On August 15—days after announcing a new and more aggressive tactical posture toward protesters downtown—Chicago police in riot gear faced off with demonstrators who wanted to defund CPD and abolish ICE at the intersection of Michigan and Wacker.
The bells of the DuSable Bridge rang out nonstop. Raised bridges prevented the march, which had originated near the Bean in Millenium Park, from making its way farther north toward the Magnificent Mile; a line of riot police blocked the demonstration from turning east toward Lake Shore Drive.
At some point, the demonstrators assumed a defensive stance toward police, shielding themselves with umbrellas and standing behind a line of bicycles. It’s unclear what, precisely, precipitated the skirmish that followed.
Protesters and independent journalists shared videos in real time on social media that showed police grabbing umbrellas and bikes from protesters, and later on, chasing them down Michigan Ave., blocking their ability to leave (a practice commonly referred to as “kettling”) and beating demonstrators in alleys.
The following Monday, CPD released an edited video on social media that included captions describing the police’s version of the events.
In press conferences held the evening of August 15 and again on August 17, Superintendent David Brown presented the department’s view of the confrontation. Brown blamed the violence on “agitators” who “hijacked” the otherwise peaceful protest by opening umbrellas and hurling “projectiles” at officers.
While defending the police’s actions, Brown made several statements that strayed from the facts. The Weekly reviewed dozens of videos and photographs, some never before published, obtained a list of complaints made to the Civilian Office of Police Accountability about police actions during the protest, and collected eyewitness accounts from demonstrators.
In a continuing effort to balance the public’s need for information against the potential for doing harm to those struggling for justice, we chose not link to the Twitter videos we reviewed because they could be used to identify demonstrators, and in the videos we have included, we blurred protesters’ faces. We compared the evidence we collected as well as CPD’s own video to what Brown said at the two press conferences and fact-checked his statements, providing context and explanation.
“Multiple agitators hijacked this peaceful protest. This group deployed large black umbrellas, changed their appearance, and began pushing our officers and eventually assaulting them.” (8/15)
THIS IS MISLEADING. The assertion that agitators hijacked the protest assumes there was an organized, successful effort by a group of violent conspirators. The Weekly could find no evidence that was the case on August 15. Nearly a dozen protesters provided eyewitness accounts to the Weekly that flatly contradict CPD claims that demonstrators initiated the conflict. Multiple witnesses said, backed by video footage, that police began taking umbrellas and bicycles from protesters first.
What little evidence CPD provided to support their assertion—namely, surveillance video showing some protesters donning ponchos, which CPD claims the “agitators” did in order to signal one another who would lead the violence—is inconclusive at best. The Weekly obtained audio from a CPD radio scanner in which police can be heard claiming that bottles were being thrown at the same time protesters were donning gas masks and opening umbrellas. The CPD’s own video seems to contradict the timing of those claims.
One possible reason protesters may have had to open umbrellas and put on ponchos could be as makeshift protection against anticipated chemical agents from police. Another could be that it was beginning to rain.
“To protect the peaceful protesters as well as their fellow officers, our officers responded proportionately to get the situation under control.” (8/15)
THIS IS INCONCLUSIVE. To assert that officers “responded proportionately” carries with it the implication that they were provoked, or that protesters started the fight. Several witnesses independently told the Weekly that police assumed an aggressive stance from the very beginning of the confrontation, and that police attacked protesters, unprovoked. Via a Freedom of Information Act Request, we obtained a list of nine complaints related to CPD conduct at the August 15 protest, six of which were for excessive force.
Some of the earliest video evidence the Weekly was able to obtain shows police officers brandishing their batons before any confrontation occurred. It’s unclear how (or from whom) deploying OC spray would have protected peaceful protesters in the crowd. At what point the situation was “under control,” if it ever was, is also open to debate.
Watch video: Police officers pull out batons shortly before the first confrontation with protestors
“Seventeen officers were being treated for non-life-threatening injuries due to being assaulted, and maced, by skateboards, bottles, bicycles and other projectiles.” (8/15)
THIS IS PARTIALLY TRUE. Some officers did seek medical treatment for injuries. Some protesters did throw objects at police during the upheaval. Multiple protesters were injured by police, too.
Videos we reviewed show protesters standing behind their bicycles in a single line in front of the crowd before any escalation occurs. None of the videos we reviewed show protesters charging at officers with bicycles or mace, although several show police grabbing bikes and tossing them behind the police line. One eyewitness told the Weekly that police were striking cyclists’ hands to force them to let go of their bikes.
A few videos, including the one CPD released, show improvised objects (including sticks and plastic water bottles) being thrown at police after police charged into the crowd with batons.
“Number one, the crowd moved and we just tried to trail along to the point where it became confrontational, when they began assaulting our officers is when we moved the crowd and eventually it dissipated.” (8/15)
THIS IS FALSE. Officers chased demonstrators. Multiple videos the Weekly reviewed show a formation of police advancing south on Michigan Ave. toward the demonstration, first at a walk and then at a brisk jog. Five witnesses independently told the Weekly that police chased them down and attacked protesters who did not immediately disperse. The crowd “dissipated” only after police searched their bags and allowed them to leave.
Watch video: Police officers push and kick bike marshals
“A lot of officers were hit with, uh…one particular one caught on video that we’ll be releasing tomorrow is, an officer was just beat in the head with a skateboard, repeatedly.” (8/15)
THIS IS PARTIALLY TRUE. The video CPD released appears to show one protester swinging a skateboard at a helmeted officer. However, the video also shows that the confrontation appeared to have began when multiple police charged into the crowd to attack other protesters. When the officers retreated, no one followed or attempted to continue the confrontation.
“Demonstrators had mace as well.” (8/15)
THIS IS UNSUBSTANTIATED. None of the videos we reviewed, including the one CPD released, show any demonstrators using mace. None of the twenty-four arrest charges we reviewed, including the four made for “battery on a peace officer,” appear to be for use of chemical irritants, either.
“I stood shoulder-to-shoulder on the ground with the men and women in blue, witnessing the verbal abuse and dodging bottles and other street debris.” (8/17)
THIS IS MISLEADING. Brown said he “stood shoulder-to-shoulder” with other officers; multiple videos show he was positioned well behind the line of riot police, accompanied by a security detail. What he was able to witness from that vantage point is unclear. Taunts can be heard in several videos, but they most likely fall under First Amendment protected speech. The Supreme Court ruled in Houston v. Hill (1987) that verbally challenging police officers is protected speech, and in Lewis v. City of New Orleans (1974) that cursing police officers is similarly protected. In the video CPD released, plastic bottles and sticks are thrown only after police moved forward into the crowd, swinging batons.
“At some point, there was a concerted effort that I saw to agitate officers to pull them into more conflict and confrontation physically. And I saw the officers remain calm, keep the professionalism, and take only the proportional appropriate action when confronted with violence.” (8/17)
THIS IS INCONCLUSIVE. Videos do show protesters linking arms and standing nonviolently near the police line. Captions accompanying the video CPD released say a protester in a green bike helmet “initiated a scuffle” after protesters approached the police. But the same video, as well as videos filmed by reporters from other angles, show police officers snatching umbrellas and bicycles from protesters before the “scuffle” occurs. Once it begins, several police officers charge forward into the crowd, swinging their batons indiscriminately. A few protesters did throw plastic water bottles and sticks after the initial police charge, and one also appeared to swing a skateboard.
“But you can see clearly on the video the umbrellas go up. Protesters put gas masks on, they change their clothing. You see the skateboard comes up and the skateboard used as a weapon. You see the more aggressive pushing into the police officers.” (8/17)
THIS IS MISLEADING. The timeline Brown presents here is selectively muddled, and it skips over the initial confrontation between police and protesters. The crowd was standing in close proximity to the line of riot police, behind bicycles and umbrellas, when police started grabbing them. The altercation involving a skateboard happened only after police rushed into the crowd with batons—which according to CPD’s own video they did in response to a single protester in a green bike helmet.
“I haven’t heard those allegations that there was kettling going on. Again, there’s video captured. People can judge for themselves, and you’re entitled to your own opinion, but just not your own facts.” (8/17)
THIS IS MISLEADING. Multiple photographs and videos clearly show police surrounding a group of demonstrators, who are pinned against a wall on Lasalle St. Demonstrators were allowed to leave only after they consented to CPD searching their bags. Four witnesses who independently spoke to the Weekly said they were kettled by police. While Brown may not have “heard allegations” about kettling, in at least one video he can be seen standing directly behind the line of police who were corralling the group.
Watch video: Police kettle protestors
Note, Sept. 3: This story has been edited to reflect information gleaned from a FOIA request.
Update, September 3, 2020: This story has been edited to reflect information gleaned from a FOIA request for complaints filed against CPD officers since May 31.
Jim Daley is the Weekly’s politics editor and Jason Schumer is Managing Director of the Weekly.