The federal judge overseeing Chicago’s mandatory police reform efforts heard from more than two dozen people on Wednesday, including farmers, attorneys, college students, a nanny, a chef, a financial analyst and a social worker about their experiences with Chicago police during recent protests. They described being struck by batons, pepper sprayed at close range, shoved, punched, dragged, groped and illegally arrested by police.
The activists shared their stories Wednesday during the first of two days of court hearings on the city of Chicago’s handling of civil unrest this summer. The second listening session is scheduled for Thursday afternoon.
While city and police officials have blamed clashes between cops and demonstrators on mob violence and protesters looking “for a fight,” the speakers on Wednesday described violence driven by police without provocation.
“The times that I felt the most unsafe were the times that I was around the police,” Michael Kaiser-Nyman told Judge Robert Dow. “I never felt unsafe around any of the other protesters.”
The firsthand accounts are being collected by court-appointed monitor Maggie Hickey, who is investigating how the city and its Police Department responded to protests as part of her larger task of tracking Chicago’s police reform progress.
Hickey said 540 people signed up to speak during the two-day listening session, but they limited the number of speakers to 95 over two days.
Kobi Guillory said he was “assaulted” twice by Chicago officers this summer, with the first incident on May 30 at a protest downtown. Guillory claimed during that protest, officers used a controversial technique known as “kettling” in which they trapped demonstrators and then closed in on them. Chicago police have denied using the tactic.
“They give these dispersal orders, but they make it impossible for people to actually disperse. So that just gives them an excuse to brutalize and make mass arrests on protesters. And personally, I was hit with batons multiple times over the course of four hours when it was impossible for me to leave that area,” Guillory said. “I had marks on my forearms and on my stomach for days after that.”
Jeannine Wise said she too was at the protest downtown on May 30 and was never given any order to leave before police started pushing against her and the rest of the crowd.
“There was an officer pushing into my chest horizontally with a baton like this, and he was pushing me very, very hard. And I was afraid of stumbling. I was trying to hold my ground, but I wasn’t fighting. I never raised my voice. And I was afraid I was going to fall on the ground and get trampled because the police were advancing,” Wise said.
She said she cried for the officer to stop, and eventually he did. But then, Wise said, she was attacked again.
“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,” Wise said through tears. “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’ve got me. You won.’ ”
Many of the speakers referenced incidents at the July 17 protest near the Columbus statue in Grant Park where police and protesters were injured.
Chicago Police Superintendent David Brown blamed the confrontation on a violent mob that hijacked an otherwise peaceful protest, and video shows water bottles being thrown at officers. Only one speaker, Katie Williams, addressed objects being thrown at police. She said it was true that water bottles were thrown at police. But she took issue with the way officers responded.
“They were mad at those protesters, and they didn’t care to seek any sort of justice for them through any sort of [legal] means, and instead they decide to beat their way to them through a bunch of peaceful protesters,” Williams said.
Janie Pochel, of Albany Park, said she was at the Columbus protest with a youth group, of which the youngest member was 8 years old.
[The police] just started indiscriminately beating people. My 8-year-old niece got pepper sprayed. [The kids] watched police just start punching people in the face for … no reason, just for being there, for practicing their rights,” Pochel said. “We stayed just a little while longer, because we couldn’t get out because the police were forcing us back and pepper spraying people as they were trying to escape.”
Pochel said the demonstration had been “a nice rally” and a “good time” until police forced a confrontation with protesters.
She said since then her niece “has a hard time sleeping” and the other kids in the youth group are “severely traumatized.”
“They cry every time they see a cop now,” Pochel said.
College student Adriana Antunez said she was at the Columbus statue demonstration when police “advanced” on peaceful protesters.
“An officer dug his baton into my chest, ignoring my cry [that] he was touching my chest, he was touching my breast. His solution for that was to shove his baton against my gut before proceeding to shove it into my chest once again,” Antunez said. “I felt his fist press into my breast; I felt his baton press into my breast. Then they hosed us down with pepper spray as if we were rabid dogs.”
Hickey has promised “to prepare a special report on the response of the City of Chicago … and the Chicago Police Department … to the protests and unrest.”
The probe was prompted by a demand from a coalition of Chicago groups, who said the consent decree and its promised reforms were failing to protect Chicagoans exercising their First Amendment rights.
Aislinn Pulley, co-founder of Black Lives Matter Chicago, said she was encouraged by the fact that Hickey agreed to take a special look at police actions during protests.
“It’s … critical that we determine now collectively whether or not this consent decree is going to be meaningless or just another sham that produces no tangible results,” Pulley told WBEZ. “Because at the present, the city and CPD have missed over 70% of the [consent decree] deadlines. And this was before the uprising. And now during the uprising, we’re seeing the police engage in extreme brutality.”
Pulley, who was one of the people who addressed the judge on Wednesday, said the police actions during the protests are “further evidence that CPD actually has not changed at all” despite the consent decree and years of promised reforms following video release of the police killing of Laquan McDonald.
“This is going to be a litmus test for the city, for the mayor, for city council to determine whether or not they are actually going to implement any kind of changes,” Pulley said.
Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot has said she welcomes the review of the city’s handling of unrest.
“Just as the overwhelming majority of protests remained peaceful … the vast majority of officers followed their training and supervisor direction during these difficult times,” Lightfoot said on Twitter in June.