Through a steady drizzle, hundreds of activists marched down Chicago's Magnificent Mile and blocked the entrances to some of the main drag's highest-end stores during a Black Friday morning protest of the fatal shooting of black teenager Laquan McDonald by Chicago police Officer Jason Van Dyke, stopping at Water Tower Place, where they were held off by police.
The entrances to Apple, Ralph Lauren, Banana Republic, Neiman Marcus, Tiffany, Saks Fifth Avenue, the Disney Store and Brooks Brothers were all blocked by protesters. However, entrances to other stores, often next door, were unimpeded and operations appeared normal.
Inside the wood-paneled Ralph Lauren store, Frank Sinatra Christmas songs played as a handful of customers shopped for cashmere sweaters and other luxury items. Outside, a gaggle of protesters turned customers away.
"Ain't no shopping here today," they told two women who were trying to get lunch at the Ralph Lauren Cafe.
During a confrontation outside the Apple Store, a 60-year-old white woman who gave her name only as Marcia shouted, "I'm an American! I just want to get in the store."
Protesters managed to push her away, despite police intervention, but afterward her south Asian partner, Jay Krishnamurthy, 55, said, "the whole South Side is on fire. Why don't they tackle the violence in their own communities?" Of Laquan McDonald's killing, he said, "Mistakes happen."
Around 11:45 a.m., protesters blocked shoppers from getting into Topman and Topshop. Forming a line in front of the doors, they chanted "16 shots — stop killing our kids!" One shopper, a middle-aged white man in an "IOWA" hat, tussled with the crowd and fought his way in, but store security soon locked the door, as another store along Michigan Avenue had done as the crowd passed.
Jessie Davis, of the group Stop Mass Incarceration Network, said there have been calls on social media for people to engage in civil disobedience, and Charlene Carruthers, national director of the activist group Black Youth Project 100, would not rule out such actions.
Michael Pfleger, pastor at St. Sabina Catholic Church, said he thinks the march itself will cost businesses money because the publicity surrounding it will discourage shoppers from even venturing into the area.
And across the country, workers campaigning for $15 an hour wages and full-time work plan to end a 15-day protest fast by demonstrating outside homes owned by the Walton family and at Wal-Mart stores, including the one on Broadway in Chicago.
Out-of-town shoppers braving the rain on the Magnificent Mile early Friday morning had mixed feelings about the protest.
Four young college students from Hong Kong who are studying in the Boston area — Samantha Lee, 20; Jacqueline Lee, 20; Annabel Tiong, 21; and Ashley Lee, 19 — were hunting for clothes and cosmetics unaware of the planned protest.
"If I'd known, I would have waited until Cyber Monday. The deals are just as good," said Jacqueline Lee, who expressed sympathy for the protesters' cause.
Lorraine Lathen, 52, and her daughter Nia Kamara, 13, who are black, were ending a family Thanksgiving visit from Milwaukee. They had heard about the protest but got up early so they could shop before it started, Lathen said.
"It's not that we don't support the protest. We do. We have the same issues in Milwaukee," she said, mentioning her support for the national Black Lives Matter movement. "But we had planned this shopping as part of our trip before we came. I think by marching, that in itself sends a message. You don't have to stop people from going into stores."
Seattle visitor Susan Geiger, 60, who is white, was shopping for boots at Nordstrom. She called McDonald's death at the hands of Chicago police "sad" but said she wasn't aware of the details.
She added, "I think it's wrong to affect all the shopkeepers. It's kind of sad, there have to be other ways" for the protesters to make their point.
As protesters shut down some commerce along the Magnificent Mile, fewer than 50 people marched under the drizzle from the Wal-Mart neighborhood market in Lakeview to Best Buy and then Bank of America, advocating for a $15 hourly wage and full-time hours. Organized by activist group OUR Walmart, the march was one of a dozen taking place across the country in what has become an annual Black Friday tradition targeting the labor practices of the retail giant.
While in its fourth year, Chicago's Black Friday protest took on additional resonance this year given a "perfect storm" of activism around poverty and crime, including the growing Black Lives Matter movement protesting police misconduct against African-Americans, said Kohmee Parrett, an organizer with Southsiders Organized for Unity and Liberation and the Illinois/Indiana Regional Organizing Network.
"Basically, we have kids with nothing to do but do crime to sustain themselves, which leads to a cycle of poverty, which leads to jail, they get out with no jobs and go back to jail," said Parrett, who said he sees it in his own neighborhood of Roseland on the Far South Side. "It's become something bigger than just jobs and just crime. At this point it's a crisis that's at the tipping point, and somebody has to do something about it."
Friday's event outside Wal-Mart marked the end of 15 days of fasting organized by OUR Walmart to "demonstrate the hunger crisis faced by Wal-Mart workers and their families." The group said 1,400 people nationwide participated in the fast and 50 in Chicago.
There were no retail workers at Chicago's march, which consisted mostly of activists from several groups, including members of the Chicago Teachers Union who were protesting Bank of America loans that have cost the Chicago Public Schools district millions of dollars.
The marchers also pushed for the Cook County Responsible Business Act, introduced in October and sponsored by commissioner Robert Steele, which would require companies with more than 750 low-wage workers to pay a fee if their workers make less than $15 an hour. The proposal, which calls for a $750 fee per worker per dollar paid below $15, is meant to motivate wage gains as well as help fill the county's coffers, said Michael Collins, leader with People's Lobby and fellow with the Center for Progressive Strategy and Research.
Wal-Mart spokesman Brian Nick pointed out that few of its associates participated in the marches and said the company is proud of the benefits and wages it offers.
The Bentonville, Ark.-based retailer in April increased its starting wage to $9 and will raise it to $10 in February, part of a $2.7 billion investment it announced in wages, education and training for associates. Full-time workers make on average more than $13 an hour and have the opportunity for quarterly bonuses, he said.
In the suburbs on Thursday, from Kmarts to Kohl's, shoppers were busy in bricks-and-mortar stores buying TVs, toys and other gifts the old-fashioned way — racing through the aisles with shopping carts and sale fliers in a bid to snare the best deals.
Shoppers began arriving two hours before the 6 p.m. opening of the Kohl's store in Vernon Hills to get a jump on the deals. Several hundred were waiting to get in before the doors swung wide, a procession that took eight minutes to filter into the store.
Sisters Krista and Nicole Knuckey of Grayslake were the first in line Thursday evening, ready to make a beeline for a Sony PlayStation 4. Other items on their shopping list included a TV, mattress pad and winter coats.
"I like the experience and knowing exactly what I'm getting and trying on sizes to make sure it fits," said Krista Knuckey, 18.
Their family moved turkey dinner up to lunch to get to the store early. The sisters planned to visit Wal-Mart and Target on Thursday night, with PetSmart, Menards, Meijer and Ulta rounding out the itinerary Friday morning. All told, they expected to spend between $1,200 and $1,400 combined over the two days, essentially completing their holiday shopping.
A busy head start nationally to Black Friday may bode well for retailers, who are looking for holiday spending to rise 3.7 percent to more than $630 billion this year, according to the National Retail Federation. The holiday weekend, which takes in Thanksgiving, Black Friday, Small Business Saturday and Sunday, is expected to draw nearly 136 million shoppers online and in stores.
Even more people are expected to shop on Cyber Monday, reflecting the continued growth of online and particularly mobile shopping. Holiday digital spending is projected to top $70 billion, a 14 percent increase over last year, according to comScore.
Kmart has been open on Thanksgiving for more than 20 years, which executives say will continue as long as shoppers want it. But the company, part of struggling Hoffman Estates-based Sears Holdings, is also putting more resources behind its mobile app to ensure successful holiday sales.
"For some of our customers, there's clearly still a desire to be able to come early on Thanksgiving to buy into the deals in a store," said Alasdair James, president of Kmart, speaking by phone Thursday from a Detroit store he said was packed by its 6 a.m. opening. "And there are many other customers that don't want to do that, that want to shop online. So we have to be able to cater to both."
Parking lots were still busy by Thursday evening, as waves of shoppers hit the checkerboard of open and closed businesses dotting the malls.
It was a well-organized family mission for Bartlett's Lara Zimmerman, 32, who descended on Kohl's with her sister, while their mom and aunt hit Macy's and Wal-Mart, comparison shopping in real time on the phone.
"We divide and conquer," Zimmerman said.
Zimmerman brought a two-page handwritten shopping list, which included a Roku, a griddle, toys and many more items. She said the Thursday night shopping venture lasts "until that list is done." After some sleep, they planned to hit Menards at 6 a.m. Friday and expected to have 95 percent of their Christmas shopping done by breakfast.
Meanwhile, Vernon Hills' Evangelina Ramirez, 29, skipped Thanksgiving dinner entirely to spend the afternoon at Wal-Mart, where she and her husband bought several TVs, among other items. Loading up their truck in rain Thursday night, they kicked around whether to hit another store before heading home.
"Maybe when we get home, we'll make dinner," she said. "But not turkey."
Some retailers are pushing back against Black Friday, including outdoor store REI, which is keeping its doors closed Friday and encouraging its customers to spend the day outside. For many shoppers, going to the mall will apparently suffice.
"There's very clearly a demand with our customers who are used to this," Kmart's James said. "If it gets to the stage where our customers didn't want to shop, then we clearly wouldn't open."
The Associated Press contributed.