A screenshot of a video of Mayor Lori Lightfoot and about 12 other city officials approaching a group of Black youth playing basketball at a playground at Genevieve Melody STEM Elementary School, which is near the location where the mayor held the press conference that same day.

As temperatures hit the 70s last weekend, South Side resident Lynzie Jackson saw lots of people in her neighborhood violating the statewide stay-at-home order, which was recently extended to May 30. At Kozminski Park in the Hyde Park neighborhood, people were playing basketball and “nine times out of 10, they are not Black,” she said. She also saw families and small babies at the same park without masks. 

Even on May 1, the first day of Gov. J.B. Pritzker’s modified stay-at-home order requiring everyone over the age of two to wear masks, Jackson said she saw an elderly white couple walking on 51st Street and Drexel Avenue without masks.

“Specifically, this [past] weekend, there was a group of eight non-Black people and they looked like U of C [University of Chicago] students and they were playing football on the grass,” Jackson said. “This was the day we were mandated to wear masks and what I witnessed was Chicago Police [Department] cars just drive by.”

Because of her asthma, Jackson takes extra precaution when venturing outside during the COVID-19 pandemic. During trips to the grocery store, she carries bleach, wears a mask and brings her own tote bag for her groceries. On any given trip, though, she’s had to zig-zag around people who are often playing basketball or football, or walking their pets without masks.

“That park says that the playground is shut down. From the grass area, white people are just allowed to enjoy their days with no masks on, no gloves, in big groups with their pets. And that goes against the rules of the park,” Jackson said. “There is a sign with an official Chicago playground logo and the sign says that it is mandated that that park is closed.”

Photo of a "playground closed" sign at Kozminski Park in the Hyde Park | Photo by South Side resident Lynzie Jackson
Photo of an elderly white couple walking on 51st Street and Drexel Avenue without masks | Photo by South Side resident Lynzie Jackson

After a week of national headlines pointing to Black Chicagoans breaking quarantine with house parties and large outdoor gatherings, Mayor Lori Lightfoot stood in the middle of South Springfield Avenue and West Adams Street in West Garfield Park on Saturday (May 2), warning residents against throwing parties during the pandemic or else she and the Chicago Police Department [CPD] will “treat you like a criminal.”

“We will shut you down, we will cite you, and if we have to, we will arrest you,” said Lightfoot in a passionate video she delivered last Saturday (May 2) as a warning to residents to adhere to the stay-at-home order and the guidelines.  

Meanwhile, photos and videos of white Chicagoans outdoors, not social distancing or wearing masks in more affluent neighborhoods, also surfaced on social media — sparking a dialogue about best practices to equally stop the spread of the virus across racial and ethnic lines.

Some residents believe that Lightfoot was out of line for the way she approached the predominantly Black West Garfield Park community, especially the young people at a nearby playground that day. They see her approach as another example of unequal treatment of Black Chicagoans.

In particular, critics point to a second video by Gregory Pratt of the Chicago Tribune, which shows Lightfoot and about 12 other city officials approaching a group of Black youth playing basketball at a playground at Genevieve Melody STEM Elementary School, which is near the location where the mayor held the press conference that same day.

“Let’s go home. Let’s move on. Go home. Let’s go,” Lightfoot told the young crowd. She also mentioned that the playground is closed. “You wanna take this virus back to your house and get your momma sick?”

During a press conference on Wednesday (May 6) Lightfoot said the following in regards to asking the young people to leave the playground: “I talked to those young people the same way I will talk to my child. Think about the risks. Contact sports are really risky. There is a reason why the NBA shut down its season,” she said.

Alycia Kamil, 19, saw both Lightfoot videos on Twitter. She also saw the photos of non-Black Chicagoans hanging out in parks on the North Side, with no social distancing and not wearing masks, that were circulating across social media platforms such as Twitter, Instagram and Facebook. 

“Lori didn’t say anything about that,” said Kamil, who lives in the Auburn Gresham neighborhood. “Then she comes up with this video saying that if people are not following the stay-at-home order, that she was going to result in putting people in jail. This is incredibly messed up considering the fact that there are statistics that are showing the high amounts of confirmed cases of COVID-19 in Cook County.”

According to the Cook County Sheriff’s Office, as of 5:00 p.m. on Tuesday (May 6), there are 264 detainees in custody at Cook County jail who are currently positive for COVID-19. This includes 10 detainees who are being treated at local hospitals, and 255 detainees in custody that are no longer positive and are being monitored at a recovery facility at the jail. 

On May 4, William Sobczyk, 53, died at Stroger Hospital due to COVID-19 complications. He was the seventh Cook County Jail detainee to die from the virus, officials said.

“For the mayor to then say, if you are not following the stay at home order, she’s going to either give you a citation or arrest you and put you in jail, where there are already a high amount of confirmed cases in the jail, that is probably one of the worst ways to handle a health hazard,” Kamil said.

However, other residents believe that Lightfoot’s approach is justified and necessary in order to help stop the spread of COVID-19 in Black communities.  

John Fountain, a 41-year-old social worker from Chicago’s West Side, said that Lightfoot absolutely needed to visit the West Side this past weekend. 

“Black folks are dying at a disproportionate rate,” Fountain said. “This ain’t the crack era or opioid epidemic. I believe she is justly trying to intervene in her capacity as a mayor.”

Fountain believes that Lightfoot’s approach was her “doing what she has to do” to stop Black Chicagoans from dying of COVID-19. 

According to city health officials, Black Chicagoans currently make up about 30% of the city’s overall population, but 36% of the city’s COVID-19 cases and 51% of COVID-19 deaths. Out of the 27,568 cases in Chicago, 16% are between ages 18 and 29, 17% are between ages 30 and 39, and the hardest hit age group is 50 to 59 with 5,070 cases. As for the 1,152 deaths in Chicago, 0.8% are between ages 18 and 29, 2% are between ages 30 and 39, and the hardest hit demographic is 70+ with 678 deaths.

“She should continue to crackdown,” said Fountain. “Her engagement in areas that other mayors haven’t ventured to is awesome.”

Community activist and founder of Mask Up and Live campaign Caliph Rasul also believes that Lightfoot’s approach is necessary to keep Black Chicagoans alive. Mask Up and Live is a Chicago-based organization with a goal to educate Black people on the need and use of masks during COVID-19. The organization also distributes masks to Chicago residents through the support of local designers and companies like JoAnn Fabrics.  

Rasul said that the messaging isn’t getting across to Black people in Chicago as it should. He believes that Black Chicagoans are too focused on what is and is not happening in white neighborhoods instead of focusing on how to educate and engage with our own communities. 

“Well they over there are getting tested, they over there have better healthcare,” Rasul said. “So the outcomes for them are totally different for us. What are we not getting about us being safe?”

In a press call with Lightfoot on Tuesday (May 5), Lightfoot said she doesn’t want the police to be put in a position where they have to arrest people for noncompliance. 

“That’s a fail,” Lightfoot explained. “That’s a fail on everybody’s part. It’s a fail on the person who’s arrested.  It’s a fail on our ability as a city, as individuals, as a community to recognize the moment that we’re in. But if we have to, we will.”

On April 6, Lightfoot formed a Racial Equity Response Team headed by Chicago Chief Equity Officer Candace Moore with a goal to tackle race and health disparities among minority communities. In partnership with West Side United and other community organizations, the team is using street outreach workers as messengers to provide COVID-19 educational materials and conduct wellbeing checks on residents, holding daily calls with health care networks to slow the virus in vulnerable communities and more.  

A month later, on May 6, Lightfoot announced new efforts for the Rapid Response Team to target the Latinx community, which now has the highest number of COVID-19 cases.

“Here is a live, real, right-in-front-of-us case example of the manifestations of structural inequity and the racialized outcomes that they present. What are we going to do about it?,”  Moore asked in The TRiiBE’s story about the Racial Equity Rapid Response Team. “So the work is to support our team in a process of answering that question. And the goal is to bring people along very, very quickly.”

Lightfoot said she’s aware that violations of the stay-at-home order are happening all over the city — not just in Black Chicago communities. She, too, saw the video of cars racing and doing tricks on Lower Wacker Drive that surfaced on social media last weekend.

“Some people emailed me about issues happening in Lakeview. Part of it is that young people don’t believe that they are vulnerable. And the truth is, they are,” Lightfoot said.

CPD spokesperson Luis R. Agostini said enforcement of the stay at home order is universal, and has nothing to do with neighborhood, community or district. 

“Chicago Police officers must respond to all calls for service received from members of the public,” Agostini wrote in an emailed statement “The number of dispersal orders issued within any particular district strongly correlates with the volume of calls for service received from individuals residing in that district, who continue sharing their concerns around social distancing, large gatherings and other elements related to the statewide stay-at-home order.”

(The TRiiBE reached out to CPD via email for statistics on calls for service in various neighborhoods, but a CPD spokesperson said the department doesn’t maintain those numbers. After being referred to the Office of Emergency Management and Communications, which handles dispatch and calls for service, we were told to submit a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request.)

On Tuesday, state public health officials saw the highest number of COVID-19 deaths within a 24-hour period, at 176. In total, IDPH reported 2,974 deaths and 68,232 cases across the state on Wednesday (May 6).

Amika Tendaji, co-lead for Black Lives Matter Chicago, believes that Lightfoot’s approach to Black communities could do more damage than good during this pandemic. Black Lives Matter Chicago, a branch of the Black Lives Matter international activist movement, is a social justice organization working to end state violence and criminalization of Black communities in Chicago.

On April 17,  Pritzker announced that Illinois schools will be closed for the remainder of the school year. Tendaji said that this, for example, creates unfortunate circumstances for several Chicago youth, especially those experiencing physical and mental abuse at home.

“School and after-school activities were their safe place,” said Tendaji. “When Black folks need to decompress, what exactly are they supposed to do?”

Tendaji said that the way Lightfoot and city officials approached those Black youth at the playground wasn’t the best practice, considering the tense history of policing in Black communities.

“The Black community is terrified by the police. This systematic torture of young people into false confessions has been sending them to prison for decades,” Tendaji said, referencing the legacy of torture within CPD from former Supt. Jon Burge and his midnight crew. 

“The police and Lightfoot know that walking up to folks who are trying to take a breather outside isn’t the right move because it’s not what they’re doing in white neighborhoods,” Tendaji explained. “We’ve seen on the news that Lakeview and Lincoln Park shows differences in how the masks orders and physical distancing is not being policed.”

Instead, Tendaji believes Lightfoot and city officials can take a more empathetic approach, one that’s rooted in understanding and cultural sensitivity. 

“The city could employ community folks and community residents to make sure that people are getting resources like gloves, mask and hand sanitizers to stop the spread,” Tendaji said. “There are masks nowhere in stores. Some younger Black people don’t even have a mask or a face covering.”

Tendaji fears for the younger Black Chicagoans who may undergo circumstances that she believes city officials are not taking into consideration. For example, she said, since people are being asked to quarantine indoors, extreme levels of stress can arise. She believes city officials should consider that most Black Chicagoans are home with family members who may have lost their jobs and are under financial pressure, which can be a recipe for stress and domestic conflict. 

“These are also the kind of situations where children are often yelled at and told to get out. Some are kicked out of the house with nothing but the clothes on their back. What are the police offering them?” she said.