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When a Riot Takes Downtown

In the formulation of Chicago as two cities, it is believed by some that crime is simply confined elsewhere. But the Mag Mile looting suggests those barriers were never so real to begin with.

A Chicago Police officer walks past Macy’s on North Michigan Avenue after the store was looted early Monday Aug. 10, 2020.   Photo: Jose M. Osorio/Chicago Tribune

Whether intentionally or not, the looters who sacked the Magnificent Mile on Sunday night mirrored a strategy used nearly 50 years ago by the Irish Republican Army: Don’t tear down your own community, take the fight to the seat of power.

Historically, uprisings against police brutality have taken place in the neighborhoods where the brutality occurred. Some of those neighborhoods, and some of those cities, are still recovering from the burning and looting: the West Side of Chicago, Detroit, Newark.

But after police shot a 20-year-old man, who CPD says fired first, in Englewood on Sunday, the word went out on social media — a tool unavailable in the 1960s — to drive downtown and loot the Magnificent Mile, the city’s wealthiest shopping district, cheek-by-jowl to the Streeterville condos housing its wealthiest residents.

A few years into the Troubles, the most violent phase of the campaign to drive the British out of Northern Ireland, the IRA decided that setting off bombs in Belfast wasn’t getting the message across.

“The IRA had detonated hundreds of bombs in commercial centers throughout Northern Ireland,” wrote Patrick Radden Keefe in Say Nothing: A True Story of Murder and Memory in Northern Ireland. “[B]ecause the toll of all this bombing was confined to Northern Ireland, it did not appear to be registering all that strongly with the intended target — the British. The English public, removed on the other side of the Irish Sea, seemed only dimly aware of the catastrophe engulfing Northern Ireland.”

The IRA made the English aware, first by setting off car bombs in central London, then by assassinating Prince Charles’s great uncle, Lord Mountbatten, and finally by blowing up a Conservative Party conference in Brighton, in an attempt to kill Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher.

The IRA’s England campaign was, of course, far more violent than anything to hit downtown Chicago this summer, but it’s just one example of aggrieved communities taking their grievances directly to the powerful. In 1967, 30 Black Panthers brought rifles to the California State Capitol in protest of the Mulford Act, which repealed open carry laws in response to the group’s armed patrols of Oakland. During 1969’s Days of Rage, members of the antiwar Weather Underground rampaged through the Gold Coast, just like Sunday’s looters, smashing car and store windows with steel pipes and baseball bats. Weatherman Bill Ayers later called the demonstration “a colossal failure,” since it only attracted a few hundred participants.

A SWAT officer patrols Chicago’s Gold Coast neighborhood Photo: Terrence Antonio James/Chicago Tribune

Northern Ireland’s Catholics saw themselves as a colonized people, oppressed by a distant power that would only be moved by violence on its own turf. Ultimately, though, the IRA’s terror campaign was a failure. Northern Ireland is still part of the United Kingdom, and the IRA’s actions in London moved their enemy to institute even more oppressive measures. Thatcher, who once declared of herself, “the lady’s not for turning,” refused to recognize captured IRA members as political prisoners, even after ten starved themselves to death in protest. British commandos and local police were accused of executing “shoot to kill” orders against suspected Republicans.

Mayor Lori Lightfoot also considers herself a leader who’s not for turning. In the wake of the Mag Mile looting, the former prosecutor and police board president is doubling down on the law-and-order attitude that’s always been part of her political philosophy. At a Monday press conference, Lightfoot took a shot at State’s Attorney Kim Foxx, whose office dismissed some charges against demonstrators who caused mayhem in the Loop following the killing of George Floyd in May. This time, the mayor wants a crackdown.

“What we’re saying is, as a result of what happened last night, there have to be consequences,” Lightfoot said. “We’ve got teams of people that are aggressively out there identifying the people responsible, looking at the plates, and we’re going to bring them to justice. But when we do make those arrests, our expectation is that this is going to be treated with the level of seriousness it should be. Period.”

Lightfoot also rejected the notion that the looting was a protest against police brutality, calling it “abject criminal behavior, pure and simple.”

In the formulation of Chicago as two cities — one white and wealthy, the other Black, brown, and disinvested — it has always been understood by the former that violence and property crime are confined to nebulous swaths of the South and West Sides. “This is a safe neighborhood,” those Chicagoans tell themselves, their prospective neighbors, and their friends and relatives around the country who see news stories equating the city with murder and mayhem.

The Mag Mile looting, though, is the second event in a week — the other the killing of rapper FBG Duck while he shopped on tony Oak Street — demonstrating that those barriers were never so real to begin with.

Whether they meant to or not, the looters who drove downtown following the Englewood shooting brought the consequences of the city’s inequality home to the Loop, just as the IRA sought to bring the consequences of the British occupation home to England. Also like the IRA, though, they may have bought an even more severe police presence back home.

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