Chicago’s anti-Trump protests were about much more than one man’s racism

Dump Trump.
Dump Trump.
Image: AP Photo/Matt Marton
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After protesters forced Donald Trump to cancel a rally in Chicago on Mar. 11, much of the media narrative quickly turned against the anti-Trump contingent. From political scientist Jonathan Bernstein to longtime organizer Al Giordano, experts argued that Trump’s decision to shut down his own gathering rather than face his detractors was a stroke of genius. For these pundits, the protest ultimately was a failure.

Activists who were at the protests, however, have a different perspective—not least because their goals have been misunderstood by much of the coverage thus far. In fact, for some protestors on Friday, Trump was of only peripheral concern. The presidential race is on the ballot today in Illinois. But an equally important contest, for many activists, was the Democratic primary Cook County state’s attorney race.

The activist group #ByeAnita had been planning for weeks to organize a protest on Friday night against the incumbent Anita Alvarez, who has become infamous for her failure to hold police accountable for violence. When officer Dante Servin recklessly shot into a crowd, killing Rekia Boyd in 2012, critics claim Alvarez undercharged him, resulting in his acquittal. When officer Jason Van Dyke shot and killed 17-year-old Laquan McDonald, Alvarez failed to file charges for a year, despite the fact that she had access to a dashcam video providing evidence of culpability. Alvarez finally charged him with first-degree murder—after a court had ordered the video released.

The #ByeAnita organizers viewed Trump appearance as a good way to amplify their message. They had been disrupting Alvarez’s rallies and staging protests for weeks, but “at this point local media and national media had mostly been ignoring us,” organizer Page May, a #ByeAnita organizer, tells Quartz. The rally was “as opportunity to connect the dots between what’s happening here locally in Chicago and particularly the state’s attorney position, and how that’s connected to the national politics of the moment.”

By shutting down an intersection close to the Trump rally, #ByeAnita could bring attention to the parallels between local and national issues. “We tied the fascist politics all into one,” #ByeAnita activist Veronica Morris Moore explains to Quartz. Drawing a connection between Trump, who says that, “Police are the most mistreated people in America,” and Alvarez, who acts like they are, highlights the way that national and local politics work together to target people like Laquan McDonald.

Given the amount of attention the protests got, from May tells Quartz that she believes the protest was wildly successful. “We went from having no national coverage of Anita Alvarez, to #ByeAnita being on major TV networks. Our banners made it onto national television,” she said. More, she tells Quartz, “We had people that didn’t know anything about Anita Alvarez join our action. All those people were chanting ‘Bye Anita.’ That’s huge. And these are Chicagoans, the people who can actually vote her out. And it was mostly black and brown people. Latino people especially are one of the main groups Anita Alvarez is relying on to be able to win.”

Local district attorneys have a huge effect on policing and imprisonment nationwide. Holding prosecutors like Alvarez accountable is vital for policing reforms—much more so, arguably, than national reform proposals. There are approximately 720,000 people in local jails and 1.3 million in state prisons, as compared the over 200,000 in federal lock. Presidential plans, no matter how progressive, are going to have a limited impact.

The urgency of local reforms was only underlined by the events of the rally itself. National reporting has focused on the clashes between Trump supporters and protestors, but the #ByeAnita oragnizers say they were mainly threatened by from the. According to May, police at the rally were “targeting not the white Trump supporters, not the white Bernie supporters, but instead they’re targeting black and brown folks who were there for #ByeAnita.” May says that as police started arresting people, the violence escalated. “They start pulling out their batons and beating folks,” she tells Quartz. “I was hit several times in the legs, one of my friends has a huge bruise on their arm, another was beaten in the chest, another was beaten in the mouth, and has cuts inside of their mouth. One person was hit in the head and threw up several times the next day.” (The Chicago Police Department did not immediately respond to a request for comment.)

Black Lives Matter has shown that across the country, police are rarely held accountable for violence. Is that less important than Trump’s rise? Is it even a separate issue from Trump’s rise?

In fact, in a lot of ways, the #ByeAnita protestors may have a better grasp on the societal and political issues at stake here than all of CNN’s talking heads combined. As Angus Johnston, a historian of student activism at the City University of New York, tells Quartz, “Consider: In the last few months, polling shows that Trump, as his behavior has grown increasingly obnoxious, has become more popular among Republicans and less popular with the country as a whole.” The protest may have helped Trump with Republicans—but that’s not a serious concern if you believe he’s on his way to winning the nomination anyway. Instead, it might be wiser to start rallying people to oppose him in the general now.

In the long term, activists are hoping to inspire all those who oppose authoritarian white identity politics, in whatever forms they take. “My goal is to rid this world of the system that allows Donald Trump to be a front-running candidate with any party in an actual presidential election,” activist Morris Moore tells Quartz. Because if you want to defeat the Donald Trumps of America, you need to fight against the Anita Alvarezes, too.

We will update this story with comment from the Chicago Police Department, if received.