Chicago’s mayor-elect seems to think rioting teenagers with cell phones are the equivalent of striking workers in 1894

Last weekend, thousands of teenagers descended on Millennium Park in a social media organized mob and wreaked havoc, burning cars and attacking people, but few were arrested and many fear the worst is yet to come as the weather gets warmer.  Mayor-elect Brandon Johnson and others believe it was a cry for help rather than a roving party that needs to be stopped.

“I’m saying that people are acting out of desperation. We don’t want a society that is acting out of desperation, but you have to pay attention to the cries that people have.”  Chicago’s mayor-elect Brandon Johnson attempted to explain why thousands of teenagers engaged in mass looting, violence, and rioting over the weekend in his city, prompting this observer at least to wonder what century he thinks we’re living in.  Does he truly believe cell phone equipped teenagers raging in the streets are the equivalent of abused factory workers quite literally held captive by their employers in the 1890s or coal miners in the early 1900s suffering from black lung so bad they were lucky to make it to 50 years old?  The reality, of course, is far different.  The group was composed mostly of teens, organized via a social media “meet up.” This wasn’t a cry for help or a protest gone wrong, it was a roving, out-of-control party on the streets, where property damage, looting, the occasional gunfire and beaten up bystander, were just more added thrills to the evening, the equivalent of a fireworks show for normal people.  Outgoing Mayor Lori Lightfoot, for all her many, many faults, somehow managed to get a little closer to the truth.  “The vast majority of young people came downtown because it was great weather and an opportunity to enjoy the city. That’s absolutely entirely — there are few that came with different intentions and they have it out and they will be dealt with, but I’m not going to use your language, which I think is wrong, to say it was mayhem.”  The mayor-elect wasn’t the only to get it wrong, describing a reality that is entirely fantasy.  He was, in fact, responding to a question from a reporter, who asked, “Is that the answer to loot because it’s a form of reparations? To loot because that’s how they can eat?”  Apparently, this reporter didn’t see any of the many videos posted on social media during the melee, or else he might have noted that those engaged were far from emaciated, starving victims, nor did any seem to express fear about where their next meal was coming from, as opposed to the location of the next Tesla they can burn.  

This did not prevent mayor-elect Johnson from swiftly proceeding to blame the city’s businesses for the rampant lawlessness plaguing the city, “What I’m saying is you can’t condone the looting that corporations continue to do every single day when they take tax dollars from Black, Brown, White folks all over the city of Chicago so that they can turn a profit.”  At face value, this statement is near impossible to parse.  Corporations do not take tax dollars.  The government does.  Tax dollars eat into corporate profits, not add to them.  Beneath the surface, it certainly appears that any culpability for teenagers who think rioting and looting are key components of a night out on the town has been miraculously transferred to unspecified corporations who had precisely zero role in the incident and did absolutely nothing to precipitate it.  Does the mayor-elect truly believe these young people would not have behaved this way if Apple paid a few more percent in Federal or local income tax?  If not, what does any of this have to do with his plan to prevent more violence like this in the future?  Sadly, from all we can tell, the mayor-elect has no plan to actually bring peace to his city.  If anything, he has a plan for even more violence.  Hundreds, if not thousands, participated in the riots, terrorizing law abiding citizens, who were simply minding their own business.  For example, Remington’s Restaurant sits across from Millennium Park, the epicenter of the riot.  Approximately 100 people were inside, enjoying dinner on a nice night when the rampaging crowd arrived.  The restaurant shutdown outdoor dining and urged patrons to come inside while calling 911 four times.  “You couldn’t leave the restaurant, or enter the restaurant,” Kelly Hoxie, the manager explained. “A couple of other people who I know happened to be off duty, heard it over the radio, so they came. They helped me bring people into the restaurant, out of the restaurant, walked people down to their cars, to the train station, to the hotels.”  Some of the rioters did more than intimidate citizens.  They inflicted physical violence on innocent people (two teenagers were shot, a couple was beaten), but few were actually arrested, a scant 15 in total.

Former Chicago Police Chief of Detectives, Gene Roy attempted to explain how this is possible, blaming a lack of planning and direction on the part of city officials.  “You have the plan. You have the pieces all assembled. You have your tool kit. It’s like a mechanic. You go to work with the tool kit every day,” he said before pointing out the obvious, that “You prevent them from starting the evening off breaking the law.”  Alderman Ray Lopez also took direct aim at the police response.  “You know, clearly our officers did not want to engage. They were just trying to basically protect assets, and we need to know what the appropriate response is for CPD, and fire and OEMC when these situations breakout,” he said.  There are others in the city who appear to understand this as well.  Alderman Brendan Reilly, noted the connection between the behavior of the teens and social media,  believing the more damage they do, the higher the status in the digital realm, call it a quest for Likes or reposts.  “You need to call it out for what it is. You can’t sugarcoat this, and you can’t make excuses for that behavior. You need to hold them and their parents accountable for this, and use everything that’s in our toolbox to identify who they are, and take the appropriate action, so that we don’t have this going on all summer long,” he said in a statement, alluding to the real elephant in the room as they say.  This is just the beginning of warmer weather.  There are likely to be more, not less of these incidents in the future.

This is especially concerning when the Chicago Police do not seem to be rising to the challenge, either underestimating the severity of the situation or too fearful of blowback to get too closely involved.  As hard as it is to believe, the teen riot over the weekend occurred while a curfew enacted in May 2022 was already in place and could have been enforced before the mob truly gathered, but they did absolutely nothing to enforce it.  Their big plan moving forward includes some vaguely unspecified increase in police presence at large gatherings, though how that would work when the gathering occurs without warning thanks to social media is left unsaid, monitoring all activity and police cameras, which seems like something they should already be doing, bag checks at beach entries points, how that would help is entirely unclear, and working with youth and outreach workers.  Even these outreach workers, however, are not convinced.  ABC-7 News spoke to Terrance Henderson, who was on the scene this past Saturday.  “I got down there Saturday night around 8,” he said. “It was, absolutely, too late. You have to be ahead of them. Once the crowd gets really large, it’s not much that you can do.”  Still, he believes outreach workers have a role to play along with police.  “They have their peers being like, ‘Come on, let’s do it!’  They don’t have a lot of people to tell them, ‘Bro, this isn’t the right thing to do. You’re tearing up people’s property. We’re losing small business. It’s not safe.’ We have to go down there with the same type of energy,” he explained, to which I can only say, good luck and Godspeed.

Others have identified the parents as potential saviors.  “Parents have to step up and know where their children are and what their children are participating in,” noted Pastor Corey Brooks in what to me at least amounts to wishful thinking.  Still others believe the solution lies in coming together and providing more resources for teens.  Good Kids Mad City Co-founder Kofi Ademola asked  “How do we prevent violence? How do we give young people the tools and opportunities and resources so they don’t pick up guns in the first place?”  He pointed to a program called “the Peacebook” that would invest millions in youth programming and job training.  “Young people are being forced to fend for themselves. If we can provide them with jobs, if we can provide them with the opportunity to learn restorative justice, peace-keeping, things of that nature, then we’ll see a shift in the culture,” he said, alluding to some distant future where these problems are solved after who knows how many more vehicles are burned and people are shot.  Outgoing-mayor Lightfoot appeared to endorse this approach, tweeting “We have made historic investments in City youth programming & supporting community-based organizations to create year round safe spaces for our youth,” without mentioning how it could still be the case that a section of this same youth is rioting if these programs were effective. Ultimately, these approaches have it backwards, at least to this observer.  Any benefit from these programs will only come after law and order is achieved.  Mr. Henderson was correct when noting that he arrived too late to do anything, but that point applies figuratively as much as literally.  Law and order is a necessary foundation for everything else in a functioning society, and law and order requires people to believe that there will be consequences for their actions.  If you are concerned about social justice, equity, quality of life, or anything else, the only hope there is to achieve it is via the stability and predictability provided by citizens who behave lawfully.  No program, however high the funding or well-intentioned the planning, can prevent violence after it has begun.  The mob cannot be appeased, and those who drive it to more and more violence cannot be deterred by promises of a job and benefits at some point in the future.  In the here and now, order must be maintained before everything else because without it, you have nothing else.

Unfortunately, this will never be achieved while politicians in positions of power rationalize lawless behavior, spending more time making excuses than keeping the peace.   We can begin by ending the charade that rioting teens are victims of oppression, starving and crying for help.  Mayor-elect Johnson is not Grover Cleveland facing down the Pullman Riots in 1894, when half-starved, exploited, out of work laborers, owned almost as absolutely by their employer as slaves, rioted in Chicago.  If he knew the history of his own city, he would understand that those poor souls were victims on a level that the youth of America today, whatever their race cannot conceive, and using the the same language to describe the situation obscures the reality of what is happening on the ground, preventing a rational approach to ending the violence.  The expression that those who do not learn from the mistakes of history or do not believe we have made progress over the centuries certainly comes to mind. Further, the mayor-elect does not seem to understand which side he is supposed to be on. Employment by the Pullman Palace Car Factory, a producer of luxury train cars, required employees to live in corporate housing and buy corporate products at exorbitant rates.  A depression in 1893 prompted the owner, George Pullman, to cut wages by 20 to 35 percent and limit hours, but he refused to reduce the rates for housing or goods by an equivalent amount, forcing them to keep paying him with money they no longer had.  As the historian Jack Kelly, author of The Edge of Anarchy, described it, “George Pullman sold them water at a 500 percent markup.  He forced them to pay $2.25 for gas that neighbors bought for 75 cents.”

President Cleveland sympathized with these workers, believing they were victims of corporate greed, but he understood first and foremost that violence was unacceptable, and any settlement with the company or alleviation of their suffering could only come after law and order was restored.  In early July 1894, tensions continued to rise with strikers interrupting the actions of the government and preventing the city from functioning.  Some 2,000 federal troops were sent to restore order, the first time in our history they were deployed for a labor dispute.  Eugene Debs, president of the American Railway Union, saw this as an opportunity for revolution rather than the end of the unrest.  “The first shots fired by the regular soldiers at the mobs here will be the signal for a civil war.  I believe this as firmly as I believe in the ultimate success of our course.  Bloodshed will follow, and 90 percent of the people of the United States will be arrayed against the other 10 percent.”  Cleveland had a different view, noting that “If it takes the entire army and navy of the United States to deliver a postal card in Chicago, that card will be delivered.”  On July 4, mobs roamed the city, damaging railroad cars, antagonizing troops, and setting fires, leading some to describe the once beautiful city as a war zone.  On July 7, the mob attacked the Illinois National Guard while they were attempting to keep railroad tracks clear, leading to a riot and gunfire that caused at least four deaths.  The next day, Cleveland issued a statement ordering all parties involved with the riotous strike to disperse by noon on the 9th, “Those who disregard this warning and persist in taking part…can not be regarded otherwise than as public enemies…While there will be no hesitation or vacillation in the decisive treatment of the guilty, this warning is especially intended to protect and save the innocent.”  Order was restored over the next few days, but at the cost of at least twelve more lives and 575 arrests.  All told some 14,000 troops were required.

Today, the city of Chicago, much less the President, does not appear willing to do what is required, preferring instead to play the role of Eugene Debs stoking the mob rather than ending it.  To be clear, I am not recommending unleashing Federal troops on rioting youth.  I am, however, suggesting that a willingness to enforce order even on those you sympathize with is a prerequisite for good government, especially when the rioting teens are not the innocent victims crying for help as they have been described.  A little perspective is needed. I also believe it’s no exaggeration to say that the Chicago leadership risks an even greater conflagration by not acting decisively to quell this violence before it spreads.  If thousands of teens take to the streets for no reason other than the mayhem of it, what will they not do unless they are stopped?

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