Expressing her “total disgust” at a wave of downtown protests that turned violent, Mayor Lori Lightfoot announced a curfew from 9 p.m. Saturday to 6 a.m. Sunday.
Lightfoot warned curfew violators would be arrested, and the first-term mayor threatened to continue the curfew every night “until further notice.”
As with similar violent scenes across the country, the turbulent afternoon and evening in Chicago followed protests over the death of George Floyd in police custody in Minneapolis.
The Friday night protests had not been as volatile here as in some other cities across the country. But on Saturday, downtown Chicago saw repeated clashes between officers and protesters, while the sounds of police sirens and helicopters dominated streets for many hours.
“I will not allow criminals to take over our city and shame us,” Lightfoot said at a hastily arranged press conference Saturday evening.
Lightfoot announced the curfew less than an hour before it went into effect.
She said she was partial toward those protesters “who express their righteous anger and grief” peacefully. But that was not what ensued Saturday in many cases, she said.
“I want to express my disappointment, really, my total disgust at the number of others who came to the day’s protest armed for all-out battle,” Lightfoot said. “You don’t come to a peaceful protest with a bowling ball or a hammer or a shovel or a baseball bat. You don’t come to a peaceful protest with bottles of urine to throw at police officers.”
The curfew came after protesters burned police cars and flags, scuffled with officers, spray-painted graffiti on Loop buildings, looted stores and repeatedly blocked traffic in downtown Chicago during the second straight day of demonstrations for Floyd, who died in Minneapolis this week after a police officer put a his knee on his neck for more than eight minutes during an arrest.
A large group of protesters began gathering in Daley Plaza around 2 p.m., chanting “No justice, no peace!” and marching down streets as police in riot gear kept watch. Traffic disruptions across the downtown area were numerous, including a shutdown of Lake Shore Drive in both directions at Balbo Drive.
Some protesters spray-painted the word “Justice” and a peace sign on a column at the Cook County government building at 69 W. Washington St. Others burned a Chicago flag on the sidewalk after cutting it down from the front of an office building at 28 N. Clark St.
Police and some demonstrators clashed near the intersection of Dearborn and Washington streets in the afternoon, and a few protesters apparently were taken into custody. When officers pinned one woman to the street there, protesters began to chant, “She can’t breathe” — a clear reference to Floyd’s death.
Another woman there — who declined to give her name but said she wanted to be identified as representing “the people” — urged the demonstrators to leave the scene and head toward Trump Tower. She said protesters didn’t want to fight with the cops over that block: “We want the city!”
But police formed tight lines around the Trump Tower Chicago when protesters massed near the skyscraper developed by the man who would become president. Officers guarded even the lower-level streets near the high-rise condo and hotel building.
A police officer escorted a WBEZ reporter away from the Trump Tower, saying the reporter could not be on the street nearby because it was now considered to be a “safety zone.”
Thick plumes of black smoke later rose from the River North neighborhood because rioters lit two Chicago Police SUVs on fire. The fire department quickly put out the blazes at Rush and Ohio streets, just a block from the high-end shopping district along Michigan Avenue.
Police sought to contain the disturbances by raising many of the iconic bridges over the Chicago River, isolating clusters of protesters who had spread out across downtown and the city’s Near North Side.
The protesters numbered in the thousands, with most wearing masks to prevent the spread of the coronavirus. But social distancing was not practiced, because the crowd was packed tightly on streets and sidewalks.
Actor John Cusack tweeted that he took part in the protest and alleged Chicago police "gently tuned up my bike with their batons."
But most of the protesters were young adults of various races.
On Saturday evening, Lightfoot said the behavior of many protesters gave “false vindication that they crave” to the “forces of oppression,” undermining a good cause.
And she also had a message for the police department: “I know you are exhausted, and I know that you’re risking injury and illness to do your job. And I want to be clear that your city stands with you.”
The large and often-heated demonstration came despite Lightfoot’s pleas on Saturday morning for non-violent protest, saying the illegal activity during Friday night’s march here had been “minimal.”
Even as she deplored the Minneapolis officers’ actions in Floyd’s death, and highlighted the long history of police misconduct in the city and country, Lightfoot said authorities in Chicago would not tolerate law-breaking by protesters.
Lightfoot’s new top cop, David Brown, said police made 108 arrests during the protests that began Friday and stretched into early Saturday. Most of those arrested were charged with disorderly conduct, Brown said, but one person was arrested with a gun and another was charged with aggravated battery after allegedly breaking the wrist of an officer. About a dozen officers were injured, he said.
Brown said windows were broken but it was not known if anything was stolen from stores during the first night of protests.
On Saturday, groups including Black Lives Matter Chicago had scheduled a protest downtown there from 2 p.m. to 5 p.m. The city was restricting parking from Chicago Avenue to Ida B. Wells Drive, and from Lake Shore Drive to Wells Street due to the demonstration.
Earlier, people in cars or on bicycles gathered in a strip mall parking lot, then headed by caravan to Cook County Jail to call for the release of detainees who face the risk of contracting COVID-19 behind bars. The jail has seenÂ hundreds of casesÂ of coronavirus disease among detainees and workers, and some have died.
Lightfoot said protesters on Saturday should have been as peaceful as those who marched downtown in 2015, after the release of the video of a police officer fatally shooting 17-year-old Laquan McDonald.
“We have a long history of bold, peaceful protest in Chicago,” the mayor said.
But she added that the country also has a long history in which “police have been used to brutalize our communities.”
Chicago taxpayers have shelled out hundreds of millions of dollars to settle cases alleging police misconduct, and Lightfoot referred to the long-running tensions between the department and the people of the city.
“I understand and I feel the pain and anguish,” she said of the protesters. “We’ve lost too many people to violence in this city. It wasn’t just Laquan McDonald.”
Lightfoot said she had watched the gruesome video of the Minneapolis officer with his knee on Floyd’s neck.
“What you see on the video is the life leave him,” she said. “He died on that street.”
The mayor said she blamed President Trump for aggravating the tensions after Floyd’s death.
“This is hard, and it’s not easier when we have a president who is inciting, I think, violence,” Lightfoot said. “Let’s be better than him.”
On Saturday night, though, Chicago police vehicles were not the only government property that was vandalized by the protesters. A postal truck returned to the office in River North with graffiti on it -- urging violence against Trump.
Dan Mihalopoulos is a reporter on WBEZ’s Government & Politics Team.