Hours after the release of a dash cam video showing Chicago police officer Jason Van Dyke killing 17-year-old Laquan McDonald with 16 bullets from a semi-automatic gun, hours after prosecutors charged Van Dyke with first degree murder (over a year after the shooting, during which Van Dyke continued to work for the Chicago Police Department), hundreds of people gathered near the University of Illinois-Chicago campus and started to march.
They walked down Roosevelt Road to Michigan Avenue and over to State Street, past Giordano’s Pizza and Remax: Synergy, past a massage bar and overpriced condos and a rattling ‘L’ train, weaving south to 18th and State Street and back to Roosevelt and Michigan.
Despite the cold weather and holiday timing, people showed up, angry, resolute, fists in the air, sharing boxes of Dunkin’ Donuts coffee, handmade signs, and hand warmers. Members of activist groups including Black Youth Project led the protestors on the haphazard march.
When I arrived, the swell of the demonstration had stalled at the Chicago Police Department station on 18th and State, where three of the protesters had been arrested and detained. Organizers with megaphones rallied the crowd with call-and-replies:
No Justice/ No peace/ Fuck racist police
When I say human/ You say rights
Say I am/ A human being/ My life matters/ You cannot/ You will not/ Kill me
“They’re not allowed to speak to their attorneys!” an organizer yelled about the BYP activists arrested.
“Please take three steps back,” another said into the mic. The crowd obliged.
“Charging him today was a political move, and we have to understand that,” a female organizer said into a mic. “They prey on our anger. They say—here’s the indictment. I need you niggers to shut the fuck up and sit the fuck down. I refuse to shut the fuck up and sit the fuck down.”
Police formed a barrier to the police station with their bikes and bodies. Squad cars and wagons with sirens on parked around the street, boxing the demonstration in. Helicopters flew overhead. Reporters rivaled cops in sheer numbers, and every other person had their smartphone semi-permanently held aloft. It was hard to see the people giving speeches at the station’s entrance over all the devices held in the air, documenting.
More calls, more responses:
The world is watching/ The world is watching
We shut shit down
The police were trying for full Buckingham Palace Guard: Expressionless faces, straight backs, impervious in blue vests. “It’s killing him on the inside, he wants to pull out a gun,” a man in head-to-toe Cubs gear shouted at one of the blank-faced officers. Another protester simply stared, daring a cop to look away.
People in the crowd talked about the 2012 killing of Rekia Boyd, a 22-year-old unarmed black woman shot by Detective Dante Servin, who was found not guilty; about Freddie Gray; about the tortures conducted by police under Jon Burge. The protest was pointedly not only about the video release—it was a gathering to make space for rage about the persistence of police brutality against black people and other minorities, for a system that permitted and ignored violence.
Organizers on microphones encouraged people to check in with their neighbors, to hug each other.
The protest started moving again, snaking around the near south side. Some people chanted: 16 shots. A guy in front of me rapped “New Slaves” while his friends laughed. A woman walked hand-in-hand with a child in a zebra-printed parka. The police, on bikes, pedaled ahead, highly visible in their neon-yellow windbreakers and helmets.
I saw a dude who looked like Vic Mensa. It was Vic Mensa.
When the crowd stopped, people formed a circle at the intersection of Roosevelt and Michigan Avenue. Signs with Laquan’s name written in lights served as a focal point. Malcolm London, a well-known local activist and poet, gave a speech explaining that the group’s organizers planned to leave for the night. He encouraged other people to stay out and march towards Millennium Park. The crowd began to disperse.
And then someone lit off a smokebomb. Several protestors told me it was a white man in a Guy Fawkes mask. (One called it an “Anonymous mask.”) As the blue-gray smoke streamed, people started yelling, screaming, and running east towards Lake Shore Drive.
“Don’t let them snatch him!”
“Make a circle! Don’t let them leave!”
The police had arrested someone; I couldn’t see who (later, I’d learn it was Malcolm London, with the night’s only felony arrest). His fellow organizers were frantic. Protestors closed in on the cops holding London, forming a semi-circle against an abandoned city bus.
A few organizers chased after the gray SUV that took London away.
The police were pushing their bikes into the protesters, or the protestors were trying to yank the bikes away. I stood on the street divider and tried to balance on the small plant trellises to see, until a cop yelled “Get on the sidewalk” and I complied.
The police called in reinforcements, and more squad cars with sirens blaring pulled up, but there were no mass arrests. No injuries. No looting. No rioting.
The demonstrators regrouped and rearranged back into the arm-in-arm intersection circle, and I left for the night. The march thinned out, but continued until the early morning, eventually winding down near the expressway. Beyond obstructing traffic and the smattering of arrests, the night had been peaceful.
I talked to a few of the organizers and participants today about what happened last night. Page May, one of the BYP organizers who was arrested, told me she was released around 2:30 am. She was headed to the bond court to support London. “The fact that it was me and Malcolm who got arrested was not random at all,” she said.
Photos by the author.