When the bridges to downtown Chicago went up, public transportation was cut off, and Chicago police were deployed to wealthy areas of the city, the message to communities in the South and West sides was clear: amid protesting, looting, and expressions of rage at the state-sanctioned killing of Black people, neighborhood residents were on their own.
The social unrest in Chicago following the police murder of George Floyd originally targeted the Loop, where political and corporate power is concentrated, but was soon redirected to neighborhoods already in crisis from high rates of COVID-19 and unemployment arising from the governor’s stay-at-home order. In some areas, the pivot resulted in the creation of impromptu self-defense groups and the visible emergence—and sudden social acceptance—of long-standing Latino street gangs. Some gang members set out to protect storefronts, and some inadvertently exposed their racism as well.
The first business that was looted in the predominantly Mexican neighborhood of Little Village was a shoe store called Fresh Kickz that is regularly patronized by young people from all over the city. Early Facebook footage from Sunday, May 31, showed people running out of the store with boxes of sneakers in their arms, as passersby stood around watching or taking video. When word spread, Latin Kings from the next block showed up to flex, and as is usual in this neighborhood, the police were the last to arrive. Video footage showed CPD arresting some suspected looters, all of whom were Black, but no gang members were disciplined. That’s when online rumors began circulating that Latino gangs were working with CPD to attack Black residents.
Mexican-American gangs in the city have historical beefs with Chicago police and will vehemently deny those claims. But it is true that CPD let them perform their vigilantism; many of us saw the street confrontations go unchecked for prolonged periods of time. The adrenaline rush that gang members normally get from behaving territorially within their gang boundaries, and any underlying anti-Black racism, had them “posted up” all along Cermak, the street that borders North Lawndale, a predominantly Black neighborhood.
There were multiple reports of cars with Black passengers getting bricked, bottled, and rammed into by other vehicles whenever they passed by Little Village. In one instance, Mexican-American gangbangers pulled out Black occupants from a car on Cermak and Kedzie before they set it on fire. A social media rumor went viral claiming that a pregnant woman had been stabbed multiple times by the Latin Kings, but no incident of that nature has been reported by authorities. Online, Black people were warning one another not to go to Latino neighborhoods, and if they did, to be prepared to retaliate.
That Sunday ended up being the deadliest day for Chicago in decades, with eighteen people killed across the city, the Sun-Times reported. Similar numbers hadn’t been seen since the 1990s.
Sheniyha Washington posted a video of her family’s car windows getting smashed by men with wooden bats who were standing on Cermak. “My mother, sisters, and I were on our way home from a baby shower. We were not looting or protesting nor attacking people,” Washington wrote. “Some people claim they were protecting their community, but from what I saw, they were the ones setting cars on fire, attacking innocent people….”
An audio recording of a police scanner exposes how useless CPD was in de-escalating the street mayhem. After an alleged shooting on Cermak and Spaulding, the same intersection where Washington’s family was targeted, 10th district police received a call over the scanner that said, “There’s gangbangers versus gangbangers. They’re shooting across at each other,” to which one officer responded, “Let ‘em do it!” and another officer replied, “Let it be!”
Much of the feuding took place online and off the radar of mainstream media, which was unable to grasp the nuances of the conflict. One post that went viral and set people off in both communities was a “Mexicans vs. Blacks” flyer that invited everyone to meet up at 3:45pm fully armed. “Don’t come if you’re not putting your life on the line,” the anonymous flyer read.
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The conflict on Cermak spread to suburban Cicero after looting took place at Hawthorne Works Shopping Center on the corner of Cermak and Cicero Ave. and nearby Patron Liquor, which was livestreamed by WGN-TV. Footage on YouTube and Facebook show clashes between what appear to be Black and Mexican people, including an attack on an elderly Mexican man and the destruction of an SUV driven by Black people. Suburban resident Luz Chavez recorded complaints from bystanders who said they were targeted in Cicero simply because they were Black. Some shop owners who were neither Black nor Latino stood on the rooftop of their businesses brandishing long guns.
In Pilsen, residents who have seen gentrification displace family-owned businesses in recent years closed off 18th Street to incoming traffic with garbage cans from the alley, but denied being affiliated or working with gangbangers. A masked man said on video, “Looting [small] businesses, that’s not justice. So carry on with the fucking protests, protest hard, our heart is with you guys. But stop fucking over the little guy. Because Target, Walmart, Costco, they’re gonna make it. But guess what? Uncle José and my tio Juan, they’re not gonna make it if you destroy their business. Stand fucking strong, stand together, and nobody will fuck us over.”
But the flames were fanned on Monday when two Mexican men in Cicero, José Gutiérrez and Victor Cazarez, were shot to death “by outside agitators,” according to the Town of Cicero, who later posted the mugshot of a Black suspect on Facebook. Governor Pritzker declared a state of emergency and Illinois State Police were deployed to Cicero that night, while 10th district CPD had Little Village and North Lawndale on lockdown.
Though many aldermen vocally condemned the looting and violent prejudice in their wards, the real intervention didn’t seem to come from the city, but from the neighborhoods themselves. Community activists, violence interrupters, clergy, local leadership, and even gang-affiliated people started speaking out against racism on social media and going outdoors to de-escalate violent outbursts.
Mentors from the violence prevention program that operates out of New Life Church were outside most of the week, wearing neon vests, feeding the youth, and maintaining some line of communication with CPD. They also organized a unity BBQ at La Villita Park with Black mentors in their network.
On Tuesday morning, Robert R. Fort, the son of Jeff Fort, founder of the Almighty Black P. Stone Nation—kin of the Latin Kings—posted on Facebook: “So I just talked to one of the heads for the Latin Kings, one of the generals, they’re standing down and they’re fucking up their young guys who started all the bullshit,” he wrote.
“I talked to Angel for the Latin folks, they’re standing down as well,” he said in reference to the Gangster Disciples in North Lawndale and Gangster Two-Six in Little Village. “And thanks for the ladies who facilitated these phone calls. People sent them off telling them we were coming to loot and destroy their neighborhoods but still be careful because they got little assholes like we do running around doing stupid shit.
“So we coming together to stop the violence between our two communities. I can’t lie, I was ready for war but violence is not the way. If any of the heads want to talk to them I have the numbers. Still be careful though. Somebody’s trying to push for a race war, it’s not happening today!”
Chicago gangs have always organized themselves along race, which is unsurprising as city neighborhoods are racially segregated. However, they arrange cross-racial alliances and agreements, like the one that Fort brokered, that allow them to coexist.
By Tuesday night the streets were calm.
On Wednesday, Mayor Lightfoot visited both neighborhoods, saying the clashes might have been internal gang conflict, though she was considering the possibility of external influences. “These are young men who really have not reached maturity, and adding into that mix of youth and testosterone and weapons and maybe other things is a recipe for disaster,” she said.
Community groups organized conversations about race in North Lawndale. “I felt the call to action because I thought about my dad’s and my brothers’ safety and I grew up knowing when there was a Black and brown gang war going on, we simply could not go to the other side of the train tracks… With everything that’s going on right now I just feel like this is not the type for battle or discord that we need,” said neighborhood resident and organizer, Jazmine Stubbs.
“So I wanted to bring up a truce at a neighborhood meeting, which consisted of Pastor Phil Jackson, Pilsen Ald. Byron Sigcho-Lopez, and representatives from Little Village and Humboldt Park, so that we can focus on what’s really important and that is the movement for Black lives and issues of police brutality.”
The grassroots group ChiResists planned the first cross-neighborhood unity march. El Foro del Pueblo organized a follow-up Brown People for Black Power march in Little Village, and on Tuesday night posted, “After days of tensions and anti-black racism fueled by the Chicago Police Department, gangs from Little Village and the West Side are negotiating an understanding.”
“Latinx and Black street organizations from the west side of the Little Village neighborhood and from North Lawndale have come together in a day understanding to commit to continue working on Black and Brown unity,” the post continued. “We have confirmation similar conversations are happening in Humboldt Park, Cicero and the west side of Chicago in an effort to stop the tensions that are being fueled by the police.”
A dozen more Black Lives Matter marches from Belmont-Cragin to South Chicago, mutual aid efforts, mural projects, art campaigns, banner drops, and signs of solidarity have been organized since, as Black and brown neighborhoods lick their wounds and attempt to rebuild their communities. On Thursday, June 11, North Lawndale and Little Village residents are planning a Truce Peace March that will culminate in Douglass Park.
But the burden of finding resolution rests on Latinx people who must address their internalized racism—and ultimately, on the elected officials of a white supremacist system that, through reckless and racist policy, pits Black and brown communities against each other, cages them, and kills them.
Cordell Longstreath contributed to this story.
Jacqueline Serrato is the editor-in-chief of the South Side Weekly. She last wrote about the aldermanic response to COVID-19 in the South Side.