As the sun set on Millennium Park a day after the extraordinary move by the mayor to limit teens’ access to the city’s premier outdoor space, a janitor quietly swept away the simple, stark memorial of tea lights that were arranged in the number “16.”
The small white candles to commemorate a Chicago teenager who was shot and killed at The Bean were there for less than an hour as tourists walked by. After sweeping the lights that represented the teen’s age into his dustpan, the janitor said he didn’t know what they were even there for.
Gun-violence memorials, while common in city neighborhoods, have normally been unusual things in Chicago’s downtown.
But last weekend, a loosely orchestrated gathering of youths there escalated out of control and 16-year-old Seandell Holliday was fatally shot in the chest during an argument. The shooting came after a growing sense of unease among city officials, residents and community leaders, who have watched such downtown gatherings grow from routine to dangerous.
On Thursday, a new order by the mayor, which bans unaccompanied minors from the park after 6 p.m. Thursdays through Sundays, went into effect. Signs at security entrances informed visitors of the rules.
And the tension and worry over downtown and the surrounding area only escalated later that evening, when, just a mile north, near the city’s Magnificent Mile, a mass shooting injured seven people and left two dead outside a McDonald’s and a CTA station.
Police have been left with the challenge of keeping everyone safe in an open park and other areas meant to be attractions in a glittering global city. And city leaders including Mayor Lori Lightfoot have found themselves trying to limit such impromptu gatherings without denying the young people’s rights to hang out where they want and their need, some say, to find fun outside of troubled neighborhoods.
Lately the size of the crowds of young people have been swelling into the thousands, due to social media and the way kids can now easily move around on their own. Observers have also been surprised by the young age of some in the groups: Many in the park last weekend were middle-schoolers without parents, with older kids arriving later.
Overlaying it all are massive social problems kids themselves have no control over. The availability of guns has put them all in danger. The pandemic and social unrest that rattled a nation over the last two years have left youths stressed and traumatized too, as they lost access to schools, parks and other programming.
And while residents and downtown business groups often turn to police for answers, given the nature of the gatherings, the solutions need to be as complex as the factors that have led to the recent troubles, said experts and community leaders.
On Monday, as the mayor’s plan for a curfew was announced, those who have worked for years — scraping together funding and support to help young people — pleaded with Chicago’s teens to take them up on their standing offer of love and support.
“You’ve got to work with us,” Diane Latiker, who for years has run basketball and youth programs in the Roseland neighborhood, where Seandell was from, said with emotion at the news conference. “People like myself who sacrifice everything we can to make sure you have a safe space. You have got to work with us. Let us know you want that and value that.”
The Chicago Police Department did not respond to a request for specifics on how police intend to enforce the mayor’s new orders — or respond to the crowds.
Both Chicago police Superintendent David Brown and Lightfoot have blamed recent troubles — including the mass shooting outside McDonald’s — in part on a flood of guns on Chicago’s streets, some of them carried by young people who believe they are protecting themselves.
“You have a ticking time bomb in your hand, in your pocket, in your purse,” Lightfoot said Friday.
Experts told the Tribune enforcing limits on young people is a lot more complicated than it sounds, especially because so many kids aren’t doing anything illegal at the start. Brown himself cautioned earlier in the week that officers won’t take action unless someone breaks the law.
“They are hanging out, doing what kids do,” said Jeffrey Cramer, the senior managing director at Guidepost Solutions, a large consulting and investigation firm. ” … It does create a difficult situation. To say it’s a rock and a hard place for the Chicago Police Department is an understatement.”
Among the challenges are a need to stay one step ahead of the social media habits of teenagers and engage hundreds and hundreds of them at once.
“Is there anyone that wants to control 400 teenagers at once? That playbook has not been written nor will it ever,” Cramer said. “All you can do is move the crowds.”
Another challenge, given that most of the youths in the gatherings are Black, is the extreme strain and distrust and fear that many in the Black community feel about police, experts said. Recent surveys in Chicago have shown that while nearly 80% of white residents said police make them feel safer, less than half of Black residents felt the same.
Cramer, who formerly prosecuted rogue officers in Chicago and New York as an assistant U.S. attorney, also noted the department’s history of civil rights violations as a serious challenge to relying only on police in this moment.
“The history of the Chicago Police Department prevents this problem from being solved entirely by the Chicago Police Department,” he said.
On the quiet Far South Side block where Seandell Holliday lived, birds chirped as the sun’s rays cut between the leafy trees and splashed on the sidewalk on a morning this week.
Extended family members trickled out of the family’s home as Seandell’s younger siblings ran about and played on bikes and a trampoline. The news was still settling in about how the teen, who loved music, computers and wrestling, wound up dead, shot to death in a fight.
“I’m sorry,” his uncle, 25, said at first, as he walked away, unable to gather words to describe the turn of events.
A few steps later, he turned back. “But, you know what I do know?” he said. “To me, I think he is the greatest kid alive.”
Family members said Seandell went downtown with a cousin against his mother’s orders. He was heading down for a “trend,” an informal meetup, and they said they believe it was only the second time he’d ever been downtown. But they are certain it should not have cost him his life — nor left another family with a son facing murder charges, they said.
“I said, ‘I never heard of trending. What is trending?’” his mother, Chanell Holliday, said. “(Seandell) said, ‘It’s when all the kids go downtown to have a good time.’ I said, ‘You’re not going downtown.’”
Just a few blocks away from the Holliday home is where Latiker runs Kids Off the Block, an organization she started to keep her own daughter safe from street violence nearly 20 years ago. That daughter is now 31, and on a recent morning Latiker was more worried about her driving away on a shiny new red three-wheel motorcycle.
All these years later, Latiker still worries about the safety of teens in Roseland.
Latiker said most of those heading down are looking to have good time. But there is no doubt that the size and age of the groups are troubling. That so many kids, including younger ones, can get there alone is new, she noted.
There was once a time when the only way kids in her program could get to the Loop was in her van when she took them on an outing. Today there are apps to tell them the best route, by public transportation or car, and how to do it.
“They didn’t think it was for them,” she said, of the pre-tech years. “These young people grew up on social media. It might be a kid on the West Side saying, ‘We’re going to meet at Buckingham Fountain.’ The kids on the South Side say, ‘Well, hey, they going downtown.’ So they go. … Now they just put it on their phone and see when the bus is coming.”
The pandemic also changed other dynamics in the past few years, cutting so many kids and teenagers loose from school and other programs and mentors at a time they might have needed it most.
So they are finding their own fun downtown with the speed of the Internet. And this is completely natural — social connection, in fact, directly contributes to feeling good and healthy, said Sherida Morrison, who has for decades run programming targeted to Chicago’s girls.
“They want to be seen. They want to be heard. They want to be appreciated,” said Morrison, founder of Demoiselle 2 Femme and the Coalition on Urban Girls.
The trouble was underway last weekend by 7:30 p.m. Saturday when Seandell and another teen got into a fight in the 200 block of East Randolph Street.
They were right by The Bean. By then, the crowd was already growing to 400 or so, authorities said.
It was about that time when Seandell jumped on the back of 17-year-old Marion Richardson and punched him the head, according to Cook County prosecutors. Marion allegedly fired at Seandell, fatally striking him in the chest. He was charged with second-degree murder, meaning prosecutors assert he had an an unreasonable belief that he was justified in firing out of self-defense.
Later that evening, between 9 and 10 p.m., officers were still calling in reports of as many as 500 young people at major downtown intersections making their way through the streets and blocking traffic.
Police supervisors could be heard over radios directing skirmish lines — when officers walk in concert, about shoulder to shoulder — to direct the crowds.
“Use your voices,” a supervisor said at one point. Officers were also instructed to tell anyone in the crowd who needed an Uber that they should go farther west to call one.
Emergency dispatchers also repeatedly reminded officers they were in a “mass arrest situation,” meaning arrestees would be transported from the area in groups, leaving officers who had made physical arrests able to remain at their post and to ensure there was enough personnel on the street.
By the end, police had recovered eight guns from the crowd, including two ghost guns, a new type of firearm that is often assembled from kits sold without buyers needing to go through background checks. Some 26 juveniles were arrested and four adults were detained. Other charges included mob action.
The presence of guns in the crowd was of course the alarming part and points to a problem Chicago and the country is grappling with — an increase in firearms violence. Gun sales spiked during the pandemic, prompting concerns that there would be more guns in circulation, even among people who are barred from carrying them, like young people.
“We’re seeing high levels of access to guns,” said Tamara Mahal, who leads the city’s new Community Safety Coordination Center. “And what we hear from community and what we’re trying to support is we want to be in a position where youth feel safe, period, so they don’t feel the need to carry a gun whether they’re in Millennium Park or whether they’re in Douglass Park.”
Community leaders have told the center’s staff that the solution to the issues requires engagement with youths and listening and learning what they need. The center’s role then is to support or plan more events and activities within the communities where youth don’t feel safe.
Negative youth behavior, experts say, is deeply impacted by the way their brains are wired: to seek stimulation. And the behavior is contagious as well, with research showing that the mere presence, not even pressure, of a peer can cause reckless acts.
By the Sunday evening after the shooting, Lightfoot had made the highly unusual decision to curb access to Millennium Park for minors.
The repeated violence downtown has also raised questions about whether teens have enough access to programs and quality parks in their own communities. Officials say the teens coming are from Black and brown communities that were left to suffer under decades of policies that drained wealth and resources.
Latiker worries about lack of options for kids in Roseland, pointing to a lack of enough rec centers or attractions like skating rinks.
Nichole Pinkard, an associate professor in the School of Education and Social Policy at Northwestern University, said that while Chicago has a rich history of investing in parks and libraries, the programming is not the same across the city and it is is in need of a “re-imagining.”
She said historically it has been more common in the South and West sides’ parks to see offerings for general experiences like day camp, but not always more diverse program opportunities, like a weeklong ceramics camp. Young people, she said, want some independence and choice in how they socialize.
“I think the question now is have we re-imagined what those places need to be for today’s kids,” Pinkard said. “I don’t think we have enough opportunity for kids to connect to their peers that makes them feel like they have choices.”
Pinkard pointed to the launch just this week of the “My CHI. My Future” app, which curates programming and opportunities for young people all over the city. Pinkard, a computer scientist, worked on the data side of the project and said he thinks it could provide a viable alternative to the youth-led “trends.”
Lightfoot referenced the app, too, on Friday, but while answering questions about the latest downtown mayhem, the multiple shooting outside McDonald’s.
While some younger people need to be held accountable for the recent violence, it’s too soon to give up on the city’s “beautiful” youths, Lightfoot said, “Nothing that’s happened in the last week changes that truth.”