The new age of protesting: Protesters aim for impact by disrupting profit centers

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Protesters call for Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s resignation Dec. 9. (Kirsten Onsgard / The DePaulia)

Marching on Michigan Avenue during Black Friday, blocking traffic at major downtown intersections and disrupting restaurants in Lincoln Park and Wicker Park are just some of the tactics being used by protesters trying to draw attention to police brutality and socioeconomic issues in South Side areas of Chicago.

Following the release of a video in November that showed a Chicago Police officer shooting Laquand McDonald 16 times, protests have broken out across the city. While the protests have remained peaceful, many of their tactics have been brought into question.

But Valerie Johnson, chair of the political science department who has been active in the protests, said there’s reasoning behind these tactics.

“They recognize that in order to really impact the powers that be they’ve got to influence white liberals and white progressives, or be such a nuisance that they will be influential to white people who are pretty wealthy,” she said.

Elijah Obasanya, president of DePaul’s MOVE (Men of Vision and Empowerment) organization, said the rationale behind the protests on Black Friday and marching on high-profit areas like the Magnificent Mile is to attack financial assets of major companies in the city.

“If you’re expecting millions of dollars to come into your store and it didn’t, you’re going to be questioning it,” he said. “It’s to wake people up on topics like police brutality and racial inequality. It forces the owners of the companies to take responsibilities as well.”

Johnson said disrupting profit centers in the city is important for getting the attention of elected officials. 

Michelle Dodson, Associate Pastor of New Community Covenant Church, (lower right) leads demonstrators in a prayer of lament Dec. 1. (Geoff Stellfox / The DePaulia)

“The last thing Rahm (Emanuel) wants anyone to think is that there’s going to be disruption of money or interest,” she said.

The protests have been primarily located in the Loop area and Chicago’s North Side, rather than the South and West sides where the majority of violent crimes in the city take place.

“The fact that some people feel afraid of the police and do not see the police as a force that serves and protects them, but rather one that often harms and injuries them is not a South Side issue­­ — it is an issue for the whole society,” said Roberta Garner, associate chair of the sociology department at DePaul.

Destiny Murray, a DePaul graduate student who participated in the protests immediately following the release of the Laquan McDonald tape, said the location all comes down to money.

“They choose to go to the North Side because people tend to have more money up there — money is power,” Murray said. “Protesting in the black community would definitely be helpful but only to an extent. By going up north, they’re taking it to the next level.”

Obasanya said he believes it all comes down to bringing awareness to the protestors message.

“A lot of people on the South and West sides already understand there’s a reasoning behind what’s happening,” he said. “Usually those who are in the downtown Loop might not know or deal with it as much. The people on the South and West Side already are knowledgeable at this point.”

Johnson said the complexity of the issue contributes to a lack of knowledge and understanding.

“The issue is not salient,” she said. “Even though we’ve been hearing about it, it’s not like the civil rights movement where anybody could see, ‘oh, here are black people, they can’t vote like other citizens.’ That’s kind of clear-cut.”

The difference lies in the perspective of the individual, Johnson said.

“If you are convinced the system works – the police are just, the police have got a hard job to do – then maybe you could excuse a couple killings,” she said. “I think that’s why Emanuel participated in failing to disclose McDonald’s shooting video because I don’t think people view it from the perspective of the people in these communities.”

Johnson describd these issues as “systemic,” including underfunded schools, dilapidated housing, access to healthcare and poverty.

“If that were not the sentiment, every citizen of Chicago would be out there because they would be so enraged,” she said. “They’re so anesthetized to the issues involved here, they don’t understand that this is pervasive so much that even me, as a university professor, as a chair of my department, as a person who is ‘right other kind of black person,’ the more acceptable version…even me, I’m damn afraid. When I ride down the street and I see a cop, in the last year or so, I get uptight.”

Garner, who has written two books on political and social movements, said there are some things that can be learned from past protests.

“Look at what happened to Occupy Wall Street – it should have produced long-term and effective organizations to work for greater income equality and to rein in abuses in the financial sector, but did that happen?” she said. “Building organizations is hard work and a long-term commitment.”

Garner said changing something with such deep-seated systemic issues is going to be even more difficult.

“It can include street protests and hashtags, but that will not be sufficient enough to bring about the structural reforms that are needed – not only changes in policing but better employment, education, healthcare and so on,” she said.

Garner said sometimes disruptive tactics can be useful to rallying supporters for the cause, but protestors have to be careful with pushing boundaries.

“Of course, others are turned off by the tactics, so the movement organizers have to weigh the costs and the benefits,” she said. “If the disruptions go on too long, they probably become counter-productive, and it might be time to move on to other tactics such as coalition building, mobilizing votes and so on.”

Johnson said she believes it’s a balancing act between drawing attention and not inciting a riot.

“The dilemma and the challenge sometimes is to not be too incendiary because, you may have to be incendiary, your cause may be just and all of that, but if you are incendiary, it turns people off,” she said.

Murray said the environment is incredibly high-energy at these protests.

“The environment is one of those environments where you can just feel the rage and the animosity, and you’re around people who are definitely passionate about making a change,” she said. “Once you’re there, you know it’s a serious issue.”

Obasanya said the fault falls on the previous generations who normalized the mistreatment of African-Americans following the Civil Rights Movement.

“The previous generation subsided a little bit in tackling these issues and it has negatively affected us,” he said. “I think if we want to create the future we want to create and we want to live in, it’s necessary that we work against a lot of what’s happening right now.”