April 3, 2013
You're walking in Chicago.
It's chaotic and it's loud.
People swarm the sidewalks, many of them shouting. They spill into the street, many of them cursing. They jostle you, step on your toes. Traffic is a nightmare.
You squeeze through the barricade of bodies, past the guy urinating on the curb. Drunks, drunks everywhere. A fight breaks out. The cops move in, the crowd moves on. But this chaos is going to erupt again.
Does that scenario make you think of downtown Chicago last Saturday?
I'm talking about the streets around Wrigley Field after a Cubs game.
In some ways, the two aren't all that different, and yet one terrifies while the other is just a classic Chicago-style good time.
I don't mean to minimize what happened in Chicago over the weekend, only to suggest there has been some overreaction.
What happened on and near the Magnificent Mile was bad, no doubt about it, bad for bystanders, for businesses, for the city's reputation.
(Magnificent Mile is the term the media use for North Michigan Avenue when the topic is shopping, parades or violence.)
The weather that evening verged on warm. Packs of rowdy young people roamed the sidewalks. Many had ridden the Red Line in from neighborhoods that are short on shopping and parades.
By the end of the night, police had made 28 arrests, mostly of teenagers. Eleven were apprehended after a woman was beaten up on the "L" and her purse stolen.
A while later, along Michigan Avenue, 17 more were rounded up for other disturbances.
Soon the national news bubbled with reports of riots by teenage mobs, and the Internet frothed with racist babble.
"Hundreds of rampaging teens target pedestrians in crazy flashmob-style attack on Chicago's Magnificent Mile," reported the website of London's Daily Mail.
"Chaotic wilding assault," said the headline in the New York Daily News.
Friends, let's take a breath.
The woman assaulted on the train was justifiably terrified. But the disturbance on Michigan Avenue wasn't the same trouble. The police say there's no evidence that the beating on the "L" was connected to the commotion in the streets.
"There were no attacks," Superintendent Garry McCarthy said Monday. "There were groups of kids who engaged in fighting with each other."
No reports of robberies, property damage or injuries.
And yet in the public mind, the two incidents quickly became a single stick of dynamite, proof that the city was ready to explode.
This is a tough period in Chicago. Although crime is down, violence and the poverty that breeds it remain daily occurrences in certain neighborhoods.
In the past three months, we've seen a 15-year-old girl and a 6-month-old baby shot to death, allegedly by young men. The killings have renewed a mood of menace, and that mood inevitably affects how large, rowdy groups of young people are perceived when they come from poor neighborhoods into the privileged parts of town.
A mood of menace comes and goes in Chicago. So do the unruly young people downtown.
A year ago on St. Patrick's Day, I took a friend from Canada down to see Chicago's glories. The weather was warm, and the gorgeous city was packed with more young, loud people than I'd ever seen. I felt anxious and tried to pinpoint why.
Because I hate packs and crowds?
Because these teenagers were making so much noise?
Because their skin wasn't the color of mine and I had the unusual experience of feeling out of place downtown?
Whatever the reasons, my anxiety involved the sense that if something went wrong — if a shot was fired, if a fight flared up — the violence would ripple through the crowd like dominoes and something truly terrible would happen.
Nothing terrible came to pass, but the night made me think about how much our reaction to what does happen can be warped by our fear of what might.
The police plan to stay vigilant downtown, and that's important.
It's also important that we turn down the volume on the alarm so that we can hear the facts over the sound of fear.
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