A scuffle inside a Lincoln Park oxygen bar on Wednesday, December 6, left a 16-year-old high school student with a scratched chin and bruises around his eye and cheek. According to a police report, it left the shop's 51-year-old owner with a dislocated shoulder. But mostly it left conflicting stories and unanswered questions.
Second Wind opened earlier this year on Lincoln near Webster. A recent international trend, oxygen bars hope to reinvent a classic image of frailty--being hooked up to an oxygen tank--as hip and healthy. Enthusiasts claim that inhaling oxygen flushes toxins from the body, increases one's alertness and energy level, delivers a mild high, and promotes a general sense of well-being.
According to the police report, Second Wind's owner, Michael O'Malley, called in a "gang disturbance" and told police that after he asked Aaron Smith and a friend of his, both sophomores at Lincoln Park High School, not to lean on his windows, they followed him into the bar and jumped him.
O'Malley didn't return calls for this article, but Smith tells a completely different story. He says he's not in a gang and never touched O'Malley's windows, and that he was "attacked out of nowhere." O'Malley, he says, charged out of the bar and ordered him off his property. "He elbowed me. I'm like, 'Why'd you put your hands on me?' He was like, 'I'm calling the police.' I was like, 'OK, let's go call the police.' So we get in the doorway and he snatches me in. He hit me with his fists, then he grabbed me and started choking me. I was scared. I was like, 'What's going on?' I threw him off me, and my friend is outside watching. He opens up the door and pulls me so I could get out."
According to Smith, O'Malley then locked his door and called the police. Smith eagerly awaited their arrival. "I thought they were coming to help me," he says. Instead the police cuffed him and his friend and hauled them off to the 18th District station as fellow students, who'd been eating at nearby restaurants, looked on. Smith says the officers on the scene "said they didn't want to hear what I had to say. They said, 'We're gonna black your other eye if you don't be quiet.'"
Pat Camden, a spokesman for the police department, says the officers determined that Smith and his friend were the perpetrators "based on the facts at the time," yet the case report lists no witnesses and Smith says the police never allowed him to tell his side of the story. He claims that he hasn't been in a fight since elementary school and that he's never been in trouble with the law. On December 27 he'll face assault-and-battery charges in juvenile court, and he says the friend who pulled him out of harm's way is now locked up in the Audy Home because he violated his probation by getting arrested.
News of the arrests raced through the halls of Lincoln Park High School that afternoon. By sixth period there was talk of hurling bricks through the bar's storefront window. Sophomore David Mingus says he and a junior named Jeremiah Reilly appealed for calm and then went over to the oxygen bar "to get the guy's side of the story." Apparently O'Malley had no interest in sharing his version of events with Mingus and Reilly; he picked up the phone and, for the second time that day, called the police. "We just waited there, because we hadn't done anything," says Mingus. When plainclothes officers arrived on the scene, they ordered Mingus, Reilly, and another friend who'd shown up to leave the area.
Mingus crossed the street, but Reilly, whose brother and uncle are police officers, hung back and asked one of the officers his name. "My dad always wants me to get officers' names and badge numbers when I speak with them," he says. "I wasn't being disrespectful." The officer, he says, searched him, cuffed him, and shot back that his name would be on the arrest report.
Mingus says he got worried when he saw police take Reilly inside the oxygen bar, because one of the cops had been making comments that seemed somewhat threatening. "I didn't want to leave Jeremiah alone in case they hit him," he says. "I figured there was less of a chance of something happening if I was there." When he stepped into the street, heading toward the bar, police arrested him too.
Mingus and Reilly were charged with disorderly conduct; O'Malley told police they had blocked the entrance to the oxygen bar, and according to the police report, they "became boisterous and caused a crowd to gather," charges the two teenagers deny. "We were being polite as possible," says Mingus, "saying, 'Yes, sir,' 'Yes, officer,' responding promptly and peacefully and cooperatively. Somehow they took that as sarcasm. They kept saying we had attitude--even though I've been told by police who've come to my school and by city officials that if you talk to them nicely, they'll be nice to you."
Police released Mingus and Reilly without filing a "petition for delinquency," which would have required them to show up in court. (Camden says that this isn't the same as dropping the charges, though the consequences appear to be identical.)
Meanwhile, sophomore Jacob Freeman, a close friend of Aaron Smith, was sitting in sixth period unable to concentrate on his U.S. history lesson. He couldn't imagine his best friend, who weighs in at 140 pounds, picking a fight with a grown man, or anyone else for that matter.
Freeman and his friends are budding political activists; they're quick to criticize the war on drugs, the "prison-industrial complex," and the downside of capitalism. They've participated in school walkouts and attended rallies to protest police brutality. They worry about society "becoming more fascist." But Smith's arrest, says Freeman, "hit close to home"--his friend had been victimized, first by a businessman and then by the police. "I had to do something."
He drafted a strongly worded flyer calling for a boycott of Second Wind and showed it to a couple of friends, who agreed to go home and make flyers of their own. The next morning before school, they and Smith plastered the windows of the bar and neighboring businesses: "We must unite and fight back against this and future injustices towards the downtrodden," read one flyer. In asking the community to boycott the bar, they say they wanted to draw attention to the incident as well as a trend toward the "criminalization of youth." Cory Sims, who wrote the "downtrodden" flyer, says that people dial 911 almost as a reflex "if kids are doing anything outside." The community and police, the kids say, are quick to assume that teenagers are up to no good, which sometimes results in the infringement of their rights and in draconian, hysterical laws and policies; the judicial system increasingly prosecutes juveniles as adults, and not too long ago, in a misguided attempt to crack down on gangs, the city passed an unconstitutional ordinance that threatened to encroach upon the prized teenage activity of congregating in public with no apparent purpose.
The students say they feel increasingly under siege at school, with zero-tolerance policies, metal detectors, and a heavy security presence that sweeps them off school property at the end of the day like discarded food wrappers. They say they're constantly subject to harassment and intimidation, random stops and searches. They say cops on patrol near their school once ordered a peaceful group of kids into a squad car, claiming that the neighborhood needed to be protected from them. "I don't even feel safe walking down the same sidewalk because of the owner," Smith said two days after his run-in with O'Malley.
Some of Smith's peers wonder whether he was targeted because of his race and appearance. "In this neighborhood, Aaron stands out," says Daniel Pinzke, a senior. Mike Stahl-David, a sophomore, says he doubts the incident would have happened if Smith, an African-American, were "a nice-dressed white kid." Smith and his friends complain that they and other teenagers like them--who might favor baggy jeans or sport dreadlocks--are often regarded with suspicion even when they're being courteous.
They aren't the only ones wondering why police assumed that O'Malley was the victim, especially when Smith had visible injuries and O'Malley didn't. Smith's mother LaDonna, wants some answers. "You, do not put your hands on no one else's kids," she says. "I need to find out from the officers why wasn't this man arrested for beating a minor."
Jacob Freeman's mother, Wendy, says she was "astonished" when she saw Smith's bruised face and heard about his arrest. "I want to know the whole story," she says. She can't picture her son's best friend attacking anyone. "Aaron basically lives here. We've even taken him to Florida, had him over for Passover. He's a nice kid, affectionate and appreciative. I've never seen him get angry." Mingus's mother, Joanne Archibald, is a bit bewildered by her son's arrest, describing the incident report as "almost comical....Basically, he got arrested for being boisterous."
The boycott signs have been ripped down, but Smith and his friends are getting their own second wind: they're gearing up to picket the oxygen bar.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Jim Newberry.