Chicago Activists For Safe Nightlife Envision A Role For City Government

Our Music My Body
Music fans advocate for a safer music scene at the Pitchfork Music Festival in Union Park on Chicago's Near West Side. Isabel S. Dieppa / For WBEZ
Our Music My Body
Music fans advocate for a safer music scene at the Pitchfork Music Festival in Union Park on Chicago's Near West Side. Isabel S. Dieppa / For WBEZ

Chicago Activists For Safe Nightlife Envision A Role For City Government

WBEZ brings you unbiased news and information. Sign up for our newsletters to stay up to date on the stories that matter.

On a recent Saturday night at the Lincoln Hall music venue on Chicago’s North Side, a band is backstage, preparing to play a sold out show.

At the bar, fans are ordering drinks, and milling about, excited for the music that’s to come.

But at a small table, off to the side, a few volunteers are setting up, with high hopes of pulling those fans away for just a moment to talk about things like healthy relationships — and consent.

“We have this thing where if someone answers what consent means to them, we’ll give them a free bandana, which is pretty cool,” said Amy Davila, who’s with the organization Our Music My Body.

The group has been volunteering at music venues on the North Side for a few years now, with the mission of making nightlife safe for all by working to prevent sexual harassment at clubs and other venues.

They provide a safe space for people to talk about consent, pass out resources — like who to call if you feel like you’ve been harassed or assaulted — and have recently started working with venues to train bar staff on how to handle sexual harassment complaints.

Our Music My Body
Our Music My Body volunteers Amy Davila and Anya Martin pass out buttons at a sold out concert at Lincoln Hall on March 23, 2019 Mariah Woelfel / WBEZ

But, now, Our Music My Body is asking a crucial question: What would it look like for there to be a citywide mandate that bar staff be trained to handle complaints of sexual harassment in bars? Or for the city to get on board with stopping the problem of sexual harassment in a meaningful way?

In 2017, Our Music My Body surveyed about 500 Chicago concert-goers, and overwhelmingly, people — mostly women, LGBTQ folks, and people of color — reported being harassed when they’re out at night.

They say they’ve been drugged, assaulted, and about 40 percent of respondents reported they were groped while trying to enjoy live music in Chicago.

Matt Walsh, with Our Music My Body, said it’s non-physical harassment, too — things like women getting unsolicited comments on their bodies or being aggressively hit on — or moments when someone won’t take no for an answer.

“So what does it look like for there to be a city-mandate that every three or four people from every venue or bar need to be trained in sexual harassment or bystander intervention or thing like that? ” Walsh asked.

Walsh might be onto something, because increasingly, cities across the U.S. are creating Offices of Nightlife, in part to address issues like these facing the nightlife industry and its customers.

This week, the Office of Nightlife in New York City saw its one-year anniversary.

And in the past year, it’s been able to conduct a five-borough listening tour to outline some of the pressing issues residents want to see addressed, and what they think the solutions to those issues should be.

One of their main findings? New Yorkers, just like Chicagoans involved in the Our Music My Body’s survey, want citywide consent awareness campaigns, and for bars and the city to be working directly with advocacy groups to help people feel safe.

That’s according to the office’s leader, Ariel Palitz, who spent her career as a nightclub owner and industry consultant before being appointed to lead the office.

“It’s not just working with city agencies, but also with community organizations that are already on the ground, already doing great work, and how we can really amplify what they’re saying and what they’re doing that’s working,” Palitz said. “It really was the missing link.”

A national expert echoes the importance of filling in that missing link, saying cities, including Chicago, need to look for nightlife safety solutions beyond policing — and that means creating a designated group of people to find out what those solutions are, and working with venue owners and organizations to implement them.

In Chicago, there is in fact a new group of music venue owners that wants to work with the city, including on these issues. The force behind it are owners of the longtime music venue, the Hideout.

The group is called the Chicago Independent Venue League, or CIVL, and it was formed to fight against a massive development called Lincoln Yards planned for the Hideout’s neighborhood.

But in addition to fighting the development, CIVL says it’s now fighting for a permanent seat at the table with the next mayor and city council, and they’re looking to cities like New York as a model.

Co-chair Robert Gomez said they’ll use that seat, in part, to talk about how to prevent sexual harassment in venues across the city.

“It’s essential,” Gomez said. “Live music can be a risky environment when people are standing that close to each other and you have people who don’t know each other and we’re liable for everyone, in regards to safety, so it’s in our interest to do that.”

Mariah Woelfel is a morning producer at WBEZ. You can follow her on Twitter at @MariahWoelfel.