The looting of our minds

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By Michael Romain

Staff Reporter

For me, it started on Sunday afternoon. I was driving east on Madison into the city to get a sense of the mood, expecting to see what I had gotten used to seeing in the five years of protests and parades and Lollapaloozas that have gripped the Loop, but have no stronghold on the West Side, where chaos and euphoria — rather than coming in fits and starts — constitutes simply living. 

Here, the stores are already boarded up, shards of glass are always and forever being swept away. Here, the pain of loss or of some injustice is always lamented. There are always protests (and, yes, against crime perpetrated by people other than the police). Here, life goes on after a million minor tragedies. 

And that's how the trip started and continued a block after crossing Austin Boulevard (I remember being relieved, as I always am, by the sight of the 15th District police headquarters). But as I drove east past Laramie and Lavergne and Cicero, I gradually became even more tense than I typically am on the West Side. 

The traffic slowed for bodies walking frenetically into the street. Vehicles u-turned in front and beside mine. Those cars that always wrack my nerves: the threatening-looking ones with tinted windows and overlarge rims blaring overloud, bass-heavy rap swerved in and out of gaps between other cars at a standstill. 

I drove a few more blocks east and noticed the source of the tension — a crowd of people in front of a Family Dollar. Stopped at a red light on Kildare, I glanced at a man walking on the other side of the street with a large cardboard box. People were carrying merchandise into cars in the store's parking lot. Instead of driving another block, I turned left and headed for Washington, past a well-known and prominent church, whose pastor was walking quizzically to his car, as if noticing the scene for the first time. His presence brought me some comfort. That was before or after I heard what sounded like a gunshot. 

I sped anxiously on Washington, the sounds of sirens flanking me, anticipating, as I perhaps never have before, the relative safety and serenity of Oak Park.

For me, it continued hours later. As stores near where I live in Maywood began to close, I headed out to drive around and spotted a caravan of cars, engines revved and weaving in traffic near a shopping center in Melrose Park. Hours later, I saw the mayor of Maywood standing beside the village manager. They were guarding our only grocery store after reports that its alcohol inventory was a target for looting. Our small police force was dispersed elsewhere

And it continued on Monday, when the mayor and the manager stood at a corner outside of Proviso East, this time with the police chief, in anticipation of a protest they heard was planned to happen at 3 p.m. Two people showed up — a married couple who lives in town. They said they'd gotten wind of the "protest" on social media, but no one (not even the authorities) could tell me where the information originated or who planned the demonstration and for what purpose.

And it continued into the evening, when I noticed two expressway entrance ramps into my town closed before heading home to listen to the police scanner well past midnight. I heard reports of suspicious vehicles and broken windows and shots fired and armed robberies. I heard police running license plates from Alabama and Arizona. I took breaks from the scanner to read news reports of vigilante justice happening in Cicero and to belatedly learn of a car "linked to an attempted looting incident" on fire in Oak Park.

And it continued on Tuesday, when I woke up to video footage released by North Riverside police of a black man shot execution-style on Sunday by another black man wearing a hoodie and a medical mask. 

And that was almost enough to push me past my breaking point, to say, 'F— it' and start rooting for the National Guard to come rushing in like the Allied forces on D-Day; to start saying, 'Well, the president has a point,' as he mobilizes the military; to go to YouTube and grin and giggle at the famous Chris Rock routine about black people vs. n—as, as a way of justifying the ramped up aggression that some part of my subconscious hopes meets those threatening tinted window travelers; to pine for the days when the looting merely happened inside of our national treasury and not in my community. 

I have not flirted with the forces of authoritarianism this intensely since my late teens and early 20s, when I fashioned myself something of a conservative and Milton Friedman's Capitalism and Freedom was (for about six months) my Bible; and I thought Dinesh D'Souza was an actual scholar; and I watched with glee whenever Bill O'Reilly "destroyed" a member of the New Black Panthers; and I would argue with people about how the ghetto was actually formed because there was something wrong with black culture (trust me, my arguments were very sophisticated). 

When I saw the video of that young black man from Austin shot execution-style outside the Olive Garden in North Riverside, I briefly forgot that George Floyd was dead; had briefly forgotten the history of structural racism I've been reading these last three months in quarantine. I became a fan boy of the police and whatever forces of state might quell this chaos. I was something of my younger self again. 

I briefly forgot that, based on multiple reports from suburban residents who demonstrated downtown on Saturday, most protesters were peaceful and most taggers and arsonists they came across were not black; and that elected officials across the country, including Maywood's mayor, are telling us that they think there is a campaign of disinformation happening to deliberately stoke this anarchic chaos. 

But the chaos is a symptom of our problems and should not be confused with peaceful actions targeting those problems' deep, centuries-old roots. Now is not the time for undisciplined thinking and for putting human beings (whether they be police or protesters) and living ideas (like 'law and order' or justice) into lazy categories. We need laws that are just, we need civil order that is premised on equity, we need police who are not racists, we need actual equality of opportunity for black people, and we need an economy that values all people over profits. 

These things are not mutually exclusive, but there are forces that would persuade us that each is alien to the other.  

Yes, we must be vigilant about the looting of businesses, but we must be even more on guard against the looting of our minds. 

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Reader Comments

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George Irving Thompson from Oak Park  

Posted: June 5th, 2020 12:34 AM

Very well written reflection on your experience and our need to be objective and thoughtful as we attempt to understand and resolve social issues. God Bless you.

John Abbott from Oak Park  

Posted: June 3rd, 2020 5:35 PM

Michael, I join others in thanking you for this. In these chaotic times (and I've a feeling things will get a lot wilder still in the coming weeks and months), we need to anchor our thoughts and actions as deeply and truthfully as we can. In your capacity as journalist, you have provided genuine leadership, setting an example for us all.

William Dwyer Jr.  

Posted: June 3rd, 2020 2:43 PM

No. I am not "open to the possibilities of the media also being complicit," unless by "media" you mean Fox News. And I understand quite clearly why it's referred to as fake news- doing so aids Trump and his vassels in their task of undermining legitimate American institutions for their own benefit. And I believe that, in fact, many people understand what is taken place- the targeted, intentional, systematic undermining of our democracy. That's the real insurrection

Bob Jakoubek  

Posted: June 3rd, 2020 1:22 PM

Michael, I really appreciate that you are sharing your experiences and perspectives. Well written and engaging. God bless and Stay Safe!

Tommy McCoy  

Posted: June 3rd, 2020 11:20 AM

William Dwyer Jr. It seems you have the understanding of what is going on although it is not just Russia. The owner of facebook will allow anything Trump wants to send out. Twitter will censor any violence. Newspapers use facebook to verify people. If you can open to the possibilities of the media also being complicit you will be able to further understand why it has been continued to be called fake news. Not many can imagine what is being taken place. I am predicting that we are beyond just another voting year. We have gone past the need to even vote. Now that sounds impossible, and I hope that I am wrong although when you pull a law from the 1800's and able to use it, then there are many things that can be pulled. To many people still think we are protected by the Constitution. I am confident that you read the American Patriot Act, and maybe you know this has been a long time coming

William Dwyer Jr.  

Posted: June 3rd, 2020 10:31 AM

@ Frank Hansen. Yep, straight out of the Russian playbook. And that's not me saying it- that's from Trump's own Department of Justice, which indicted Russian military operatives, and numerous US intelligence agencies, which unanimously determined there was and continues to be concerted efforts by Russia to stoke fear, anger, divisiveness and even violence in the United States via Twitter, Facebook, Instagram and other social media.

Jim Frenkel  

Posted: June 3rd, 2020 9:55 AM

Very well written piece. Thank you.

Jessica Mackinnon from Oak Park  

Posted: June 3rd, 2020 9:45 AM

As always, Michael provides an insightful analysis of a difficult situation. Thank you for sharing your journey--the short one into the city and the long one in your life.

Frank Hansen from Oak Park  

Posted: June 3rd, 2020 7:58 AM

Our minds are indeed under assault and at risk of being looted. Google "CMU covid bots" to read about a recent Carnegie Mellon University study that found around half of the twitter accounts talking about Covid-19 and "reopening America" are very likely orchestrated bots, apparently with the purpose of sewing division among us. The researchers note that this kind of orchestrated social media campaign matches the Russian or Chinese playbooks. This study was done before the killing of George Floyd and the recent waves of protests. I'm no expert but I imagine it would be trivial to re-purpose the "reopening America" bots to exploit divisions and anxiety surrounding the recent protests and looting. Kudos to Romain for acknowledging that he heard the siren call of authoritarian darkness but nonetheless walked himself back from the edge.

Reesheda Graham Washington from Oak Park  

Posted: June 3rd, 2020 6:51 AM

Michael. I really appreciate the depth of narrative and vulnerability you have gifted us with in your last few pieces. Their is an abandonment of protocol that is revealing your authenticity unapologetically, and I am here for it! It reminds me of that oart in the wiz after the wicked witch dies, and thpse she has been oppressing sing, "Can You Feel a Brand New Day?" I can feel a brand new day in your voice, tone, death, and cadence, and I feel honored by your willingness to courageously and unapologetically share it with your readership. My hope is that we all appreciate the candid lens for what it is, and while we may have dissenting views, that we will be honoring in how we share them in commentary, as this gift, your voice, is not one to which we are entitled. Thank you, and keep it coming!

Renee Pleshar from Oak Park  

Posted: June 2nd, 2020 10:08 PM

You've outdone yourself, Michael. I often find your pieces very interesting and useful to read, but this one is outstanding - wonderfully written, honest, frank, personal AND universal. Thank you for your insights and challenges to focus all those conflicting thoughts and feelings within the proper perspective. I intend to share your column with many others.

Bill Higgins  

Posted: June 2nd, 2020 9:23 PM

Michael. well documented description of your journey through the west side. Being from the west side I took that route for years & witnessed many similar experiences. One that stands out was getting off The Ike at Kostner to witness the riots on Madison during MLK upheaval in 1968. I was in a wild atmosphere of fires, shootings(10 O'clock) with my 7 month pregnant wife. There was a huge sigh of relief when we crossed Austin Blvd. I still travel that same route.

Rosalio Medina  

Posted: June 2nd, 2020 9:01 PM

Thanks Michael you always has very positive and interesting point of view .

Bob Larson  

Posted: June 2nd, 2020 8:58 PM

Excellent article Michael. I'm very disappointed in the people in our country. I know things are not perfect but I thought things were getting better. But it appears we're back to where we were in the 60's. I'm very discouraged.

Marlene Scott from Oak Park  

Posted: June 2nd, 2020 8:41 PM

Excellent reporting and beautifully written.

Karen Skinner from River Forest  

Posted: June 2nd, 2020 8:30 PM

I've been having thoughts like this, too. Not the same experiences or past as Michael, but fear of "the looting of our minds". Fear, that in the midst of so much confusion and heartache, so many threats and violence, that we will lose the courage and energy it takes to be truly insightful. I am afraid we will become exhausted and revert to the worst versions of ourselves. I find that quiet thought and prayer help to keep me centered and moving forward in my mind. Onward!

Tommy McCoy  

Posted: June 2nd, 2020 8:22 PM

Thank you for your story, Michael Romain. I like the fairness you gave your experience. My mind is not looted. I understand how this is orchestrated for when the time was right. If you watched the president have peaceful protester's pushed out of the area by the support of Active Military force, so he could walk over to a Church, to hold up a Bible, for a photo opportunity that was very strange for any thinking person. If you listen back to his statement, you will find him saying his support for the Second Amendment which is a call to his followers to pick up arms to defend themselves. To put the strategy into simple terms, a person starts a fire and walks away. Others come in and add to the fire. The original fire starter comes back and puts out the fire and becomes the hero. If you have not been in the Active Military, you would never want the Active Military to take to the streets. The National Guard is better suited for extra support. I know and have experienced many times what you did on that drive you took down Madison street. You never want to be in a riot and have a group chase you with such anger on their faces. I was fortunate

William Dwyer Jr.  

Posted: June 2nd, 2020 6:14 PM

I look forward to the dialogue you hope for, Michael. But gotta ask- Bill O'Reilly?

Mary Kay O'Grady  

Posted: June 2nd, 2020 6:02 PM

Michael Romain, be brave. You're doing a great job. We shall overcome!

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