Unrest Spurred by Summer-Like Temperatures Presents Brandon Johnson with 1st Test, Weeks Before He Takes Office

Video: Joining "Chicago Tonight" on April 17, 2023, to talk about responses to teen violence are Nathaniel Viets, director of youth development for My Block, My Hood, My City; and Richard Gamble, chairman of the Board of Directors at the Chicago Loop Alliance. (Produced by Andrea Guthmann) 

The unrest that swept downtown during the weekend’s summer-like temperatures will present Mayor-elect Brandon Johnson with his first test – and ratchet up the white-hot spotlight on his promise to overhaul the city’s approach to public safety.

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Three teens were shot downtown on Friday and Saturday, according to Chicago Police Department officials. A 14-year-old boy was shot shortly before 9 p.m. on Friday near 31st Street Beach, where video posted to social media showed a large crowd and a disturbance that resulted in a car being lit on fire. While standing in a crowd near Washington Street and Wabash Avenue in the Loop on Saturday, a 16-year-old boy was shot in his right arm, while a 17-year-old boy was shot in his left leg, police said. No one is in custody in relation to any of the shootings as of Monday afternoon.

In all, nine adults and six juveniles were arrested in connection with the unrest, which included crowds of young people jumping on CTA buses and fighting, prompting police officials to decry groups “engaging in reckless and disruptive behavior putting themselves and the public at risk for harm.”

The majority of the charges were for reckless conduct. However, a 16-year-old boy was also charged with unlawful use of a weapon after police recovered a gun, police said. An adult and a juvenile were also charged with possession of a stolen car, officials said.

Johnson, who will take office in 28 days, and Mayor Lori Lightfoot released nearly simultaneous statements Sunday afternoon responding to the unrest that illustrated how significantly Johnson’s approach to high-profile incidents of crime and violence will differ from the policy pushed by Lightfoot.

“In no way do I condone the destructive activity we saw in the Loop and lakefront this weekend,” Johnson said in the statement. “It is unacceptable and has no place in our city. However, it is not constructive to demonize youth who have otherwise been starved of opportunities in their own communities.”

Johnson, 47, said his administration would work to “create spaces for youth to gather safely and responsibly, under adult guidance and supervision, to ensure that every part of our city remains welcome for both residents and visitors.”

Johnson’s victory was made possible by winning the lion’s share of votes on the city’s South and West sides, home to Black and Latino Chicagoans who live in neighborhoods that are among the city’s most violent and have the highest rates of crime. By contrast, Paul Vallas won large majorities on the city’s Northwest Side, Southwest Side and downtown, where rates of crime and violence are significantly lower – but often capture headlines and the national spotlight.

By comparison, Lightfoot promised that Chicago Police Department officials would “make the necessary adjustments” to address the threat to public safety posed by “teen trends,” large gatherings organized on social media and popular among teens. The mayor blasted those who “were involved in reckless, disrespectful and unlawful behavior” and suggested their parents were at fault.

“As I have said before, we as a city cannot and will not allow any of our public spaces to become a platform for criminal conduct,” Lightfoot said. “Most importantly, parents and guardians must know where their children are and be responsible for their actions. Instilling the important values of respect for people and property must begin at home.”

Large Gatherings an Annual Issue

Most Chicagoans treat the first warm days after a long, bitter winter as unofficial holidays from work and school, and teens have long flocked downtown to celebrate.

In 2010, the Chicago Tribune reported nearly two dozen young people were arrested after unrest centered around North Avenue beach, prompting then Mayor Richard M. Daley to complain about teens “texting” each other to arrange meet-ups.

In 2013, police and city officials blamed “flash mobs” for causing disturbances along Michigan Avenue, prompting the General Assembly to pass a bill that was signed into law by former Gov. Pat Quinn doubling prison sentences for those convicted of using social media or other forms of electronic communication to incite organized mob violence to six years.

For years, the cycle would repeat – teens and young adults would flock downtown, dozens would be arrested and city officials and police leaders would vow to crackdown.

But on May 15, 2022, more than two years after the COVID-19 pandemic swept Chicago, triggering an economic collapse and surge in crime, the rite of spring turned deadly. Seandell Holliday, 16, was shot in the chest in the heart of Millennium Park during a large gathering of teens. A 17-year-old boy was charged in connection with his death.

Holliday was a member of CHAMPS Male Mentoring, founded by Vondale Singleton to reduce violent crime. Singleton told WTTW News that the recent media coverage of the unrest downtown made him flash back to Holliday’s death, and fear that other teens would suffer the same fate.

“It hurts so bad when you see this sort of thing happen,” Singleton said. “I don’t want what happened to Seandell to happen to anyone else.”

Less than 24 hours after the teen’s death, Lightfoot quickly cracked down on the ability of teens to roam downtown. Initially, Lightfoot banned Chicagoans 16 and younger from Millennium Park unless they were accompanied by a “responsible adult” after 6 p.m. Thursday through Sunday.

Then Lightfoot signed an executive order expanding and extending the city’s 30-year-old curfew for teens 17 and younger to start at 10 p.m. seven days a week.

In effect since 1992, the city’s curfew had allowed teens to stay out until 11 p.m. on Fridays and Saturdays and only covered those 16 and younger. The City Council ratified the change pushed by Lightfoot amid a political firestorm caused by the teen’s death.

However, Chicago’s extended and expanded teen curfew — which Lightfoot promised would put an end to a spate of downtown violence among young Chicagoans — was enforced by police only four times between May 17 and Aug. 18, according to data obtained by WTTW News.

Progressive members of the Chicago City Council declared the expansion of the curfew a complete failure, and Lightfoot never mentioned the initiative as she unsuccessfully campaigned for a second term as mayor.

Johnson Promises ‘Holistic’ Approach

In his first interview with WTTW News after his election, Johnson acknowledged that “bringing people together around a holistic approach of how we address public safety ... will be the test of my leadership.”

Johnson has vowed to focus on the root causes of crime and violence by increasing funding for youth employment programs and expanding mental health services across the city, while promising to solve more crimes by adding 200 detectives to the Chicago Police Department.

That approach has been welcomed by the wide-range of anti-violence groups working to prevent crime and violence by offering teens and young adults activities that built community ties, rather than destroying them. Group leaders have often said that the biggest obstacle they face is a lack of steady funding in a city where the Chicago Police Department has an annual budget of $1.94 billion.

Singleton said he has met three times with Johnson to discuss ways the city can support his group and other organizations working to reduce violence, and said he was hopeful the new mayor would offer a new solution to an old problem, one that reoccurs every time the mercury soars above 70 degrees for the first time.

“Teens want to feel like they are part of this city and there is nothing wrong with that,” Singleton said. “But structure is needed. They go downtown because they feel safer there.”

But that was spoiled by a “few troublemakers,” tarnishing the image of Black teens in Chicago nationwide, Singleton said, thanks to headlines like “‘Teen Takeover’ terrorizes Chicago as hundreds of teenagers destroy property, attack tourists” from Fox News.

Singleton said he does not disagree with Lightfoot that parents need to know where their kids are and what they are doing nor does he oppose punishment for those teens who break the law.

“But those consequences have to be equitable and fair” and teens have to be at the table to help decide what they should be, and how they should be enforced, Singleton said. “It is not either/or. It is both/and.”

Contact Heather Cherone: @HeatherCherone | (773) 569-1863 | [email protected]

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