Racial tension flares in mostly white Chicago neighbourhood

2016-11-10 15:44
Black Lives Matter demonstrators and supporters of Joshua Beal (AP).

Black Lives Matter demonstrators and supporters of Joshua Beal (AP).

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Chicago — A largely white Chicago neighbourhood that many police officers and firefighters call home took centre stage this week in the city's tensions over gun violence, race and policing as protests erupted following the fatal police shooting of a black man.

Some residents used racial slurs, revved motorcycle engines and yelled "go home" on Tuesday night as protesters with the Black Lives Matter movement demanded an investigation into the death of 25-year-old Joshua Beal. It was the second confrontation in Mount Greenwood since Beal, who police say was armed, was shot on Saturday in what police said was a road rage incident following a funeral.

When the latest protest erupted, as Donald Trump was being elected president, residents of the southwest Chicago neighbourhood expressed the same kind of fears — often using racially charged and profanity-laced language — that the country saw voiced among the white working class audiences that clamoured to Trump's rallies in recent months.

When protesters tried to conduct a prayer, some residents shouted "CPD, CPD" in support of the Chicago Police Department.

"I think there is a concern about protecting the neighbourhood. But the larger concern from some people is protecting the neighbourhood from people who don't look like them," said John Lyons, who is white and lives in Mount Greenwood with his wife and two young daughters.

"It is a very ugly side to our neighbourhood and our community," Lyons said.

Unlike some of the largely black neighbourhoods that have borne the brunt of the city's violence that has left hundreds dead and thousands injured this year, Mount Greenwood has very little crime. A quiet community on the outer edge of Chicago, it's a neighbourhood of neat homes and small family businesses.

There have been just 14 robberies and not a single homicide in the last year in the neighbourhood, according to statistics compiled by the Chicago Tribune. The police district responsible for Mount Greenwood has seen fewer than half the number of homicides this year than the district to the immediate northeast.

Over the years, Mount Greenwood has attracted residents looking for a safe atmosphere to raise their families in the city. Many are firefighters, police officers and other city employees.

That feeling of safety was shattered when an off-duty police officer fatally shot Beal, residents said. Investigators said Beal was armed with a handgun during a melee sparked by a road rage incident involving Beal and others who had just left a funeral in their car.

‘They hate you’

The incident also led authorities to arrest the dead man's brother on allegations that he attacked a police officer, tried to disarm him and threatened to kill him.

"Who brings a gun to a funeral?" asked an incredulous Peggy Hederman, who has owned a Lindy's Chili & Gertie's Ice Cream franchise in the neighbourhood for a quarter century.

When protesters arrived demanding an investigation and the release of any video of the shooting — a common request since the city was forced last year to release video of a white officer fatally shooting a black teenager 14 times in 2014 — residents confronted them.

"I think they just feel they had to stand up for the policemen that are in the community and serve the community," Hederman said. "You do feel around here a connection to the police (because) they're your neighbours."

Ja'Mal Green, a black activist who took part in the Tuesday protest, said what unfolded that night reminded him of watching Martin Luther King Jr. marching across his television screen.

"To see them so openly be racist to our faces, to tell us to go back home to the ghetto," he said, "felt like we were back in those '60s videos".

The Reverend Michael Pfleger, a white Roman Catholic priest who joined Green and others at the Tuesday night protest, said he had not felt "that kind of hatred" since a protest march decades ago in Chicago in which King was struck in the head with a rock.

"A police officer said, 'We've got to get you out of here. They hate you and I don't think we can protect you,'" Pfleger said.

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