Five days after Chicago police shot and killed twenty-six-year-old Miguel Vega in Pilsen, his family and friends gathered to demand justice and call for the release of officers’ body camera footage from that night.
Betty, an organizer with ChiResists, told the crowd at Plaza Tenochtitlán on West 18th Street Saturday afternoon they could help the Vega family carry some of their pain. “Let’s make sure this isn’t another story that disappears in the news cycle.”
Miguel was a son, a brother, a father, and a friend. Wednesday night, the Vega family held a vigil that brought folks from all over the city together. That support inspired them to continue fighting for answers.
“I’m very angry that he had to go this way,” his younger brother Erik Vega, twenty, told the crowd. “There’s other ways you can stop someone.”
According to police, officers responded to a suspicious-person call the night of August 31 at 19th Street and South Loomis Street. Two officers were patrolling the neighborhood in an unmarked car and arrived to find five men. One of them was Miguel Vega.
Police say they were shot at when they got out of the car, and one officer returned fire, hitting Miguel in the back of the head. Miguel was transported to Stroger Hospital, where he was later pronounced dead.
Tom Ahern, Deputy Director of News Affairs and Communications at CPD, tweeted photos of the gun that was allegedly fired at police. But the Vega family says that that weapon was found more than forty feet away from Miguel’s body, making it unlikely it was his.
“The police department still has not come out and spoken with us on what actually happened that night,” Erik said. “But, the truth will come out sooner or later. The body cam videos will come out and will show that my brother did not do it.”
The family does not believe CPD’s account of the incident without corroborating footage. They also expressed disappointment with the portrayal by some media of Miguel as a gang member who shot at police.
The Civilian Office of Police Accountability (COPA) said it is currently reviewing body-cam footage, as well as third-party video.
“There have only been twelve days this year where police haven’t killed someone,” said Domincine, an organizer with Pilsen Alliance. “Black and brown people are killed in their own communities.” (Ed. note: According to the online database Mapping Police Violence, as of August 30 there had been only twelve days in 2020 in which police in the United States did not use deadly force.)
After family members spoke, people performing Aztec dances offered a cleansing and healing ritual for the family. The same group danced at Wednesday night’s vigil at Plaza Tenochtitlan.
About an hour into the event, police began to gather in large numbers across the street. Marked and unmarked police vehicles brought hundreds of officers, with others arriving on bicycle. There were also several higher ranking officers in attendance, distinguishable by their white shirts.
“We want to keep this as peaceful as possible and keep everyone safe,” Erik said before the group began their march through the community. “My family doesn’t want any more problems than we already have.”
Bike marshals and lawyers from the National Lawyers Guild formed a barrier between the group and CPD while they marched east on 18th. Police blocked most of the roads on the north side of the street preventing marchers from moving in the direction of the CPD 12th District and the Loop.
While marching, protestors switched between English and Spanish chants.
“Who keeps us safe? We keep us safe!”
“¿Qué queremos? ¡Justicia! ¿Cuándo? ¡Ahora!” (“What do we want? Justice! When? Now!”)
Tensions began to escalate at the line between police and bike marshals, but Betty was quick to bring attention back to the Vegas. “Why is everyone facing the police?” she asked. “We’re not here for the police. We’re here for the Vega family. Turn hate away from police and your love back towards the family.”
With the sun setting behind them, community members and organizers took turns on the megaphone to share space with the Vega family. Fred Hampton Jr.—whose father, Illinois Black Panther Party Chairman Fred Hampton, was assassinated by Chicago police in 1969—and 25th Ward Alderman Byron Sigcho-Lopez were among the speakers who addressed the crowd.
At around 6:45pm, organizers called for folks to pull back towards Plaza Tenochtitlan for safe dispersal. Back at the Plaza, several placed flowers and candles on the ground in a makeshift memorial for Miguel.
As folks headed out, some stayed to talk with, and offer words of encouragement to the Vega family. “I actually just got back from the military,” Erik told the Weekly. “My grandma said that I came back for a reason, maybe this was it.”
“I’ve never known someone close to me that has experienced this. It’s a first,” he continued. “I have to be strong for my parents. [Miguel] was their first son.”
Editor’s note: In an ongoing effort to balance the public’s need for information against the potential for doing harm to those struggling for justice, the Weekly chose to include only the first names of organizers from whom we did not obtain explicit permission to identify in this article.
Update, 9/8/20: An earlier version of this story inadvertently noted that an organizer was affiliated with the wrong organization. The Weekly regrets this error. At the organizer’s request, we have also changed their name to a pseudonym.
Madison Muller is a lifelong Chicagoan and graduate student at Northwestern University studying social justice journalism. You can find her photojournalism work on Instagram: @g0ingmad.