Chicago aldermen blast police leaders’ ‘flat-footed’ response to violent street takeovers
City officials were caught flat-footed by a series of violent gatherings over the weekend that left at least three teenagers shot.
It included a turbulent Saturday night downtown marked by a communication breakdown and infighting between city and police officials and a flood of jarring videos that stoked outrage on social media.
Second Ward Ald. Brian Hopkins, whose ward includes downtown, said the gatherings fueled by social media devolved into three nights of “mayhem” because of a “total breakdown in command and control” at the Chicago Police Department.
“We’ve had more than our share of downtown mass arrest incidents going back over a decade. This is not new,” Hopkins said. “What is new is to have it happen three days in a row.”
When Chicago hosted the 2012 NATO Summit, Chicago police handled demonstrators intent on “engaging in rowdy and violent behavior” because there was a “detailed plan” to handle it, Hopkins said.
“We don’t have that now,” he said. “Why not? If we hire a superintendent who has no plan to deal with this, it’s going to keep happening every warm weekend.”
Officers made 15 arrests during Saturday’s mayhem, though Hopkins said there could have been “dozens more” if not for the “hostility and violence” that confronted officers who attempted to move into the crowd. That included numerous reports of officers being punched, kicked and pelted with bottles and other objects.
Hopkins said interim police Supt. Eric Carter and Chief of Patrol Brian McDermott got into a shouting match Saturday night, and there was a heated disagreement between “Chicago police leadership and CTA management about who was in charge” of determining whether to cut off mass transit service to downtown.
“There should be all sorts of contingency plans in place for when these incidents occur,” Hopkins said. “Instead, we had an absolute meltdown of command and control. Nobody knew who was in charge.”
‘A bit like Groundhog Day’
Ald. Brendan Reilly, whose 42nd Ward also includes downtown, specifically raised alarms about the initial meetup that drew teens to Millennium Park Saturday night, noting it devolved into “chaos and criminal conduct.”
Two boys, ages 16 and 17, were among an unruly crowd that night in the 100 block of East Washington Street when they were shot, police said. The night before, a 14-year-old boy was wounded by gunfire after another large group gathering at 31st Street Beach.
“Where are these kids’ parents?” Reilly wrote in an email to the Sun-Times. “They need to know where their kids are going and what they are doing. There needs to be parental accountability for this kind of outrageous behavior.”
“Every year, on our first warm weather weekend, it seems that CPD leadership is caught flat-footed and overwhelmed by these large groups of juveniles on our beaches and in our parks,” Reilly said. “As I do every spring, I have been asking to see the downtown safety plan for this summer and have received no response from CPD.”
Three community activists gathered Monday afternoon in Chinatown to decry “rioting and looting” over the weekend, pushing for fines for parents whose children are accused of committing crimes.
Activist Raul Montes went as far as urging Gov. J.B. Pritzker to activate the National Guard or declare martial law if the so-called takeover events continue.
“This is outrageous,” Montes said. “We don’t want this to continue. I don’t feel safe in my city anymore.”
Mayor Lori Lightfoot has struggled to rein in the events despite her administration investing in a series of youth-friendly parties last summer and instituting a curfew at Millennium Park, which was roundly criticized and seldom enforced.
“It’s not the first time that we’ve addressed these issues,” Lightfoot said Monday. “But our young people have an opportunity and a right to enjoy the entirety of our city. But they have to do it in a way that is respectful for people and property.”
The failure to get a firm handle on the gatherings offers a window into one of the many challenges awaiting Mayor-elect Brandon Johnson, who ran on a commitment to address “the root causes of violence and poverty.” He denounced the “destructive activity” over the weekend but insisted “it is not constructive to demonize youth who have otherwise been starved of opportunities in their own communities.”
“Our city must work together 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,” he said in a statement Sunday.
On Monday afternoon, the police department issued a statement saying more security measures would be in place going forward, such as checking bags at beach entry points. The curfew for Millennium Park will also be in place.
Police officials are working closely with youth and outreach workers for when the gatherings occur, according to the statement. Parents were encouraged to accompany their kids or have them remain under adult supervision.
It’s unclear why the police department was caught off guard, as it closely tracks social media for postings about these types of events.
A City Hall source said that police preemptively gauge a gathering’s potential size by looking at how much engagement a post has received, though some can be “bogus,” and some events can get canceled.
“There’s some bad actors, and then this sort of group mentality hits,” the source said. “So what CPD does is try to contain the crowds and disperse the crowds.”
A police supervisor cast blame on Carter and his predecessor, former Chicago Police Supt. David Brown, for failing to adequately prepare for such gatherings. The department has previously worked with Chicago Public Schools and violence intervention organizations to help cool tensions and provide services, but the supervisor said that police officials “did no planning for this weekend.”
“The problem is no one is actually asking the youth why they’re coming downtown and what they need,” the supervisor said.
‘No winners here’
Tynetta Hill-Muhammad, the Chicago chapter organizer for the activist group Black Youth Project 100, said Lightfoot’s efforts to address the large gatherings were “Band-Aids” that failed to adequately counter the systemic inequities at the center of the problem.
She said the “disheartening” videos of Saturday’s takeover are now being weaponized by bad actors.
“I take it as a direct opportunity for right-wing, white supremacist folks to attack and demonize and criminalize Black people and another opportunity by which … anti-Blackness becomes something of the norm and becomes a thing that people are in acceptance of,” she said.
BYP100 offers safe spaces during the summer, taking kids to the movies and bowling.
“These young folks are experiencing violence every single day and without having access to basic resources, like therapy or mental health clinics or hospitals or after-school programs that other students and other young people do have access to,” she said.
Arne Duncan, the former U.S. education secretary who now leads the anti-violence group Chicago CRED, said the takeovers won’t stop “unless some things change radically.”
He said three things need to happen: the city needs a dedicated group of outreach workers for the downtown area; historically violent neighborhoods need to be made safer; and parents and other elders need to start engaging with the youth.
“We have to have a very, very different approach to this,” he said. “It’s terrible for the city. Nationally, it makes us just a laughingstock. And it’s incredibly destructive, and it’s actually incredibly dangerous for the young people themselves.
“And so there’s no winners here, and it can’t be business as usual,” he said.