Cain: A run-in with riot police
By Cindy Wojdyla Cain firstname.lastname@example.org October 6, 2012 12:04AM
Members of the Mobile Field Force Team arrest protesters as they block traffic on Center Point Dr. during a rally in support of striking Walmart warehouse workers in Elwood, Illinois, Monday, October 1, 2012. | Joseph P. Meier~Sun Times Media
Updated: January 15, 2013 1:41PM
When I agreed to become business reporter for The Herald-News, the biggest fear I had was that I would forget to order a vegetarian option at a chamber luncheon. I never dreamed my new beat would lead to possible chemical annihilation.
But that’s what happened on Monday at the Warehouse Workers for Justice rally in front of the Walmart warehouse in Elwood. Hundreds of people from labor, community and religious groups gathered to support 38 striking warehouse workers who quit their jobs to protest poor working conditions.
Near the end of the rally, a group of police officers dressed in black riot gear formed a menacing wedge behind the Walmart shipping gate. It was confusing because Will County sheriff’s deputies and Elwood police already were on the scene. Who were these scary looking guys, I wondered? Did Walmart hire its own paramilitary group to defend its turf? Were these men in black Walmart greeters from the future?
One of the super cops in a Humvee warned the crowd to disperse or it would face “chemical or less lethal munitions.”
Seriously? The crowd was well behaved and orderly as it marched, chanted and sang its way to the Walmart gate. A group of 17 that sat in the roadway to block the entrance was harmless and made up mostly of ministers.
Elwood Police Chief Fred Hayes told me the men in black were part of a mobile field force team from the Illinois Law Enforcement Alarms System (ILEAS), which is a mutual aid organization. About 100 cops from area departments make up the team and they’re used in situations where local police could be overwhelmed.
Hayes, who worked as a Joliet cop in 1999 when about 1,000 inebriated race fans ran amok along Jefferson Street after a Street Machine National race, said his law enforcement philosophy is to prepare for worst-case scenarios.
Plainfield police Chief John Konopek, who is the team commander for the ILEAS group, said you never know when a planned peaceful event will turn nasty.
“All it takes is one rock or bottle to hit an officer’s head and you have an entirely different situation,” he said.
The ILEAS unit doesn’t just arrest people, he added. Its members are deployed for search and rescue, natural disasters, traffic control, etc. Once its mission is done, the officers return to their own departments, he explained. Walmart did not pay for the team’s services.
The ILEAS police officers at the rally looked scary, but they were gentle as they helped some of the elderly sit-in participants get on their feet before being handcuffed.
Mark Meinster, one of the Warehouse Workers for Justice rally organizers, said the Elwood police response to the event was very professional.
“They effectively balanced protecting public safety with our right to protest under the First Amendment,” he said. “Having 600 people protest in a small town like Elwood is not an easy thing to deal with, and they handled it very well.”
But Meinster didn’t like the fact that Walmart let the riot cops marshal their forces behind the warehouse gate on private property. Walmart won’t return phone calls or meet with the striking workers who want to air their complaints about working conditions, Meinster said.
“But they allow riot cops to stage from their facility,” he said. “It shows their priorities are in the wrong place.”
In the end, I didn’t get tear-gassed, so I was able to write my story by deadline.
But the next time I cover a labor rally, I think I will bring a gas mask — just in case. That’s something I usually don’t have to worry about when I attend chamber of commerce events. Even if I’m confronted with Chicken Kiev.