Black Teens In Chicago Urge Mayor Lightfoot To Listen More, Scold Less

Young black people say they need more green spaces that allow for social distancing and places where they can safely grieve.

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Mayor Lori Lightfoot has sparked criticism among young people who believe she is unfairly targeting black teens in low-income communities with her "stay home" message. Nam Y. Huh / Associated Press
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Mayor Lori Lightfoot has sparked criticism among young people who believe she is unfairly targeting black teens in low-income communities with her "stay home" message. Nam Y. Huh / Associated Press

Black Teens In Chicago Urge Mayor Lightfoot To Listen More, Scold Less

Young black people say they need more green spaces that allow for social distancing and places where they can safely grieve.

In the days since a furious Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot held a West Side press conference and ordered residents to stay home and away from large parties, she’s been getting blowback from black teens and others on social media who think she’s overly harsh and unfairly targeting them.

And they don’t think it will work.

“Black and brown youth aren’t going to listen to Lori Lightfoot if she is only coming after them,” said Alycia Kamil,19, a youth advocate who graduated from Kenwood Academy last year.

It’s been nearly two months since Chicago residents were asked to stay at home, and patience is wearing thin everywhere. Kamil and other teens say if the mayor wants more black teens to obey social distancing, she needs to be more sensitive to the issues that keep them from complying.

For one, they say there aren’t enough green spaces on the South and West sides to practice proper social distance now that it’s warming up.

Also, gun violence is still happening in black and Latino neighborhoods. According to Kamil, there were some large gatherings organized last weekend by teens who needed to grieve together. Many teens, she said, “fear daily losing their friends to gun violence.”

Instead of addressing those issues, they accuse Lightfoot of unfairly singling them out. Last weekend, Lightfoot held the press conference on the West Side after the police department learned of at least six large parties across the city.

She threatened to shut down gatherings and send people to jail. Her messaging that day was mostly directed at black people. Soon after, Lightfoot was also spotted telling a small group of black teens hanging out at a school parking lot to go home.

Those two very public appearances make it seem as if her community isn’t listening to guidance on social distancing, Kamil said. When people in her Auburn Gresham neighborhood are out, they always have masks on, Kamil said.

“I am trying to stay at home, because I don’t want to get COVID and spread it to my family,” Added Malcolm Elliot, 20. He lives with his grandmother and aunt in Englewood.

Kamil and Elliot wonder whether the police or Lightfoot are cracking down on the North Side, as they are in their neighborhoods. Kamil knows that on that same weekend as the press conference, people on the North Side were having picnics and groups of kids were playing.

Jahmal Cole, founder and CEO of My Block My Hood My City, a teen empowerment organization, said he understands the frustration with the mayor’s approach.

“I am not for sending kids to jail [and] using police to solve problems in black communities, I am not really into that approach,” Cole said.

But he also understands Lightfoot has a lot to worry about. The city’s black and brown communities have been hit especially hard by COVID-19.

Cole says the mayor is trying to help those most affected, citing her “racial equity rapid response” efforts in black and brown neighborhoods, including distributing personal protective equipment, ramping up testing and education efforts.

Lightfoot has repeatedly said she is only trying to save lives. And on Wednesday, she defended the way she spoke to the teens hanging out in the school parking lot last weekend.

“I talked to those young people the same way that I would talk to my own child, which is to think about the risk, don’t put yourself in a difficult position,” Lightfoot said.

Cole said he agrees with the mayor, but said he uses other ways to reach teens.

He is telling teens not to focus on what other communities are doing. Instead, he is pushing them to think harder about how they can help contain the virus in their neighborhoods.

“It’s about you being self-disciplined enough to take responsibility for your actions and realize that you could be putting people at risk,” he said. “Coronavirus don’t care about what part of the city you are from.”

Through his organization, he is asking teens to volunteer or get hired part-time doing wellness calls to senior citizens.

It’s not just about telling teens what to do, he said, but also about giving them options.

Adriana Cardona-Maguigad covers education for WBEZ. Follow her on Twitter @WBEZeducation and @AdrianaCardMag.