A large group of teenagers descend on downtown Chicago on a warm weekend evening, causing havoc for about an hour. A few people are pushed and shoved, traffic is disrupted and a few misdemeanor crimes take place.
City residents shrug it off as just another "wilding" or "flash mob." Tourists are significantly more alarmed and quickly phone and text home to tell their families about the out-of-control bandits roaming the commercial district of Chicago.
This story is now an annual ritual that seems to be affecting more Chicago and other cities each year.
The incidents themselves have been more of a public relations headache than they have been a public safety threat.
That is starting to change. The Chicago Tribune caught up with a victim of mob violence on the Red Line this weekend and she told her frightening tale of being viciously attacked by nearly a dozen teenagers. She suffered facial injuries and bruising, but escaped without more serious injuries.
In the other weekend incident, a larger group on the Magnificent Mile harassed pedestrians, motorists and police for nearly an hour while engaging in a running fist fight among themselves.
We, Chicagoans, have become so accustomed to this random violence that it barely shakes us to hear these stories. However, the city is already stained with a reputation as a gangster town, where thugs run the streets and public officials are impotent to stop them. That reputation has worsened over the past year as the city suffered one of the worst homicide years in recent memory and several children were murdered in cold blood. Hadiya Pendleton's senseless murder made national news and provoked the President to make an unscheduled stop in his hometown to address the violence.
The constant drum beat of these stories is having a cumulative effect on the city's image. Chicago officials and business leaders refuse to comment about the affect Chicago's violent crime on tourism. Perhaps their silence tells the story. In the past, most assaults occurred away from landmark tourist districts and destinations so out-of-towners where shielded from assaults. That reality is fading.
Anyone who strolls the primary tourist destinations of Chicago from March to October can tell you how things have changed in just a few years. Groups of teenagers now stake out areas near or in the Water Tower Place, the John Hancock Center, North Avenue Beach, Oak Street Beach, Northwestern Memorial Hospital, Millenium Park, public transit stations, and the Michigan Avenue hotels like the Intercontinental and Marriott.
In addition, smaller groups pop up on Chicago Avenue from the lakefront to the Brown Line station as well as around the Art Institute and in the Theater District during weekend showtimes.
For many years, there were individual troublemakers in these locations. Most were amateur pickpockets, with the rare strong arm robber mixed in. Now, the people causing problems in tourist areas are younger, more organized, working in teams and more intent on causing disruption and starting fights rather than stealing things. The goal is less about theft and more about venting rage.
These troublemakers come from all over the city and some have access to illegal weapons in their communities of origin.
The evolution of crime in downtown Chicago is trending in the wrong direction; but, at least weapons have been kept out of the equation so far.
However, what if the mobs who ran amok on Saturday had been armed?
The city is just one major shootout away from a financial disaster. If those teens who ran the streets on Saturday had begun a gun battle across Michigan Ave, hitting dozens of tourists and families along the way, the city would never recover from the national spotlight. No tourism campaign of any kind could erase those imagines from the minds of families all over the country who would never again spend a weekend here after seeing the news. Trade shows and conventions of all kinds would be forced to rethink their decision to have their members staying in hotels here. International travelers would wise up and pick other American destinations over Chicago.
We might be used to the teen "wildings" in Chicago; but, we should not simply ignore them. These incidents present a serious threat to residents and the future of the city if they escalate further. Chicago needs out-of-towners to spend a lot of time and money here to help grow our economy. The city has spent millions to improve it's public image and expedite that growth. These rebellious teens, using nothing more than their fists, Twitter and cellphones, threaten to erase any good that those campaigns may have done.
If the parents of these children are Chicagoans, I hope they find a little civic pride and discipline their children not only for their own sake but for the sake of the fading reputation of our town.