SOCIETY/ Pandemic and protests: Chicago and the employees of ‘Abigail’
Last summer, I worked at ‘Abigail’, a major retailer in Chicago. From chatting with clients all day to spacing out hangers on clothing racks. I went home every day tired, but content from the day’s activities. Most of all, I enjoyed the company of my coworkers. We are all so different. Many were born and raised in Chicago’s south side, some were from nearby towns/cities, and others, like me, had lived much of their life abroad.
Throughout my time there I became more aware of the underlying racial tensions that characterise the US. Having moved to Chile at age 12, with annual visits back to the US in the company of my extended family, I simply had not had sufficient exposure to real life in America.
The focus of this article, however, is not to talk about me. I am to highlight the experiences of my former colleagues in the past months first dealing with the pandemic, and now, actively involving themselves in the protests and the Black Lives Matter movement. While the two events are independent of one another, both have greatly impacted Abigail and its employees. I am immensely humbled that my former colleagues trusted me with their experiences.
Beth was working the day that the store announced it would be closing. In her opinion, “the store should have been closed a week before.” Beth is a Jewish, middle-aged white woman. Samantha, a young black woman who recently graduated from college, was also working the day the store closed. In fact, it was her birthday––March 14th: “they were lowkey trying to send me home that day, but I stayed,” she tells me, “I needed that paycheck”.
Diane was one of my funniest colleagues, and she told me that at the time, she thought the pandemic would last two weeks. “At first I was like ‘damn I got a break’! But after I got tired of being in the house.” Diane, a young black woman, just graduated from college with a degree in computer science. She hopes to find a new job related to her degree. Both Diane and Samantha were born and raised in Chicago.
Abigail, like every other retailer on Chicago’s Michigan Avenue, furloughed all of its employees. Erika, a young Hispanic woman, tells me that everyone received a call from a manager a few days after the store closed urging them to file for unemployment benefits immediately. All of my former coworkers at Abigail have not been able to find a new job and many have not yet begun to receive unemployment benefits. Beth, unlike the others, was able to successfully file for unemployment benefits. She now receives more every month than she would have been paid if she were still working at the store.
Samantha has been unable to successfully file for unemployment benefits, despite calling as many as 200 times in a single day since March to begin receiving benefits. While her family has been financially secure since both of her mother’s jobs have continued to pay her salary, once the second salary stops coming in, as she has been unable to do that work remotely, things will get much more difficult.
Erika has felt guilt during the pandemic. Guilt because she has been staying with her boyfriend’s family that live in rural Illinois while the rest of her family remains in Chicago, a packed city. There have been nights where she has cried. “I’ve felt guilty that I could not help them more.”
Erika phrased it clearest when I spoke with her, “the protests are long overdue.”
The murder of George Floyd at the hands of a Minneapolis police officer was “the last domino,” in Samantha’s words. Former police officers over the years have come forward describing commands to confront ‘suspicious’ African American and Latinx young adults, and as per the movie 13th (2016), 1/3 of African American men are imprisoned during their lifetime compared to 1/17 for White men.
How does the racism so deeply rooted into the American system play out in day-to-day life? I asked my former colleagues about their experiences with race relations. Diane’s immediate response was, “well I’ve been called the n-word before by White people… the last time was pretty recent, too.” She tells me that when it happened, her friends “were like ‘oh my gosh, oh my gosh,’ but I’ve been called it before, so I wasn’t as surprised.”
Tawan, Erika’s friend, described that on a day-to-day basis, it is not so much “blatant racism, but rather many micro things.” He explained that he has one black coworker at his online tech support job. He feels like the two of them are almost expected to represent the entire black population at work when racially rigged events make news headlines. “People want us to teach them how to act,” Tawan said to me.
When I asked my former coworkers and their friends about the protests open-endedly, almost all first addressed the looting in their response. Samantha explained that “all protests start out peacefully, but then the crowd gradually leaves, and rioters and looters have come out.” Samantha also said that this time, something about the protests “feels different.” Diane agreed, “I think it feels different because our city is messed up now,” Diane answered, “the protests are good, but the looting and the rioting is not cool.”
Beth said to me that “previously, the black community did not have the white support. The only way to get the white support in the past was to be non-violent––look at MLK.” Now, she feels somewhat optimistic “in the sense that there is more support.” Nevertheless, Samantha has been bothered by “the news not telling the whole truth.”
Over the next few days after our conversation, she shared some videos with me showing the discrepancy between footage shown on TV and original videos taken at the protests––often longer than the TV footage by no more than 20 seconds but showing starkly different realities. Tawan has felt overall that the media “is sensationalising a lot with the looting and stuff, but the police with the blatant force that they’re using like the rubber bullets and tear gas is not shown as much as looting.”
Tawan attended the early protests in Chicago. He has a passion for photography––the cover image for this article was taken by him. He described the police as being an antagonizing force by showing up in riot gear “and when people see that they question ‘are you here for war, or what are you here for?’”. Jasmine compared the police response to protests to those in Chile back in November as she was studying abroad there when the pandemic began. “’Is that Chile or is that the US,’ I asked myself when I first started seeing videos of the US,” she told me.
Abigail was starting to slowly bring back employees for online orders, but then as a result of the nationwide protests, the store was badly looted––so was almost every other building on Michigan Avenue and adjacent streets––except for Trump Tower which was heavily protected by police.
For those from Abigail that to this day have not gotten unemployment benefits, financial stability is an increasing concern. Even those who have managed to get the benefits, like Beth, are being as careful as ever not to spend more than needed––the benefits only last for so long. The Black Lives Matter movement has also highlighted other inequalities, like socioeconomic and health care differences, which have been evident throughout the pandemic.
Right before I left Chicago to return to London, I walked around the downtown area with my parents joining protests walking around the city. There were humvees accompanied by the National Guard at almost every street corner in the downtown area. I had never seen anything like this before. I had my dad take a picture of me with the monster vehicle in the background. A minute later I was crossing the street and the group of National Guard officers that had seen me take my photo smiled at me and wished me a good day. I did not think I would be shot or arrested for a split second as I carried out these actions.
That’s my white privilege. It’s a privilege that everyone should be entitled to, but not all receive.