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Second round of looting puts Chicago at a crossroads

Businesses may be reluctant to rebuild, fearing they won’t be protected. Their customers may not feel safe shopping, dining and going to the theater downtown. Empty-nesters and young people drawn to the city may leave because they, too, no longer feel safe.

A man sweeps up Aug. 10, 2020, outside Paul Young Fine Jewelers, 34 W. Randolph St., after looting broke out in the Loop overnight.
A man sweeps up Monday morning outside Paul Young Fine Jewelers, 34 W. Randolph St., after looting broke out in the Loop overnight.
Ashlee Rezin Garcia/Sun-Times

The coordinated looting that overwhelmed police and left huge swaths of downtown and the Near North Side ransacked threatens to turn Chicago into pre-renaissance Detroit. If it does, Mayor Lori Lightfoot will pay the price, whether or not she was powerless to stop it.

Businesses that survived the stay-at-home shutdown and sustained heavy losses during the looting in late May triggered by the death of George Floyd may be reluctant to rebuild for fear they won’t be protected. Even if they do, customers may not feel safe shopping, dining or going to the theater downtown.

Empty-nesters and young people drawn to the city by the nightlife and cultural attractions that made Chicago a magnet for corporate headquarters may abandon the city as well because they, too, no longer feel safe.

Population gains downtown and on the Near North and Near West sides have helped offset the loss of Chicago’s Black middle class. If both groups continue to leave Chicago, the city will hemorrhage population and lose its tax base.

That’s something Lightfoot can ill afford at a time when the coronavirus pandemic has blown a $700 million hole in her precariously balanced 2020 budget.

“There’s a limit to how many times retailers are willing to be kicked. … It will be difficult after retailers who have invested millions in reopening to have to do it again. There has to be a lot of confidence that they can be protected and, so far, that confidence is lacking,” said Rob Karr, president of the Illinois Retail Merchants Association.

“There has to be a long-term plan for protection. Retail is the largest generator of revenue …through the sales tax. As goes retail, so goes government finances.”

Jack Lavin, president of the Chicagoland Chamber of Commerce, said Lightfoot must “get this situation under control as quickly as possible” or the “economic engine” of Illinois will suffer. So will the mayor’s plan to rebuild long-neglected South Side and West Side neighborhoods.

“The best solution to equity issues is jobs. Your Central Business District creates jobs. Restaurants, retail, hotels, tourism, office space. If people don’t feel safe, your economic engine suffers,” Lavin said.

“The more incidents we have like this, the more perception grows of the Central Business District being unsafe. We can’t afford any more hits like this.”

Downtown Ald. Brian Hopkins (2nd) said his constituents are “terrified” after having their “sense of security stolen from them. … They can’t walk out the door without risking their lives — even in the middle of the day.”

Lightfoot called the second round of looting an “assault on our city” and warned looters: “We are coming for you.”

Hopkins was not impressed.

“It sounded identical to the tough talk that we heard from her on May 31, the last time this happened. What adjustments were made? What’s different today? What did they do to prevent this? What have they changed? I don’t see it,” Hopkins said.

He met with Lightfoot last week when CPD unveiled its new “critical incident support team.”

“I said, ‘What about this goes beyond a new name?’ There was no answer. Instead, she blamed retailers for not showing up in court on retail theft. She didn’t take any responsibility. This is on her. Mayor Lightfoot owns this and she needs to solve it.”

When you wake up to the kind of devastation seen Monday morning, Hopkins said, there is “no way to defend” the Chicago Police Department’s response.

“That is not to criticize the blue shirts on the ground. It’s to criticize the strategy and the tactical decision-making of the senior command who were unprepared for this. … They acknowledged they had intelligence that this was going to happen. Yet it happened. So, if there was an attempt to intervene at the earliest stages and to stop it, it failed. … And once it started, there was no stopping it,” the alderman said.

Lightfoot reacted angrily to Hopkins’ broadside.

“Alderman Hopkins has a penchant for letting his mouth run before he actually gets the facts,” the mayor said. CPD “got the intelligence, acted on it quickly, brought 400 officers downtown. And what we need now is not Monday-morning quarterbacks and sideline critics. What we need is to come together as a city and have a united strategy and focus.”

Mayor Lori Lightfoot and Chicago Police Supt. David Brown held a news conference Monday morning at CPD headquarters to address looting that occurred overnight.
Mayor Lori Lightfoot and Chicago Police Supt. David Brown held a news conference Monday morning at CPD headquarters to address looting that occurred overnight.
Anthony Vazquez/Sun-Times

Lightfoot’s notoriously thin skin was also on full display when WLS-TV political reporter Craig Wall correctly noted her demand to hold looters “accountable” sounded like an attack on Cook County State’s Attorney Kim Foxx, whom the mayor has endorsed.

“Don’t bait us,” Lightfoot admonished Wall.

Downtown Ald. Brendan Reilly (42nd) joined the mayor in blaming the “lack of accountability and consequences” for looters.

“Whether it’s throwing a brick at a police officer’s head or shooting at a police officer or using sledgehammers on our police officers — that shows you there is no fear of consequences. That is, by far, the primary cause of this repeat looting and lawlessness,” Reilly said.

“Police made 100 arrests last night and many hundreds of arrests back in May. How many of those folks were held accountable? I’ll bet that’s a shameful number.”

Reilly said he’s not about to blame Lightfoot or her hand-picked police superintendent David Brown for the second round of looting after they were accused back in May of protecting downtown at the expense of South Side and West Side neighborhoods.

But he did say a “major course correction on resource deployment is necessary,” along with a “deep review of police intelligence-gathering capability.”

“Caravans and U-Haul trucks. Stolen vehicles lining blocks. Divvy bikes scattered everywhere. ... All of this was pre-packaged and ready to go. All it took was an all-systems go on social media for this thing to play out,” Reilly said.

“If this is the new crime threat, we need to make bigger investments in our social media capabilities so we get more than a 30-minute heads-up. We do have base-level intelligence capability in social media, but not nearly with the depth that federal law enforcement has access to or that private vendors can supply.”

Garry McCarthy, former CPD superintendent, said it was “refreshing to hear the mayor” demanding accountability from prosecutors — albeit without naming Foxx.

“She took a hard line. And she didn’t stop at Foxx. She went right to the judges also. … The mayor rightfully points out if the rest of the criminal justice system is not backing up what the police are doing, then it’s a waste of time,” McCarthy said.

“Today could be the start of the turnaround. ... You can’t say this was First Amendment action. This was criminal activity and people are fed up and tired of it. This is an opportunity to plant the flag. She could do it. She could definitely get it going in the right direction. But, it’s got to be a hard stand now.”

Ald. Michael Scott Jr. (24th), one of Lightfoot’s closest City Council allies, harkened back to the 1968 riots in communities like North Lawndale that followed the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

“It gave businesses an excuse to say, ‘I’m not coming back,’ collect their insurance money and go somewhere else. There was a lot of flight from this community and it has not come back since then,” he said.

“I hope and I pray that is not the case that happens all around Chicago — downtown and in communities like Englewood and Auburn-Gresham and all the neighborhoods that are struggling — because, then, we become something like Detroit.”