‘Just once we try something that might actually work’: Activists, Chicagoans speak out against youth curfew laws


Samantha Moilanen

Visitors walk by “The Bean” on April 26 in Millennium Park. Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot has reinforced the parks curfew for minors after large youth gatherings resulted in recent violence.

When Myles Francis, the project director for the Chicago Center for Youth Violence Prevention, entered a movie theater last April with his younger brother, he was immediately faced with a sign that read, “anyone under 18 will not be admitted without adult supervision after 6 p.m.” 

“It was just this moment of being reminded that that sign…reads to me like that’s for a particular crowd of young people,” Francis said.

Since 1992, the city of Chicago has been imposing curfews on its youth. However, it was only after the fatal shooting of 16-year-old Seandell Holiday last May that Mayor Lori Lightfoot took action to alter the city’s curfew laws. The changes included an earlier citywide curfew of 10 p.m., and the enforcement of a 6 p.m. curfew for unaccompanied minors entering Millennium Park Thursdays through Sundays.

Now, almost a year later, the curfew is back, along with expected bag checks at Chicago’s beaches, according to police. 

“Additional security measures such as bag checks at beach entry points and the curfew for minors at Millennium Park will also be in place,” police said in a statement released Monday, April 17. “CPD is also working closely with youth and outreach workers for when these gatherings occur.” 

The announcement came shortly after hundreds gathered downtown on Saturday, April 15 when videos circulated social media showing people jumping on cars, running in and out of the street and fighting. Another video from the same evening documents the attack of a young couple, who were beaten and robbed across from the Macy’s building on Wabash, CBS News reports. 

Francis said that the actions of a few Chicago teens is not representative of all the city’s youth.

“It only takes a handful of those kids to be, you know, actually doing harm for that entire collective of kids to be seen as a problem,” Francis said. “And I think it’s really problematic for us as the city of Chicago to see our young people as a problem and to treat them like a problem.”

Edwin Yohnka, communications director for the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) of Illinois, said based on the city’s history of how law enforcement agencies handle youth violence, he is not surprised by the mayor’s decision to enforce the curfew once again.

“There’s something about this, that’s completely predictable,” Yohnka said. “When these curfews are enforced, we know what that looks like … it’s a bunch of Black kids who get arrested or get stopped for curfew.”

A 17-year-old Chicago resident who goes by Santi responded to comments he believes misrepresent the Black and brown experience on Twitter, regarding the downtown violence. 

“You have no experience living as a young person of color in the city,” Santi tweeted. “Our Black and brown peers are harassed and profiled by CPD, not to mention the so-called curfew of Millennium Park the former mayor introduced. These things aren’t as accessible as you make it seem.”

According to research conducted by the Marshall Project, juvenile curfew laws first gained popularity during the Clinton administration in efforts to combat the rise in crime in metropolitan areas. By 2009, 84% of cities had enacted curfew laws. Still, while municipal leaders continue to enact curfews in the name of juvenile crime, data from the U.S. Department of Justice shows juvenile crime is at an all-time low. 

While some cities like Austin, Texas have chosen to discard teen curfew laws, Yohnka said Chicago has a history of resorting to curfews and other security measures as a way to keep young Black and brown residents out of downtown spaces. 

“One cannot separate the race of most of those young people and understand that there is a sense of believing that their behavior, their actions, their mere presence downtown, should be criminalized,” Yohnka said. “People [still] try to use such an event as an effort to suggest policing strategies that failed for generations.”

Yohnka said police and city leadership continue to reuse old ideas that only target people of color and have never worked in the past.

“It is not surprising that because of the inability to do other planning that they would reach for failed strategies,” Yohnka said. 

For Francis, despite years of addressing youth violence in the city, Chicago still lacks spaces where young people are welcome, and as a result, Saturday’s violence came as no surprise. Whether it be going to the movies or visiting a mall downtown, Francis said city leadership continues to make downtown areas inaccessible to young people, and therefore, shouldn’t be surprised when violence occurs as a result of repression. 

“It definitely struck me as those needs are still there, [and] if anything, they’ve increased,” Francis said. “And just the lack of spaces where young people are welcome, let alone spaces that are like, specifically intentionally for them to like, come and hang out … is problematic.” 

Following the weekend events, both mayor-elect Brandon Johnson and Lightfoot issued statements addressing public safety. 

Johnson’s statement did not excuse the violent behavior that occurred this past weekend. However, he urged the city not to demonize Chicago’s youth.

“In no way do I condone the destructive activity we saw in the Loop and lakefront this weekend,” Johnson’s statement posted on his social media read. “It is unacceptable and has no place in our city. However, it is not constructive to demonize youth who have otherwise been starved of opportunities in their own communities.”

Shortly after winning the mayoral election, Johnson said he plans to increase the amount of summer jobs for young people as the first facet of his plan to curb crime, according to the Chicago Sun-Times

For Yohnka, the city needs a way to make sure downtown gatherings are conducted safely.

“Young people have a right to be downtown,” Yohnka said. “Young people gather in large crowds. It’s what young people do. And on one night, on the weekend, they’re going to gather in downtown Chicago, there ought to be some sort of strategy for that. Maybe just once we try something that might actually work.”

Francis said when the city forces young people out of public spaces, instances like Saturday’s violence are predictable and often avoidable with the right solutions.

“This is what happens,” Francis said. “And I don’t think that limiting the already limited spaces where young people feel like they can gather and congregate is the answer.”