A protest planned for Bridgeport Saturday afternoon was canceled late Friday over safety concerns. The event in the historically Irish enclave on Chicago’s South Side was scheduled in response to a video that showed a group of white men with bats patrolling the neighborhood’s commercial streets. Some who reported seeing the activity said the men were drinking and looking for trouble.
The footage went viral on social media and stirred up memories of the civil rights era when white mobs attacked black residents for daring to walk in the mostly white South Side neighborhood. The neighborhood’s reputation for anti-black sentiment haunts it to this day.
Some who complained about the patrols called them vigilantes, while others who supported their actions called them protectors.
“There was this girl over on the corner on 31st and Princeton talking about, ‘What are all these guys doing here with these bats?’ But then again the blacks got guns and knives and all this,” said Michael Manaro, a lifelong resident of the neighborhood. “I’m 50 years old. I don’t want no trouble, you know. I am born and raised here, but I believe in peace.”
Manaro was sitting on a stoop with friends. Just across the street, dozens of Chicago police officers were posted at every entrance of Armour Square Park.
Manero welcomed the show of force. “They are here protecting this neighborhood, I think,” he said. “So they don’t come here marching this way ... I think it’s OK I feel safer here, don’t you?”
The “they” he is referring to is the group of protesters marching in neighboring Bronzeville, where CPD headquarters is located. Historically, Bridgeport was a predominantly white South Side neighborhood, the working-class fiefdom of the reigning Daley family and lots of city workers. The neighborhood has since diversified, according to the Chicago Metropolitan Agency for Planning: Bridgeport is now 39% Asian, nearly 34% white and 24% Hispanic or Latino, according to an analysis last year. African Americans made up just 2.5% of the neighborhood’s population.
“My neighbors, we look out for one each other, and that’s the way it’s always been. So to paint us with another very broad stroke of a brush — to say they are a bunch of vigilantes — I would like to see someone give me the definition of what a vigilante is,” said Paulie, who was grilling out on his front porch. Paulie declined to allow his last name to be used.
“There wasn’t anybody beaten up and so forth last night. They might have had some harsh words for some people, but it’s absolutely ridiculous to paint these people as anything but caring and law-abiding citizens of this neighborhood,” he added.
Not everyone in the neighborhood supported the men seen walking around with bats in their hands. Some said it made them feel uncomfortable. Others said they didn’t know anything about the men with bats and declined to speak with a reporter.
Ald. Patrick Thompson, 11th Ward, who represents the neighborhood, issued a statement on Twitter Thursday, acknowledging the fears some in the neighborhood had about looting. But he also said Chicago police had the neighborhood well-protected. He said he would “not condone vigilante violence and intimidation.”
“I understand you are concerned about the safety of your families and our community,” Thompson wrote. “Many of you were outside of your homes or out on your block. The few residents who took it upon themselves to carry bats, sticks and canes were wrong!”
A shopkeeper on Halsted Street didn’t want to give her name for fear of retribution by the “anarchists.” The woman said she traces her Bridgeport lineage back to the Great Chicago Fire. She called the guys with bats “protectors” and said Chicago police should have brought in the National Guard to protect her neighborhood.
“It has nothing to do with the protesters. This is the antagonizers, this is the rioters and the looters,” she said. “We don’t want them in our community. We’re just trying to make a statement to stay out.”
Claudia Morell covers City Hall for WBEZ. You can follow her on Twitter @claudiamorell.
Correction: A previous version of this story incorrectly stated the racial demographics of Chicago’s Bridgeport neighborhood. This story has been updated with the correct data.