Content warning: This picture contains graphic imagery and references to police brutality, violence, and rioting.
This morning I woke up to stark imagery from Chicago’s Magnificent Mile, where a riot broke out last night following an officer-involved shooting on the South Side of the city. Looters smashed in windows of luxury stores. Right-wing provocateur Andy Ngo even showed his face. Gunfire was exchanged between police and assailants. And, in this gem of journalistic illustration: [a] rock was thrown at a squad car, the Chicago Tribune reported. This wasn’t a peaceful protest, and no one called it one. Was this riot, however, the “language of the unheard,” to quote the late, great, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.? General lawlessness? Or was it a violent uprising against the Chicago Police? Perhaps an uprising against the predatory capitalism represented by the likes of the luxury stores that were looted? Perhaps a combination of all of the above?
Reports were, by all definitions, ugly: “We went outside at 7 o’clock this morning, and it’s like, there is blood everywhere, there is merchandise everywhere,” a Gold Coast resident told us, of Michigan Avenue this morning. “It was awful.”
THE RIOT VS. THE PEACEFUL PROTEST
“From what I saw, the cops did not act out of line, and I was thankful for them,” said the resident, who wished to remain anonymous. “But we can’t ignore the fact that they have too much power. Have you heard of Homan Square? This is the CPD’s power– and it’s horrifying.”
Her ambivalence in this statement is common among people– including, frankly, the author- who recognize that police brutality is indeed abominable and unchecked, but who also recognizes that completely abolishing armed police in a society that has more guns than it does people- will not be without huge problems. On the one hand, Chicago police have a track record of brutality, violence, lying, depriving citizens of their Constitutionally afforded rights, and deploying Machiavellian tactics to punish, maintain power, and protect themselves and private property of big business, rather than the safety of citizens. On the other hand, there are a lot of people in Chicago who own guns. And last night, it would seem that a number of those people used said guns.
“IT JUST SEEMED SO STAGED”
This isn’t to say that we should throw out the terms “defund” and “abolish.” We especially shouldn’t throw them out if the alternative is to keep militarized, violent police forces. But we should definitely figure out what the answer is to gun violence in a society seemingly saturated in it.
As a self-described advocate for Black Lives Matter and radical police reform, the resident acknowledges the epidemic of gun violence in Chicago, but worries that this event could serve as a pretext for violent federal crackdowns such as those in Portland. These, she worries, could be imposed not only on predominantly black communities, but also on peaceful protests. But this, she says, was not a protest in the slightest.
“It is really dangerous to try and pin this on the Black Lives Matter group,” she says, indicating that all of the BLM actions she has followed thus far have been largely peaceful– and this involved no chants, marching, signs, or calls for solidarity. “My sense of this is that– I think that this was kind of planned. It almost felt like it was an opportunity for some type of organized crime to [find a target.] It just seemed so staged.”
DOES LOOTING MEAN WE NEED MILITARIZED POLICE AFTER ALL?
The answer is “of course not.” Make no mistake: Last night was ugly. It’s not enough to spin last night’s violence as evidence that the police don’t need aggressive, unapologetic, and sweeping reforms that, in all likelihood, would best begin with shifting a chunk of their funding toward initiatives and programs focused on human and economic development. Yes, you read that correctly. What serves the needs of a city better? A second MRAP? Or not having two MRAPs and instead hiring eight new teachers? I mean, really. Especially as a matter of rapidly facilitating a shift in trajectory, it’s easier to ditch the MRAPs and military firepower than it is to ditch the police altogether. In other words, it’s possible to demilitarize the police without eliminating them altogether. It’s also possible to shift a lot of their funding away to more direct social benefit.
THE USE OF STATE VIOLENCE TO PROTECT PRIVATE PROPERTY
But some members of the protest movement remain unconvinced, given that the major injured parties were stores of multinational enterprises that sell luxury products. What is worth more? A life of a youth on the South Side, or an iconic coat in the windows of the gleaming Burberry storefront? Ironically, this protest took place at the same site of another protest I attended in November 2014, where I watched Chicago police brutally beat teenagers who were blocking the entrance to the same shopping mall that was featured in last night’s fracas. The police have long functioned as instruments of state violence used to protect the interests of private property. This shouldn’t be shocking or controversial.
“[T]he only thing this country truly values is property and capital,” the Abolitionists @ NU account tweeted this morning.
Critics of police in a situation like this aren’t condoning the destruction of property per se. Rather, they’re asking about the allocation of resources. Is it really worth it to spend that much taxpayer money to incarcerate that many people, to inflict so much trauma, all to protect some handbags?
Flip it around: Would people be looting stores if every neighborhood had economic opportunity, resources, and infrastructure? I don’t condone violence, nor, certainly, do I encourage it. But I do think that we need to look at violent protests by differentiating them in concept and objective from peaceful protests. I also think we need to understand why people are looting and rioting. A Louis handbag could run you a couple G’s. But a kleptocratic TIF mechanism will cost billions. Another take on Twitter pointed out that looting is probably a product of the fact that tens of millions of Americans are suddenly unemployed and struggling to stay above water, while Jeff Bezos heads toward being a quarter-trillionaire. Now, you tell me: which type of looting is worse?