CHICAGO (AP) — A clampdown on Chicago teens’ access to a popular downtown park and an earlier weekend curfew following the fatal shooting of a teenager has revived longstanding accusations that City Hall cares more about the city’s sparkling lakefront and downtown over neighborhoods where hundreds have been killed or hurt by gun violence.
Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot said the response was part of an effort to keep visitors and Chicagoans safe, including the city’s youth. She ordered that minors won’t be allowed in Millennium Park unless accompanied by an adult after 6 p.m. from Thursdays through Sundays. On Monday, Lightfoot also moved up the city’s 11 p.m. weekend curfew to 10 p.m.
“We need to make sure they are safe and importantly that our young people understand and respect basic community norms, respect for themselves, respect for each other, and we must ensure that every one of our residents and visitors — no matter who they are or where they come from or how old they are — are able to safely enjoy our public spaces,” Lightfoot said at a news conference Monday.
The violence comes as Chicago, like most cities, is slowly seeing its downtown revitalize following the pandemic. Perceptions that a major tourist area is dangerous “can be a deal breaker” as travelers decide where to go, said Sharon Zou, an assistant professor in the Department of Recreation, Sport and Tourism at the University of Illinois at Champaign-Urbana.
Lightfoot said she expected people to abide by the restrictions, dismissing concerns that arrest or other penalties would be the city’s first means of enforcement.
“My interest is not rounding up young people and throwing them in the back of a wagon,” Lightfoot said. But, she said, those who do not abide “by clear directions on how they have to conduct themselves in public, we’re not going to hesitate to take action.”
The mayor’s approach prompted quick backlash. The ACLU of Illinois said it would result in “unnecessary stops and arrests and further strain relations between (the police department) and young people of color.”
Alderman Roderick Sawyer, chair of the Aldermanic Black Caucus, on Monday called the mayor’s actions “unilateral and discriminatory.”
“For decades, our Black and Brown children have been made to feel they don’t belong in certain parts of our great city, and this is yet another example,” Sawyer said in a statement.
Lightfoot, the city’s first Black female mayor, rejected accusations that the park restrictions or tighter curfew were an outsized response to the weekend killing.
“Here on Planet Earth, in reality, we have a crisis in our city and we have to take action,” she said.
It’s a delicate issue in Chicago, where suspicion of the city and police dates back decades thanks to well-known incidents of torture of Black suspects and general mistrust. The reminders of such history include the conviction of a white officer in the shooting death of Black teen Laquan McDonal d — which included the city’s monthslong legal battle to keep the video of the shooting from being made public — to the dismissal of cases against dozens of Blacks who were framed for drug crimes by a police officer.
In recent weeks, Police Superintendent David Brown has repeatedly pointed out that the department takes all crime seriously, regardless of the color of the victims and the suspects.
Civil unrest following the killing of George Floyd by Minneapolis police officers in 2020 prompted a similar debate in Chicago. After people broke windows and stole from downtown businesses, including retailers in the city’s Magnificent Mile shopping district, Lightfoot ordered bridges raised to minimize further damage.
Officials in communities on the city’s West and South sides said that encouraged crime targeting businesses in their communities, where residents are largely Black or Latinx.
“What does it mean when everybody knows they mean us and they don’t say it, what it means when they are talking about Black kids and they don’t say it,” asked Marshall Hatch, a prominent Black minister on the city’s West Side, of the new park restrictions and tightened curfew.
Hatch said the mayor’s orders are especially significant to teens and younger children whose families may be unable to afford a typical vacation apart from visiting the lakefront and downtown attractions.
The orders also come at a difficult time for the downtown area where the shooting happened and where, just earlier this month, two people were struck by stray bullets just outside the Chicago Theatre, prompting the cancellation of a performance.
Both Millennium Park and the theater are in the police district that’s long been one of the safest in the city. The First District had just three homicides this year before the teen’s death on Saturday.
In contrast, there were 18 homicides in the 11th District on the city’s West Side and 16 in the 7th District on the South Side as of May 8.
But crime in the First has been growing. At this time last year, the district had just one homicide. And the number of crimes, ranging from robbery to theft to aggravated battery is higher — in some crimes, dramatically so — than the same point in 2021.
That could mean problems for Chicago, which saw tourists virtually disappear during the COVID-19 pandemic and now is eager to draw back crowds.
The Chicago Loop Alliance, a membership organization for businesses, said pedestrian traffic downtown is recovering but still around 65% compared to a typical year prior to 2020. Demand for hotel rooms in the Loop remained below pre-pandemic figures in March but far exceeded the same time last year — about 64% this year compared to 36% in 2021.
Chicago’s northern neighbor of Milwaukee is struggling with a similar dynamic after 21 people were shot in three separate incidents near an entertainment district where thousands gathered for a Bucks playoff game.
There, too, community activists argue that city officials are more focused on one part of the city while gun violence is routine elsewhere.
Frank Lockett, president of Stop the Violence Ministry, said he understands the police focus on downtown but he knows the entire city needs help.
“Right now, the whole of Milwaukee needs (attention),” he said. ”(The shootings in the entertainment district) were spur of the moment and probably won’t happen down there again. What’s been going on in the city’s been going on for years.”
AP writer Todd Richmond in Madison, Wis. contributed to this report.