For me, it started on the afternoon of Sunday, May 31. I was driving east on Madison into the city to get a sense of the mood, expecting to see what I had gotten used to seeing in the five years of protests and parades and Lollapaloozas that have gripped the Loop, but have no stronghold on the West Side, where chaos and euphoria — rather than coming in fits and starts — constitutes simply living.
Here, the stores are already boarded up, shards of glass are always and forever being swept away. Here, the pain of loss or of some injustice is always lamented. There are always protests (and, yes, against crime perpetrated by people other than the police). Here, life goes on after a million minor tragedies.
And that’s how the trip started and continued a block after crossing Austin Boulevard (I remember being relieved, as I always am, by the sight of the 15th District police headquarters). But as I drove east past Laramie and Lavergne and Cicero, I gradually became even more tense than I typically am on the West Side.
The traffic slowed for bodies walking frenetically into the street. Vehicles u-turned in front and beside mine. Those cars that always wrack my nerves: the threatening-looking ones with tinted windows and overlarge rims blaring overloud, bass-heavy rap swerved in and out of gaps between other cars at a standstill.
I drove a few more blocks east and noticed the source of the tension — a crowd of people in front of a Family Dollar. Stopped at a red light on Kildare, I glanced at a man walking on the other side of the street with a large cardboard box. People were carrying merchandise into cars in the store’s parking lot. Instead of driving another block, I turned left and headed for Washington, past a well-known and prominent church, whose pastor was walking quizzically to his car, as if noticing the scene for the first time. His presence brought me some comfort. That was before or after I heard what sounded like a gunshot.
I sped anxiously on Washington, the sounds of sirens flanking me, anticipating, as I perhaps never have before, the relative safety and serenity of Oak Park.
For me, it continued hours later. As stores near where I live in Maywood began to close, I headed out to drive around and spotted a caravan of cars, engines revved and weaving in traffic near a shopping center in Melrose Park. Hours later, I saw the mayor of Maywood standing beside the village manager. They were guarding our only grocery store after reports that its alcohol inventory was a target for looting. Our small police force was dispersed elsewhere
And it continued on Monday, when the mayor and the manager stood at a corner outside of Proviso East, this time with the police chief, in anticipation of a protest they heard was planned to happen at 3 p.m. Two people showed up — a married couple who lives in town. They said they’d gotten wind of the “protest” on social media, but no one (not even the authorities) could tell me where the information originated or who planned the demonstration and for what purpose.
And it continued into the evening, when I noticed two expressway entrance ramps into my town closed before heading home to listen to the police scanner well past midnight. I heard reports of suspicious vehicles and broken windows and shots fired and armed robberies. I heard police running license plates from Alabama and Arizona. I took breaks from the scanner to read news reports of vigilante justice happening in Cicero and to belatedly learn of a car “linked to an attempted looting incident” on fire in Oak Park.
And it continued on last Tuesday, when I woke up to video footage released by North Riverside police of a black man shot execution-style on Sunday by another black man wearing a hoodie and a medical mask.
And that was almost enough to push me past my breaking point, to say, ‘F— it’ and start rooting for the National Guard to come rushing in like the Allied forces on D-Day; to start saying, ‘Well, the president has a point,’ as he mobilizes the military; to go to YouTube and grin and giggle at the famous Chris Rock routine about black people vs. n—as, as a way of justifying the ramped up aggression that some part of my subconscious hopes meets those threatening tinted window travelers; to pine for the days when the looting merely happened inside of our national treasury and not in my community.
I have not flirted with the forces of authoritarianism this intensely since my late teens and early 20s, when I fashioned myself something of a conservative and Milton Friedman’s Capitalism and Freedom was (for about six months) my Bible; and I thought Dinesh D’Souza was an actual scholar; and I watched with glee whenever Bill O’Reilly “destroyed” a member of the New Black Panthers; and I would argue with people about how the ghetto was actually formed because there was something wrong with black culture (trust me, my arguments were very sophisticated).
When I saw the video of that young black man from Austin shot execution-style outside the Olive Garden in North Riverside, I briefly forgot that George Floyd was dead; had briefly forgotten the history of structural racism I’ve been reading these last three months in quarantine. I became a fan boy of the police and whatever forces of state might quell this chaos. I was something of my younger self again.
I briefly forgot that, based on multiple reports from suburban residents who demonstrated downtown on Saturday, most protesters were peaceful and most taggers and arsonists they came across were not black; and that elected officials across the country, including Maywood’s mayor, are telling us that they think there is a campaign of disinformation happening to deliberately stoke this anarchic chaos.
But the chaos is a symptom of our problems and should not be confused with peaceful actions targeting those problems’ deep, centuries-old roots. Now is not the time for undisciplined thinking and for putting human beings (whether they be police or protesters) and living ideas (like ‘law and order’ or justice) into lazy categories. We need laws that are just, we need civil order that is premised on equity, we need police who are not racists, we need actual equality of opportunity for black people, and we need an economy that values all people over profits.
These things are not mutually exclusive, but there are forces that would persuade us that each is alien to the other.
Yes, we must be vigilant about the looting of businesses, but we must be even more on guard against the looting of our minds.