A so-called “unity dinner” in Mount Greenwood Sunday hoped to bring some measure of calm after a deadly police shooting of a black man, but the event also highlighted the deep divisions in the Southwest Side neighborhood that has become the latest flashpoint of racial tensions in the city.
The dinner at the Mount Greenwood library was organized by Ald. Matt O’Shea, 19th Ward, and South Shore pastor Jedidiah Brown. It followed a rally and short march earlier in the day with a few dozen people holding signs reading “Chicago Strong” and “Let’s talk.”
“We are going to extend our hands across the aisle,” Brown said. “And we are going to try and get everyone we can to at least continue the conversation, clear up misconceptions and misunderstandings, and get on the same page.”
But two larger groups of protesters gathered with two different messages just down the block at the intersection of West 111th Street and South Kedzie Avenue.
On one side was a group protesting the police shooting of Joshua Beal, who was killed earlier this month after as many as four off-duty police officers responded to a traffic altercation. Police said Beal was shot when he pulled out a gun, but family members dispute that account.
The protesters held signs saying “Black Lives Matter” and “Stop White Supremacy.”
“White supremacy and the idea of true equity and equality are opposite premises,” said Ryan Dolan, a Chicago teacher who was part of the group. “There is no room for dialogue at this point.”
On the other side were protesters who came out in support of police officers. They chanted “USA” and “CPD,” short for Chicago Police Department. One man wore a T-shirt with “white lives matter” printed on it.
“They shouldn’t be picking on the police,” said local resident Pat Regan of the people protesting the Beal shooting. “They make mistakes, but so does everybody. They should be protesting in their own black neighborhoods where all the crime is actually coming from.”
Hundreds of uniformed Chicago police officers ringed the intersection where the two groups gathered. The neighborhood is home to many families of police officers and has the second highest percentage of white residents in Chicago. Mount Greenwood’s namesake school is 84 percent white in a school district that has less than 10 percent white students.
As the two groups clashed, people from the unity meeting at one point attempted to recruit protesters from both sides for a conversation, but most declined.
O’Shea said he felt like the dinner was a success despite the protests.
“We walked down this street one hundred strong — black, white, hispanic — inviting people in to be a part of this discussion,” he said. “And if someone doesn’t want to come in — they missed out. That’s how I look at it.”
Chicago Deputy Mayor Andrea Zopp said the unity dinner accomplished more than the protests outside.
“The challenge of what’s happening on the corner of 111th [and Kedzie] is that it is two sides yelling at each other.” she said. “What’s happening in this library right now is that people are getting together to say, ‘I may not agree with you but I am going to listen to you with respect.’ That’s so important for the city.”
Inside dozens of people talked in small groups over pizza and bottled water. Most people said racism in Mount Greenwood was the reason they came out.
“You know if we could get some of those people from outside — those are some of the people that actually really need to be in here,” said Robert Palmer.
One exception was neighborhood resident Dave Tiemen. Carrying a sign that read “Anti-crime is not racist,” Tiemen said came to make sure his perspective was heard.
“The white privilege word is being thrown around our neighborhood, that we don’t know what it’s like to struggle. But guess what — we are a very hard working community that works for what we have. There is no privilege here.
“This isn’t going to help if I am the only member of my community here,” Tiemen added.
Tiemen said he would return for another “unity dinner.” An organizer with the event said another one is expected before Christmas.
Miles Bryan is a reporter with WBEZ. You can follow him @miles_bryan.