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Looting in Chicago was a long time coming, some experts say

The uprising sent a clear message for one professor: “This put everybody on notice that folks have had enough.”
Workers board up a display window at the Louis Vuitton store on Monday, after overnight vandals hit many high-end stores in Chicago.Teresa Crawford / AP

CHICAGO — Shattered glass and other debris from looted stores was still being cleaned up Tuesday after a wave of violence tore through the city's upscale shopping districts.

To some experts, the unrest — in which more than 100 people were arrested and 13 police officers were injured — represents long-simmering frustrations finally boiling over. Others say the violence was opportunistic in nature, criminality spilling into the streets.

The tumult occurred early Monday, hours after a police shooting in the South Side neighborhood of Englewood. Officers responded to a call about a person with a gun, the police department said. The officers said they attempted to confront a man matching a description of the suspect when he ran off, firing at the police.

The officers fired back, hitting the man, who is said to be 20 years old. He was taken to a hospital and is expected to survive, according to Chicago police Superintendent David Brown.

"This wasn't an organized protest. It was an incident of pure criminality," Brown said Monday. "Criminals took to streets with confidence that there would be no consequences for their actions. I refuse to let these cowardly acts hold our city hostage."

Mayor Lori Lightfoot, who took office last year, said the wave of property damage and looting was "criminal."

"We are waking up in shock this morning," Lightfoot said, adding that the melee "had nothing to do with protected First Amendment expression."

David Stovall, a professor of Black studies and criminology at the University of Illinois at Chicago, said the uprising sent a clear message.

“This put everybody on notice that folks have had enough,” he said. “They are saying this is what it means to be poor, hungry and fed up, and if we're really not ready to address the foundational issue of housing, health care and employment, this is what we’re going to do."

The brazenness of people openly looting and attacking police officers shows that they feel that they have nothing to lose, he added. “You’re so numb, so disaffected and so disenfranchised, so what could be any worse than that?”

“This was no doubt a long time coming.”

Jennifer Cobbina, a criminal justice professor at Michigan State University, also sees a connection between looting and long-standing marginalization.

“One perspective that much of the research on civil unrest has shown, which entails looting and rioting, is that when they occur, they are expressions of pent-up anger and they are symptomatic of systemic societal problems,” she said. “When there is a deep-seated grievance that has not been adequately addressed coupled with people feeling ignored, that is when uprisings occur. For people who are marginalized and ignored, uprisings serve as a mechanism to have their grievances heard and to resist a system that oppresses.”

Brown said "tempers flared, fueled by misinformation" about the shooting, including false reports that the victim was a teenager.

The officers involved in the shooting will be placed on administrative duties, per department protocol, and the shooting is under investigation, police said.

Despite the misinformation, the uprising is still a commentary on what it means to exist in an over-policed state, Stovall added. “These folks are frustrated to the point that anything put forward by police is unbelievable because of the history that the police department has had in those particular neighborhoods.”

The chaos happened amid an uptick in gun violence in Chicago this year that has hit communities of color particularly hard. The city has experienced over 2,200 shootings this year, nearly all concentrated on the west and south sides, according to data tracked by The Chicago Tribune.

But other experts argue that there was no political intent and the looting was an opportunistic ploy to commit crimes in the shadow of a genuine movement.

“This was a coordinated move by people who knew they could move with impunity in large numbers,” said Wesley Skogan, professor emeritus at the Institute for Policy Research at Northwestern University.

“Protests don't happen in the middle of the night. They happen in the day when there are cameras around to capture them," he said. "That was clearly not happening here."

Police Shooting Leads To Widespread Looting And Violence In Chicago
Police inspect a vandalized Best Buy store in Chicago early on Monday.Scott Olson / Getty Images

While perennial frustration with law enforcement has often sparked violence within local communities, rarely does that violence move beyond its neighborhood, experts say.

“This type of caravan-ing by people to outside locations is very different,” Skogan said, adding that social media largely helped mobilize the attack downtown.

“It's an interesting shift that we haven't seen in Chicago in quite some time where folks said, we’re not going to hit our communities, we’re going to go someplace else,” Stovall said.

The city's communities of color have long criticized the disproportionate funding and favor given to Chicago's affluent areas — many that were hit in the looting — over its struggling neighborhoods.

“Over the past few months, too many people — disproportionately Black and Brown — have lost their jobs, lost their income, lost their homes, and lost their lives as the city has done nothing and the Chicago elite have profited,” Black Lives Matter Chicago said in a statement. “When protesters attack high-end retail stores that are owned by the wealthy and service the wealthy, that is not ‘our’ city and has never been meant for us.”

It was the second time the affluent shopping district was hit with looting since May in the wake of nationwide protests against the police killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis.

But some also worry that the incident will instigate an aggressive blowback by law enforcement that will further fuel a vicious cycle of violence and distrust between police and communities of color.

Lightfoot has already taken a hard-line stance that the looting was “abject criminal behavior” and “straight-up felony criminal conduct."

Stovall thinks it's important to address the factors fueling discontent.

“We need to get away from the idea that it's just a bunch of bad people conspiring to do bad things and really understand what it means to live in those conditions in perpetuity,” Stovall said. “If you live under those conditions in perpetuity then the response isn't going to be peaceful or orderly, which is a tough thing to deal with, but we’re at a moment where we can’t ignore it.”