The Kids Are Getting Pepper-Sprayed

The Kids Are Getting Pepper-Sprayed

Kids as young as 10 years old were among the 200 peaceful student protesters that Chicago police surrounded—tackling, pepper-spraying, and arresting several.


On August 15 at 4 pm, about 200 protesters, mostly students and local youth, met at Chicago’s Cloud Gate, known as “The Bean,” in Millennium Park. Their demands were simple: Remove police from Chicago public schools, cancel the Immigrations and Customs Enforcement (ICE) Citizens academy that encourages Chicagoans to report illegal immigrants, reallocate funds away from police and toward the community, and cut ties between ICE and local universities.

Students peacefully occupied the space, singing songs about liberation and leading chants, then began to march for a few blocks. When they got to the bridge, they saw they were surrounded by police, hemming them in on every avenue.

“Literally on every side of the street, there were police officers,” Luz Mayancela, a protester and Chicago public school student, told The Nation. “We wanted to get out, and we held out umbrellas to protect ourselves, but that’s when the violence started. They beat us, they pepper-sprayed us, and they had us surrounded. We stood there for 40 minutes, completely kettled. The violence didn’t end until maybe 2 am.”

“You could see the anger and hunger for violence on their faces,” said Charlie, an 18-year-old protester who preferred not to use his real name. He said officers brandished their batons and used pepper spray, then began to grab organizers. “That was one of the most traumatic events I’ve ever lived through.”

Charlie’s experiences mirror that of many young people who attended last weekend’s protest. In the aftermath of the action, many took to Twitter to document how the police maced, assaulted, and trapped protesters in the streets.

According to reporting from ABC News, Chicago police arrested 24 people at the August 15 protest. At least two people were held in jail overnight, including a protester who was seen on video being beaten by police and subsequently charged with a felony, according to Mayancela.

Mayancela told The Nation that the idea for a protest began in a group chat for youth organizers in Chicago, with youth representatives from local organizations such as Chicago Freedom School, Good Kids Mad City, Chicago Fuerte, and March For Our Lives Chicago. “This protest was totally youth-led,” she said. “One of the speakers was 15, and some of the protesters were as young as 10 years old. In Chicago, the powerhouse of everything that’s going on is in the youth. We have a lot of activists and community organizers, and we’ve gained attention from the nation.”

This is certainly true—youth organizers in Chicago have been on the front lines since protests began in earnest this May. One of the most important political issues for Chicago youth is the movement to defund the police and remove Student Resource Officers (SROs), or campus police, from Chicago public schools. The school system has a $33 million contract with the Chicago police department to provide SROs on every campus. For months, Chicago youth have been rallying around defunding this contract and advocating the reallocation of those funds into schools and community programs.

Charlie, who grew up in the low-income and majority-immigrant neighborhood of Brighton Park, said he felt a personal investment in defunding the police in his community. “Brighton Park has underfunded schools, limited mental health resources, and not many jobs offered to the youth,” he said. “This is a result of systemic racism and xenophobia. The Chicago Police Department receives $1.8 billion a year while our communities are stripped of resources, and that’s just not right.”

Despite the protesters’ insistence that the police incited violence during the demonstration, this was not the narrative that many national news outlets reported. On August 16, both CNN and the Chicago Tribune published stories that emphasized injuries sustained by police officers and called the protesters “violent agitators.” Mayancela said the news coverage was frustrating.

“The way the media covers everything in Chicago is so wrong, and it’s dangerous because the way they portray things is how everyone learns it,” she said. “The way they say things and the photos they show, it’s all warped. There’s so much that’s not being filmed.”

Police told the Tribune that protesters used black umbrellas as weapons or to conceal their appearance; protesters say the umbrellas were used as a form of self-protection, like many protesters in Hong Kong famously used them to prevent being pepper-sprayed by police. “Out of nowhere, the police in front of me tore the umbrella from my hands,” Archit Baskaran, a protester and student at Northwestern University, told The Nation. “Then they held a canister a few inches from my face and gassed me with pepper spray, and another officer sprayed the air above all of us. Despite my mask and goggles, it sprayed into my eyes and skin and soaked into my clothes. I began coughing and could not breathe. The pain was burning and excruciating and only fully wore off two days later.”

Baskaran said he was eventually able to escape the protest after sprinting away from oncoming police cars. He said he experienced blurred vision for about six hours after the protest ended and is still in physical pain from being beat in the hands, arm, and back. The Chicago Police Department did not respond to The Nation’s request for comment, but in response to questions of violent police tactics, Chicago Police Superintendent David Brown told the Chicago Tribune that “to protect the peaceful protesters as well as their fellow officers, our officers responded proportionally to get the situation under control.” The department also posted on Twitter the name, age, and photograph of at least one protester who was detained, causing many to worry about young people’s safety following the demonstration.

“Everyone is devastated,” Mayancela said. “We’re traumatized from seeing our friends get beat up, and people crying from tear gas. We’re all just trying to rest.”

The August 15 protest in Chicago mirrors that of demonstrations that took place in Minneapolis and Portland this spring, where students in both cities similarly argued against police presence in schools. Both cities subsequently agreed to remove police officers from public school campuses.

“It is clear that the Chicago Police Department’s goal is to crack down on Chicago’s organizers,” Charlie said. “History will be on the side of the youth fighting for liberation.”

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