Divided We Stand: America’s Political Divide is turning quiet suburbs into political hotspots (Photo & Audio story)

How Trump and Covid have sowed division and fear of violence in Chicago’s suburbia and around the country

Audio by Alex Harrison
Text and Photos by Linus Hoeller

Listen to the audio story with original interviews from Northbrook, IL here

Northbrook is a typical Northshore suburb of Chicago – laid back, green, with its own Metra train stop and neat single-family homes. But under the surface, political tension had been brewing for a long time. Like in the U.S. as a whole, political rifts had dramatically deepened over the years and approached a limit at which they could no longer be contained. On the last Friday in September, that point had been reached: Politics were taken to the street.

A woman got out of her car and held up a Trump mask and yelling at counter-protesters, stopping traffic at the intersection for two green light cycles until police told her to move along. Photo: Linus Hoeller

It only took a minor spark for the unobtrusive lawn signs to be replaced as the preferred means of political expression by a shouting match of large crowds gathered on opposite sides of central Shermer Road. It was a spark so minor that creator Lee Goodman doubted anybody would even notice it: a Coronavirus scoreboard, which displayed the number of Covid-19-induced deaths the U.S. had seen alongside the slogan “We’re number 1!” and Donald Trump’s name. Goodman had put up the sign a week earlier at the very corner where now there was a tense standoff between supporters of President Trump and his Democratic challenger, Joe Biden. In that week, it had been vandalized five times, he said.

The Covid scoreboard with Jack Altschuler, who had organized the pro-Biden counter-protest. Photo: Linus Hoeller

Despite the obvious animosity toward it, the sign was quickly forgotten by the protesters. “We’re not here to protest some stupid sign,” said Peter Christos, a junior at Glenbrook North High School and the organizer of the Trump rally. Instead, it served just as a lightning rod for the political tensions that had been simmering in Northbrook to explode out into the open. When it was mentioned at all, it was usually as a location marker, like for the next pro-Trump rally that the town is expecting on October 10th: “Opposite of the un-American Covid scoreboard,” the Instagram announcement read.

While the groups were based on different sides of the roads, sometimes protesters crossed to the other side – mostly Trump supporters to the liberal side – to argue. Photo: Linus Hoeller

“We haven’t seen anything like this before,” said one resident, referring to the shouting match happening before him across Shermer road. Several others said that although it hadn’t been that way before, they now expected it to continue. Pandora’s box had been opened, and it seemed implicitly clear to everybody that there was no going back to the way things had been before.

A Trump-supporting woman argues with a Biden-supporting teenager after crossing the road to the liberal counter-protest. Photo: Linus Hoeller

Some raised questions as to where all this might lead. Liberal counter-protester Rachael Wachstein said that her experience encountering militiamen at a recent Trump rally in nearby Highland Park prompted her to attend the counter-protest in Northbrook, in case the same thing happened here. Part-way through the protest, an armored black car drove past the crowd, the driver honking and a passenger in the back seat leaning out the window to film the pro-Biden counter-protesters. One of the Trump supporters said that the division she was seeing in the U.S. reminded her of the situation in her native Yugoslavia leading up to its collapse and bloody civil war. “They started like this. There was one country, beautiful country. And then, they started like this, and they had wars. Kosovo, Serbia, Bosnia, Croatia, all those. They destroyed it,” she said.

An armored car drives past the crowd of protesters with a Trump flag on its bonnet. One of the passengers films the liberal counter-protesters on his cellphone. Photo: Linus Hoeller

Northbrook’s protests come at an extremely tense time for the U.S. Countless pundits have said that they believe the country to be the most politically polarized it has ever been since the Civil War. The USA’s economy has been battered by the coronavirus, which has also cost the lives of well more than 200,000 Americans – due to the mishandling of the pandemic by elected officials, a dysfunctional healthcare system and repeated downplaying and blame-shifting from the White House. Further, it has only just come out of a summer of wide-spread protests against police violence and racial injustice, a movement that is still ongoing. The fact that some protesters, which the President had repeatedly referred to collectively as “thugs” and “domestic terrorists” partook in looting did not help to alleviate tensions. Now, as the presidential election is just over a month away, concerns about the electoral process and doubts over whether a peaceful transition of power will be guaranteed are adding fuel to the fire. With cases of protesters being killed by militias, Trump calling on white supremacists to “stand by” and tensions erupting openly around the U.S. even in sleepy suburban communities like Northbrook, the country seems headed for an unprecedented and potentially violent end to a year of crises.

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