A protest erupted in Lincoln Park in Chicago on Sunday. Attendees tore down fences and entered the park despite the restrictions Mayor Lori Lightfoot put in place. But there were no signs. No chanting slogans. Even the protesters didn’t admit they were protesting.
Chicago, like many cities, has been under a shelter-in-place order since the middle of March. Not content with shutting down businesses, Lightfoot and the Chicago Police Department closed down our most popular parks, including Lincoln Park, after a nice day drew crowds to the lake.
That day, I went for a run through downtown Chicago then up to the south end of Lincoln Park. The park was fenced off, along with some entrances blocked by heavy wooden slats and the sidewalk by plastic webbing. One runner, from inside the fence, told me why: “I know a couple weeks ago it was pretty packed in here. That’s when the fences went up.”
Chicago Residents Didn’t Put up with Park Closures
Clay Stroup, a resident of the Lincoln Park neighborhood, described on Facebook what had been happening that day, saying, “Cops are parked at common entry areas. They are watching people jump the fences, even snapping pictures on their cell phones (probably to show their buddies). A fence gets knocked down, a city worker is called to put it back up. Then someone makes a hole in the fence. The hole slowly gets bigger, until someone comes along … and just rips the entire thing open. Then everyone starts using the opening until a city worker comes by to patch it up again. And round and round we go.”
Lightfoot had promised strict enforcement of the closures. She warned that violations of her social-distancing policies would start with a warning, a $500 fine, and then the offenders would be “subject to physical arrest.”
On Sunday, Chicagoans didn’t care. I saw police cars flashing their lights and driving through the park’s paths, but they didn’t stop anyone. Alex, from outside the fence, observed, “There’s a parked [police] car over there that’s not doing anything. We walked by like six police guys in paramilitary gear doing f-cking nothing. And like what? We’re supposed to independently decide what rules we’re supposed to follow?”
But that’s exactly what Chicago denizens did. By 4:00 p.m., the fence was torn down along every pathway into the park. Heavy wooden fences blocking tunnel entrances had been moved to the side, and similar fences along the South Pond walkways had been trampled underfoot.
This wasn’t a right-wing protest chanting outside the mayor’s office. Most Chicago citizens just thought the Lincoln Park restrictions were bad policy.
Are Fences a Necessary Evil? Or Just Evil?
I interviewed several people on the wrong side of the fence, many of whom spoke anonymously or gave only their first names for fear of “getting into trouble.”
Some were openly hostile to the Lightfoot administration. Eric got there before the wooden fences were down. When I saw him, he was trying, unsuccessfully, to pull up one of the metal fence posts. “They’re treating us like children. … It’s almost like it’s punitive,” he said angrily. “I’ve lived in Chicago 27 years, and I’m done.”
One woman said, “To have all this open ground here where we can social-distance perfectly. Instead, we’re crowded on the sidewalk, and we have to go into the street with cars going by, for fear of getting hit by a car, for fear of getting COVID.” She wondered, “How much does this cost the taxpayers? That’s what I want to know. … Worst mayor ever.”
Not everyone blamed Chicago government. “I think [Lightfoot is] doing a great job and trying to keep us safe. If we make this investment of a month or two, and it saves people’s lives, why not?” From the wrong side of the fence, one middle-aged woman said, “I think it’s a necessary evil … because people crowd too much. It’s better to be closed.”
When asked why she was on the wrong side of the fence, she laughed, “I’m a bad taxpayer. … We live in the neighborhood, so we feel like we’re entitled to a little extra than the ordinary citizen.” Walking six feet away, her friend said, “I pay a lot in taxes. … I live in high-density housing, a big skyscraper, and I have to get out.”
Most people are just trying to be practical. One man ducked under the fence with his daughter, who was riding a scooter. “I just think that if everybody accumulates … along the park, it’s more dangerous [than] if you take the space available,” he said.
Kevin spoke to me after he stopped mid-run to think about the best way to get around the fence. “I think it’s really dumb, ’cause it’s only making people move closer together. … You can see the cops sitting there, turning a blind eye to everything.”
Alexandra agreed. “I feel like it’s making people be in a smaller space. The space is filled with fields that people can spread out. Now we can’t.” When asked what she thought of the mayor’s response to the pandemic, she said, “Lori is [being] pretty strict, which is good. I think she’s being pretty good about it. Hopefully it ends soon.”
Chicago Is Safely Finding its Freedom
Some people didn’t know they were breaking the law. Wade observed, “I came in on the north side, and it’s pretty open … no fences. I guess it’s a deterrent.” When asked about the people hopping the fence, he said, “We’re a little bit resilient. I think that’s the Chicago part of us. As long as people are keeping distance, it’s OK.”
Despite his misgivings about the park, he still supported the way the city has handled the crisis, saying, “I actually think it’s really good. I was not a huge Lori Lightfoot person. … I’m really impressed by how we’ve kinda gone about it. It’s obviously a pretty serious situation, and the city is taking it seriously. ”
Later that afternoon, the park was full of people, everyone still social distancing. Two couples were lying out in the sun and talking, each far enough away from each other to be safe. Many people walked the park in masks. Even dog owners let their pets greet each other at the end of six-foot leashes.
This is what freedom looks like: tearing down fences but still staying safe. It might be messy. It can’t be controlled by someone in an office in downtown Chicago or Springfield, but it does offer flexibility to find creative ways to be free and safe. Chicagoans proved they can be trusted with that freedom.