CHICAGO (AP) — Amid a surge in gun violence and protests sparked by the death of George Floyd, the nation’s third-largest city is on edge, waiting for possible greater tension in the form of a plan by President Donald Trump to dispatch dozens of federal agents to Chicago.
The White House plan emerged just days after a downtown protest over a statute of Christopher Columbus devolved into a chaotic scene of police swinging batons and demonstrators hurling frozen water bottles, fireworks and other projectiles at officers. Then, on Tuesday in another neighborhood, a spray of bullets from a car passing a gang member’s funeral wounded 15 people and sent dozens running for their lives.
Tension in the city has climbed to a level that, if not unprecedented, has not been felt in a long time.
“I’ve never seen things worse in this city than they are right now,” said the Rev. Michael Pfleger, a Roman Catholic priest and longtime activist on the city’s South Side.
Much of that strain stems from the fact that it remains unclear exactly what the federal officers will do here. The plan seems to be a repeat of what happened in Kansas City, Missouri, where the administration sent more than 100 law enforcement officers to help quell violence after the shooting death of a young boy.
Mayor Lori Lightfoot said she expects Chicago to receive resources that will back up federal agencies that already work with the city, including the FBI, the Drug Enforcement Agency and the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives.
But given the longstanding animosity between city officials and Trump, leaders from the mayor on down worry that the city might witness the kind of scene that unfolded in Portland, Oregon, where unidentified agents in camouflage have beaten unarmed protesters and stuffed some of them into unmarked vehicles.
“We can’t put anything past the Trump administration,” said the mayor, who vowed to “rush to court” at the first sign of such federal activity.
Trump announced the plan Wednesday, saying he would send federal agents to Chicago and Albuquerque to help combat rising crime.
Using the same alarmist language that he has employed in the past to describe illegal immigration, Trump painted Democrat-led cities as out of control and lashed out at the “radical left,” even though criminal justice experts say the increase in violence in some cities defies easy explanation.
“In recent weeks, there has been a radical movement to defend, dismantle and dissolve our police department,” Trump said, blaming the movement for “a shocking explosion of shootings, killings, murders and heinous crimes of violence.”
“This bloodshed must end,” he said. “This bloodshed will end.”
If the federal agents do as they have done in Portland, one prominent minister on the city’s West Side said the situation will turn the city into a “magnet” for the same kind of people who infiltrated the statue protest, put on dark clothes and distributed and threw projectiles at police from behind umbrellas.
“It’s going to be like that, but on steroids,” the Rev. Marshall Hatch warned. “Chicago is one of those epicenters where you already have an unsettled social situation and racial situation, and you’re going to find out that Chicago is a lot more volatile in the middle of a long hot summer than Portland is.”
He fears such a chaotic scene is exactly what the president wants.
“He’s working on his reelection, and he might be wanting to use an out-of-control Democratic-controlled city to somehow scare the middle class into thinking he’s the only one standing between them and the barbarians,” Hatch said.
Pfleger said federal agents could help stem violence if they stick to helping detectives make arrests and increase the city’s homicide clearance rate, which the department said this month is under 40%. They could also help stem the flow of illegal guns pouring into the city from Indiana, Mississippi and elsewhere.
“A big reason why there are so many murders in the city is that you have a really good chance of getting away with murder here,” Pfleger said.
Nor, he said, was it lost on people in the community that nobody had been arrested for the shooting outside the church despite Police Superintendent David Brown’s contention that two squad cars were on the street and a tactical unit nearby.
“Everybody’s saying on the street, ‘We have to protect ourselves because the police aren’t going to protect us'” Pfleger said. “That’s the mentality.”
The shooting went on long enough for the gunmen and people attending the funeral who returned fire to leave at least 60 shell casings at the scene.
At a news conference, Brown implored witnesses to come forward with information about the attack, which police believed was carried out in retaliation for another shooting. Observers suggested that the police department’s reputation for brutality, misconduct and racism made Brown’s plea a tough sell.
“You don’t share stuff with people you don’t trust,” Pfleger said.
That mistrust also plays into another activist’s contention that no matter what the federal agents do when they arrive in the city, it won’t help and may aggravate the situation.
“Anytime you have police in a community that have no relationship to the community, with the business owners, with the youth, it makes the situation worse,” said Jahmal Cole, founder and executive director of a community organization on the South Side called, My Block, My Hood, My City.