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At Tense Downtown Protest, Police ‘Kettle’ Activists — And Aldermen Have Questions

Police boxed in protesters in the Loop Saturday, employing a controversial tactic known as "kettling." The tactic has led to lawsuits and large settlements in the past.

Chicago Police at a protest in the Loop Saturday. Police Supt. David Brown is posted in front of other officers in the long-sleeved white shirt.
Justin Laurence/ Block Club Chicago
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DOWNTOWN — At a tense protest in the Loop Saturday, protesters and police clashed, resulting in 24 arrests, even more injuries and raising questions from aldermen who want answers about the tactics deployed by Chicago Police.

After fights broke out between police and protesters and pepper spray was deployed, police boxed in protesters in the Loop, a controversial tactic known as “kettling.” The crowd control tactic has led to lawsuits and large city settlements in the past. Chicago Police blamed people within the protest for escalating events, and protesters blamed police. Both sides released videos on social media to support their claims.

Just after 7 p.m. Saturday, a few hundred people protesting police were marching south on LaSalle Street when officers blocked their path south at Adams Street. Another group of officers charged from the north, eventually trapping dozens of protesters and journalists at LaSalle and Adams, and making it impossible for them to immediately exit the area as police issued dispersal orders.

The corralled group was eventually allowed to leave through a narrow exit after those with bags had them checked by officers. At least one officer filmed protesters as they were leaving the area.

Jacqulyn Hamilton, a leader at the Chicago Freedom School that trains young activists, said police pushed the crowd as the protest moved west on Randolph before turning south on LaSalle and kettling them in.

“I had to argue with police to get young people, who were trying to leave the area, out past the police line,” she said. “People were consistently trying to leave and being held inside and then being attacked.”

India Jackson, an organizer with Good Kids Mad City, said protesters were “running for our lives.”

“I was hit multiple times with a baton and I was tear-gassed all while trying to escape the area. … The officers claimed that they didn’t want us there, but as we tried to leave, they wouldn’t let us,” Jackson said, according to the Sun-Times.

On Friday, before the protest, a concerned Ald. Andre Vasquez (40th) asked police leaders if they planned to kettle weekend protesters, arguing it “kicks up the tension” during already tense interactions between police and protesters.

“We were told [police were] just going to march along the protesters. That in their hopes, somebody just marches and marches until they tire out and that will be the end of it,” he said. 

But police leaders warned they “would have to draw a line at some point,” Vasquez said. And ahead of the weekend, Mayor Lori Lightfoot warned police would go “all out” to prevent looting by raising the bridges on the river and shutting down CTA trains and busses to the Loop — a move that affected protesters, too.

After seeing video of the boxed-in protesters Saturday, Vasquez said it’s time for aldermen to discuss whether they want police kettling people in their city.

“I’ve got my concerns about that activity, period, and think we need to talk more about that as a council and really figure out like, is this something we want CPD to be doing?” he said. “…When you box people in like that, you’re going to create a more tense situation.”

Vasquez wasn’t the only alderman to criticize the tactics of Chicago Police after the protest Saturday. He was joined by Ald. Byron Sigcho-Lopez (25th), Ald. Rossana Rodriguez-Sanchez (33rd) and some state legislators and county officials.

“We once again condemn Mayor Lightfoot and Superintendent [David] Brown for their use of police force against these demonstrators on Saturday night, and for the continued escalation of surveillance, violence, and detention of protesters,” a statement read. “We question the logic of spending police dollars on social media surveillance, pepper spray, and riot gear to beat teenagers while the directives of the federal consent decree go unmet and the murder clearance rate remains abysmally low.”

In 2012, Joey Mogul, an attorney with the People’s Law Office, helped win a $6.2 million settlement after Iraq War protesters were trapped following mass arrests at a protest in 2003.

“It’s not just giving an order to disperse, but it’s also giving them a reasonable opportunity to leave,” Mogul said. “…. The people who were detained on the street and who did not feel they had an opportunity to leave, they were seized as well.”

What happened on LaSalle came at the end of a long day of separate protests. A group that planned on shutting down the Dan Ryan Expy. instead made their way from Bronzeville to Grant Park.

A separate protest demanding Chicago Public Schools remove police from schools and denouncing Immigration and Customs Enforcement began in Millennium Park just after 4 p.m. That action was organized by youth activists from the Chicago Freedom School, Good Kids Mad City, Blck Rising, Fuerte, March For Our Lives Chicago and Increase the Peace, according to flyers.

Credit: Justin Laurence/ Block Club Chicago
Protesters and police at a protest in the Loop Saturday.

The protest moved north on Michigan Avenue before engaging in an hour-long showdown with police officers who blocked the protest from moving east on Wacker Drive towards Lake Shore Drive. Eventually the protest retreated south on Michigan with police officers moving in a military step towards them, and then west on Randolph before the kettling happened on LaSalle just north of City Hall.

Police Department leaders declined to answer questions about the kettling tactic or other uses of force that were deployed against protesters Saturday. Instead, they repeated a statement released earlier by police, which accompanied edited video released by the department Sunday. Police said the video shows a group of “agitators locked arms and advanced on police lines, pushing, shoving, and eventually assaulting officers with mace, bottles, and other projectiles.”

At one point in the video, a person is seen hitting a uniformed police officer over the head with a skateboard. Charged were filed against the alleged attacker.

“To protect the peaceful protesters and their fellow officers, CPD officers began making arrests to restore order and public safety. There were 24 arrests.”

Other video released on social media show police forcefully grabbing umbrellas held by protesters.

On a national broadcast morning show, Lightfoot said agitators “embedded themselves in these seemingly peaceful protests and come for a fight.”

“We are absolutely not going to tolerate people who come to these protests looking for a fight and are intending to injure our police officers and injure innocent people who just come to be able to express their First Amendment rights,” she said.

At a press conference Saturday night, Supt. Brown addressed the police filming of the crowd, but did not answer questions about the department’s other tactics on LaSalle Street. The department filmed protesters leaving the barricade to “support any investigations that might come out of the actions of protesters or officers.”

“Arrests were only made when violent acts were meted out on police officers,” he said, adding that 17 officers were injured.

When asked about the kettling Monday, Brown said, “I haven’t heard those allegations, that there was kettling going on. There’s video captured. People can judge for themselves.”

But activists at the protest say police injured them without cause for expressing their first amendment rights.

Jermaine Wright was with friends on LaSalle Street when police officers with bicycles posted up along the edge of protest and began closing in on the protesters, causing scuffles as they pushed their bikes into the group. He said one “angry” officer hit his friend in the head, and Wright and others tried to help him up.

“Then a big collision started to happen and police officers started to mace, started to hit us with weapons, so we tried to run away from them and they just continued to follow us everywhere we went,” he said.

He was struck with a baton in the head by a police officer while he tried to pick up a friend. He says he did nothing to provoke the attack beyond taking part in the protest and exercising his right to have his voice heard.

“This is proof of why we don’t need police, we don’t need CPD, this is what they do,” he said. “That’s why we are out here to say that ‘you are killing us,’ and they’re beating us because we’re saying that y’all are killing us.”

On LaSalle, the young people Hamilton was with were split into two. One group was chased down a side alley while the others were caught in the group that was kettled by officers.

“Young people were trying to leave and they kept hitting police barriers and then being aggressed by the police,” she said. “… But even moving away from the police meant that you were moving towards the police because the police were blocking them in from the front, from the back and from the sides.”

Protesters say similar kettling tactics were used on May 30 when demonstrations against the police killing of Minneapolis resident George Floyd first began in Chicago, according to the South Side Weekly.

In June, the New York Times reported on similar tactics used by the New York Police Department.

Without a clear change in policy from the Police Department, there will be a continual escalation in violence at protests, Vasquez said.

“The fact that the superintendent and the mayor are signing off on it makes it even more terrifying,” said Hamilton, of the Chicago Freedom School. “This is dangerous and. … I’m very concerned about what’s to come. This feels like it is being escalated.”

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