I watched the footage of the anti-violence march and wished I had gone. Arm-in-arm, Father Michael Pfleger marched with Chicago Police Superintendent Eddie Johnson. Reverend Jesse Jackson and the Rainbow PUSH Coalition were there. There were also over three thousand people peacefully exercising their First Amendment rights and speaking up about Chicago’s gun violence and the need for equity in education, investment in black and brown neighborhoods, jobs for young people, and overall better solutions to the gun violence epidemic that has hit the south and west sides of the city particularly hard.
Initially, the state police said they would arrest any pedestrian who attempted to enter the highway. City police said they would do only what was needed to protect public safety and they would not be arresting anyone for exercising his or her First Amendment rights. State police could not apparently stop the group from entering the Dan Ryan – the group’s numbers were simply too great – and they cordoned off the protestors with ice trucks and police vehicles, allowing one lane of the Dan Ryan to squeeze by. Father Pfleger and Superintendent Johnson entered negotiations with the state police while the marchers waited peacefully, some chanting “Shut it down!” and others singing.
When the police vehicles moved to shut down the entire expressway, I saw people literally jumping for joy. People spread out and marched from 76th where they had been halted after entering at 79th to 67th on the south side marching north towards downtown Chicago. The cameras panned over the crowd and I saw grandmothers carrying signs with huge photos of their grandchildren who were slain, innocent victims of gun violence. Women wore shirts with pictures of loved ones on them, and I know from my students’ own attire that these are memorial shirts that people make in someone’s honor after they die, typically violently. I saw a sign that said “Sorry for the inconvenience but people are dying,” referring to the outrage expressed by many members of the public that the Dan Ryan could be closed for a march. One sign declared “Expect delays.” Men carried signs demanding jobs for young men and investment in public schools. Other signs stated the issue succinctly, “Stop the violence.” Some people held framed photographs of loved ones who were murdered by guns. Perhaps most touching were the children who were leading the march. Typically the politicians and organizers take the lead in these types of protests, but not today.
Here and there people stopped and dropped down to chalk messages on the highway. Some were names of victims. Some were slogans similar to those carried by signs. Farther up the march, I saw some people drop down and I thought they were also chalking messages; they were instead taking the knee. I know we typically associate this act with Colin Kaepernick and the NFL, but this hearkens back to the Civil Rights Movement. I saw so many posts and comments on Facebook asking why these protestors could not be more like Dr. King, and I thought about the famous march from Selma to Montgomery. How did these angry people think all those protestors travelled this distance? They shut down the roads and created one of the most historic and iconic protests in American history. Members of the public were not too pleased then either, but King’s legacy proves the power of peaceful protest. Today’s protest was completely nonviolent with no arrests. No fire hoses, no dogs, no tear gas, no police rushing into crowds. It was extraordinarily moving to see the turnout and listen to the voices of those affected by the gun violence as the news anchors interviewed marchers.
Three weeks ago when I first read about the planned protest, I had the knee-jerk response of, “Well, I support the reasons for the march but not the methods they are going about it.” I felt scared for the protestors as I thought about the Charlottesville, Virginia protest and the young woman who was murdered by a car. I did not believe the police would allow the march to take place and that people would be arrested as soon as they tried to set foot on an entrance ramp. That made me even more scared for the protestors. I was nervous about what other people would say about the anti-violence movement and that shutting down the expressway would move more people against the protestors’ message. I thought that I should not attend the protest despite strongly believing in the message. I was wrong about more than just the results.
Most of the people angry about the protest said that people needed to go places and that emergency vehicles would need to travel the expressway. To that I say that the city regularly closes downtown streets all the time for protests and street festivals. They execute planning and organize a response to these planned activities. Somehow people find alternate routes and arrive at their destinations. Ambulances and other emergency vehicles find ways around closed streets. The state is the one responsible for Dan Ryan, but the opportunities to reroute travel are the same. There are plenty of exits and ways to drive through the city to reach downtown and beyond.
Other people declared that this is the same as spitting in the face of law and order, and I thought to myself – why? The organizer asked for a permit at least three weeks in advance, maybe more. He tried to negotiate with the governor’s office and was repeatedly told that the governor would call him back, which of course he never did. The mayor and the Chicago Police Department came out in support of the march in a move that completely shocked me. Everything about this march was done with the utmost attention to law and order. The Chicago Police Superintendent and other uniformed police officers marched in the crowd as protestors, gosh darn it! The only obstacle was the governor who up until the end refused to grant any concessions to the protestors.
So, in the end, the governor is still tweeting his anger at the “chaos” of the protest. It was actually anything but chaotic even when the protestors were held up by the police and had to stand there awaiting the results of negotiations. The mayor is engaging in a public war of words with the governor, eventually tweeting to the governor, “Delete your account” (he gets some hard-won brownie points from me for this). Some members of the public are still angry their lives were disrupted for two hours (it would have been an hour if the march had been allowed to proceed from the beginning) on their way to Buckingham Fountain or the Sears Tower or the Museum Campus.
The thought I am left with is that people’s minor inconvenience or traffic headache is a memory that will fade, especially after that great dinner downtown following the show at the Art Institute. Residents of these neighborhoods affected by gun violence who are participating in the march must return to the lack of safety in their own neighborhoods. The violence is not a memory; it is a real and continuing experience, one that three thousand people shared successfully with the public and elected officials today. It was such a privilege to watch this historic march, although I wish I had been in that crowd myself. Someone in the march carried a sign that asked, “Can you hear me now?” Yes, yes, we can. I hope that now we are moved to action.