CHICAGO – Hundreds of protesters attempting to topple the city’s Christopher Columbus statue faced off with dozens of Chicago police Friday evening in an encounter that turned violent.
Twelve people were arrested and could “potentially face charges,” including battery to an officer, mob action or other felonies, police said, after some protesters began throwing objects at officers, who hit protesters with their batons.
About 18 officers were injured, police said. Some were treated on the scene by paramedics while others were transported to the hospital.
Photos and videos of the incident shared to social media showed protesters bleeding from the mouth. At least one protester – 18-year-old Miracle Boyd with GoodKids MadCity, an anti-gun violence group – had her teeth knocked out when an officer punched her, according to video of the assault shared by the organization.
Boyd went to the hospital Friday night and was doing better Saturday morning, said Kofi Ademola, a Black Lives Matter organizer and spokesperson for GoodKids MadCity.
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The protesters gathered in Grant Park on Friday afternoon for a “Black, Indigenous Solidarity Rally” organized by more than a dozen Chicago-based organizations. The event called for “the abolishment of police and the redistribution of funds to the people of Chicago,” according to the Facebook event page.
“We built this country as Black and Indigenous peoples. Our knowledge and labor has been exploited for too long,” the organizers wrote on the event page.
After the rally, some protesters moved south toward the statue, where police had gathered to protect it. Dozens of protesters, many holding black umbrellas, attempted to hurdle the short stone wall encircling the statue, according to dozens of videos shared to social media.
“Some members of the crowd turned on police and used the protest to attack officers with fireworks, rocks, frozen bottles, and other objects,” police said in a statement early Saturday.
In their official statement, police did not say what happened after protesters began throwing objects.
“We do not want to engage in violent clashes with protesters, but when the law is being broken, our oath demands that we act to uphold the law,” Chicago Police Superintendent wrote on Twitter Saturday afternoon.
According to dozens of videos shared to social media, police began to beat back protesters with batons and fired what appeared to be teargas. Amika Tendaji, an organizer with Black Lives Matter Chicago, said she saw people’s heads “gushing with blood.”
“With incredible rage and brutality, they pepper-sprayed until the air was thick with teargas. They beat young people – we’re talking about students,” Tendaji said in a Saturday morning press conference, wearing a face mask baring the words “defund the police.”
Anthony Tamez-Pochel, co-president of the Chi Nations Youth Council, said Saturday that the protest was “a beautiful display of Black and Indigenous solidarity that was met with pepper spray and batons by gun-holding police officers.”
Police reinforcements arrived on the scene, and protesters dispersed Friday evening.
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At least one reporter said he was assaulted by officers while covering the protest.
“I was just assaulted by an officer for crossing the road to my bicycle while holding up my press badge and he called me a ‘smart ass’ for doing so, accused me of wanting to start a problem. I yelled help, he said ‘you’re gonna need help’ before throwing me,” Block Club Chi reporter Colin Boyle wrote on Twitter, where he posted video of the encounter.
Another journalist, CBSChicago reporter Marissa Parra, said on Twitter that an officer used his baton to swat her phone out of her hand while she was doing a live hit, and that he kicked it after it landed on the street. She also posted video of the incident.
Chicago police said in a statement that the department “strives to treat all individuals our officers encounter with respect.”
“We do not tolerate misconduct of any kind and if any wrongdoing is discovered, officers will be held accountable,” police said.
Images and videos of the statue shared to social media following the encounter showed the statue covered in graffiti.
“This is a difficult moment in our history. I know Chicagoans are frustrated and impatient for change,” Mayor Lori Lightfoot said in a statement Saturday afternoon. “It is my sincere hope that we can strike the right balance to ensure people can rightfully express themselves & their First Amendment rights, but do so in a way that does not put anyone’s physical safety at risk. That would be consistent with our long history of peaceful protest.”
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Lightfoot said she supports the rights of protesters and that “the history and stories of the lives of Indigenous People here in Chicago need to be lifted up and celebrated.”
But Lightfoot condemned the “violent acts” of protesters, saying that throwing objects at officers was “unacceptable and put everyone at risk.”
Lightfoot said the reports of excessive force by police are “also unacceptable” and that she had spoken to the director of the city’s civilian police oversight agency, which “stands ready to address these complaints and will ensure that each of these is dealt with and investigated.”
“We will not spare any resources to do so,” Lightfoot said.
The debate around which historical figures deserve to be memorialized has intensified in recent weeks, since the deaths of Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor and George Floyd launched a national reckoning on racial inequality.
Groups of protesters in some cities have taken it upon themselves to remove the statues before states and localities intervene. Protesters toppled a statue of Confederate President Jefferson Davis in Richmond, Virginia, and ripped a brass cast of Charles Linn, a captain in the Confederate Navy, from its base in Birmingham, Alabama.
Many groups also have turned their attention to other prominent historic figures, including Christopher Columbus. More attention has been given in recent years to Columbus, who many say should be remembered as a violent colonizer responsible for countless deaths of indigenous Americans.
A statue of Columbus was removed from outside the city hall of Columbus, Ohio, earlier this month, after the mayor called for its removal. In Baltimore, Maryland, protesters on the Fourth of July pulled down a statue of Columbus and threw it into the city’s Inner Harbor.
“That statue is a symbol of a history that we need to acknowledge but divorce ourselves from. That statue has nothing to (do) with where Chicago is going, and our future. And the world has spoken on that,” Tendaji said. “We cannot have our youth being brutality beaten over a statue that shouldn’t be here in the first place.”
Chicago Ald. Daniel La Spata, who said three of his four grandparents came from Italy, said he supported the protesters’ desire to take down the statue of Columbus.
“I would tear down that statue with my two hands if I could,” he said Saturday morning. “I say to Mayor Lightfoot, on behalf of the Italian American community … tear down this statue. In our name, tear down this statue.”
Contributing: Ryan W. Miller, USA TODAY
Follow USA TODAY NOW reporter Grace Hauck on Twitter @grace_hauck