More than 2,500 people converged on a wet and windy Michigan Avenue last Friday, Nov. 29, to protest the killing, and eventual handling by the city, of the murder of 17-year-old Laquan McDonald.
The march, designed to coincide with Black Friday, the biggest shopping day of the year, was led by the Rev. Jesse Jackson and a diverse group of politicians, preachers and community activists — many of them from the West Side.
For many participants, the different groups marching in Friday’s protest showcased the diversity of passions and interests that have gotten behind what some are calling a new civil rights movement. But the march also demonstrated just how difficult it could be for these varying activist groups, community leaders and powerbrokers to converge in a unified front.
As the marchers made their way down North Michigan Avenue, after having met at the base of the Tribune Tower, several different phalanxes formed, separated by at least ten minutes’ worth of walking time.
The march started at around 11 a.m. By around 11:30 a.m., one group, some of whom described themselves as Black Nationalists, had already made it to the march’s terminating point, in front of Water Tower Place shopping center. They corralled around a red, black and green flag and a message of black economic empowerment blasted from men holding a mobile audio system and bullhorns.
“We not going to be in the streets! We’re not in the streets! The police always want us on the sidewalks, so we going to go where the stores are and we going to go on the inside of these stores and we all going to just window shop, because we all forgot our wallets and our purses,” said Mark Carter, a North Lawndale activist who has caustically criticized Jackson and other establishment black leaders in the past — often to their faces.
Carter can be seen on a YouTube video — posted around the time of the mayoral runoff elections last March — telling Jackson, former mayoral candidate Jesus “Chuy” Garcia and a pastor to “go to hell” after criticizing what he perceived as their lack of community involvement.
Carter, talking into a handheld audio system, was among the first people during Friday’s demonstration to call for marchers to “stop commerce” and to “hit them in their pocketbooks,” reinforcing the message that many activists had emphasized in the run-up to the Black Friday action.
Hundreds of demonstrations would eventually heed Carter’s commands, locking arms and blocking the entrances of stores like Victoria’s Secret, Apple and Neiman Marcus — symbols of American consumerism. Some of the stores would close early due to the demonstrations.
Several hundred feet behind Carter and the black nationals marched a much more ethnically and racially diverse confederation of protestors. They appeared younger, more collegiate. Among them, many denim-clad and leather-bound millennials.
Bringing up the rear, three-quarters of a mile behind these two groups, members of the rearguard and vanguard of black social justice activism — from Jackson to former Black Panther-turned Congressman Bobby Rush (1st) to self-described “Black, queer feminist community organizer” Charlene Carruthers, of the Black Youth Project 100 — were bunched shoulder-to-shoulder, shivering in hoodies, skull caps and fedoras.
Before Jackson’s group reached the terminus and converged on the steps of the historic Water Tower for what some in the crowd would dismiss as a “photo-op,” a small shoving match broke out in the shadow of the Water Tower place shopping center — which had by now locked its doors.
After the small scuffle was quickly broken up, Paul McKinley, 56, said there was tension between his organization, the Black Nationalists, and the Black Youth Project 100.
“They want to get in front of the movement and all they want to do is promote the gay agenda!” he said. “You can’t promote that. This is a black man thing! This some black s–t!”
If the messages among the protesters were somewhat divergent, so were the demands — which ranged from the concrete and specific to the overarching.
“We stand for three things,” said Cook County Commissioner Richard Boykin (D-1st), who marched with the group led by Jackson and had stood on the steps of the historic Water Tower with other elected officials, religious leaders and prominent activists during a gathering in front of a group of reporters.
“We want [Chicago Police] Superintendent Garry McCarthy to go right away. We want a special prosecutor appointed to take over for Anita Alvarez, as we’ve lost confidence in her. We want a federal investigation into what seems to be a cover-up by the mayor’s office, police department and the Cook County State’s Attorney’s Office on the release of the video tape.”
But some participants wanted the demonstration’s focus to extend beyond McDonald’s particular case and to the larger economic system that they believe is responsible for the routine murders of young black men.
“People have to raise up and stop spending their money,” said North Lawndale resident Reynaldo Engram, 55. “They can come out here and holler all they want, but until they stop spending their money and stop making the haves have all the money in the world [the injustice] will never, ever cease.”
“We’re organizing to take state power,” said Terry Harris, a member of the Chicago International Marxist-Humanist Organization. “They’ve been killing us and they’ll continue killing us, so we need to get rid of the state.”
Another source of tension developed around the tactics and approach taken by the black leaders gathered in front of the Water Tower, with some in the crowd, Carter included, urging protestors to take to the stores.
At one point, as Rev. Jackson was speaking, someone pulled the plug on his microphone. And as Rev. Marshall Hatch, pastor of the New Mouth Pilgrim Missionary Baptist Church West Garfield Park, was praying, chants of “Let the youth speak!” began reverberating throughout the crowd of several hundred.
“We’re here to stop some commerce!” said one person. “I did not come here for a photo-op, we’re supposed to be stopping some commerce! This is a photo-op!”
Claire Embil, 16, was one of those youth who traveled from Skokie to protest along the Mile. Embil, who is the president of a local social justice group, said one of the differences between her generation and older generations of activists and leaders is the former’s heightened sense of inclusiveness.
“I think the youth movement is very intersectional,” she said. “We’re not standing here just advocating for men and women of color. I’m advocating for trans-women of color, or gay women of color. Your oppression increases with every box you check. I don’t think the older generation understands that.”
South Side activist Maze Jackson, who said he represented a group of black parents, feared that the march would be overshadowed by leaders who weren’t as directly affected by the police violence happening in the city’s neighborhoods.
“We decided to proactively let these police know that before they think to shoot or kill these kids, they have families who are willing to get involved,” said Jackson, 45. “I have college age kids coming back home wanting to protest and I want to make sure they know we’re willing to fight for them. These kids may argue with Jesse Jackson — that’s one thing. They’re not arguing with us in the same way, because those are our kids and we understand.”
But Rep. Danny K. Davis (D-7th) said the generational divide isn’t as gaping as some activists may think.
“Every old person here has been young. Every young person here, if they live long enough, will get old. They don’t like the alternative to not getting old. That’s a lot of rhetoric and conversation,” Davis said of the so-called generational divide.
“I’m helping my teenage grandchildren know why they didn’t go shopping today. We’ll be in solidarity with the idea that, as you grow up, you should be treated fairly, equally, you should have the same opportunity as any young people have in this country. All this is designed to make that happen.”
Despite the overwhelming tension of the afternoon, however, many participants felt that the march — which was largely non-violent — was a moment of historic possibility.
“We need to continue to build on the momentum we have here,” said state Rep. La Shawn K. Ford (D-8th).
“People are feeling we can do things together. That’s what it’s all about. It’s about getting the spirit of the whites, blacks, everyone to come together and say enough is enough. I think the spirit is out here, we just need to keep building on that spirit.”
“We must keep organizing,” said West Garfield Park community activist Marseil Jackson, who added his own caveat.
“We must have structure in this movement. People need to be held accountable, especially those in leadership roles who covered [this video] up. If we don’t stick together and keep this going, then we’re going to miss the moment.”
This article has been updated to reflect more accurate estimates of the number of participants at the Black Friday protest. Austin Weekly News regrets this error.