Father Pfleger and the Faith Community of St. Sabina invoked the optics of the Civil Rights Movement this past Saturday by marching northbound on the Dan Ryan Expressway for peace and an end to gun violence.
Before the march kicked off, 79th and State street served as the starting rallying point where many organizations, clergy, activists, and notable Chicago figureheads gathered. Numerous marchers were bussed in from St. Sabina Church, but scores of participants attended under their own volition.
The march sparked a debate between Governor Bruce Rauner and Father Pfleger. Both went back-and-forth on Twitter in statements about the event. Rauner claimed that he and Pfleger made an agreement for the march to be limited to one lane on the interstate; Pfleger said that an agreement never happened and that he gave three-week’s notice of shutting down the entire expressway.
This contention came to a climax through an hour-long negotiation during the march. Illinois State Police, who threatened arrests days prior to the march and has jurisdiction over all Illinois expressways, stood face-to-face with demonstrators after demonstrators attempted to secure more than the two lanes allowed. Under the hot sun, fatigue set in and some marchers grew restless as “No negotiation!” chants started ringing out and doubts began to bubble.
Eventually, Rauner acquiesced to Pfleger’s wishes. Pfleger attributes this victory to CPD Supt. Eddie Johnson. “Superintendent Johnson stepped up today,” says Pfleger. “He’s the one that negotiated it.” Pfleger invited Johnson to march alongside him after the moment.
“This issue of gun violence–and the devastation that it reeks on families–is the issue of our time. If we do not stand up, speak out, and demand something is done about this incredibly devastating issue, our communities will never recover,” says mayoral candidate Lori Lightfoot. “How many more have to die before we take this issue seriously and address the root causes of violence?”
West of 79th and State, on the opposite side of the Dan Ryan, a heavy police presence occupied 79th and Lafayette. Chicago’s finest had no fewer than 20 police vehicles and tens of officers on bicycles waiting for the march to commence. All officers were paid overtime for servicing the demonstration.
South Shore community organizer William Calloway adorned a screen-printed t-shirt with Laquan McDonald emblazoned across his chest and carried a “Stop the Violence” banner that had pictures of Chicagoans killed by CPD. Calloway, the activist who brought the Laquan McDonald video to the forefront, was there in support of the march and to remind people that police commit gun violence too.
“I am here to support people like Laquan McDonald, a victim of gun violence and police violence,” says Calloway. “I think that raising the consciousness of the general public is always good. I see a lot of Black people and that makes me feel good because it’s not often you see this many of us come out.”
Revin Fellows, a longtime Chatham community activist and member of the National Black Agenda, believes a Dan Ryan shutdown was long overdue.
“They built a new Dan Ryan Station on 95th without Black contractors,” declared Fellows. “[The Dan Ryan Expressway] should’ve been shut down before that was completed. This would’ve been better served to shut down for jobs for Black men and women because we know that puts a dent in the violence.”
Rev. Jesse Jackson Sr. made a grand appearance flanked by Rainbow Push members and media. Jackson’s presence signaled a call to a previous era where Black people like him took to highways to fight for freedom and equity.
Black and Brown youth ignited the morning. Pfleger constantly made attempts to put youth out in front of the march to lead. The teens, armed with bullhorns and passion, lead an array of chants such as: “This is what Democracy looks like!”; “No justice, no peace!”; “Stop the violence!” The scene appeared to be a continuation of the June 15th St. Sabina march that featured Parkland survivors, Chance the Rapper, poet Malcolm London, singer Jennifer Hudson, and music mogul Will.i.am.
Elder-based organizations like Action Now and Purpose Over Pain marched alongside youth and created an awe-inspiring scene of intergenerational solidarity. Mama Niecee, a member of Purpose Over Pain, attended the event for Edwin Cook, her deceased nephew. She says she will continue to march for her nephew until justice is served.
“I’m out here for my nephew. I’m standing with my nephew until I can’t stand no more,” cries Mama Niecee. “There is no reconciliation. Justice is served when his case is solved. That don’t mean closure. When you lose someone to gun violence, a wound opens up so big that the world’s best surgeon can’t close it. The least we can do is get justice.”
Nineteen-year-old Edwin Cook was killed three years ago in West Englewood.
Many spoke about the unity and solidarity that permeated throughout the course of the day. However, the march did have critics and exposed glaring contradictions. Camiella Williams, a supporter of St. Sabina and community activist for over a decade, was visibly upset when she witnessed that Supt. Eddie Johnson would be marching with the crowd.
“He just declared Bettie and Quintonio’s killing as justified,” a frustrated Williams explained.
She was referring to Supt. Johnson’s decision to rule out COPA’s (Civilian Office of Police Accountability) December ruling that suggested Officer Robert Rialmo was unjustified in firing his weapon and recommended that he be fired. Rialmo killed 19-year-old college student Quintonio LeGrier–who was suffering a mental episode–and 55-year-old Action Now activist Bettie Jones in 2015. Rialmo is still employed receiving a little over $84K a year salary.
Multiple protest signs called for more schools, economic development, and mental health services as remedies for community violence. However, this contradicted Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s endorsement of the march given that during his terms in office, he facilitated the largest rash of public school closings in the nation, eliminated half of the city’s mental health clinics, and has been under immense scrutiny in regards to the allocation of neighborhood TIF funds.
Pfleger’s Dan Ryan march was the first of its kind in sheer number, but the tactic has been used before. In 2016, about 25 students and supporters of the Save CSU campaign for Chicago State University blocked all lanes heading northbound in an effort to save the South Side university from closing. With no police escort, and against Rauner’s wishes, all participants managed to walk a mile on the interstate unharmed chanting “Save CSU!”
The common question that was continuously echoed by reporters and participants of Pfleger’s march is “What happens next?” Four men were killed and 23 people were wounded in city shootings this weekend. The city has now surpassed 1,400 shootings so far this year. Only time will tell if this march will have an effect on the consciousness of the city’s political officials and its inhabitants.