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Chicago clamps down on unaccompanied teens in tourist areas

America Letter: Move comes on foot of violence and ‘scenes of chaos’ in recent weeks

At the heart of Millennium Park in Chicago, a bean-shaped sculpture reflects the surrounding skyscrapers and cityscape from its mirrored surface.

The park is considered to be the jewel of the city’s lakefront district. By day it is thronged with tourists taking selfies against the backdrop of “the bean” as well as with workers on their breaks. The park also hosts an outdoor auditorium for concerts.

However, one group who may not get to enjoy the park so much in the future are teenagers if city authorities have their way.

Chicago city centre, like many others across the US, was hit hard by the impact of the Covid-19 pandemic.

The city also experienced disturbances in 2020, in some cases sparked by the killing of George Floyd, with looting on two separate occasions.

With the pandemic restrictions – if not the pandemic itself – in retreat, Chicago was hoping for a busy tourist season this summer.

However, last weekend Chicago residents as well as politicians and business owners were shook by headlines and images that the city did not want to see. News bulletins covered stories of people fighting in the streets, throwing things at cars, jumping on top of vehicles and, worst of all, the murder of a 16-year-old just beside the Cloud Gate, as the “bean” sculpture is officially known.

A 17-year-old was arrested a short distance away on Michigan Avenue and is now facing a second-degree murder charge. Another 16-year-old was arrested nearby allegedly carrying an untraceable weapon without a serial number – more commonly known as a "ghost gun".

Police said there had been a large crowd “disturbance” last Saturday night that led to the arrest of dozens of juveniles, injuries to two police officers and the recovery of seven guns.

The previous Tuesday a 19-year-old man was wounded by gunfire as he drove on Michigan Avenue close to Millennium Park.

Scene of ‘chaos’

Chicago mayor Lori Lightfoot moved swiftly to act after the scenes in the busy city centre district. On Sunday she announced a clampdown on teenagers accessing the area.

The mayor said: “Tragically, a young person – a teenager – lost his life [on Saturday night] in Millennium Park. I suspect an overwhelming majority of the youth who were in the park were there to have a good time and enjoy a summer evening. But the scene devolved into one of chaos and unnecessary violence.”

“We, as a city, cannot allow any of our public spaces to become platforms for danger. Anyone coming into our public spaces should expect to enjoy them peacefully and must respect and exhibit basic community norms of decency. We simply will not accept anything less.”

The mayor said unaccompanied minors would not be permitted to enter the park from 6pm on Thursday until Sunday unless they were with “at least one responsible adult”.

City authorities said the new policy would be strictly enforced and violations would be dealt with swiftly.

The mayor also said that a citywide 11pm weekend curfew for teenagers 16 years and under, which had been in place since 1992, would now come into operation at 10pm.

However, the Millennium Park ban on teenagers would not seem to be unprecedented in the more glitzy parts of Chicago.

Navy Pier is another top location in Chicago with a big Ferris wheel and other attractions as well as shops and restaurants stretching out into Lake Michigan. A notice at a shopping mall at Navy Pier last weekend said it had a “youth escort policy” and those under 18 had to be accompanied by a parent or guardian after 5pm at weekends.

Move condemned

The move to ban unaccompanied teenagers from Millennium Park has been condemned by both teachers and civil liberties groups.

The Chicago Teachers Union said knee-jerk curfews and bans on the use of public spaces continued the cycle of "slamming doors in the faces of young people who have had doors closed on them for their entire lives".

The American Civil Liberties Union in Illinois said this approach "doesn't solve a problem – it further damages relations between young people and the community".

Campaigners also recalled that during looting in the city centre in 2020, authorities had raised the bridges over the Chicago river and curtailed public transport.

Critics maintained the move was designed to make it difficult for black and Hispanic residents from the south and west of the city to access the prosperous downtown areas.

Authorities said the measures were needed to prevent civil unrest.