I first laid eyes on Shirley Watkins outside the Wrigley Building and kept walking, but as I stepped onto the Michigan Avenue Bridge I decided to slow up and wait for her to catch up to me. I was downtown Friday night following the protesters who were marching through the Loop, upset that Donald Trump was inaugurated as 45th President of the United States earlier that day.
I knew as soon as I saw Shirley, even before she told me her name, that she wasn’t part of the group — who were mostly college aged up to about 30. Not only that, but she was dressed for work, with a heavy overcoat and carrying a bag with file folders along with her purse even though it was 8:30 on a Friday night. Turned out, Shirley, age 65, was indeed on her way home to Hyde Park after working and then choosing the wrong day to stay late to keep up with her New Year resolution and work out.
I told her who I was and what I was doing — mostly just walking with the protesters in case there was anything newsworthy. I wasn’t looking to cover the morons who were breaking laws, the TV guys would focus on the very small amount of idiots. I was more interested in the people who felt compelled to march peacefully in the streets, even though Trump’s victory wasn’t really in dispute. But the truth was, although there were several protests with good causes during the week already along with perhaps the most important event scheduled for Saturday morning — the Women’s March on Chicago, this night’s protest was aimless and unfocused. The marchers took over some streets and carried a lot of signs, but they seemed not to know what their goal was other than to get on television. I first encountered them on Michigan Avenue as they were heading south near Wacker Drive, which is when I spotted Shirley.
I asked her what she thought and the first thing she said was, “Two wrongs don’t make a right,” referring to the morons to broke windows in Washington D.C. and to the election of Donald Trump. In Chicago, there were 6 arrests reported but no store windows were broken as in the nation’s capital.
She told me that she thought it would be important to start a discussion and have a plan of action, something that seemed to be lacking Friday night as the marchers shut down traffic on Lake Shore Drive, portions of Michigan Avenue and Congress Parkway, along with some exit ramps on Interstate 94. While access to Wabash Avenue was blocked by police to protect the Trump Tower Chicago, the TV news crews set up their live shots on Wacker Drive, directly across the river with Trump’s building serving as the backdrop. Despite the roundabout, disorganized course that the protesters marched, they seemed to make it back to Wacker Drive and Wabash Avenue in time to be live on both the 9 p.m. and 10 p.m. newscasts.
Shirley and I continued to walk south, as the bus she normally would catch on Wacker Drive near Michigan Avenue wasn’t coming because the street was blocked by police. She had to continue south a few more blocks and then head west to State Street. While we talked she told me while she had many reservations about Trump and did not vote for him, she did not agree with protesting without a goal. Shirley said she had watched Trump’s Inauguration speech and thought it sounded like a campaign speech. She also said of his speech, “Jobs are good and we do need them, but it would be nice to treat people with some humanity.”
Shirley told me that she supported several marches in years past, notably the Civil Rights protests and added that while she supports the women marching Saturday, she seemed to think the people out on this night were just venting. She said she just wanted to get home because although it was Friday she had to work again Saturday. She said it was already a long week at the marketing firm where she worked and wasn’t thrilled about having to walk several extra blocks because her bus was diverted on account of the protestors.
I told her the police officers I had talked to a few minutes before meeting her weren’t thrilled either. I had talked to several officers who were going on 11 hours by the time I met them. Despite the long hours, I found them in a pleasant mood and chatty, albeit a bit annoyed. The first officer I talked to had been walking near the rear of the pack of protesters since the afternoon. He was wearing a Fitbit device on his wrist and said he was up to 38,000 steps, adding that his legs felt like rubber. All the officers I spoke to confirmed that most of the protesters were peaceful, if aimless, but did say a couple of officers suffered minor injuries in clashes with a few idiots. I said it’s too bad that the small minority of morons takes the focus away from the majority of protesters who are doing nothing wrong. They agreed, and the officer with the Hollywood looks said, “There’s always a few rotten apples, just like with us,” no doubt alluding to the Laquan McDonald case and other police-related incidents in the news right now.
Another officer, a sergeant, said the protesters on this night were “Going in circles, clueless.” He didn’t want to share his opinion about Trump with me, but said “I saw one kid with a sign that said ‘Impeach Trump.’ Impeach him for what? The only thing he’s done so far is attend a party.”
Like Shirley, these guys were just trying to get through their shift and make it home eventually. Two of the officers I talked to said they were happy to have the overtime and happy to be away from Garfield Park, where they have been working lately. Coincidentally I had talked to the Alderman that covers Garfield Park, specifically the 28th Ward, Jason Ervin, earlier that same afternoon.
The 28th Ward is among the most dangerous in the city if you go by the stats, but composed mostly of working people who just happen to live there. I had asked Alderman Ervin if he knew whether or not many of his constituents were going to be downtown protesting and he said, “No, they are working, worried about where they will get their next meal from.”
Talking to Ervin and then later to those officers and to Shirley Watkins, it reminded me of the one cliche about Chicago that isn’t an exaggeration — that Chicago is the city that works. That has always been true and because of that, not everyone has the luxury to protest. That isn’t a shot at legitimate protestors. But it’s the reality, and another reality is that to really cause change it will take more than a protest. It will take a sustained, grassroots effort that isn’t glamorous or worthy of the 10 o’clock news. It takes focus and a goal that’s more honorable than getting on television. The most important causes often help improve the lives of others even more than your own— often people who need the most help but are too busy living day to day to protest anything. People like Shirley Watkins and the people who live in the many South and West side neighborhoods of Chicago and yes, even the rank and file police officers.