Fire not Light

Rachel Cohen

In a city notorious for its segregation and its broken political system, mass mobilizations point to the possibility of repair.


It is not light that we need, but fire; it is not the gentle shower, but thunder. We need the storm, the whirlwind, and the earthquake.

—Frederick Douglass

In Wrigleyville, Illinois, more than half a billion dollars in publicly funded infrastructure renovation recently accompanied Cubs owner and 2020 Trump PAC member Todd Ricketts’s refashioning of Wrigley Field into a high-end shopping mall coincidentally containing a diamond. Thousands of white teenagers gathered in its shadow before stepping off on a miles-long parade along Clark street sidewalks, hand-lettered signage proclaiming that White Silence = Violence. They marched for six hours in 95-degree heat. But except for the couple hundred kids at the front of the quickly moving procession, no one had a bullhorn or a chant sheet. So the only shouting came from hundreds of self-appointed volunteers passing out free water, hand sanitizer, fresh fruit, sun screen. 

Ten miles south, in Fuller Park, basic necessities for enduring 2020’s first hot days are inaccessible on the wrong side of boarded-up shop windows and security vehicles barring entry to strip mall parking lots. Despite the fact that supplies must be brought from afar, an encampment of activists doing jail support outside the police station at 51st and Wentworth became a hub of mutual aid. Organizers quickly redirected an overabundance of donated food and water to the schools that had abruptly been forced to end distribution of free breakfasts and lunches vital to many Chicago Public Schools (CPS) families in recent months. Upwards of a hundred protesters waited vigilantly for police to release movement leaders and many others arrested during the previous night’s South Side demonstration. Jail supporters even faced down riot police who attempted to remove them through intimidation. 

Separating these two disparate places, the Loop hunkered down comfortably behind armored vehicles and recommissioned sanitation trucks that blocked off all traffic from the rest of the city. On only the first night of mass protests, the elite city center pulled up its mote bridges, stopped its trains, and announced a surprise curfew in order to trap up to a thousand protesters who police beat and then crammed together into notoriously COVID-contaminated jails. 

In all three zones, nonessential retail and outdoor dining still reopened on schedule. Despite how strikingly different life may look in Wrigleyville or Fuller Park, both face an ironic relaxation into Phase 3 of Illinois’s pandemic protocols almost certain to lead to a resurgence in Coronavirus cases, while nurses still do without proper gear and testing efforts, let alone treatment, fall off cliffs on the South and West sides. 

How is it possible that a Black lesbian mayor elected just a year ago on a perfunctorily progressive platform folded to the puny crowds of reopeners wielding signs with Nazi slogans but refuses to even feign compassion toward tens of thousands demanding that Black Lives Matter? 

It’s not even loosely connected to popularity. Lightfoot forecast loosening stay-at-home restrictions at a time when eight in ten people in national polls didn’t want to. And today, 54 percent of people support protests that have smashed through traditional tactics in city after city. But even Democratic mayors and governors—darlings of May for simply acknowledging that the COVID crisis is real—are serving teargas and batons. 

There is of course a slim section of society that seamlessly embraces COVID denialism and racist police repression: the rich. Chicago’s Finance, Insurance, and Real Estate (FIRE) moguls expect their downtown assets to be protected. They are secured on a daily basis by staggering inequalities extending to the north and south of the Loop, which can only be upheld with brutal policing.   

Mayors like Chicago’s Lori Lightfoot work for them. That’s why she can reopen the economy the same week that she closes down most free COVID testing. The size, location, and volume of protest actions in defense of the lives of Ahmaud Arbery, Tony McDade, Breonna Taylor, and George Floyd far outstrip even the largest of the recent right-wing gatherings. But what the right may achieve with small demonstrations the left can only accomplish through uphill and sometimes literal battle. 

The failure of Minnesota courts to convict Philando Castile’s killer underscores the certainty that only the intensification of the struggle overflowing through broken shop windows has compelled officials in Minneapolis to charge all four officers who murdered Big Floyd. The explosive escalation laid the context for Minneapolis and Portland public schools to expel police from their hallways. Los Angeles mayor Eric Garcetti asked city officials to look for some way to divert $100 million or more of the $1.8 billion police budget to Black and brown communities. Minneapolis city council is even contemplating disbanding its “irredeemably beyond reform” police department. In Chicago’s Pilsen neighborhood, rumors of Latin Kings assisting police in detaining protesters were followed by a beautiful “Black and Brown Unity” march.

The movement is racking up previously unthinkable victories. City officials cough up the promises of reform but they are not just passively responding to public pressure. They are also actively banking on collective punishment measures like taking meals away from kids, suddenly suspending public transit, and ending COVID testing to turn popular frustration against the movement. But how long can multiple demonstrations rage each day? Will the cries for justice still ring out at the end of what will  probably be long trials for Derek Chauvin and Greg McMichael?  

As tens of thousands of people take part in their first protests, they must bring the fire back with them to their workplaces, schools, and neighborhoods. The goal should not be to finally win over that one racist uncle, but to organize. We must reject the absurd but inevitable pressure to see Joe “shoot ’em in the leg” Biden as the answer and know that November is way too long to wait for reinvestment from police into the systematically starved communities already too-long ravaged by both COVID and the cops. 

No one else will heal and unite this city but the masses of people marching up and down its blockaded highways, reaching out for each other. 

Rachel Cohen organizes with Chicago Feminist Action.