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National Day of Protest in Chicago: A Diary

Anjuli Smith and Basil Soper
Jun 18, 2020 - 12:00

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The following article is a first-hand account of two people who attended the Chicago Black Lives Matter protest on May 30.

Anjuli Smith,  May 30, 12:00 p.m: 

My friend Basil and I had been texting feverishly the days after the police murdered George Floyd on film. His death was a clear state of emergency and we needed to make a change now. Thousands of people were expected to take the streets of Downtown Chicago to protest the public lynchings of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbury, Tony McDade, Nina Pop and many more black bodies taken from this world by the hands of police. 

That morning, my friends and I gathered supplies and resources. I couldn’t help but notice the collective energy around this march and how different it’s felt, and I hadn’t even gotten into the streets yet. Little acts of support were already happening for us. Prior to getting on the subway, a CTA worker showed us solidarity by walking out of the platform just as we were about to board; signaling to hop the turnstiles because we were searching for money to buy day passes. None of us have ridden the train in months due to the pandemic and because of COVID-19, we’ve been pretty broke too. As we began commuting downtown, folks rode together in silence and solidarity. I don’t believe anyone knew what to expect and I don’t think anyone thought our lives were going to be in danger by standing up for such a clear and understandable issue. 

I thought about how as Americans, particularly Black Americans, we have lost all confidence in anything changing for us in terms of social justice. I feel like we have nothing left to lose but our chains and I was prepared to give everything I had that day.

Anjuli, 2:10 p.m: 

When we arrived in downtown Chicago, joining the masses holding our signs up high and chanting with others, the protest had an undeniable energy. It was stunning. However, the police quickly used their tactics to herd us, and separate the protesters. When the separation started, we lost our friend Basil.

Black Lives Matter protestors in Chicago on May 30, 2020 (Photo: Basil Soper).

Basil Soper, 3:00 p.m: 

I found myself estranged from my friends quite quickly. We tried to get in touch with one another, but things were so cramped it just wasn’t happening. They were two miles away from me at this point. 

I felt lost at sea, but I thought I’d take this opportunity to float around and stay around the Federal Building, where the march had started, and capture footage before the storm. I was just taking it all in too. I was in awe of how extremely diverse the marchers were, how loud everything was and how comforting it felt to be in the chaos. It made me wonder if capitalism, living in a police state, and being weighed down by bureaucracy my whole life, especially as a trans guy who grew up in poverty and having my body controlled by the state was the real chaos. I can’t even begin to imagine what it was like to grow up Black. Mutual aid and having our voices heard on an issue that so many different people feel so strongly about felt more soothing than anything I’ve experienced in the past 6 months.

Basil, 3:30 p.m: 

The energy of the event really began to shift around 3 p.m. Things still felt great and I was happy to be there, but I did start seeing aggressive tactics being used by the police. 

On May 29, 2020 the mayor of Chicago issued a statement that police weren’t to use force on protestors. The first major violent act of the day happened around 3:30p.m. A group tried to cross the police line and an officer grabbed a Black woman and took her to the ground. At that exact moment, I noticed a cell phone on the ground and I scooped it up. I stuck it in my back pocket and ran behind police lines to capture the police brutality which was on full display. It seemed that an officer was injured in the incident as well as a Black man who was put into a chokehold, not with the knee, and detained. 

I felt the phone I found buzzing so I answered and I told the girl on the phone where to meet me and I’d return the phone. This was a really striking moment for me. The girl who lost her phone and her friend who called me couldn’t have been more than 20 years old. While they were thankful I protected her phone, I saw a tremendous look of fear in their eyes when we met. I know that look. It was the look of fresh trauma. It was at this moment that I realized we weren’t safe and it was the first and last time I felt any fear that day. Shortly after this incident, I wandered over to a crowd of folks near a Target and mace was used on all of them. I got a very minimal amount in my eye.

Anjuli, 4:15 p.m:

Our group finally met up with Basil near a Target downtown after spending some time at the Trump Tower protesting. He was covered in water from a somewhat close call with mace. He looked exhausted and paler than usual. His girlfriend was taking the train downtown to the protest and that’s when we learned all trains coming into downtown had been shut down. 

Basil, 4:30 p.m:

The group took a quick snack break before heading back towards the direction of the Trump Tower. After learning about the train shutdown, we planned to walk and meet my girlfriend. On our walk over, we realized the bridges had been lifted so people couldn’t drive in or out of downtown either. I overheard someone say that the mayor had also issued a curfew and if we were found outside during it, we’d be arrested. I felt like we had walked into a trap. We couldn’t leave even if we wanted to. I didn’t fully comprehend why this was happening but did see that it was obviously strategic. 

Anjuli, 4:50 p.m:

It only took a few hours before tensions started to arise with the Chicago Police Department (CPD). What started as a peaceful march rapidly transformed into what felt like an extremely personal fight for survival. 

I met numerous police officers without badges and their name tags removed, smirking and laughing while swinging their batons at me. When we were protesting at the bridge, officers were rushing crowds in riot gear and breaking human chains made by the people. They were grabbing people by the hair from behind. It seemed as if these moments of intensity came and went so unexpectedly too. One minute, I’m linking arms with fellow protesters and the next minute, I am being beaten with batons and shoved to the ground with extreme force. Basil left us at the main bridge as we tried to hold a line for about 30 more minutes. He planned to bring his partner back to us after getting her.

Protestors stuck on the Wabash Avenue Bridge outside of Trump Tower on May 30, 2020. (Photo: Basil Soper).

Basil, 5:20 p.m:

When I got close to my girlfriend’s location, I had to cross a footbridge to get to the other side of Michigan Avenue and I had no idea what I was getting myself into. I was just using the bridge in order to find my partner but as soon as I approached the situation, the cops started shoving us without any warning. They pushed us off the bridge one by one. 

When I got down from the bridge, I ran a block and watched the scene. There was a physical scuffle with two protestors and a cop happening in front of me as I called my girlfriend to find out how to get to her. When we reunited, she brought her friend she had made the train. We fell in line with a group of folks who were being led by organizers almost immediately. On the walk over to the water tower, we began to see smoke in the city. During this time, I also learned that the officers were given authorization to use rubber bullets and tear gas on people. After we made it to the water tower, a few organizers spoke, and we chanted. We then began to walk over to the Marina Towers.

Basil, 6:30 p.m: 

At the Marina Towers, we met a strong line of cops. Organizers asked them to let us through. We chanted at the officers asking them to let us through for about twenty minutes. I remember looking up at all the towers and seeing white rich folks hanging American flags from their windows. 

The organizers decided that we should turn around and keep marching elsewhere since the cops wouldn’t budge. I had a  feeling this wasn’t going to go well so my girlfriend, her friend, and I stayed with the line of cops. I was walking maybe 3 inches in front of four officers when the cops started using physical force on us with our backs turned to them. They kept nudging us and screaming, “Move!, Move!” We were moving. We left on our own fruition. More than half of our group had already left the scene. I heard a guy fall down behind me and I stood my ground with my partner and friend, saying that we wouldn’t move until he was able to get up. The cops kept pushing us and hitting us anyway. As the man stood up, the cops started shoving this group of white teenage girls to the ground. Another cop took some guys bike and when he tried to get it back and the man was struck by the officer’s baton. 

Out of the corner of my eye, I saw a group of folks make a chain in front of the cops. I could hear my girlfriend yelling at the police to stop hurting these girls while I ran over to this human chain, which was now a chaotic fight. I was hit in the ribs by an officer as soon as I got over there. I looked at him dead in the eye and said, “What the fuck are you doing? We were leaving! You did this!” For a moment, he lost his footing. Meaning, he looked like a human again and not a violent zombie. Then he snapped out of it and ran at me. I turned my back to run and a younger Black girl stopped me and turned me around to get back into the fight. The officer who lunged toward me was now fighting with someone else. I went to pull an officer and a Black woman apart and another officer came from behind me and started beating my arms and ribs with his baton. The next thing I knew, a young girl had been thrown to the ground and was getting trampled. When she was lifted up by fellow protesters, we all ran straight into a line of speeding police cars who were shooting mace. 

Anjuli, 7:00 p.m: 

As we settled into dusk, many groups of people took to various areas of Downtown Chicago. It seemed as if every protestor was fighting to protect others and themselves. CPD did not ease up on their use of extreme force in the five hours we’d been there. Basil and his girlfriend contacted us to let us know what he had experienced and said he was going to try to go home before it was too late. 

It only got worse and we were stuck there. These officers were out for blood, no lie. Around this time, buildings began to shatter and flames ensued. I honestly felt like at that point, property destruction was the most non-violent way to express our anger. The history of America has proven this, but to the police and the government officials, broken glass is more important than human lives. It never had to get to that point. If we had been allowed to march peacefully and given the space to make demands, I don’t think people would’ve burned things down if they had.

Protestors hold signs during the Black Lives Matter protest in Chicago on May 30, 2020, (Photo: Basil Soper).

Anjuli, 8:30 p.m: 

As the streets of my city became liberated and the sun had fallen, our affinity group began to plan how we would get home safely. We didn’t want to be subject to getting arrested, but we were on foot at this point. CPD was patrolling the streets and the State Police and Special SWAT units had joined them as we closed in on curfew. I believe the National Guard was called in at this time too. We found shelter in an awning outside of a restaurant, which gave us five minutes to catch our breath, drink water and eat a snack. We were exhausted and actively being hunted. I will never forget that brief moment, crouching under tarp, unseen, as it was one of the few moments I felt safe the entire day. The police have never been non-violent, but ever since the protests began, it has been made clear that police view the people fighting to survive, as direct enemies. 

Basil, Night of May 30, 2020:

When I got home, I was drained. I was downright traumatized from the day. I reached out to my friends downtown and told them I’d try to come get them if they couldn’t get home. I also sent them a message about a school in that area that was housing protestors if they needed it. When I went to bed that night, all that I could see scrolling before my eyes were images of people being beaten by the police. I heard the chants, screams, sirens, and car horns until I finally fell asleep when I learned Anjuli and our group made it home.

Anjuli, June 3, 2020: 

It’s been hard to recall all of the details of the first action on May 30. My friends and I have continued to take action in the form of protest and jail support. We haven’t been sleeping much and I have shed a fair amount of tears. 

Since so much is going on, everything has kind of blurred together. As all 50 states in America join together in solidarity, chanting, walking for miles, being sprayed with tear gas and hit with rubber bullets, the media has decided to focus on one thing: looting. White people are attempting to take control of the protests, without ever have gone to one. They believe that this isn’t about George Floyd anymore and have made a swath of anarchists as the main character in this story. In some ways, they are right, but also incredibly wrong. It’s about much more than George Floyd now, but it’s definitely not about looting. They are trying to take control of this narrative because they are scared. 

Destruction of property is the loudest way to get the government to hear our struggles if they aren’t going to change an issue we’ve been working towards changing peacefully for years. Police brutality must end now. Our acts, even the looting, are non-violent. No humans get harmed in the liberation of a closed Target or Starbucks, and we as the people of this country need to burn the system down in order to build it back up again if they aren’t going to cooperate. The amount of funding being sent to police departments all over the country greatly surpasses the amount of money needed to repair these damages and n each business has insurance. It hurts me deep inside my core as a Black woman to see just how many people view black lives as less important than merchandise. The way the media is framing these powerful and historic global protests are furthermore enticing the hate and lack of security for our people. 

The amount of Black people that have been murdered by the police in 2019 alone is foreboding. These careless and hateful actions by the police will continue to happen if we don’t continue to take a stand against police brutality. I realize now that the march for George Floyd on May 30th was just the beginning of this extremely long battle. We are fighting for accountability, justice, f police defunding, fighting against fascism and fighting for our ancestors. Until that happens, we will never stop fighting for our freedom. 

Protestors hold signs during the Black Lives Matter protest on May 30, 2020 in Chicago (Photo: Basil Soper).

—————————————————————————————————————————

At the end of each story about the Black Lives Matter protests occurring around the country, we will share the following information on how best to protect yourself: 

Protecting Yourself From Tear Gas

  • Before being exposed: Do not wear contact lenses or makeup. This could trap the tear gas on your skin and eyes. Try to wear protective goggles if possible. Remember to wear a mask, which you should already be wearing to protect yourself and others from COVID-19. Wear long sleeves and long pants to protect as much of your skin as possible. 
  • If exposed: Get yourself out of the area immediately. The CDC recommends seeking higher ground as most Riot Control Agents (RCAs) are heavier than air. 
  • Clothing: The RCAs will have contaminated your clothing, be sure to remove the clothes as soon as possible and discard. Clothing that needs to be removed over the head should be cut instead. The CDC recommends wearing rubber gloves and putting the contaminated clothes in a bag and then seal that bag in another bag. 
  • Exposed Skin: The International News Safety Institute recommends washing with soap and water. First, shower in cold water and then in warm water. Do not bathe. Wash your face as soon as you can, but do not rub the skin as you don’t want to activate the powder in tear gas. Do not rinse your eyes and face with milk, instead use water. 

Protecting Yourself: Technology Edition

  • Smartphone: Smartphones can easily give out information that police can later use against protesters. Turn off your location data and remove facial and fingerprint recognition. If you need to communicate with friends or family, be sure to download and use the Signal app, which encrypts messages. WIRED recommends Android users head to Settings, then Security and make sure the Encrypt Disk option is selected. 
  • Social Media: Do not post photos or videos with geotags and consider blurring the faces of protesters when sharing information on social media. 
  • Police Conduct App: The ACLU has created the Mobile Justice app to record police conduct. You can learn more about the app here.

Other Tips

  • Identifying Clothing or Tattoos: It is highly recommended you wear clothing that is not easily identifiable. Be sure to cover any tattoos that can be used by law enforcement to identify you. 

In Case You’re Arrested: Write the number down of a lawyer, organization or friend/family member that you can call if you’re arrested on your skin. Be sure to have a form of ID in your pocket.

About the Authors:

Basil Soper is a man of transgender experience, multi-genre writer, photographer, and activist. His work has been published in numerous publications such as Harper’s Bazaar, INTO, The Huffington Post, and The Advocate Magazine. He is the founder and Executive Director at Transilient. His documentary work with Transilient, which aims to change the narrative about trans people created by the media, has been featured in BuzzFeed, Bustle, Refinery 29 and more. It has reached a large audience in hopes of letting people know that trans folks are #MoreThanTrans. He received a BA in Creative Writing from The New School and is a Davis-Putter scholar, winner of a Prized Solutions: NYC award. Basil is currently an MA candidate at New York University.

Anjuli Smith is a 27-year-old black woman from Northern California, living in Chicago. She is an activist, book worm and cat mama. With a BFA in English Literature at CSU East Bay, she spends her free time reading black leftist literature and helping to dismantle racism and educate those around her. 

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