Riot Fest management apologizes and its contractor steps down after ‘hostile’ community meeting, as momentum to boot festival gains traction

·5 min read

CHICAGO — With a community-led movement to evict big-ticket music festivals from Douglass Park gaining steam, Riot Fest management has let go its event organizer and apologized to the community for his “tone” at a neighborhood meeting last week that only seemed to exacerbate the festival’s fraught relationship with residents.

The community meeting on Aug. 2 was the first of its kind by Riot Fest since the multiday punk, rock and hip-hop festival moved to Douglass Park in 2015. The meeting is now a requirement by the Chicago Park District, but residents said it was poorly advertised, in the middle of a weekday and didn’t include chairs for the elderly or an interpreter for Spanish speakers.

Riot Fest spokesperson Heather West said the meeting was conducted without management’s authorization.

“We don’t condone the tone and apologize to the Douglass Park community as it is not reflective of (Riot Fest’s) values or any of our past work in the park. We respect the concerns of the neighbors and want to make sure they are heard and addressed,” West said in a statement. “Scott Fisher was in his contracted role for four festival seasons. He understands and agrees with our disappointment, and that the community meeting was not a proper representation of Riot Fest, and as a result will be stepping down from his role.”

It’s the second time in a decade the festival has battled with its Chicago neighbors. Riot Fest left Humboldt Park seven years ago because of neighbor complaints.

Ana Solano, a community organizer from Únete La Villita, who attended the meeting with roughly a dozen other residents, said Fisher had a “hostile attitude,” and called the meeting “inaccessible” because it had no chairs for the elderly and no interpreter for Spanish speakers.

According to the Chicago Reader, which reported on the meeting, Fisher pushed back against the community’s concerns and at one point said, “Listen if you can’t understand pure English and the fact that I can’t answer that question ...” before being drowned out by residents.

On Sunday, more than 100 people came together at Douglass Park to demonstrate against the festival, Solano said. More than 1,200 people have signed an online petition to stop private music festivals from being held in the West Side park.

Two other big-ticket music festivals take place in the park during the summer: the Lyrical Lemonade Summer Smash in June and Heatwave in July. Riot Fest in September would be the park’s third big event.

While some say that the music festival brings economic opportunity and vitality to the neighborhood, and the Riot Fest website touts the festival’s ties to the community, others say the damage to the park and the commotion in the neighborhood make the concerts feel like an intrusion.

“I just don’t think it’s cool that these (concert) promoters make millions off of our community and as a working-class brown community, we have very, very limited green spaces,” Solano said. “So for them to just hog it off for most of the summer — it’s inhumane.”

Solano said that at Sunday’s gathering, elders from the bird-watching community spoke about how the music festivals affect the wildlife. Soccer coaches and players shared that, with the park being closed for festivals so frequently, they often had to travel to other parks to find fields for their practices and games.

Georgina Haro, a 28-year-old Little Village resident and leader of a local running club, attended the demonstration with her three-legged dog, Gilda. She said she used to take her dog to Douglass Park, but this summer, they have resorted to traveling to other parks.

“To be honest, we just end up driving by. I don’t even end up going there anymore,” she told the Tribune. “In the summer it’s inaccessible.”

Haro said that despite Sunday’s rain, people were sharing free food and making posters. She said she had been following the issues with Douglass Park online, but was “riled up” after hearing about the community meeting with Riot Fest and was motivated to join the Sunday demonstration.

According to Chicago Park District spokesperson Michele Lemons, the park began requiring festival organizers to submit and execute a community engagement plan with their application that includes at least one community meeting.

“Parks has always strongly encouraged organizers of large-scale events to engage with and garner support from local community leaders before submitting their application,” Lemons stated in a written response to the Chicago Tribune.

The sprawling, 161-acre park currently falls in two wards but will be solely within the 24th Ward when the new ward map goes into effect for the 2023 municipal election. Ald. Monique Scott, 24th, did not return phone calls for comment.

Xavier Nogueras, one of the leaders in the efforts to remove Riot Fest from Humboldt Park, said campaigns against concerts have to be aggressive to be successful.

“What’s going on in Douglass Park is the exact same thing as what happened in Humboldt Park,” he said. “I’m surprised it has taken this long for the voices (against it) to be united.”

From his perspective, the city’s claim that the concerts bring money into the neighborhood is untrue.

“There is only one reason you would do it in Humboldt Park. There is only one reason you would do it in Douglass Park. They get away with it,” Nogueras said. “If those parks weren’t surrounded by people of color, they wouldn’t get away with it.”

Juanita Irizarry, the executive director of Friends of the Parks, also believes the choice of the parks is intentional.

“One of the other things we think we have seen is the Park District moves these concerts around to whatever parkland they think doesn’t have community around it powerful enough to push back,” she said.

Irizarry said the city should explore hosting more festivals at Soldier Field or creating a dedicated concert space like Milwaukee’s festival park to alleviate the burden on Chicago’s existing park space.

According to event permit applications obtained by the Chicago Tribune, Riot Fest is scheduled to begin setting up Sept. 5, 10 days before the festival begins.

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(Tribune reporter Tracy Swartz contributed.)

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