On July 17, 2020, following a rally in Grant Park—the site of horrific police violence during the Democratic National Convention of 1968—demonstrators outwitted and outfought police officers, winning an opportunity to try to topple a hated statue of Christopher Columbus. In the following accounts, participants explore the tactics and strategies of the demonstrators and the lessons they learned in the process.
“That’s not peaceful protest. That’s anarchy—and we are going to put that down.”
-Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot, threatening the demonstrators of July 17 for employing a small amount of the force that Chicago police employ daily with impunity. She went on to brag about Chicago’s “long history of peaceful protest,” urging people to “follow that tradition and try to build bridges with others.”
If you’re curious why people would want to tear down statues of Christopher Columbus, start here. For an account of the toppling of a Confederate monument ahead of the current wave of statue topplings, read this.
Aerial footage of the first half of the demonstration. Police have eagerly distributed recordings from the first part of the events, but appear to have suppressed footage of the ensuing police brutality.
The Battle of Grant Park
On Friday, July 17, hundreds of demonstrators clashed with police in the course of attempting to topple the Christopher Columbus Monument in Grant Park in downtown Chicago. The battle of Grant Park was one of the most confrontational and effective projectile assaults on the Chicago Police Department in decades.
At 5 pm on Friday, a Black and Indigenous solidarity rally gathered at Buckingham Fountain in Grant Park. In the course of an Indigenous ritual, rap performances, and impassioned speeches calling for defunding and abolishing the police and decolonizing Zhigaagoong, the crowd grew to at least a thousand. When the rally concluded, around 7 pm, people took the streets. The crowd assembled into march formation on Columbus Avenue and began to march toward the Christopher Columbus statue a few blocks south of the fountain. The march itself was unannounced, but the crowd immediately embraced it, while it appeared to come as a surprise to the few officers present.
Headed largely by Black, Brown, and Indigenous youth, the march was supported by a thunderous mobile sound system and surrounded by a series of large banners reinforced with PVC pipes. Behind the banners and intermingled throughout the crowd, about 40 people unfurled their umbrellas. The march was joyous, raucous, and well organized.
When the march approached the statue of Columbus, about 35 bike cops surrounded the monument. This was not surprising, as the controversial colonial figure has been a recurring target for demonstrators throughout the summer. Both of the Columbus statues in Chicago have been repeatedly vandalized since the uprising in Minneapolis at the end of May. In response, Mayor Lori Lightfoot ordered city workers to wrap the statue in white plastic, causing the already egregious symbol to resemble a klansman.
The marchers seemed prepared for the police presence. Rather than approaching the statue from the street, the crowd veered left off of the road and back into Grant Park, stopping at a lightly wooded hilly area directly adjacent to the Columbus statue. Here, about 150 yards north of the monument, the banner holders rearranged themselves into a “U” formation; along with the mass of umbrella wielders, they surrounded a portion of the marchers, shielding them from view. When the march started moving again, two minutes later, a sixty-person black bloc had formed in broad daylight in the middle of the largest city in the Midwest.
The march headed to the statue, the newly formed black bloc shielded by banners and umbrellas.
As the bloc reached the statue and the crowd surrounded it, a confrontation ensued. Police grabbed at the banners, successfully stealing or breaking several of them; one officer used a piece of a broken banner to attempt to beat demonstrators. They pepper-sprayed people and hit them with batons. In response, from behind the umbrellas, hundreds of cans of La Croix sparkling water began raining down on the police, striking some in the face.
All sorts of people were grabbing La Croix cans left and right. A solitary critic yelled out, “This is not the way,” but he seemed isolated in his perception of the situation. Everyone else appeared to understand that this moment was about working together toward the common goal of taking down the statue. In the prevailing mood, no one attempted to distinguish between “good” and “bad” protestors. It was as if everyone in attendance agreed that peace police are simply—police.
The barrage of La Croix cans overwhelmed the police. When fireworks began to land among the officers alongside the La Croix cans, the police surrendered the statue and the crowd overran the platform. People ripped the plastic wrap off the statue and threw up tags including”BLM,” “ACAB,” “FTP,” and “La Croix the cops.” Others continued to push the police further away from the statue. Those who were able to used their bikes as shields for themselves and others. Some held the ground by putting their bodies on the line in spite of unrelenting police violence.
Meanwhile, on the statue platform, several attempts were made to secure a climbing rope around the statue’s outstretched arm. Once these had proved inadequate, a brave comrade emerged from the crowd and free-climbed the statue, clenching the rope between their teeth. They ascended the colonialist idol and secured the ropes around its arm. The remaining banner assumed its fourth role of the day when friends stretched it out horizontally beneath the climber in case they fell. Upon descending, the climber trust-fell the last few feet into the safety net offered by the adoring banner-holders. The ropes now attached to the statue were spread out and two teams formed to pull on them. While this was unfolding, people pushed the police out of the area multiple times so that others could focus on pulling the ropes.
The crowd secured the area for a considerable amount of time while people repeatedly attempted to topple the statue. During this time, demonstrators sustained multiple injuries as police continued to employ pepper spray and brutal force. The cops targeted people with bicycles, stealing over 100 of them from the crowd. One young organizer, who had spoken at the rally earlier, was filming the police beating a demonstrator when police attacked her and knocked out her front teeth. Conflicting reports have circulated regarding how many cops were hurt; supposedly, 45 were injured and 18 went to the hospital, though we don’t know how many of those were offensive injuries incurred as a consequence of attempting to injure others.
When police backup arrived, they managed to recapture the area with the reinforcements and massive amounts of pepper spray—causing everyone in the crowd to cough and choke. Having sustained a number of injuries and realizing that they’d done all they could, the crowd linked arms and withdrew to Buckingham Fountain, where they regrouped and safely dispersed. According to reports, twelve demonstrators were arrested. All of them were released on Saturday.
Despite having failed to bring down the statue, the crowd demonstrated that they have learned a number of lessons in the course of this movement. They moved together in a way that allowed for various elements to act with trust in the people around them, trust in the moment, and trust in the justice of their actions. At the end of the evening, the statue was still standing, but the resolve that initially animated the group remained palpable. They needed stronger ropes, better climbing gear, perhaps more explicit invitations to help pull the ropes. But most importantly, they had made it clear that if people come prepared and remain determined, they can face down the Chicago Police Department.
Decolonize Zhigaagoong: An Outsider’s Inside Perspective
A truly effective protest is one that disrupts, disturbs, or damages the status quo. Those are the sort of actions that get a response in the form of concessions from the state, reforms. Although this is not a universal law—there may be outliers—it is a broadly applicable theory.
Chicago, Illinois has a long history of truly effective protest. Recently, however, there have mostly been less-than-effective demonstrations. Peaceful, in-line, working with the state as opposed to against it; neither disturbing nor disrupting nor damaging. The George Floyd flame roared here, too, but for the most part, the police seemed to have control over the flow and direction of the “effective” actions.1 Although organizers prepared routes, marshals, chants, speakers, performers, and so on, the police ultimately directed traffic and both led and followed the demonstrations. At one point, during one march, people attempted to march onto the highway. The demonstration involved many hundreds of people, whereas there were less than a dozen police officers. But the officers said no, so the march continued past the highway. Another march, around city hall, was led by an officer beckoning the demonstrators.
These demonstrations do not feel like actions against the state, they feel like a ride at an amusement park. A slow one.
Decolonize Zhigaagoong was the first demonstration of the year in Chicago, at least that I have seen personally, that was not only well-organized but also unexpected. It could have accomplished something significant, if not for one small oversight.
The evening started around five in the afternoon with a loose gathering of people. Some were selling merchandise; a rabbi whom I have seen previously, involved with organizers or organizing himself, was speaking to news cameras. People were milling around near the Buckingham fountain. It was a beautiful day, if a bit hot, but sunny and with little clouds speckled in the blue background of the Chicago skyline. A performance from Native Americans started and the whole crowd participated in minor ways. The crowd was growing; I would guess a few thousand.
Then speakers took the stand, two of whom I recognized from previous BLM and affiliated organizations’ demonstrations, one of which I know is a leader of BLM Chi. The crowd continued to grow throughout another musical performance followed by a final speaker.
Now they call for the banners to move to the front. The banners are large, maybe five feet tall and very wide; there are a few different formats, but the largest two are made of PVC pipe with a tarp stretched across it and taped to the rectangular pipe frame. The others are less sturdy and large, but all the same they dominate one’s vision. The march begins with the banners in the front. Directly behind the banners, demonstrators are walking with umbrellas. This is not occurring anywhere else in the march. People point out a few drones in the sky and diminish their range of vision with umbrella cover. There are several umbrellas to go around, as spares have been brought.
The march reaches Grant Park and abruptly turns into it. Just past a dip in the land is the Columbus statue, wrapped in plastic to protect it. The banners list off to one side, taking a group of marchers with them, and another banner appears, covering the back of the group. Inside this space, people are changing into black clothes, trading off holding banners and umbrellas as they do. Three to four dozen people emerge in black bloc dress code. They march past a line of the other demonstrators.
The banners are at the front; people bring umbrellas into position around them. This creates a sort of phalanx that is initially very effective. The bloc moves towards the statue and the limited number of officers there—maybe twenty. People launch soda cans, full water bottles, fireworks, and other small items at the officers from behind the phalanx. The officers, unsure of what to do and not presenting a front, grab at the umbrellas and spray past them before withdrawing from the statue to wait for backup. Immediately, people begin stripping the plastic covering from the statue while other demonstrators establish a perimeter. People around the statue realize that they cannot strip all of the plastic from the statue, or else do not know how to. They cover it again and some begin pulling out rope.
This is the first oversight. Up until now, the operation has been beautiful. The perimeter is well-established. Peaceful demonstrators stand in deep lines between the bloc and police. From the view on the far west side of the street across from the statue, there almost seems to be more riot cops than protestors. From the statue, the opposite seems true. The officers are abusing the peaceful demonstrators but aren’t making a concentrated effort to push through them. They’re using pepper spray, but not tear gas or rubber bullets.
Unfortunately, the rope is far too thin, made of a material that stretches too easily when pulled. If properly placed and properly pulled, it might still suffice to topple the statue. One person tries over half a dozen times to throw it over the statue; then a young person from outside the bloc comes and climbs the statue, gripping the plastic covering, in order to loop the rope around the extended arm of Columbus. The arm is near the top of the statue, extending above the edge of the base. There is only one rope in place.
Police, sick of trying to wade through the peaceful protesters, maneuver around the south side of the statue. Bloc’ers and peaceful protesters follow them, holding a line. The officers do not meet the line; some people hurl cans of soda and water bottles and pieces of the pipes from the frames of the banners. The officers try to run around to the east side, but the line follows their movement again; frustrated, they begin beating people at random.
One officer strikes a young man in the head, opening a broad gash. Blood is pouring down his face in multiple rivulets, dripping onto the young woman who is trying to pull him behind the line. People are still holding a tight formation, protecting the ropes from the officers’ advance. The officers, in their frustration, overextend themselves. A group of them is suddenly surrounded by a line of protesters. Cans and bottles are thrown; the officers strike back and are beaten with pipes and signs. They are left an opening, away from the statue.
People return to pulling on the rope, the two sides pulling in unison. A person with a black flag suggests that the people pulling ought to alternate and pull from opposite sides—the two lines are almost parallel, twenty yards apart or less—but none of the organizers hear him. As the officers regroup, some people plan to wrap the statue with the rope to create further leverage, but it’s too late. The officers have assembled and, as the bloc starts wrapping, they move forward. There is a veritable cloud of pepper spray; the buffer of peaceful protesters crumbles. Even from thirty or more yards away, it reaches the eyes and throat. Seeing the buffer of peaceful protesters melt away, the people around the statue drop the ropes and retreat.
The officers reclaim the statue and, beating and spraying, force the demonstrators back down the hill—coughing, gagging, and shouting, some bleeding. They gather again and march back to the fountain to disperse. Some of them change into different clothing on the way.
With proper equipment and organization, the statue would have been face-down on the pavement in short order. Unfortunately, it still stands.
Although the action was unsuccessful, that doesn’t mean it accomplished nothing. The Chicago activist community showed that they will not accept their city’s brazen disregard for human life, human dignity, and human rights—that they are both willing to fight for what is right and capable of it, too. Every success is preceded by failure, and every failure is a lesson.
Chicago learned several lessons at Grant Park that evening. They learned a lesson about their own power, their own agency. They learned a lesson about the vulnerability of the state. They learned a lesson about planning and organizing. They learned a lesson about failure—that the smallest omission in the best-laid plans can spoil them.
Chicago is learning, not quitting.
See a forthcoming perspective on “The Loop Riot” (2020). ↩