DOWNTOWN — Local Black Lives Matter protesters have garnered lots of attention in the past year, as well as "some extra room" in the eyes of the law, Downtown's police commander said.
Robert Klich, who was named commander of the city's Central Police District in December, said police have been choosing their battles since street protests decrying police brutality broke out late last year.
"If somebody is lawfully exercising their First Amendment right I’ll defend that to my last breath," Klich said Monday. "But [at] a lot of these protests there have been illegal activities where we have stepped back because we picked our fights."
"We’ve given them some extra room. Regardless of what protest it is, it’s not worth it to me to go in and grab one person for violating the law, and then I’m going to be fighting with 100 people," Klich said.
The remarks, delivered during a town hall meeting hosted by Ald. Sophia King (4th), offer a rare moment of candor from local law enforcement as they police massive street protests that have only grown since last year's release of a video showing police officer Jason Van Dyke shoot and kill Laquan McDonald, a black Chicago teenager.
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The protests continued when local activists took to Downtown streets for five straight days earlier this month following the recorded police killings of Philando Castile and Alton Sterling, two other black men whose deaths sparked national outcry.
"These instances of running through the streets, fighting with police officers, fighting with the public blocking the streets, those are illegal acts," Klich said.
The demonstrations have changed the political climate in Chicago, and maybe even elections. And while protests have been mostly peaceful and without incident, a few ended with arrests of prominent activists.
Malcolm London, a local Black Lives Matter activist, was charged with hitting a police officer in Grant Park the night the Laquan McDonald video was released. The charges were later dropped.
Lamon Reccord, another local organizer, was briefly detained for allegedly hitting a police commander during a subsequent protest, but was released without charges.
And activist Ja'Mal Green has been charged with hitting and attempting to disarm another police commander during a protest at the Taste of Chicago. Green is out on bond as he awaits trial.
London, Reccord and Green all denied allegations that they hit an officer.
The protests have dragged down police morale, and Mayor Rahm Emanuel said Monday that officers here "almost feel hunted." Given the recent killings of police officers in Dallas and Baton Rouge, La., the "hunted" term carries extra weight.
"If officers hear from the residents of Chicago 'thank-you for dedicating your service to the rest of us' ... it will go a long way to lifting their morale, knowing they have friends in the neighborhoods and communities,'" Emanuel said.
Jedidiah Brown, another local activist, said that the police department's perspective is "flawed." Other events, like the annual Pride Parade or Blackhawks and Cubs postseason wins, draw big, often unruly crowds that don't receive the same scrutiny as the Black Lives Matter movement, he said.
"I don’t feel that they view our public expression of outrage as lawful, they look at us as criminals, we’re kind of profiled coming into protest," Brown said. "That perspective again relates to police and community, and that’s why it’s hard to bridge it."
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