All Power to the Looters

Eric Kerl and Rachel Cohen

Chicago police shot someone on the South Side last night. By looting downtown, protesters are addressing the root cause of police violence

Yesterday, the notoriously racist, brutal, and corrupt Chicago Police Department shot another young Black man in the city’s South Side. Community members, outraged at the city’s most violent gang, mobilized into the streets to confront the cops. Later, Chicago’s most elite retail and residential district was the target for protest and a proletarian shopping spree. As she did in response to massive protests for George Floyd months ago, mayor Lori Lightfoot ordered the Loop’s draw bridges up, shut down public transportation, and glutted the downtown with riot police to round up whoever may have been stranded there.

The sky-high rents for luxurious living on the Magnificent Mile rank just behind New York City’s Fifth Avenue and Beverly Hills’s Rodeo Drive. The Magnificent Mile is the most vulgar, audacious, display of the city’s wealth that most of us never have the opportunity to enjoy. 

While well-heeled white tourists flock to the district’s extravagant retail stores, Black Chicagoans are regularly harassed and run out of downtown by police. 

No wonder it was a target for anger and protest in a city where cops routinely brutalize people in the city’s Black neighborhoods. Indeed, the splendor of the Magnificent Mile is coated in the sweat and blood of generations of poor and working-class Chicagoans. 

Media Untruths

Local news this morning performs familiar contortions of language trying to cast the night’s resurgence of antiracist rebellion as another expression of senseless so-called violence. The Tribune and Block Club want readers to disdain looting just like our mayor condescendingly shakes her head at the recent murder of Chicago rapper FBG Duck. But this condemnation is absurdly selective. 

CBS News reports that police arrived in Englewood yesterday afternoon on reports of “a person with a gun.” On this vague basis, in a city where mere gun possession is highly scrutinized but not in itself necessarily illegal, police then cornered a twenty-year-old in an alley who they say “matched the description they were given.” For anyone who reads the local news, this phrase painfully recalls so many instances of police terror in which all young Black men resemble the criminalized figure police viscously pursue. While the young man fled for his life, police claim he also managed to fire a gun at officers. This is another frequent refrain that often is later shown to be utter police fabrication. What is clear is that multiple officers fired their weapons, critically wounding the unnamed victim they have since taken into custody at the hospital where he remains in “unknown condition.” 

Reporters and local politicians may fail to express any outrage at the obvious source of the violence in this scene, the Chicago police, but Engelwood residents gathered in the aftermath to decry the all too familiar events. Their collective protest met a flood of heavily-armed police who set about beating people and arresting two among the crowd it referred to as “very hostile.” 

Unmentioned in weeks of breathless coverage of shootings tragically claiming lives of Black Chicagoans as young as infants is the also murderous violence of systematic disinvestment that has ravaged communities like Engelwood, leaving informal networks and economies as some of the only means of survival available to many. They want us to fill in the spaces they deliberately leave blank with racist victim-blaming because sharing the opulence expropriated from poor and working Chicagoans is simply unthinkable to the police and politicians who guard it. 

The Merciless Mile

Following the Great Depression and World War II, real estate robber barons bought up property throughout the city’s Near North Side. Buoyed by new zoning laws and the aid of mayor Richard J. Daley, the moguls devised a plan for an elite shopping and entertainment district for the city’s wealthy and powerful.

But first, they needed to clear poor people from the area, where the numbers of Black families were dramatically increasing. In 1940, there were less than 5,200 Black residents living in the city’s Near North Side. Ten years later, that number more than tripled. By 1952, more than three and a half city blocks were changing from white to Black every week. Harvey Zorbaugh, an apologist for segregation from the Chicago school of sociology called these areas a “jungle of human wreckage.” He wrote in his book The Gold Coast and the Slum:

Into the slum there drift, for similar reasons, a larger number of men and women derelicts, users of opium, drunkards, the “queer,” criminals and outcasts, men and women of unstable or problematical character who want to get away from their own communities to a place where they will not be known, or who are forced out and down into the slum by failure or unwillingness to adjust themselves elsewhere.[1]

Eventually, the Illinois State Housing Board approved their plan and made the first purchase of land in the summer of 1958. In the following years, the Chicago Land Clearance Commission spent millions of local and federal dollars to rid the area of the poor families who called it home. The so-called urban renewal project was an apocalyptic disaster for nearly one thousand families forced out of the neighborhood. 

The scheme was a windfall for the city’s real estate developers, architectural magnates, and business tycoons. And, over the next decade, Arthur Rubloff and other real estate developers acquired more land at cut-rate prices, financed by the city and federal governments. More people were forced out of their homes. 

Today, many of these buildings boast private armies to protect their fortresses. In their shadows segregated communities starved of resources for containing the COVID disaster send workers to jobs stocking and cleaning and serving that are essential to Macy’s and Block 37’s bottom lines. 

Mayor Lightfoot promises to heap more repression on Black Chicagoans who once called the Magnificent Mile home. When she claims “this was an assault on our city,” her words directly invert reality. In the light of the full picture the local elite work to obscure, the only thing surprising about the rising rebellion is that it has been such a long time coming.   

[1] Harvey Warren Zorbaugh, The Gold Coast and the Slum: A Sociological Study of Chicago’s Near North Side (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1976), 132.

Eric Kerl is a Kentuckian living, working, organizing, and writing in Chicago. He is the author of White Bred: Hillbillies, White Trash, and Rednecks against White Supremacy, forthcoming from Haymarket Books. He is a a member of the Rampant editorial collective.

Rachel Cohen is a member of the Rampant editorial collective.