CHICAGO — Raising Downtown bridges during last summer’s unrest led to violent clashes between police and protesters, took time away from stopping looters — and officers didn’t think it was effective, a newly released report from the city’s watchdog found.
Mayor Lori Lightfoot, who made the decision to raise Downtown bridges over the Chicago River during protests this summer, has been widely criticized for the move. Officials raised the bridges to try to control crowds as people protested and others later looted in the Loop — but many saw the move as elitist and divisive, with the city prioritizing big-money businesses Downtown over the concerns and rights of everyday residents.
But a report released Thursday from the Inspector General’s Office details just how calamitous a decision it was.
Police response to the protests and unrest was botched overall, the report found.
In late May, protesters marched and chanted Downtown to call for an end to police violence after officers in Minneapolis killed George Floyd. At the same time, officials have said, other groups of people looted and vandalized businesses in the Loop.
The city’s top officials looked for ways to control the crowds and stop the vandalism — and ultimately decided one of their tactics would be raising the bridges, even though that hadn’t been done in more than a decade and had been dismissed by prior leaders as an ineffective form of crowd control.
There was no advanced planning around raising the bridges, and officials who made the call didn’t appear to know how complex a process it would be, the report found. Officers pushed and beat protesters who were on bridges, escalating violent clashes.
And in the end, some police officers didn’t think raising the bridges was an effective move — some even told the Inspector General’s Office it impeded the movements of officers. Police Supt. David Brown said it took too long and took time away from stopping people looting.
Protesters said the raised bridges effectively trapped them just as Lightfoot imposed a curfew, especially because the city also shut down CTA service.
And efforts to keep people from the Downtown area pushed people looting and vandalizing into more residential neighborhoods, where many locally-owned businesses were burglarized and damaged.
The report analyzed police and city activity in response to unrest May 29-June 7.
Despite the violence and chaos that came from raising the bridges during that period, Lightfoot raised the bridges a second time later in the summer during further unrest.
Violence On Wabash Avenue Bridge
Someone from the city’s Office of Emergency Management and Communications contacted the Chicago Department of Transportation on May 28 or 29 to discuss if the Downtown bridges could be raised during the weekend — but CDOT was not definitively told the bridges would be raised or to told have crews on call in case they were needed, according to the Office of the Inspector General’s report.
On May 30, Lightfoot decided to raise the bridges, and one of her staff members contacted a “senior member of CDOT” and said the agency had to begin raising the bridges, according to the report.
The decision itself was unusual, as raising the bridges in response to an emergency hadn’t been done in at least a decade, a senior CDOT official told the Office of the Inspector General. During protests in Chicago during the 2012 NATO summit, officials discussed raising the bridges — and rejected the idea because it would be an ineffective tool for emergency crowd control, according to the report.
Raising the bridges was “challenging” for the agency, according to the report. Recent rains had flooded parts of their mechanisms, and they hadn’t been tested — as is normally done before they’re raised — to ensure they were working properly, according to the report.
And CDOT had to call in off-duty workers, who were fearful that they’d be targeted by protesters since they had to wear city of Chicago safety vests. One of the crew’s cars was “overtaken, graffitied and had its windows broken,” according to the report.
CDOT was only able to assemble two crews given the short notice, and they could only raise two bridges at a time. Starting about 4:30 p.m. May 30, they raised the Michigan Avenue Bridge.
But protesters were on the Wabash Avenue Bridge near Trump Tower. To force them off and keep them from Trump Tower, police leaders instructed officers to form “a skirmish line of around 150 officers and horse-mounted units” and push the crowd off the bridge, according to the report.
The officers used batons to push protesters off the bridge. Activists told the Office of the Inspector General they were not ordered to disperse before officers began pushing them, and officers punched them, kicked them and beat them with batons.
One activist told the Inspector General’s Office he was on the bridge, not fighting police but trying to hold his ground, when an officer attacked him and others nearby.
“I put my hands up. I thought he would stop if I was protecting myself, but he shoved the baton into the fingers of my bone and was pushing with his body weight,” the protester told the office. “And so I screamed and I said, ‘Stop. Please stop.’ So he gave me a look, and he jumped to a person next to me, which was a Black person, and started shoving him even harder.
“And I said, ‘Stop. Stop. Please stop.’ And the police officer next to him looked at me and said, ‘You want to be in it. Now you’re in it.’ And he grabbed me by my neck and he lifted me up, and I flew. I went airborne by my neck.
“He dragged me backwards so quickly that my shoe flew off and my hat flew off. He dragged me down the street through horse poop so hard that my back was scraped up and bleeding. And then two other officers jumped on me and I was screaming, ‘Stop. You got me. You got me. You won.'”
Another protester told the office they saw activists covered in blood after police hit them with batons and saw officers pepper spray individual people.
And a third protester told the office he was pushed and beaten with a baton by police.
“On that day, police participated in reckless endangerment,” that protester said. “They put the lives of so many people in jeopardy … . Police presence escalated tensions and created a dangerous space for everyone near or around the protest.”
At the same time, officers said over the radio they were being hit with thrown objects, like bottles and fireworks, according to the report.
A police commander who was near Trump Tower at the time told the Inspector General’s Office police did give a dispersal order and peaceful protesters left, but some remained and threw paint cans, peanut butter jars and other items at officers.
None of his superiors informed him the Wabash Avenue Bridge was going to be raised — he learned it from a CDOT worker, he told the office. He became separated from his tactical officers when the bridge went up.
A police director also told the Inspector General’s Office the protesters had “no fear of battling the police” and “it was a battle” on the bridge.
It took until 7 p.m. for the Wasbash Avenue bridge to be cleared and raised.
Lightfoot watched the events from a video feed and told the Inspector General’s Office she saw people “fought viciously against the police, hurling objects that were clearly intended to cause harm.
“That was literally like a battlefield, watching what was transpiring, and that’s not peaceful protest.”
Brown told the Inspector General’s Office the furor on the bridge “took too much time away from addressing the looting” happening in the Loop.
CDOT officials said there was “very little understanding” among emergency officials, including Brown, about how complex it would be to raise the bridges. Brown asked if there was one person who could press a button to raise a bridge, according to the report.
The Police Department’s own command staff members “held conflicting opinions as to whether raising the bridges helped manage the situation,” according to the report.
Many of them thought it actually impended the movements of officers — and some thought raising the bridges should have been part of a broader plan, but that plan did not exist, according to the report.
The Mayor’s Office did not specifically respond to a request for comment on the findings about how the bridges were raised, though it did issue a statement in response to the report.
“As the Chicago Police Department acknowledged itself in its own candid and robust after-action report, there were many instances in which its efforts fell short systemically and where individual officers and supervisors failed to uphold the high standards that the public should expect from anyone who wears the badge,” according to the Mayor’s Office. “These officers were and will be held accountable, as noted by Superintendent David Brown at the time.
“The fact that [the Police Department] under the leadership of Supt. Brown has owned responsibility for its challenges and embraced the opportunity to do better is noteworthy. There were a number of lessons learned and opportunities for improvement that were put into place over the course of the summer and fall — notably in connection with the federal election.”
Read the full report online.
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