Friday, April 01, 2005
"The Rosa Parks of the Golden Arcs" 
by Lenka Reznicek [permalink] 
That's what they're calling Catherine Smith, a student at Chicago's Kenwood Academy, these days. Last night on Chicago Public Radio's local news program, I heard about this deplorable incident that occurred Wednesday at a Hyde Park, Chicago McDonald's...so no, unfortunately, this story is not an April Fool's Day joke. I wish it were. From the University of Chicago American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) Listserv:
Join Us to Protest Segregation at the Hyde Park McDonald's

On Wednesday afternoon the Chicago Police Department harassed, handcuffed and then tossed a fifteen-year-old honor student into a paddy wagon. What was her crime? She peacefully paid for and then ate a burger at her local McDonald's restaurant.

You see, the Hyde Park McDonald's on Lake Park and 52nd has an official policy of discrimination against the youth of our community. The schoolchildren of Kenwood Academy, whose school is two blocks from the fast-food restaurant and who spend thousands of dollars in lunch money there, are forced to eat in separate and unequal facilities in the restaurant. Although they pay full price for their meals they are not allowed the basic civil right of choosing to sit anywhere in the restaurant. Instead these young, mostly black, school kids are forced to sit in designated areas within McDonald's.

On Wednesday, Catherine Smith, a sophomore honor student at Kenwood Academy High School, decided that she would stand up for her basic civil rights. Catherine is a first chair soprano in her youth opera, she played the lead in her school play earlier this year, and she maintains a GPA over 3.5.

She also knows a discriminatory policy when she sees it. So on Wednesday, Catherine paid for her lunch and then sat down in the restaurant at a table not designated for students. She was asked repeatedly by the security guard to move. Without raising her voice or using profanity, Catherine calmly told the security guard that she would not move. In response the security guard called the Chicago Police Department.

The Chicago Police handcuffed this underage girl and loaded her into the back of a paddy wagon. A friend called Catherine's mother, who is an administrative assistant at the University of Chicago. When she arrived on the scene the police refused to release Catherine to her mother and forced Catherine to return to school in the paddy wagon.

Our community will not stand for McDonald's policy of segregation or the brutal enforcement of this discriminatory policy by the Chicago police. It has been more than 40 years since the passage of the 1964 Civil Rights Act, which ended segregation in public accommodations. We will not go back to a time when patrons who pay full price for public services are refused equal treatment simply because they are a part of a group whom others deem undesirable.

Join us FRIDAY, APRIL 1, at 12:00 NOON as we demonstrate our outrage. We will meet at the Hyde Park McDonald's at 5220 S. Lake Park Avenue. Following the example set by Catherine Smith on Wednesday, and in the great tradition of Rosa Parks, this demonstration will be peaceful, nonviolent and conducted with the utmost dignity. This demonstration will show our young people that the community stands with them. We will not allow them to be discriminated against by those who profit from them. We will not allow them to be brutalized by the police.
This particular McDonald's restaurant, and the police officer who intervened, certainly picked the wrong 15-year old girl to mess with: Ms. Smith is the niece of University of Chicago political science professor - and reknowned researcher and race and gender issues advocate - Melissa Harris-Lacewell.

It's incredible to me that a corporation as visible as McDonald's would allow one of its restaurants to maintain this type of discriminatory policy. It's one thing to have security call police to remove a disruptive or violent individual from premises; it's an entirely different matter to invoke the law when a person peacefully refuses to sit in a certain area. Smith broke no law that I can think of - all she did was refuse to sit it a designed "kids" area.

One a side note: "but what about designated smoking areas?" some might say. I think that's a completely unrelated issue. Smoking presents a health risk (and often an annoyance) to non-smoking restaurant patrons, and is a specific behavior that affects surrounding people. A ban on smoking does not prohibit smokers from occupying a certain area; only the act of smoking is banned. That said, I don't agree with the policy that certain regions, like New York City, have adopted by making all restaurants and bars entirely smoke-free: if people want to smoke in a bar, or a physically separate area of a restaurant, they should be allowed to. Don't like smoky bars? Then it's a perfect opportunity to allow certain venues to promote themselves as "smoke-free." Let the customers and the market make the choice, not the government.

There may be a similar reasoning (but no excuse to use the tactics that were employed here) for seating families with young children in a remote area of upscale restaurants. Those wishing to dine in quiet, romantic surroundings may find kids' normal behavior something of a mood-killer; and to preserve their reputation and future business, a restaurant may wish to seat these customers in an out-of-the-way location. Judging from the way some restaurants treat families, certain restaurants soon get a "non-family-friendly" rep by word of mouth. Unfair, yes, but somewhat understandable - and McDonald's isn't exactly Charlie Trotter's.

However, segregating, harassing and punishing a patron the way this Hyde Park McDonald's did - because of a personal characteristic, whether age, race, what have you - is absolutely unacceptable. Period.

More about the story, and the protest on Melissa Harris-Lacewell's website
More on the story in today's Chicago Tribune [reg.req.]
Dr. Melissa Harris-Lacewell's website