The “Dan Ryan Shut Down,” as it was billed, was organized by ChicagoStrong, a group of students advocating to reduce gun-related deaths.
“Too many people are shot and killed in our city each week, but our stories never gain national attention. We need America to hear our voices too because Chicago’s problems are America’s problems,” the group states on its website. “We’re going to disrupt the flow of traffic July 7th to make sure they know we’re serious.”
They were serious.
Around 10 a.m. Saturday, the marchers started at 79th Street and Dan Ryan, near an “L” stop on the south side the city, and began moving north on the highway en masse.
Earlier that morning, Illinois State Police had released a statement saying protesters were allowed to occupy all but two northbound lanes of the Dan Ryan Expressway and that police and transportation authorities would be “providing a safety barrier between the motoring public traveling on the interstate and the marchers.”
However, the protesters — led by the Rev. Michael Pfleger, a prominent activist and Catholic priest in Chicago, as well as the Rev. Jesse Jackson — soon faced a standoff with police, demanding access to the entire highway, the Chicago Tribune reported. Pfleger would later tell the newspaper that they had given police three weeks’ advance notice and that they had permission to occupy all of the lanes.
Eventually, police agreed that the march could take place in the northbound lanes, effectively shutting down the expressway toward downtown Chicago for about an hour, the newspaper reported.
On social media, Jackson said they were marching to draw attention to the growing disparity between what he called three different Chicagos. The south and west sides of the city, he said, faced “growing desperation” because they need jobs, education, infrastructure and justice.
“This is why we are peacefully marching today,” Jackson tweeted.
“We came out here to do one thing: to shut it down,” said Pfleger, dressed in a clerical collar and a shirt that depicted raised fists and the words “Enough is Enough: Peace Now!!” according to the Tribune. “We came here to get their attention. Hopefully we got their attention. … Today was the attention getter, but now comes the action.”
Representatives for ChicagoStrong did not immediately respond to a request for comment or queries about how large the crowd was. However, images of the march showed protesters blanketing the expressway, filling up overpasses, raising their arms, shouting and waving bright signs that read “Can you hear us NOW?” and “STOP THIS SENSELESS VIOLENCE.”
At one point, Pfleger was seen marching arm-in-arm with Chicago Police Superintendent Eddie T. Johnson, according to Chicago Sun-Times reporter Ashlee Rezin.
According to the Chicago Tribune’s homicide tracker, 244 people have been killed in the city through July 1, 97 fewer than at this point in 2017, yet still on pace for 488 in 2018.
According to the same database, 501 of the 578 people killed in the city over the past 365 days were shot to death. The homicides are concentrated in the South and West sides of the city, and a vast majority of the victims are black men.
Saturday’s protest seemed to attract the attention of the National Rifle Association, which tweeted a video Saturday afternoon featuring NRA spokeswoman Dana Loesch deriding similar demonstrations, saying such protesters set out to “smash windows, burn cars, shut down interstate and airports, bully and terrorize the law abiding — until the only option left is for police to do their jobs.”
The NRA’s tweet was met with befuddled responses pointing out Chicago’s “Dan Ryan Shut Down” had been a “fully peaceful protest.”
The massive protest also attracted several prominent supporters, including former education secretary and Chicago native Arne Duncan, as well as Parkland students-turned-activists David and Lauren Hogg.
The protests also triggered an online spat between Illinois Gov. Bruce Rauner (R) and Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel. Just before the march ended, Rauner tweeted that it was “unacceptable” for the protesters to have shut down the highway, accusing them of choosing to cause chaos.
“I’m disappointed in the Mayor,” Rauner tweeted, referring to Emmanuel. “There was an agreement in place. I am calling on the Mayor to take swift and decisive action to put an end to this kind of chaos. I will work with him in good faith and urge him to do his job so that the people of Chicago feel safe.”
Emanuel didn’t mince words in his reply, apparently not amused by either Rauner’s claim that protesters had violated an agreement or the governor’s insinuation that he wasn’t doing his job.
“It was a peaceful protest,” Emanuel tweeted. “Delete your account.”