By Patrick M. O'Connell, Jeremy Gorner and Megan Crepeau
The showdown between police and the organizers of a march against gun violence culminated Saturday in the shadow of the 76th Street overpass on the Dan Ryan Expressway.
For weeks, the Rev. Michael Pfleger said his intention was to shut down the busy South Side expressway for a demonstration designed to focus a spotlight on crime, joblessness and poverty plaguing city neighborhoods. Chicago police urged him to use a neighborhood street instead of the interstate. Illinois State Police threatened arrests.
The Saturday morning march kicked off with a compromise: demonstrators in half the northbound lanes, traffic in the others, separated by a barrier of highway trucks, emergency vehicles and uniformed officers.
But with semi-trucks crawling past the few thousand protesters crowded onto the expressway, Pfleger, the march's chief organizer, and the Rev. Jesse Jackson stopped and reiterated their desire to fill all northbound lanes with chanting, drumming demonstrators. The priest from St. Sabina Catholic Church spoke with commanders at the scene, including Chicago police Superintendent Eddie Johnson.
After about an hour, with protesters pressing toward the police line and traffic squeezing by in single file, officers agreed to close off the remainder of the lanes.
Pfleger, Jackson and Johnson then marched together, shoulder to shoulder, underneath a large cross reading, "Stop shooting."
The stream of protesters marched north toward the city's skyline until 67th Street, where they were funneled off the Dan Ryan. The full blockade lasted about an hour, with northbound traffic at a standstill and southbound travelers gawking at the scene throughout the morning. Authorities reported no arrests.
"We came out here to do one thing: to shut it down," Pfleger said. "We came here to get their attention. Hopefully we got their attention. ... Today was the attention-getter, but now comes the action."
The spirited march jammed traffic in the area for hours and ignited a war of words between Gov. Bruce Rauner and Mayor Rahm Emanuel over logistics and the handling of the event.
Rauner posted a message on Twitter expressing his displeasure at the shutdown, saying the full northbound lane closure was not what had been negotiated.
"This is unacceptable," Rauner tweeted at noon. "We had clear parameters that allowed the protestors to be heard while respecting law and order. Instead, they chose instead to cause chaos."
In a second posting, he criticized Emanuel, who said Friday he supported the event and expressway setting.
"I'm disappointed in the Mayor. There was an agreement in place," the governor wrote. "I am calling on the Mayor to take swift and decisive action to put an end to this kind of chaos. I will work with him in good faith and urge him to do his job so that the people of Chicago feel safe."
Emanuel responded to Rauner in a Twitter post of his own: "It was a peaceful protest. Delete your account," the mayor posted about 50 minutes after Rauner leveled criticism.
A contentious negotiation
Illinois State Police, which has jurisdiction over the expressway under an agreement that then-Gov. James R. Thompson reached with the city decades ago, initially said protesters entering the highway risked arrest. But shortly before the march began, officials announced a plan to allow demonstrators to use the right side of the road.
After the march ended about 12:30 p.m., Pfleger, wearing a T-shirt with a picture of three blue clenched fists and the words "Enough is enough" and "Peace Now!!" below his clerical collar, disputed there was an agreement in place for a partial expressway shutdown. He said Rauner "tried to be an obstruction." Pfleger also said Johnson served as an intermediary between march organizers and the state police, negotiating for protesters to have access to all lanes.
"He stepped up," Pfleger said. "... We gave them three weeks' notice of what we were doing, figure it out!"
Before the march, Jackson said he hoped the march would focus on the need for more investment in certain communities including rebuilding homes, and keeping schools and hospitals open.
As the march stalled during the pavement negotiations, he asked the crowd, "Hands up, who's ready to go to jail?" Protesters' hands rocketed into the air.
"This day is your day," Jackson told the demonstrators, and the nearby protesters repeated after him in a chant. "Our mission, shut the highway down, our mission, first-class schools ... our mission, stop guns and drugs from coming in, and jobs going out."
Gun violence in the city remains a stubborn problem, although the number of shooting victims in Chicago has dropped since reaching a 20-year high in 2016. Two people were killed and six others were wounded Friday and early Saturday in shootings across the city, Chicago police said.
Demonstrators began their slow march onto the expressway shortly before 10:30 a.m., entering the Dan Ryan at the 79th Street ramp. Thousands walked slowly on the grassy shoulder beside the northbound lanes of the Dan Ryan. Some ducked under the Chicago Skyway sign.
"The blood of Jesus!" shouted Delores Bailey, mother of 15-year-old Demario Bailey, who was fatally shot in 2014. "Put the guns down, keep the Bible up!"
"Teenagers get up front!" someone else shouted.
Wearing a T-shirt that read "The struggle is real," Clarita Bingley, a South Sider, called the mass gathering "beautiful" and thanked the police for being at the event.
"We need to sit down and listen to everything of people and hear their needs, and listen without hollering at each other," Bingley said. "We need our children to have the same education as this child and that child, and then when they graduate, we need them to have the same opportunity to get those jobs."
An array of voices
Earlier, demonstrators gathered near 79th and State streets. Some hoisted signs that read "NO MORE DRUG WAR" and "NO GUNS," with an illustration of a handgun crossed out. Another sign read "They Don't Care About Us," with pictures of Emanuel and Rauner on each side. Some of them held up signs with the names of homicide victims. One person banged a drum.
The crowd also consisted of several elected officials, including U.S. Rep. Danny Davis of Chicago, whose 15-year-old grandson, Javon Wilson, was shot and killed on the South Side in 2016.
The Rev. Harolynn McIntosh, dressed in bright white robes, sat in her wheelchair in the lot near the expressway, waiting for the march to start.
"Every time I turn on the news and a child has caught a bullet ... that hurts my heart because they're not going to fulfill their dreams," said McIntosh, who worked at Chicago Public Schools for about 30 years and serves as a reverend at a South Side church.
McIntosh was joined by Charles Taylor, a 17-year-old from Evanston who met her by chance as the protesters gathered. Taylor agreed to push her wheelchair down the Dan Ryan.
"I'm really just showing support and making sure change comes," he said.
The marchers were young and old, and the crowd was made up of a diverse blend of races and ethnicities.
"The violence has to stop," said Natalia Barrera, who attended the demonstration. "We need to spread love, not blood. It doesn't matter if you live on the North Side, South Side, West Side, East Side, the point is this is our city at the end of the day."
'Enough is enough'
After the protest, Tracey Brumfield held up a poster at Marquette and State with pictures of her 26-year-old son, KeShawn Slaughter, who was shot and killed in April 2017 in the far South Side's West Pullman neighborhood. The poster also had a message written on it: "Enough Is Enough. Stop Violence."
"These guns need to be off these streets," Brumfield said. "I feel like some of the parents, y'all need to check these kids' rooms. Check under these beds. You know what I'm saying? Guns be right in your house. You don't even know.
"Don't be your kids' friends. Check their phones. Check their beds. Check their dresser," she continued. "Check them when they come in. They could be holding the guns ... for somebody else. They don't know. I feel they're out here, they're doing all this killing and stuff. You've got a mama. You've got siblings. You've got kids of your own. But you want to take somebody else's life? No, no. It doesn't go like that."
Marvin McNeal said he came to the march "because of all the shooting and the killing and the lack of jobs for our community." He said he's spoken to grieving families from his church, where he's a parishioner, who lost loved ones to violence. McNeal, of the South Side, said he hopes the march will "wake up the entire city," including elected officials.
But not everyone was on board with the protest. There was plenty of grousing about Pfleger's tactics on social media, and many questioned the decision to inconvenience drivers by blocking one of the area's busiest expressways.
Activist Jedidiah Brown spent time getting the word out and encouraging people to be a part of the protest, but by Saturday morning, he said he was disillusioned by what it turned into.
"We're desperate for solutions, but I think it's time we start having real conversations about what's going on," he said by phone as the protest was in full swing.
Saturday's march on the expressway is not the first time a Chicago highway has been disrupted by demonstrators. A 2016 protest on the Dan Ryan blocked traffic for about five to 10 minutes in response to the deaths of two African-American men who were killed during confrontations with police in Minnesota and Louisiana. And Lake Shore Drive has been the scene of several recent protests.
The next move, Pfleger said, is for concerned citizens from communities most beset by violence to sit down with Emanuel and other officials to discuss how to get more jobs and other resources to these neighborhoods.
Angela Campbell, 48, brought three of her children to the march, ages 10, 9 and 5. Her nephew was killed in Chicago last year, and she was protesting with him in mind. Bringing her children along serves to amplify the message, she said.
"If they don't want to listen to adults, maybe they'll see with our children," she said. "This is our future."
Chicago Tribune's Katherine Rosenberg-Douglas contributed.
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