that left the South and West sides largely unprotected.

Mayor Lori Lightfoot denied Monday the city had abandoned its neighborhoods, arguing the police were simply overwhelmed by the volume of criminal activity.

But Brookins was left with doubts, especially after seeing a strong police response in the adjacent Beverly neighborhood after 19th Ward Ald. Matt O’Shea raised alarms on television.

Brookins said it fed into a long-held perception that majority white Beverly receives preferential treatment from police.

I don’t want to give the impression Brookins was blaming the police for all the problems.

He put the blame for the looting where it belongs: on those involved, who he described as a mixture of provocateurs and people from the community who joined in when the opportunity presented itself. He said he believes the latter included many people who normally support themselves in the gig economy and have been financially hurt by the pandemic while excluded from any government financial relief.

Chicago police on Monday guard the Walmart Supercenter at 8331 S.Stewart Ave., which was damaged by the days of unrest in late May.
Chicago police on Monday guard the Walmart Supercenter at 8331 S.Stewart Ave., which was looted and burned over the weekend.
Tyler LaRiviere/Sun-Times

“Do I get it? Of course, I do,” said the longtime City Council critic of Chicago Police brutality. “I get the protest. I get the anger. I don’t get the looting and tearing up your own community. I don’t condone it. I don’t think it’s right.”

As far as the police, Brookins said, “I think we should have had a better plan,” marveling at how store owners seemed to have better intelligence than police about the looters’ activities.

The loss of the Walmart Supercenter at 83rd and Stewart was of special concern to the alderman.

After stripping the shelves bare, someone set fire to the store. Everything inside was destroyed, he said. Late Monday afternoon, Brookins said he was trying to confirm a report from another alderman that Walmart does not intend to reopen the store.

Ald. Howard Brookins Jr., center, as Walmart opens its second Chicago supercenter at 83rd and Stewart in 2012.
Ald. Howard Brookins Jr., center, as Walmart opens its second Chicago supercenter at 83rd and Stewart in 2012.
John H. White/Chicago Sun-Times file

“That would be a tremendous blow,” said Brookins, who said the store has not only been an important shopping resource for his residents but also a source of jobs and a magnet for other retailers to locate in the area.

The company had already complained of losing money at the location, he said. This could make it easier for it to justify a decision not to reopen.

I keep reading observations from people that property losses caused by the rioting don’t compare with the gravity of the loss of George Floyd’s life at the hands of a Minneapolis police officer, and I agree that’s true.

At the same time, nobody should underestimate the tremendous harm that was done to this city over the weekend, damage that won’t be undone for years to come. And it goes far beyond the broken glass and stolen merchandise.