April 5, 2005

Arrest of Hyde Park high-schooler at McDonald's leads to protest

On Friday at noon, a group of over 100 demonstrators, including Kenwood High School students; community members; and University students, faculty, and staff, converged on the McDonald's located at 5220 South Lake Park Avenue to protest the restaurant's student seating policy, in spite of the restaurant's decision to reverse the policy on Thursday, following the restaurant's decision to reverse the policy the day before.

The protest was spurred by an incident this past Wednesday, March 31, in which Catherine Smith, a 15-year old sophomore at Kenwood Academy High School, was handcuffed and loaded into a police vehicle after refusing to sit in the restaurant's designated student seating.

According to Smith, after purchasing their meals, she and a group of five friends sat outside of the designated section because "there were no seats in the section that we were told to sit in." Though the restaurant had a standing policy of designated student seating, in the past week such seating had been reassigned to a smaller part of the restaurant, limiting the space available. Shortly after the group sat down, a security guard asked the group to move. Students claim there was still no available seating, but the security guard repeated the request. At this point, Smith said, without raising her voice or being disrespectful, she told the security guard that she would not move.

In response, the guard called the Chicago Police Department. Two plain-clothes policemen arrived and handcuffed Smith. "I guess they decided that I was the ringleader," she said. They placed her in a police vehicle, where she was held for 40 minutes. A friend contacted Smith's mother, Rolisa Tutwyler, an administrative assistant at the University's Center for the Study of Race, Politics and Culture, to inform her of the situation. When Tutwyler arrived, police refused to release her daughter to her custody. Instead, Smith was returned to Kenwood High School by the Chicago Police Department. No charges were filed against her.

Smith is the niece of Melissa Harris-Lacewell, an assistant professor in the University's political science department. Harris-Lacewell organized the protest in conjunction with Divinity School student Paul Robeson Ford after hearing of the policy and Wednesday's incident. She claims that the episode illustrates a societal assumption that black youth are criminal. "The standard analysis of young black people today is coming from Bill Cosby," she remarked, alluding to Cosby's highly publicized remarks last summer criticizing black youth. "We're not going to stand for that." Timothy Donaghy, a University of Chicago doctoral student who took part in the protest, also commented: "It seemed to me like McDonald's policy tapped into the fear of young African-American kids that is so prevalent in our society, and so misguided." In addition, protesters drew comparisons between Wednesday's incident and the civil rights struggle. In his opening remarks, Ford dubbed Smith "Rosa Parks," at one point introducing a chant: "Rosa Parks of the Golden Arches!"

At the protest, Ford noted that Harris-Lacewell had received critical e-mails and radio coverage from those who felt that teen behavior justified McDonald's policy. Owner Yolanda Travis says that the seating policy was "looked into this week" after "repeated customer complaints" about unruly behavior. In defense of the policy, Mary Mitchell, a Sun-Times opinion columnist, recently published an op-ed arguing that until youth change their behavior, policies like the Hyde Park McDonald's are justified. She questioned protestors' assessment of the policy as race-motivated, noting that Travis and the majority of Kenwood students are black.

Protesters agreed youth rowdiness was a problem. Aubrie Nolan is a Kenwood sophomore, and one of the five students seated with Smith during Wednesday's incident. "I won't say we're not disruptive-—we're teens," she said. "But to put all of us in a category isn't right." Celine Black, whose son attends Kenwood, agreed. "That's not everyone. You can't judge," she said. "Instead of coming up with that rule, single them out. Call the police on them." Shawn Dickerson, a graduate student in the Divinity School, likewise argued that though criticisms of youth behavior were valid, McDonald's should have anticipated the issue and developed a different policy. "They chose to locate it here, and they receive a ton of revenue from these students," he remarked. Smith put it more plainly: "When they took our money, they didn't find us disruptive."

Jerode Rodgers, a Kenwood senior, agreed that students were the restaurant's "major customers," and complained that the new seating area was substandard. "We have to sit by the bathroom and the garbage." Other students maintained that the problem went beyond McDonald's. "All the local businesses just treat us like crap, because we're kids," said sophomore Jordan Lanfain. He cited policies at other area businesses that only permit two students in at a time, as well as the timed seating policy at the 53rd Street Borders, which he claims is unfairly enforced: "They crack down more on African-American students."

Travis released an apology to the press on Friday during the protest, saying that "based on this unfortunate incident we will no longer pursue this seating concept. We have apologized to the family of the student involved." At Friday's protest, however, Ford disputed Travis' claim, saying, "the management of this restaurant has apologized to the newspapers, apologized to the TV stations… We want an apology to Catherine Smith." As of Sunday afternoon, the Smith family reported they had yet to receive a direct apology from Travis, from McDonald's, or from the Chicago Police Department.

Suggestions of a boycott have been made, as have arguments for campaigns against other Hyde Park businesses' policies directed toward students. As of yet, however, no new actions have been announced.