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New mayor’s strategy for Memorial Day weekend: ‘flooding the zone’ to keep violence in check

The “Our City. Our Safety.” plan includes more than 100 youth programs, activities and community events over the three days.

Chicago Public Schools CEO Janice Jackson and Chicago Police Supt. Eddie Johnson look on as Mayor Lori Lightfoot speaks about the launch of “Our City. Our Safety.” in advance of Memorial Day weekend during a press conference in the Ellis Park fieldhouse, Thursday, May 23, 2019.
Ashlee Rezin/Sun-Times

Mayor Lori Lightfoot said Thursday she’s “flooding the zone” — with 1,200 additional police officers, dozens of religious leaders and more than 100 youth programs — to prevent Memorial Day weekend from turning violent.

“I want our kids to be safe in every community. That’s what success looks like. I know that we’ve got a way to go on that journey. But, I want to make sure we start the building blocks aggressively this weekend,” Lightfoot said.

“We’re flooding the zone. We know the areas in the city where we believe there are challenges. And we’re gonna make sure that we are physically present. That we are engaging with people in those neighborhoods. And that we’re bringing resources into those areas in particular where we have concerns about any kind of conflict.”

Every year, Chicago mayors make similar promises, only to have their best efforts dissolve into a bloodbath over the holiday weekend that marks the unofficial start of summer.

This year, a new mayor has made Memorial Day weekend safety and preventing the traditional summer surge of violence her top priority. That provides added motivation for city department heads and agency chiefs who want to keep their jobs.

On Thursday, they gathered two- and three-deep behind Lightfoot at the Chicago Park District’s newest fieldhouse in Bronzeville to announce the coordinated plan they hope will keep the city safe this weekend:

  • 1,200 Chicago Police officers working overtime and on adjusted schedules.
  • 50 officers riding CTA buses and trains.
  • Activating the city’s emergency operations center to coordinate: Saturday’s Memorial Day parade; Sunday morning’s Bike the Drive; the Chicago House Music Festival; and the Cubs’ weekend series against the Cincinnati Reds at Wrigley Field.
  • More than 100 youth programs, activities and community events to provide constructive alternatives concentrated in neighborhoods plagued by gang violence.
  • A “city service blitz” by three departments — Streets and Sanitation, Transportation and Water Management — to bring hand-cleaning, graffiti removal, pothole patching, street light replacement, catch-basin cleaning and more to neighborhoods deemed “most in need.”
  • What Lightfoot calls a “critically important role” for “violence interrupters,” charged with “making sure that we resolve conflicts without violence and, when something happens, that they’re on top of it, to eliminate any possibilities for retaliation.”
  • Religious leaders taking to the streets, focused on 60 “hot spots,” to keep the peace.

“There has been training of what we are classifying as peace coordinators. And they will all move into action,” said the Rev. Michael Eaddy, pastor of Peoples Church of the Harvest, who served with Lightfoot on the Chicago Police Board.

“We have committed, as faith leadership, to an ongoing collaboration … with CPD, CAPS … all summer long. It’s not what we’re going to do tonight. It is what we’re going to do tomorrow, next week, next month and throughout this summer season … where churches are actually in the streets. We’re going block-by-block, door-to-door ... touching and making our communities better.”

Lightfoot has expressed disappointment with the city’s handling of large groups of young people who came downtown during spring break after organizing on social media.

That’s apparently why Thursday’s news conference showcased the citywide initiative to provide alternatives. She calls it, “Our City. Our Safety.”

“Emphasis on `our’. It’s not `me.’ It’s not `I.’ It’s `our.’ We all have … a role to play in keeping communities safe. ... We really want to encourage people to get our kids out and enjoy beautiful days like this. But we have to do it in a way that keeps them safe,” the new mayor said.

“These are challenging times for us in the city. We’ve seen as the weather has warmed up. It’s not the warmth. It’s the fact that people come outside and that’s where conflicts can happen.”

Mayor Lori Lightfoot and other city officials look on as Chicago Police Supt. Eddie Johnson speaks about the launch of “Our City. Our Safety.” in advance of Memorial Day weekend during a press conference in the Ellis Park fieldhouse, Thursday, May 23, 2019.
Ashlee Rezin/Sun-Times

Under former Supt. Garry McCarthy, Chicago police flooded downtown during summer months, paying particular attention to CTA stations where large groups of young people arrived to congregate in the Michigan Avenue and State Street shopping districts.

If police saw large groups of young people intimidating shoppers or otherwise causing trouble, they would surround those groups, follow them and sometimes steer them back to CTA stations.

That prompted periodic complaints that police were violating constitutional rights.

That’s the legal tightrope CPD Supt. Eddie Johnson now must walk.

“Everybody’s welcome to come down to Michigan Avenue. And we shouldn’t target people simply because of the way they look or their ages or gender. That’s just not right. But, if you come down there and misbehave, you’ll be dealt with accordingly,” Johnson said.

Police will pay particular attention to unauthorized block parties that sometimes lead to violence, the superintendent said.

“They tend to pop up in a matter of five minutes,” Johnson said. “You can go from five people to 50 people.”