Guillermo Gutierrez sat on a bench at a small plaza in Chicago’s Little Village neighborhood on Saturday afternoon, looking like any bystander hanging out. But he was doing more than that — he had a small radio and was monitoring the police scanner, listening for any signs of trouble.
Lately it has been nonstop activity for Gutierrez, a street outreach supervisor for Enlace Chicago, a community group in Little Village. The weekend of May 30, his neighborhood — like many in the city — saw looting and violence that followed a large protest over the death of George Floyd while he was being arrested by Minneapolis police.
Some of the looting spread to mostly Latino communities such as Little Village, Pilsen and Cicero. Social media fanned the tensions, and some Latinos began targeting African Americans. They were harassed, their cars were vandalized and objects were thrown at them. A flyer goaded African Americans and Latinos to shoot it out in Cicero.
Chicago saw more protests this past weekend, but they were peaceful and there was no new looting, a relief to activists such as Gutierrez. He and other outreach workers have been trying to repair relationships between black and Latino residents.
“Finally, after four days, [residents] came out and felt comfortable enough to walk on the streets and see an African American walking down 26th Street and not feel threatened and vice versa,” Gutierrez said on Saturday.
The recent tensions have led to conversations about race that weren’t happening before, he said.
“People don’t like to talk about race,” Gutierrez said, which is why the looting coupled with racial comments on social media blew things out of proportion, he added.
People who were at unity rallies this past weekend agree.
“Educating our community, that’s the biggest part,” said Andre Burton, a black resident who was at a rally in South Chicago on the Far Southeast Side. “I think it starts with a simple conversation. It's easy, it’s very simple.”
During the weekend of looting, gang members in some Latino areas took to the streets to defend their communities, Gutierrez said.
“These guys felt like somebody came to their house and broke in, so they began to start forming both on the east and west side of Little Village, actually all of 26th Street,” he said.
This past weekend, Gutierrez and other outreach workers were out making sure the violence didn’t erupt again.
“One of the things that all the street outreach workers were focused on was stopping the fires and rumors” Gutierrez said. “Our biggest enemy, unfortunately, was social media. There were so many misinformed people. There were videos out there of stuff that happened two years ago, saying that it had just happened.”
This past weekend was a lot more peaceful, he said. Some businesses reopened. His team got teens to paint murals with messages of peace and unity over the plywood covering damaged storefronts. Gutierrez also helped organize a cookout Friday and invited black and Latino residents from other parts of the city.
The efforts to deescalate were not just happening in Little Village. Unity vigils and marches went on all last week and continued into the weekend.
“Promoting peace” on the Far Southeast Side
Several hundred residents in South Chicago held a unity march on Friday.
“I am promoting peace just as much as I can, not just against the police, but also against each other, too, because we can’t fight the big problem if we are here fighting each other,” said Federico Robles, a tattoo artist who was streaming the march on Facebook.
Robles said he was in a gang years ago. “This is el barrio [the neighborhood], where all of our abuelitas and tios and tias have businesses, and to let somebody demolish that, that’s not gonna go,” he said.
But he said he won’t tolerate violence against African Americans, and that’s why he was marching.
“Whoever started this racial war, somebody got out of line and slipped up,” he said.
On the West Side, calming down young gang members
Hundreds of protesters were out Saturday night in many parts of the city, including the Humboldt Park neighborhood, where some residents have been acting both as vigilantes and peacekeepers.
“We are trying to educate our young Latino brothers out here, because with no guidance they are going to act ignorant,” said Pete, a member of the Latin Kings street gang who declined to give his full name.
“A lot of the guys didn’t have self-control. We are trying to change that,” he said
Pete said he has been a gang member since he was 12, but is no longer on the streets gangbanging. When the looting erupted, he began patrolling the streets.
“We are just going around, stopping in our local business that we usually shop in, making sure that everything is good, that everything is still running the same way,” Pete said adding, that in his neighborhood social media also ignited most of the anti-black sentiment and violence.
Pete said he was armed just like other peers who were out patrolling.
“We are kind of always armed,” he said. “We live in Chicago and you always gotta watch yourself.”
Latinx launch hotline to aid black Chicagoans
Other activists have taken a different approach to building black and Latino unity.
“So a bunch of us who are involved in the community, we organized a rapid response group,” said Mah Nu, a Latinx artist. The initiative also includes a hotline.
“Black people that don’t feel safe in Chicago can call us,” Mah Nu explained.
In just two days, the group received more than 40 calls from African Americans asking for car rides or safe housing. Mah Nu takes on shifts in the afternoon and evenings to monitor the police scanner in districts where violence has erupted.
This past weekend, Mah Nu said, the calls declined and things were quieter.
“I hope that they are decreasing because people are feeling a lot more safe,” Mah Nu said.
Many say the recent tensions have forced a conversation between the black community and Latinos that has been pushed under the rug.
“This moment is really redefining that for a lot of folks,” Burton said, adding that he is not angry at gangs who were out after the looting. They were protecting their neighborhoods, he said.
“The reason why they are in the positions that they are right now is because of a system that was never built in our favor in the first place,” he said. The next step, he believes, is learning to let go of racial stereotypes and focus on ending police brutality — the problem that sparked protests in the first place.