Chicago Mayor Says An Investigation Is Under Way Into ‘Coordinated’ Looting And Arson That Marred Peaceful Protests

photo of Central Camera destruction
The looted and burnt storefront display area of Central Camera at 230 South Wabash Avenue. Marc Monaghan / WBEZ
photo of Central Camera destruction
The looted and burnt storefront display area of Central Camera at 230 South Wabash Avenue. Marc Monaghan / WBEZ

Chicago Mayor Says An Investigation Is Under Way Into ‘Coordinated’ Looting And Arson That Marred Peaceful Protests

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With no end in sight to violent protests, Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot said Sunday the city has enlisted federal law enforcement authorities to help investigate the “absolutely organized and coordinated” looting and arson that marred peaceful demonstrations over George Floyd’s death.

In a joint appearance with Gov. JB Pritzker and Cook County State’s Attorney Kim Foxx in the afternoon, the mayor said it’s too early to pinpoint what people or organizations are behind the violence and destruction that struck parts of Chicago.

But Lightfoot said the city is working with the FBI, the federal Bureau of Alcohol Tobacco and Firearms and the U.S. attorney’s office to find out, saying she is certain the storefront-by-storefront wreckage from Saturday was not a random event.

“What I can say, there’s no question some of the destruction that happened last night, particularly the arsons, were absolutely organized and coordinated. We’ll learn about this over time as the investigation takes its course. But I’m confident of that so far,” she said.

The mayor’s comments came as the city — known already for its struggles with violence — was about to emerge from the severe yoke of a pandemic. Instead, officials and residents braced for another night of lawlessness that threatened to set back the city and state’s COVID-19 recovery efforts.

At the mayor’s request, Pritzker activated 375 military police officers from the Illinois National Guard to help secure a perimeter around downtown.

The governor’s move evoked uneasy memories of when a far larger contingent of the National Guard was in the city to quell violence surrounding the 1968 Democratic National Convention, though the mayor assured the group Pritzker deployed would display “the same kind of restraint” toward protesters that Chicago police did Saturday, when no bullets were fired.

Additionally Sunday, the city remained under a 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. curfew, most pathways into the Loop were shut off, and public transit ground to a halt in the city and suburbs in hopes of gumming up easy escape routes for violent agitators.

Lightfoot, the governor and Foxx said they all supported the efforts of peaceful demonstrators who flooded the streets to protest the death of Floyd, an unarmed black man who died after a Minneapolis police officer had his knee on the man’s throat for nearly nine minutes.

Pritzker talked about his support for protesters speaking “their truth” and noted Sunday how Floyd’s death is just the latest horrible sting to black Illinoisans who have been stalked both physically and economically by the coronavirus unlike any other demographic.

“Illinois as well as other parts of the nation is coming off the peak of a pandemic that has disproportionately taken black lives, a pandemic that has caused record unemployment disproportionately in the black community. These are enormous weights that nobody should have to carry,” Pritzker said Sunday.

“It’s not lost on me that the peaceful protesters who have been out over the last few days weighed the risks of the pandemic against coming out to speak their truth, and they chose to gather anyway,” he said. “To them, I want to say I see you. I heard you. I understand why you made the choice that you made.”

But the governor said he worried the destruction rendered into the evening muffled the voices of solidarity with African Americans who have been systematically targeted across America.

“Late in the evening [Saturday], the protest became about violence and damage, and that changes the conversation away from the terrible acts that took George Floyd’s life, away from the insidious racism that we all have a role in addressing,” Pritzker said. “It’s hard to find the right words to say today.”

Foxx echoed the governor and mayor’s support of peaceful protest. But she stressed prosecutors would “hold those accountable” for criminal activity and emphasized she intended to seek justice against whoever caused destruction, not peaceful protesters.

The two should not be conflated, she said.

“What we have seen in this country are broken hearts and anger at the continual cycle that we have seen of the casual acceptance of systemic racism in this country,” Foxx said. “People are angry. I am angry. What is not acceptable, is what I saw [Saturday] night. That there will be those who will try to exploit the anger and the mourning.”

The protests and the criminal activity that ran parallel unfolded against the backdrop of a city and a state showing promising signs of recovery from the COVID-19 pandemic, which has caused 5,390 deaths in roughly 10 weeks.

Areas in the collar counties and downstate were allowed to partially emerge from the governor’s pandemic-mandated business closures and stay-at-home dictates last Friday, with the city scheduled to follow suit on Wednesday.

With thousands of people crowding into the Loop, some wearing facial coverings and others not, both the governor and mayor expressed fears of another spike in COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations because few demonstrators appeared to adhere to six-feet of separation, the cardinal rule of social distancing.

The mayor said she, city Public Health Commissioner Allison Arwady and city Police Supt. David Brown would now be reassessing the wisdom of the city’s planned partial reopening Wednesday.

“I’m worried,” the mayor said. “I’m absolutely worried about a potential outbreak as a result of what we saw [Saturday]. Thousands of people cheek to jowl in small spaces is exactly the opposite of what we’ve been preaching now for 10 weeks’ time.”

Dave McKinney covers Illinois politics and government for WBEZ. Follow him on Twitter @davemckinney.