Chicago Black Friday protests test power of new civil rights movement

The Black Friday protests in Chicago's luxury shopping corridor highlight not just dramatic shifts in how US police respond to protesters, but also the maturing of the Black Lives Matter movement.

Nam Y. Huh/AP
Protesters make their way up North Michigan Avenue on Friday, Nov. 27, 2015, in Chicago. Community activists and labor leaders hold a demonstration billed as a "march for justice" on Black Friday in the wake of the release of video showing an officer fatally shooting Laquan McDonald.

Up to 2,000 people protesting police violence hit the streets of Chicago’s “Magnificent Mile” district on the busiest shopping day of the year, taking another step forward for a social justice movement emboldened by its impact on everything from college campuses to city halls.

Some protesters attempted to block store entrances while police on the scene formed barriers to keep them out while allowing shoppers to enter, NBC News reported. “Find a door, shut it down!” some activists shouted, according to the network.

The Black Friday protests in the luxury corridor are the continuation of simmering tensions in Chicago, where Officer Jason Van Dyke was charged with first-degree murder on Tuesday in the killing of a 17-year-old named Laquan McDonald in October 2014. The fact that a video of the incident was not released for 400 days fueled allegations of a coverup. City officials have said they didn’t release the video because it was part of an active investigation.

The protests are placing Chicago, America’s third-largest city, in a familiar spot historically, as a hotbed for social justice movements ranging from violent Vietnam War protests and the “Battle of Michigan Avenue,” to the peaceful 2006 pro-immigration rallies that drew as many as half a million protesters into the Windy City.

But the protests also show both restraint by police and the professionalization of the Black Lives Matter movement, which began after the hardhearted police response to protesters in Ferguson, Mo., last year. Only 10 people have been arrested in Chicago this week.

Indeed, the contrast between Chicago so far and the militarized police response in Ferguson last year highlights not just dramatic shifts in how US police respond to protesters, but also the maturing of a new civil rights movement into a deliberate and conscientious force that’s finding it more effective to target institutions and powerful politicians rather than police as a whole.

“These activists in Chicago have been active, savvy people, unlike in Ferguson, where there’s not as long a history of protest activity around police matters,” says Michael Kazin, an expert on social movements at Georgetown University in Washington. “I think [activists] might be in part saying, ‘Look, we have to keep sort of relations with the police. It can’t just be us against them for the long term, because it’s not going to be very helpful.’ ”

The Magnificent Mile march aims to draw attention to what protesters see as a racial bias in policing. In terms of the McDonald case, activists are calling for a Justice Department probe, and the resignations of Police Superintendent Garry McCarthy and prosecutor Anita Alvarez for their roles in the video being kept under wraps.

“This is going to give an opportunity for all of Chicago to come out, demonstrate their outrage and their anger in a nonviolent way, (and) interrupt the economic engine of Black Friday," the Rev. Michael Pfleger, a Roman Catholic priest and prominent local activist, told the Associated Press.

It’s a familiar situation for the city, going back to the 1800s.

“In a sense the city was born in bloody protest: the 1812 Fort Dearborn Massacre, when Native Americans rose up and attacked soldiers departing from a fort built on land that was incorporated as the City of Chicago 25 years later,” longtime Chicago political consultant Don Rose writes in an essay. “Fast forward to the 1960s and we find that Chicago has become a virtual crucible of the social movements of the era."

Indeed, the protest culture has been so ingrained that the city council last year passed ordinances that required that large signs be registered before being waved. Earlier this year, the American Civil Liberties Union published a guide to protesting in Chicago.

Hardball strategies by minority activists, including hunger strikes, have born fruit across the United States, including in Chicago, where young activists recently barricaded a University of Chicago building to demand a trauma center at a South Side hospital, a concession they recently won.

The attempt to disrupt Black Friday shopping is part of that effort to translate street efforts into action.

Last year, Seattle police clashed with young Black Lives Matter protesters intent on disrupting Black Friday shopping in the city’s upscale Westlake district. Police cordoned off protesters trying to storm a tree-lighting ceremony. At one point, balls of tear gas were lodged at protests.

In a letter to city officials, the Downtown Seattle Association complained that protesters had scared shoppers away, prevented the children's choir from performing, and brought on an "unfortunate hit to our reputation."

That’s the kind of pressure that protesters in Chicago hope to put on the city during a shopping weekend that for some retailers provides 20 percent of annual revenues. Targeting commerce, some protesters say, is part of a tradition started by Martin Luther King Jr., who said in his last speech before being assassinated in 1968 that civil rights supporters should “redistribute the pain” by boycotting corporations like Coca-Cola.

"I think we've seen that historically, the only way to get society as a whole to acknowledge that we need to change something, or change unjust systems, is to disrupt commerce and make economic hardship for those in power," Nikkita Oliver, a Black Lives Matter activist, told Ansel Herz of The Stranger website.

Some of the new tactics are controversial, bordering on bullying. In Chicago, activists have disrupted police review-board meetings and recently shut down an elevator in a university building, trapping disabled people inside.

“[T]he agendas of leftist revolutionaries are usually incoherent,” Victor Davis Hanson asserted in a recent essay in National Review about the Black Lives Matter movement on campuses. “They seem more about gaining power and privilege than offering a workable blueprint of reform.”

Yet it’s indubitable that a new generation of activists are making a concerted effort to achieve tangible change.

“The world is watching the struggles by poor people and people of color in Chicago, and many are taking inspiration from the courage and determination of Chicago activists," Barbara Ransby, a history professor at the University of Illinois at Chicago, tells the Chicago Tribune.

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