House parties are meant to be a thing of the past now that COVID-19 has turned into a pandemic.
But on April 25, a viral video showed a gathering of dozens of people in the Northwest Side neighborhood of Galewood at a memorial party for two friends who died of gun violence years ago. The video drew such a level of nationwide vitriol on social media that Mayor Lori Lightfoot blasted the revelers as “foolish and reckless,” and Gov. J.B. Pritzker criticized the partygoers for “putting everyone around you in danger.” (Tribune columnist, Dahleen Glanton, wrote an open letter to the black kids who partied, citing the reality of killing loved ones “without even knowing that you are carrying a weapon.”) Chicago police have subsequently said they cited the homeowner with disorderly conduct Monday.
With so much conversation about the event, The Triibe, a digital media platform that tells stories of black Chicago, sought to find the disconnect between local government officials, black youth and traditional media outlets in conveying the serious nature of the coronavirus. In her article, Veronica Harrison (aka Vee L. Harrison), talks to a young woman at the party. The woman told Harrison she knows COVID-19 is serious, but she’s not letting fear win out over her faith.
The partygoer told Harrison: “I get irritated with these celebrities trying to tell us to stay in the house. Us people that aren’t as rich as them, we don’t have nothing to do in the house. Sometimes this can cause you to go into boredom and depression and you have to get out, you have to get some air.”
Harrison said her phone has not left her hand since the Triibe story went live Tuesday night.
“The story’s momentum, we did not expect, and such vivid conversations and the range of responses between age and socioeconomic categories,” she said. “I believe that we are in a space and time where the generational divide and the poison in that is really plaguing our country, literally killing us. Because we can’t see eye to eye, it’s hard to understand how people are surviving this. … The boomers want to blame the millennials and the millennials want to blame the folks underneath them. We’re doing a lot of finger-wagging and we’re not coming up with solutions and keeping people alive.”
Illinois State Rep. LaShawn Ford, in an attempt to find solutions, held a Facebook Live conversation on Tuesday with the host of the house party, Janeal Wright, 26. The intervention was seen as a teachable moment, according to Ford. He supports Wright, even though he said it wasn’t a popular move, because supporting him will make sure that he doesn’t do something like it again when social distancing is necessary. It’s all in the vein of “if you know better, you do better.”
“He’s a good young man; he just made a bonehead decision,” Ford said in a phone interview. “Look, if the president of the United States can make the stupid comments about bleach and Lysol injecting and the vice president can go into a hospital without a mask, but this young man who is less than a third of their age and doesn’t have the experience that they have, we’re going to nail him? No. Absolutely not. We’re going to help him and he’s going to be better from it and we’re going to connect with the young population and not further divide us with them.”
Ford said he and Wright are working on pointing party attendees to get tested for the coronavirus at Loretto Hospital. Ford said he’s working on creating a video with Wright to get the message out to the young population about the importance of adhering to the stay-at-home order and maintaining social distancing.
During the Facebook Live conversation, Wright told Ford that he, like most young people, doesn’t watch the news because there’s a lot of talk about people of color getting killed. Young people disengaged with the news is one form of the disconnect between black youth and traditional mediums of communication, says Harrison.
Sona Smith, executive director at Illinois Caucus for Adolescent Health, says residents in typically under-resourced communities were already in survival mode prior to COVID-19, and the virus just adds another layer that may seem less immediate.
“There is a historical and deep seated distrust that we have with things related to government, the medical system, policing — you name it,” said the Bronzeville resident. “The Lori Lightfoot memes and things like that makes (coronavirus) more relatable and it connects to the younger audience, but there’s so much healing that needs to take place between all the people within those marginalized communities and these systems that now we have to trust; that we have to rely on for our updates and to tell us what to do next.”
Smith said trust doesn’t come because we are in the middle of a pandemic. “You can get the message out in a million different avenues, but if the people don’t trust the source of that message, it’s not going to resonate.”
Ford saw the Facebook discussion as an opportunity to turn a negative into a positive and to give youth like Wright and his partygoer friends a voice. Harrison said she is brainstorming with people like Ford to build a coalition to give black youth a place to vent their concerns, since what exists now seems to be missing the mark.
Harrison said her article’s goal was to create a conversation.
“It’s creating this narrative that people were either afraid to approach or people haven’t thought about, and, either way, I’m good with that,” she said. “If we don’t move the needle in how we’re sharing these stories, we’ll continue to lose lives specifically in Chicago, specifically in black communities. I think right now, dialogue needs to happen about what we’re going to do to keep black Americans alive.”