Instead of youth curfews, here’s how to get serious about violence prevention

We need more alternative activities for these young people, summer jobs, outreach workers downtown to engage with youth and more.

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Tighter curfews for minors entering Millennium Park won’t solve the problem of young people becoming victims of gun violence, civic and faith leaders write.

Tighter curfews for minors heading to Millennium Park won’t solve the problem of young people becoming victims of gun violence, civic and faith leaders write.

Anthony Vazquez/Sun-Times

Last weekend, 16-year-old Seandell Holliday was shot to death in Millennium Park — one of the prime tourist locations in Chicago. He is the 30th person under the age of 20 to die from violence this year, but the first to prompt a large-scale response from our elected officials. Mayor Lori Lightfoot has imposed a 6 p.m. curfew for unaccompanied minors in Millennium Park from Thursday through Sunday, and a 10 p.m. citywide curfew for minors on weekends.

As pastors and community leaders, we share the sense of urgency this tragedy brings, though we are frustrated that the dozens of deaths of young people in our neighborhoods this year, and hundreds more in recent years, have not led to a comprehensive response.

We are also concerned that these approaches fall far short of what is needed.

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First of all, we already have an 11 p.m. curfew for minors, but it is not enforced. Moving it to 10 p.m. does not make much difference unless there is a real commitment to actually enforce it.

Second, the Millennium Park curfew is fraught with risk. It will invite abuse, racial profiling and lead to countless negative encounters between police and people at a time when police-community relations are already strained.

Moreover, young people looking for excitement will simply choose other locations, as we have seen recently with activities at North Avenue Beach and in River North.

Instead of curfews, it’s time to get much more serious about violence prevention. We need more unarmed outreach workers on duty downtown during summer evenings and on weekends. These men and women, many of whom come from “the life,” know how to reach these young people at risk. They’ve been in their shoes. They can talk to them and show them how to stay safe.

We need more alternative activities for these young people, both downtown and in the neighborhoods. We need summer jobs and tax incentives for businesses that hire the formerly incarcerated. We need a massive public education campaign aimed at helping parents keep their kids safe. We need to celebrate what is right about Chicago to balance all of the media coverage about what is wrong about Chicago.

And yes, law enforcement must be part of the solution, but not with the tactics of the past. Instead of riot squads, Chicago needs police who have been specifically trained to deal with young people. There must also be a serious commitment to enforce the curfew we already have. 

We need police who understand that young people sometimes make mistakes, and the first response cannot be to arrest them and lock them up. Take them home. Talk to their parents. Show compassion. Work hand-in-hand with violence prevention organizations and community groups to reach these kids early and steer them away from street life.

Above all, we adults need to engage with these young people. We know them. They are our kids. They are in our schools and in our communities. They want the same things in life that we all want: places to go, things to do, friends and activities that are exciting and fun, a sense of belonging and the freedom to enjoy all that our city has to offer.

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We cannot demonize or criminalize our young people. We have to give them hope and show them that they have a place in our communities and in our hearts.

We respectfully urge our leaders to sit down with parents, community and faith leaders, educators, outreach workers, social service providers, and the kids themselves, and come up with a realistic, thoughtful plan for keeping our young people safe.

Our youth are sending us a message. It couldn’t be clearer. We need to listen to them.

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Rev. Michael Pfleger is pastor of the Faith Community of St. Sabina. Rev. Otis Moss III is pastor of Trinity United Church of Christ. Rabbi Seth Limmer is Vice President of the Central Conference of American Rabbis. Rev. Ciera Bates-Chamberlain is executive director of Live Free Illinois. Arne Duncan is founder of Chicago CRED.

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