As Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot called in the Illinois National Guard to prevent a second night of downtown violence and looting, the chaos spilled into some city neighborhoods and continued to overshadow the urgent message conveyed during peaceful protests over the death of George Floyd at the hands of Minneapolis police.
Store owners reported plundering in parts of the South and West sides throughout Sunday afternoon, as well as in suburban towns such as Calumet City and North Riverside, where one person was shot. Chicago had not released any Sunday arrests total by early evening, as the Police Department struggled to keep pace.
In Little Village, hammer-wielding looters smashed their way into Fresh Kicks shoe store an hour after it opened and stole merchandise as terrified employees hid. The police arrived about 10 minutes later, but it was unclear if they took anyone into custody, store manager Lack Chong said.
“It was horrible. I live on the South Side. They just try to crush everything,” Chong said of the looters. “It made me feel so nervous. I think we could find a more peaceful way. This just creates another bad situation.”
Demonstrators rally at Daley Plaza for George Floyd and other victims of police violence on May 31, 2020. (Brian Cassella / Chicago Tribune)
As some neighborhoods grappled with the unrest, Lightfoot pulled up the drawbridges — both literally and figuratively — around the shattered downtown following a violent night in which there were 240 arrests, six shootings and 20 police officers injured. In addition to canceling all police days off and imposing a citywide curfew, she cut off access to the downtown by stopping CTA service, closing highway exits, blockading streets and raising most bridges along the Chicago River.
And with a 9 p.m. curfew still imposed and the downtown barricaded, Lightfoot would not commit to reopening parts of the city on Wednesday after a coronavirus lockdown of more than two months.
Lightfoot also asked Gov. J.B. Pritzker to send the Illinois National Guard to help quell the violence, the first time Chicago has made such a request since Mayor Richard J. Daley brought troops in to police the Democratic National Convention in 1968. Lightfoot said she called the governor around 12:30 a.m. Sunday after police Superintendent David Brown told her that his department needed the extra support.
Pritzker activated 375 service members, all of whom have training as military police officers. Aware that the Guard could inflame an already heated situation, Pritzker and Lightfoot stressed the troops would have a “limited" role in enforcing street closures.
About 125 Guard members already reported for duty as of Sunday afternoon and an additional 250 were expected shortly. The soldiers and airmen have been given explicit orders not to interfere with protesters who are exercising their First Amendment rights, the governor said.
Mayor Lori Lightfoot speaks along Gov. J.B. Pritzker at the Thompson Center on May 31, 2020, the day after unrest led to widespread damage downtown. (Brian Cassella / Chicago Tribune)
“Their job is to provide a perimeter,” Pritzker said. “They’re not going to be on the front lines. There has been a lot of discussion about that and what their role will be. They’re purely there to provide a perimeter so the center of the city doesn’t get overtaken in the way it seemed to at certain times last night.”
Each soldier has been given strict guidelines in regards to use of force, said Air Force Brig. Gen. Richard Neely, the Illinois adjutant general. He declined to discuss those rules of engagement.
“They are every bit as well trained as our officers are. They are trained to come into these circumstances,” Lightfoot said. “I have every confidence they will show exactly the same restraint that our officers do. We’re not going to let them get into a difficult circumstance that they cannot handle.”
Lightfoot repeatedly praised the Police Department on Sunday for its handling of the violence over the weekend, even as the situation seemed uncharacteristically out-of-control in comparison with the demonstrations at the 2012 G-8 Summit and the weeks of marches following the 2015 release of video that showed Laquan McDonald’s shooting death at the hands of police.
“The threat of further rioting remains viable, and police command staff are adjusting to rapidly changing intel,” 2nd Ward Ald. Brian Hopkins said. “While we are still actively in this crisis, it is not the time to reflect on the planning deficiencies and tactical errors that contributed to the chaos and violence spiraling out of control.”
The mayor said the department began planning for the protests “days ago,” after a video showed a white Minneapolis police officer pushing his knee into the neck of Floyd, a black man who begged officers to let him breathe before dying. Floyd’s death became yet another example of police brutality in minority communities, sparking protests across the country.
“Seeing the murder of George Floyd sickened me, and it still does,” said the typically stoic Lightfoot, trying to maintain her composure. “But rather than respond to his death as we should and focus our energy toward doing the hard work to create the change that we need, we have instead been forced to turn our focus and energy toward preventing wanton violence and destruction.”
As other officials did throughout the day, Lightfoot took great care not to conflate protesters and looters. The demonstrations on Friday night and Saturday were largely peaceful, with the tone and the participants changing rapidly, she said.
At one point during the looting, someone pulled up in a U-Haul truck and began loading it with stolen merchandise. That brazen act alone proves that some never cared about the real reason for the demonstration, Lightfoot said.
“We moved from peaceful protests to an element that was in the crowd that was clearly there for a fight,” she said. “You don’t bring a clawhammer or shovel or bottles or urine or accelerants, Molotov cocktails, unless you’re up to something other than peaceful protests.”
Lightfoot said the city is working with federal agencies to determine who drove what she called organized looting and conflicts with police, but declined to provide details.
As police regained control of the downtown, violence erupted in other parts of the city and suburbs.
In surreal scenes that played out over and over across the city, looters plundered and vandalized businesses already dealing with the financial devastation caused by the pandemic. They stole shoes, clothing, jewelry, beauty supplies and food, among other things.
In Canaryville, people made a mad dash into City Sports Outlet and emerged carrying bundles of clothes. One man was nearly hit by a car pulling into the store’s parking lot while another filled the trunk to the brim.
In South Chicago, ransacked clothing and shoe stores stood on the once-vibrant Commercial Avenue strip. Wooden hangers littered the sidewalk and empty boxes laid on the street. About half a dozen mismatched individual shoes were left behind in a planter.
As police officers stood in the street, one of them told a woman passing by with her two children, “You better get those babies home.” The woman then asked them about a baby who had been left behind in a car while the mother looted, and one of the officers replied that the baby was OK.
On several occasions Sunday, Tribune reporters observed police officers looking on as businesses were looted.
Luis Agostini, a Chicago police spokesman, said officers have to weigh their safety situation and decide whether they’d have sufficient backup if they chose to intervene.
“Officer safety must be taken into consideration when taking law enforcement action, but our strategy continues to focus on arresting those who engage in criminal activity,” Agostini said.
In the West Garfield Park neighborhood, there was an eerie calm even as multiple storefronts had been looted Sunday afternoon on Madison Street.
The smell of smoke from a business that was burning east of Karlov Avenue and constant horn-honking from the backed-up traffic added a level of confusion for frustrated motorists.
Chicago police wearing helmets with face shields were lined along Karlov blocking traffic along Madison. But the looting continued west of where they stood.
Dozens of people crowded one corner store for several minutes, if not longer, until a strong cheer went up when they apparently breached the business.
In the city’s suburbs, authorities said groups of people smashed windows and looted North Riverside Park Mall and nearby businesses, and during the chaos, one person was shot.
“Over the course of several hours North Riverside police in a coordinated effort with … surrounding police departments were able to disperse the looters and establish a perimeter around the mall preventing any further property damage and looting,” North Riverside police Chief Carlos Garcia said in a statement.
Garcia provided no further information about the victim, saying the shooting was under investigation.
The mayor of Calumet City shut down the city Sunday and imposed a strict curfew after scores of looters smashed businesses’ windows and ransacked the River Oaks mall.
Mayor Michelle Markiewicz Qualkinbush told the Tribune that looting started out with a handful of people and quickly grew to number perhaps as many as 200 to 300. She ordered a curfew from 8 p.m. to 6 a.m. until further notice, adding she was closing highway exit ramps.
“Obviously, Calumet City is in a state of emergency,” she said. “We are shutting down the city to get a handle on this.”
The mayor said her curfew restricts vehicular and pedestrian movement unless it involves emergency personnel, law enforcement or essential workers who are commuting.
Markiewicz Qualkinbush said that “organized bands within the protest groups” drove to Calumet City and neighboring towns to commit crimes.
“Today, Calumet City has experienced the boil over of years of unjust application of the law that has victimized African American communities across our nation,” the mayor said in a statement. “Amid peaceful demonstration spotlighting horrible injustice that led to the senseless death of George Floyd in Minneapolis, frustration has taken a violent destructive tone.”
Fearing similar eruptions, dozens of suburban towns increased security around the shopping center and ordered businesses to close. In Aurora, the patrol cars blocked off entrance to the outlet mall and closed the Interstate 88 exit ramps closest to the stores.
As downtown Chicago merchants cleaned up broken glass and assessed their empty stores, peaceful protests continued Sunday in several neighborhoods . One group marched from the Daley Center to police headquarters at 35th and South Michigan Avenue.
Meanwhile, a Cook County judge presiding over Sunday’s felony hearing call at the Leighton Criminal Court Building saw 12 protest-related suspects, with charges ranging from looting to aggravated battery to a police officer.
In one instance, a Portage Park man was accused of intentionally ramming a bicycle into a police sergeant and resisting arrest, injuring the officer's leg and thumb.
In another, a Texas woman in town for the protests, allegedly punched a police officer in the eye after throwing a glass bottle at two officers. That same officer then used their body to shield the young woman from a surging crowd in downtown, according to prosecutors. She later apologized to officers, authorities said.