By Erick Johnson, Chicago Crusader
It was an early Friday evening at Water Tower Place. The popular 42-year-old mall that hovers over tony Michigan Avenue was winding down a typical busy day before it revved up for another busy weekend. Amidst the hustle and bustle were six well-dressed, well-mannered teenage boys who were talking among themselves. Within minutes they were yelled at and escorted out of the mall and told never to come back again.
Yards away was Dr. Carla Hightower, a Black Chicago physician who saw the entire incident unfold. Originally impressed by the boys’ behavior, Hightower watched in disbelief as a security official berated the teenagers before they were kicked out of the mall for reasons Hightower refused to believe. While mall officials have apologized for the incident, Hightower believes the Black boys were racially profiled by Water Tower Place’s security officials whose bogus explanations were contradicted by the mall’s surveillance videos.
As Chicago’s Mag Mile preps for its busy tourist season, the incident has sent the top brass at Water Tower Place into damage control and some diversity training. But the incident has raised new concerns about racial profiling in one of the most segregated cities in the country.
For Blacks visiting Water Tower Place, if you don’t buy you better fly.
On a typical weekend, Water Tower Place draws thousands of shoppers to the retail mecca at 835 North Michigan Avenue. Since 1976, this skyscraper near the iconic John Hancock Center has been a magnet for consumers seeking good deals at Banana Republic or Ann Taylor while they shop in a glistening environment. With its popular stores, restaurants and tony five-star Ritz-Carlton Hotel on the above floors, Water Tower Place has been an adventure for those with some cash to burn.
For the six Black boys, their trip on Friday, March 2 was one they may never forget. At 7:30 p.m. Hightower noticed the group of six teenagers as she was strolling the floors of Water Tower Place.
“They stood out because they looked so good,” Hightower told the Sun-Times, which first reported the incident. “There were a large number of them, and they were so stylish, calm and mature.”
Minutes later, Hightower saw a female security guard escorting the teens out of the building. What did the boys do wrong?
According to the Sun -Times, Hightower said the security officer told her “I don’t even know if they did anything wrong.”
Hightower said the female security guard who escorted the boys was Black, and appeared apologetic about the situation.
Hightower could have walked away from the situation and forgotten about the boys, whom she did not know. But Hightower sensed that this was a case of racial profiling.
The Crusader was unsuccessful in contacting Hightower for this story, but she told her story during a podcast conversation on the Sun-Times’ website.
During the conversation, Hightower said she sought out a manager after witnessing the incident. She said she was stunned when the manager told her that teenagers were thrown out because they were “loitering” and not “engaged in the shopping experience.” Because they were not making any purchases, the teenagers were violating the mall’s code of conduct.
“I just argued back,” Hightower said. “I told him I never heard of that rule. I hadn’t purchased anything that evening. They kept saying they were loitering. Then they said they were chasing girls.”
Hightower said the argument with the manager lasted about 10 minutes. After getting nowhere, Hightower said she walked away. Two days later, Hightower emailed Kevin Berry, executive vice president of human resources and communications for General Growth Properties.
Berry, during the podcast conversation, said he told Hightower to give him 24 hours to respond to the letter to fully understand Hightower’s complaint. Then Berry, along with the mall’s security detail, viewed the surveillance videotapes, which showed the Black teenagers just talking among themselves before they were escorted out of the building.
“The fact that they were expelled from the property and told to get out and never come back, was not only unprofessional, but it was wrong. These kids should not have been thrown out,” said Berry who participated in the podcast conversation with the Sun-Times’ Mary Mitchell and Leslie Baldacci, who explore racial issues as the ‘Zebra Sisters’.
Berry apologized to Hightower for the incident, but neither Berry nor mall officials have been able to contact and apologize to the six Black teenage boys who were thrown out of the mall.
“I am hopeful the podcast and Sun- Times’ column reaches the teenagers and I have the opportunity to speak with them in person, as I stated during the podcast. However, I’m still waiting,” Berry said in an email to the Crusader.
He said during the podcast that if he had the opportunity, he would apologize to the teenagers and “even buy them lunch.”
But while Berry acknowledged that the boys were wrongly treated, he is not saying whether they were racially profiled. When the Crusader asked him via email about whether the teenagers were racially profiled, Berry referred the reporter back to his response he gave during the podcast conversation with the Sun-Times.
“I wasn’t there, I just hope it wasn’t,” he said.
Hightower accepted Berry’s apology. During the podcast, Hightower said the experience was a “powerful moment.”
“I know about this problem. I experienced it myself,” Hightower said. But for me to have that moment and to be able to see it-it doesn’t make sense.”
Berry did not say whether the manager who ordered the teenagers thrown out of Water Tower Place will be fired.
“I’m hopeful you can respect that I can’t discuss employee matters with you as they are strictly private,” Berry said in an email to the Crusader.
Richard Wooten, a former police officer who now owns a security company said upscale shopping centers, such as Water Tower Place, can suffer heavy financial losses from lawsuits and consumer backlash if they continue the trend of racially profiling Black shoppers.
“Unfortunately, a lack of awareness will eventually contribute to poorer security tactics like racial profiling,” said Wooten. “Agencies have to be willing to put their security officers through more stringent training programs than ever before.”
Berry said he, and the mall’s security team will meet in two weeks as part of an effort to retrain and streamline its policies on loitering.
“There were six kids that for the rest of their lives are going to have a negative feeling of Water Tower Place.”