The Smoke Eater for Aug. 14, 2020

A progress report, some photos, and why they march.

Student protesters march through downtown Chicago, August 1, 2020

Good evening, this is The Smoke Eater for August 14, 2020, and maybe things will be better in Chicago.


Quick Hit

* A progress report * The radio * The rabbi * What we don't talk about * Why they're marching *

NOTE: Obviously I haven't written a goddamn thing in months. I've been dragging my ass all over Chicagoland every other day to get photos and notes from every action I can, be it large or small. On Twitter, I've been doing shoe leather coverage that includes photos and videos, and attempting to add contextual summaries of events. Additionally, there's hundreds of photos and dozens of videos on Patreon, as well as additional reporting, thoughts, and notes.

Know that I haven't abandoned The Smoke Eater, and have every intention to go back to the somewhat scheduled cynical news briefs (most of) you are familiar with. Right now I'm trying to stay alive and support myself with my photo work. Unfortunately, this means I have to sell little bits of my soul, and file copyright suits. (You may have seen some of my work getting bootlegged on the nightly news last month ... let me know if you did.)

Anyway, this is me humbly begging you to help me pay bills and cook by tipping me, subscribing on Patreon, following on Twitter, etc., etc.


Chicago police block access to a street where Mayor Lori Lightfoot resides from protesters, Aug. 3, 2020

You can imagine my surprise when the radio host on a Chicago news station, complained that Black Lives Matter protesters intended to shut down the Dan Ryan Expressway in Chicago this weekend.

The host explained that he lives in an affluent neighborhood near Wrigley Field, and that road closures due to another round of looting along a major retail artery downtown forced him to, "zigzag through city streets [and] through neighborhoods [he] didn't know."

"And think about that," the host continued. "If you're a business, if you're a museum, a person whose livelihood depends on people coming downtown there just goes another weekend of commerce right down the toilet for the city of Chicago."

The host went on to criticize "rules" imposed by police officials on a protest that intends to shut down the Dan Ryan Expressway on the South Side tomorrow, saying "Oh, here's a rule, they'll arrest you [emphasis his] if you get on the street. It's a highway and it's not yours."

The reporter and hosts then go on to gripe and half-ass their way through the supposed traffic closures this weekend. At this time, city officials have not finalized whether there will be potential road closures. On Wednesday, the Chicago Police Department denied knowing anything about closures. Protest groups have not released any details themselves, but have assured people the event is happening. It's only in passing that the traffic reporter corrects the host by noting that this is second time in as many years that the Dan Ryan has been shut down by protesters.

A terrible photo of Father Michael Pflegar during the Dan Ryan Shutdown marching next to former Police Superintendent Eddie Johnson, July 8, 2018. Photo by Dominic Gwinn.

On July 7, 2018, South Side clergyman, Father Michael Pfleger of St. Sabina's Church led a march of anti-violence protesters onto the Dan Ryan from 79th street against the wishes of then Republican Gov. Bruce Rauner. At the time, Rauner -- facing a tough reelection -- threatened to use the Illinois State Police to conduct mass arrests to keep the expressway clear.

Pfleger used his status as a prominent activist and faith leader to lean on city officials, and seek a wide range of support from the community and other activist groups about a month before the event.

After a lot of posturing, the Chicago Police Department and the State police allowed protesters to take the highway and march for about 10 blocks. But because officials insisted on stalling protesters, the shutdown persisted for several hours. It's likely the entire spectacle could have been over in about two hours had police simply allowed the march to move onto the highway for a few exits.

Though protesters roasted on the sweltering highway in the hot, July sun, they were able to pass out free water and snacks to each other, the police, and the media. They brought musical instruments, religious symbols, signs, kids, and elderly people in wheelchairs. Despite all the posturing and threats from various national, state, and local officials, the protest was peaceful enough for then-Chicago Police Superintendent Eddie Johnson to march with Father Pfleger. Johnson even posed for photos with activists after the event.


Tomorrow's march will be much different than Father Pflegar’s. Rather than a well-known anti-violence activist, this march has been orchestrated by Rabbi Michael Ben Yosef of Tikkun Chai Inter-National and the Chicago Activist Coalition for Justice. Yesterday it was revealed that police officials had been working with the group, and that they won't allow PVC pipes, backpacks, water bottles, carts, wagons, bicycles or vehicle escorts, in fear that they could be used as weapons.

NOAA currently predicts a high of 86 °F, with a 40 percent chance of thunderstorms after 1pm, right around the time the march is expected to begin.

Some in the activist community deride Yosef. They feel he's a grifter, a bumbling idiot, an opportunist attempting to build a name for himself in a largely leaderless movement, and there have even been paranoid suspicions he's a quasi-counter-insurgency plant by the CPD meant to divide the movement. As far as I can tell, there isn't much evidence to support any of these claims -- though he does appear to be in over his head.

On any given day, Yosef is competing for attention with several social-media savvy activist groups who don't necessarily share his steadfast refusal to swear in public. While other organizations are largely led by bold young people with bullhorns who organize actions throughout the city, the middle-aged Yosef drags a small amplifier strapped to a wire cart as he leads marches large and small up and down the streets and sidewalks, usually downtown. The spotty connection between the amplifier and the microphone he uses to belt out chants and slogans often cuts out when the cart hits a bump in the pavement -- if it doesn't just fall over -- so he tries to march in the street whenever possible.

While other activist groups are prone to get in the faces of police, shout about the number of unmasked officers, and use public data to read off an officers’ misconduct reports, Yosef tends to be much less confrontational. During the violent clash between police and protesters at the site of the former Columbus statue on July 17, I watched as Yosef tried in vain to stand between police and protesters. He was screaming, "This is not the way," moments before the SWAT team gave him a face full of pepper spray. During one poorly-attended march not long after, Yosef approached a very confused Muslim family in front of Buckingham Fountain and chanted, "Palestinian's lives matter!"

Yosef is calling for 25,000 people to show up tomorrow, and held a press conference earlier this evening -- that was advertised on social media -- to lay out some of the expectations. A colleague in attendance described it to me as, "a bust."

Rabbi Michael Ben Yosef holds a rally in Chicago’s Federal Plaza, July 18, 2020.

Egotistical blowhards with airbrushed cable shows and newspaper columns used to potty train pets have barked about the few incidents of violence and looting in Chicago as if activists set out with the explicit intention to pillage a metropolis, set a bunch of shit on fire, and indiscriminately murder people.

One common complaint is that they never protest against violence in their neighborhoods, but they do. All the time. Another is that those people should do something to fix their neighborhood, but they do. All the time. The problem is that those people are portrayed as "thugs" and "violent criminals" instead of people who have been denied the opportunity to grow and prosper for generations.

They never talk about the damage the Chicago police have inflicted over the years. They never talk about how former police commander Jon Burge spent decades torturing people. They never talk about how the police department and its union tried to cover it up, how Burge cashed pension checks and ran out the clock on the statute of limitations for charges that meet the United Nation's definition of "Crimes Against Humanity." They never talk about the hundreds of millions of dollars Chicago has paid out to settle police misconduct complaints -- not including reparations for Burge's victims. They never talk about how some of the cops who worked with Burge are still around, how some became judges, and how some ruled on torture cases they themselves prosecuted. They never talk about the "code of silence." They never talk about the thousands who disappeared into Homan Square., the evidence holding facility that became known as a black site. They don't talk about the spying on activists. They don't talk about Jason Van Dyke's 16 shots.

Instead, they'll show my video (that CPD ripped off) as "evidence" of lawlessness, but they won't show the police beating and mocking people. They show images of rioting and looting, but they don't show how the police stood aside and let it happen. They show the mayor and the police superintendent deriding violence, but they won't show the violence prevention groups that were defunded.

They won't bother to mention the 10-year-old girl who caught a bullet on the Far South Side -- 20 miles from downtown -- while she tied the shoes of her blind little sister in 2008. Instead, they'll talk about how Macy's is scared in 2020.

A Chicago police officer stares down protesters asking why he’s a cop during a march led by Rabbi Michael Ben Yosef, July 4, 2020. Photo by Dominic Gwinn

"Why are they marching," is a question I get asked a lot, but there's so many issues that it's impossible to explain in a single, sweaty and exasperated sentence to a inconvenienced mom sipping an iced latte while carrying a shopping bag from one of the high-end retail outlets that was looted on Sunday night.

People are marching against gun violence, racism, class inequality, systemic poverty, authoritarianism, political corruption, and a laundry list of police abuses that include brutality, unaccountability, militarization, torture, spying, and a code of silence. People are marching in favor of universal civil rights, universal healthcare, something to help mitigate the exponential spread of COVID-19, honoring agreements with indigenous peoples, and creating alternatives to policing and public safety that go beyond more training. And yes, there's people who support all 31 flavors of socialism, anti-fascism, libertarianism, and the occasional anarchist.

During a global pandemic that's left an est. 200,000 dead in the U.S. alone, in a city where it's common for 100 shootings to happen in a single weekend, asking "What are they protesting," isn't the right question.

Why bar and restaurant workers are forced to choose between risking death and paying rent is a better question. Why shop owners have to choose between keeping their business open and declaring bankruptcy is a better question. Why only affluent portions of the city see regular investment and general maintenance is a better question. Why predominately Black and Latino neighborhoods are disproportionately more likely to see school closures, divestment, and murders is a better question. Why the mayor's response to looting is to literally fortify the high-end central business corridor with raised bridges, fleets of dump trucks, and an army of police running ragged from months of 12 hour shifts is a better question.

Shaking a fist wondering why these noisy kids begging for their lives won't get off your lawn isn't the right question.

OK, here's a cute critter video: QUOKKAS!

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