The new iPhones seemed tantalizingly within reach — separated from the cold, rainy street only by the spotless glass facade of the North Michigan Avenue Apple store, and a line of protesters, determined to keep would-be shoppers out.
“I’m an American!” hollered an angry woman in a red raincoat as she made a doomed attempt to force her way through the scrum of protesters. “I just want to get in the store. … I just want to shop!”
A phalanx of Apple employees looked out on the chaos from the warmth of the store. A handful of customers jabbed fingers at iPads, seemingly oblivious.
Similarly discordant scenes were repeated up and down Chicago’s Magnificent Mile on Black Friday as hundreds of activists protesting the fatal shooting of Chicago teenager Laquan McDonald by a Chicago police officer attempted a Black Friday “blackout” and to bring a halt to commerce on the busiest shopping day of the year.
But like many shoppers inconvenienced by the protest, the seething woman outside the Apple store struggled to understand what McDonald’s death and the 13-month delay to bring charges against the officer had to do with her. Like most of the aggrieved, she refused to give her full name, saying she lived downtown and identifying herself only as Marcia, 60.
She nodded as her companion, Jay Krishnamurthy, 54, said, “the whole South Side is on fire. Why don’t they tackle the violence in their own communities?” She nodded again when he said of McDonald’s killing, “Mistakes do happen.”
Apple wasn’t the only store affected by the clash. Protesters blocked the entrances to dozens of high-end stores, turning a handful of customers away by force and dissuading many more simply by their presence.
Ralph Lauren, Banana Republic, Neiman Marcus, Tiffany & Co., Saks Fifth Avenue, Victoria’s Secret, Burberry, the Disney Store and Brooks Brothers were among those blocked for parts of the afternoon. Other stores and retail centers, including Water Tower Place, American Girl and Salvatore Ferragamo temporarily locked their doors to keep protesters out. And yet other stores were left free to go about their business, seemingly spared at random.
Retailers reluctant to discuss what effect the protests had on their bottom line declined to talk on the record, and determining the protest’s impact was made harder by both a growing trend toward online holiday shopping and miserable November weather that likely kept some shoppers and protesters at home.
But one luxury store manager said the effects were “obviously bad for us” as the typical Black Friday scenes of sidewalks and stores packed to the rafters with shoppers fighting for bargains were replaced by sparsely occupied stores and protesters wandering along the middle of what became for much of the afternoon a pedestrianized North Michigan Avenue.
What few shoppers there were browsed clothes and gadgets to piped-in Muzak and Frank Sinatra Christmas songs while a few feet away outside, protesters chanted through bullhorns. In one exchange, two women who were seeking lunch got in a spirited argument about which was the entrance to the Ralph Lauren store and which was the entrance to the Ralph Lauren restaurant, with a protester telling them, “Ain’t no shopping here today.”
“I thought it was a joke,” said frustrated West Loop resident Nilo Khan, 30, after she and other shoppers were turned away from Zara by protesters. “We’re not trying to stop them from protesting, so why should they stop us from shopping?”
Some shoppers managed to break through the protesters’ line. At Topshop, a middle-aged man in a ball cap bearing “Iowa” punched his way through the line in a successful effort to get access to cut-price British fashions.
And at Zara, a Schaumburg man who gave his name only as Scott, 31, violently burst through the line and then through a revolving door like a running back looking to make a first down.
“I’m looking for a sports jacket,” he said as he got his breath back. “Compared to what’s happening in Syria, what’s happening here is nothing much.
“The only thing new is that there’s a video of this shooting,” Scott said. “It’s been going on forever. None of these people could even tell you why they’re protesting.”
Outside, one of the protesters who tried to hold him back, Juliana Castillo, 15, of Madison, Wis., had a simple retort to that. She was protesting “to make people that can’t see know that black lives matter,” she said.
Not all shoppers brushed off the demonstration. Plenty stood at the side and snapped cellphone photos of the protest.
“I think it’s great that our kids can see this,” said Andy Palms, who came with his wife and three children from Ann Arbor, Mich., to shop and celebrate Thanksgiving in Chicago.
Four college students from Hong Kong who are studying in the Boston area said they would not have come shopping if they’d known about the protest.
“If I’d known, I would have waited until Cyber Monday. The deals are just as good,” said Jacqueline Lee, 20, who also expressed sympathy for the protesters’ cause.
Others took a more draconian line. Vince Tribo, 84, was out shopping for underwear. He said he lived in Flossmoor but also keeps a downtown condo, and that he “doesn’t really believe in protesting.”
“I grew up in Italy under Mussolini — I wasn’t brought up with all this,” he confided with a smile, gesturing to the crowd, which was chanting that McDonald had been shot 16 times. “There was more discipline and law and order.”
“My mother always said that before Mussolini came to power it was lawless,” he added, before gesturing to the crowd again and adding, “it was like this.”