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West Siders Protest Riot Fest By Holding Their Own Music Fest: ‘Our People Can Do Without Big Festivals’

Residents have for years voiced concerns about the festival being held at Douglass Park — and their frustrations came to a head this summer after a third mega fest moved into the park.

Musician Brianna Tong performs at the People's Fest Saturday near Cermak Road and Marshall Boulevard.
Frankie Perez/La DePaulia
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DOUGLASS PARK — West Siders held their own music festival Saturday to protest Riot Fest taking over a portion of nearby Douglass Park over the weekend.

The People’s Music Fest was held Saturday at the corner of Cermak Road and Marshall Boulevard as a part of residents’ long-running effort to remove Riot Fest and other mega festivals from Douglass Park.

Attendees listened to live music, ate snacks and painted while mingling near lawn signs that read, “NO MEGA FESTS IN DOUGLASS PARK!”

Residents have for years voiced concerns about the festival being held at Douglass Park — and their frustrations came to a head this summer after a third large festival moved into the park. Douglass Park now hosts Lyrical Lemonade Summer Smash, Heatwave and Riot Fest in the summer and early fall, which means residents are blocked from part of the park for weeks throughout the warmer months.

Residents have petitioned to have the fests booted, put up posters and protested in other ways.

Credit: Frankie Perez/La DePaulia
People gather at Cermak Road and Marshall Boulevard to celebrate the People’s Music Fest.

In August, the Park District held an open forum where neighbors said the festivals lead to traffic, slow down emergency vehicles, cut off residents’ access to the park, displace local soccer leagues and programs and create public safety concerns.

The Park District’s board is now considering a proposal that would require event organizers to get the board’s approval to host an event with 10,000 or more people per day in a park.

But Riot Fest continued as usual over the weekend. Festival representatives did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Emily, a West Side neighbor who did not wish to share her last name, said she attended the People’s Fest because “we’re here to fight for our community and our youth.”

Brianna Tong, one of the musicians who performed at the People’s Fest, said her punk song lyrics focus on officials’ lack of care for community members. 

“The money [Riot Fest] raised goes back to the aldermen,” she said. 

The Chicago Reader has reported that Riot Fest has given tens of thousands of dollars to political action committees tied to local alderpeople, and the Park District has given the festival a steep discount on permit fees — including a 90 percent discount in 2015 that allowed Riot Fest to pay just $233,508 out of the $2.35 million it was supposed to.

The Park District did not immediately respond to questions about the discount.

Ana Solano, a member of Unete La Villita, a West Side organization fighting the mega festivals, said the large discount the Park District gave Riot Fest is money not being put back into the community. 

“Who are these festivals really for?” she said. “They are not for us.”

Credit: Frankie Perez/La DePaulia
Community members sit on a bench at the People’s Music Fest.

But some residents have supported the festivals, saying they bring investment to the community and help boost local businesses.

Nicole Delgadillo, a Brighton Park resident who has attended Riot Fest four times, said she has never had a bad experience there.

“It’s one of those festivals that doesn’t get out of hand. It’s a nice environment,” she said. 

Festival organizers host cleanup events and offer free tickets and other perks to the park neighbors. Riot Fest recruits residents for temporary festival jobs and organizes beautification events, and Lyrical Lemonade hosts park cleanups.

Riot Fest also made commercials highlighting West Side businesses and played them on large screens in between sets throughout the weekend.

The companies behind the festivals must also pay to repair the parks after their events.

Juan Otalora said he supports the mega festivals because they provide him with job opportunities.

“The pay is great, but the networking opportunities are even better,” he said, and Riot Fest is his “favorite event to work” out of the big events he’s been at this year.

Edith Tovar, a member of Little Village Environmental Justice Organization, said Riot Fest might offer jobs, but the community continues to see disinvestment.

“To have concert promoters dangle temporary jobs is a joke,” Tovar said. ”That’s not economic improvement. That’s not going to help our community and our neighbors get out of poverty.”

Emily said her frustration within the community goes beyond the disruption mega fests are causing. 

“We are consistently fighting for clean air, community resources, health care, housing and safety,” she said.  “Riot Fest needs to understand that they are not welcome here.

“They were never invited by the people, and our people can do without big festivals coming in here.”

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