Why do tragedies always occur on lovely days? The weather was so perfect Saturday, my family decided to get out of the house, drive over to Riverwoods, picnic on a blanket, walk in the Ryerson woods. We sat on a bench, watched the Des Plaines River roll by, and I manfully resisted explaining how important the river was to the history of Chicago, which began as a portage between it and the Chicago River and never stopped being the vital link between one place and another.
I'd seen a police station burn in Minneapolis — Minneapolis? I guess these Garrison Keillor cliches about Minnesotans are behind the times — and unrest in places like Louisville and Denver and Detroit. And honestly, felt a little smug. No problems like that in the City that Works. Lori Lightfoot, you go girl!
But around 4:30 p.m Twitter kept feeding indications that things weren't going well downtown. It was surprisingly difficult to find information. At 5 p.m., the local CBS, ABC and NBC weren't showing news — or maybe they were and I couldn't find it, among Hulu and Netflix and our hundreds of stations. CNN was doing what it does: reporting on the coasts, sort of.
I went upstairs and listened to the police scanner in my office, cops in my left ear, fire in my right. I'm going to write that for the paper tomorrow as soon as I'm done here, so a few thoughts, then I'd better get cracking. On the scanner every sentence seemed a crisis. Calls for help. "10-1," the cop version of "S.O.S." Though information there could be wrong, too. They kept talking about 3,000 protesters arriving from Indianapolis, and no one ever said "On what, 100 buses?" At 11 p.m. they were still talking about it, and sent a police helicopter to the Skyway to keep a lookout. I wanted to yell at the scanner, "C'mon guys, think!"
The famous outside agitators. The Minneapolis mayor said that all of those arrested the first night were strangers from somewhere else. Then the number became 80 percent. I have a tough time believing that. It's such a convenient truth. What happens, in these cases, is the grip of society — fraying apart already, thanks to our poisonous president, this virus and economic ruin — seems to loosen, that some people convince themselves that civilization has relaxed, the rules are off, and those people go crazy. It has as much to do with the murdered man, George Floyd, as the riots after Bulls championships had to do with Michael Jordan.
My wife and younger son watched TV, or tried to. CNN was horrible, the commentator — Don Lemon maybe? — intoning over and over how the country is burning and where is the leadership? Both exaggerated and inadequate. It seemed flat and fake and forced. Just tell us what's happening. They had the hardest time doing that. Friggin' TV news, it's like trying to breathe through a straw.
I fled back upstairs, listened to the cops chase the protesters around the city. That was the plan?
I had a plan. Before Saturday night happened — I'm loathe to call it "The George Floyd Riot" though that's the misnomer that'll probably be stuck to it, unless it's just part of the general chaos of the second half of 2020 — I was going to write about The Self-Isolation Choir, which is just what its marvelous name would suggest: a British group of homebound musicians united by a crisis. A friend on Facebook pointed out that they're doing the "Messiah" online at 1:30 p.m. CST. You can find more information at the link here. Sounds fun.
I'm not sure whether I will have the patience to sit there and listen, never mind the lightness of heart to sing along. Maybe that would be soothing. Maybe the images — from Twitter, and from Sun-Times photographers such as my friend Ashlee Rezin Garcia, who took the imagine on the front page above — will just jumble in my head and the music seem a mere buzzing.
Seeing downtown looted is oddly personal; I know these places. I was in Syd Jerome, the upscale men's clothier at Clark and Madison, the day before, Friday morning, talking to its personable owner, for a column on the opening of the city which now will probably seem woefully out-of-step on Wednesday, and is probably mooted by events anyway. Central Camera, "Since 1899" glowing in green neon as firefighters trying to pull the burglar grate back and smoke pours from within on Twitter. Such a lovely shop, all these old cameras, like a museum. The kind of place you lose and it doesn't come back.
It made me think of a previous riot, one of the Bulls championships. In the cold light of morning I walked up Michigan, assessing the damage. The window was boarded up at Stuart Brent's, and I went in to see what the irascible old bookseller had to say. I found him just sitting there, staring at the floor in his shattered shop, sunk into very unexpected dejection. So much that I immediately tried to cheer him up.
"Well at least they were looting books, right?" I said, with all the brightness I could muster. "Stealing books! A higher level of looter..."
He turned his face up to me, his eyes moist and old and terribly sad.
"They didn't steal the books," he said. "They just threw them in the street."