Two students share their perspective of the October 31 NU Community Not Cops protest where police officers tear gassed protesters.
The headline should be: “Police attack student activists.” The headline has been: ”Protests turn violent.” In a conflict between unarmed college students and armed police officers, media outlets and administration have decided that we the students are the aggressors and police are the victims.
We felt the violence, we cared for our injured peers, and we saw how police did not relent in the face of students’ suffering.
I came to the protest on the evening of October 31 wearing goggles from my chemistry course last year. We met on campus and organizers spoke of safety. Police cars already surrounded our area.
As we started marching, I noticed rows of officers. The first line of officers rode bikes and blinded us with lights. We used umbrellas to shield ourselves from their flashlights’ harsh glare. Behind them, police from out of town were armed with shields, guns, batons, and in full riot gear.
Standing in the back nearest to the officers, I saw police moving in on us before we were even down the first block. With every chant, they crept closer to our perimeter of students, who were armed with only bicycles, umbrellas and wooden signs.
We marched past the public library where so many of us have spent countless hours, studying for exams, writing papers. One student threw a small firecracker into the empty street behind the police. At this point, they turned to outright violence. First, police grabbed a student blocking them on the sidewalk. Then they began to pepper spray the crowd.
In front of the library, officers quickly moved in on us and escalated the situation by violently grabbing students. I saw an unmasked officer hit one of my friends with their bike.
I didn’t see any bricks. I didn’t hear any windows breaking before I felt the heat of pepper spray against my skin and the burn of it in my lungs.
I frantically tried to cover my eyes. I shouted for others to do the same; I was speaking to my friends but also to the cops scowling at us. The chemical agent was everywhere and we wanted everyone to stay safe.
And I remember the feeling. I’ll never forget how much I feared for my life and the lives of my friends.
But more than that, I’ll never forget that the person less than two feet away from me with a gun strapped to their hip and a baton in their hand felt the exact same fear as I did because of a bunch of college students. I heard my friends coughing violently and yelling for medics.
One protester coughed and fell to the pavement behind me. Her friend yelled “Medic!” and I turned to kneel by her side. As she clutched my arm I thought of my EMT training. Scene safety. With people packed around us there was no way to move. Airway, breathing, circulation. My eyes burned and ears rang.
Trying to keep a steady hand on her shoulder, I asked if she could talk to me but only heard gasps and felt her body shaking. I asked about asthma or allergies and the friend said, “Inhaler!” Seeing her fumbling with a small red blur, I wanted to help but my goggles were clouded. So I took them off and everything was like fire.
She got one puff. Then came shouting from a loudspeaker, “All persons must leave the area immediately or you will be arrested.” Next, the bark of dogs.
I didn’t see any bricks. I saw armed officers in riot gear with K-9 units. I heard the bark of dogs trained to kill.
We were now on the ground directly in front of a line of advancing officers. I held up my arm, hoping the big red cross made of duct tape might make them listen.
I didn’t see any bricks. I saw police roughhouse students as they walked backwards to protect themselves and their friends. I saw the police inching closer to me.
“Please stop. She can’t breathe. Respiratory emergency.”
As the police pushed and shoved students in order to infiltrate our group, I yelled for people to continue walking backwards. We started linking arms to keep ourselves upright and together. The person in front of me glanced back with fear in their eyes and tears streaming down their face. “Don’t worry,” I said. “Keep walking backwards, I won’t let you fall.”
“We need to get out of here.”
“We need to get out of here,” I mumbled to myself, squinting through the haze towards the front of my group.
We got away into an alley for a moment of relative peace. She took another inhale of her medication.
“You’re okay. We’ve got you. Try deep slow breaths.”
Fellow medics all around me washed the eyes and faces of our classmates.
In the street, we marched on.
“How’s your breathing now?”
I’ve never felt such relief as hearing her respond. She could talk; she could breathe.
In the face of brutality, we sang.
People were crying in the alley. A police car drove toward us; from the other side, the line of cops we’d just left closed in.
“This little light of mine,
I’m gonna let it shine…”
“Disperse now or you will be arrested!”
When everyone was well enough, together we ran to the group, the safest direction.
For the first time in my life I felt the weight of my Blackness. I realized my 3.67 GPA didn’t matter. My 5 feet, 2 inches didn’t matter. My mom sitting at home with my brothers, waiting for my text, didn’t matter because to the police I was there and I was Black.
You said, “It is always on my mind that the protester is someone’s child, and whether I agree or disagree with their efforts, they deserve to protest safely…I have a tremendous amount of respect for the officers who are keeping our sons and daughters safe.”
But I ask you, Mayor Hagerty, and I ask you, America:
Whose children are you keeping safe?
Karina Aguilar is a sociology major and pre-medical student at Northwestern University, class of 2021. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Vanessa Obi is a psychology major with sociology and critical Theory minors at Northwestern University, class of 2022. She can be reached at email@example.com.