A crowd looks on as The Breathing Light perform at The People's Fest. Credit: Kelly Garcia

On a cloudy afternoon a couple of Saturdays ago, faint lyrics could be heard echoing down Marshall Boulevard, which exits Douglass Park on the park’s south side. The sound was not coming from any of the bands performing at Riot Fest inside the park, but a small crowd had gathered under the shade of nearby trees to watch the performer: an older woman playing guitar in front of a banner that read NO RIOT FEST. 

🎶 We don’t want your Riot Fest, no

We don’t want that tall black fence, no

We want trees and the singing lark

Give us back our Douglass Park 🎶  

It had been a few years since organizers held the first People’s Fest, a celebration of a growing movement to protect Douglass Park from privatization, but the scene was familiar. A group of residents set up tents, hung banners, and assembled a small stage. They greeted onlookers with friendly smiles and offered fresh produce, activities for kids, and live music—free and open to all. 

The focus of their protest was taking place simultaneously just blocks away. Concertgoers, fresh off the CTA, streamed into Douglass Park’s already torn-up fields for another year of Riot Fest.  The ticketed, for-profit music festival that includes punk, alt-rock, and hip-hop bands has caused tens of thousands of dollars in damages to the park in previous years and—along with other summer festivals—left neighborhood residents without a park for weeks on end.

But on that Saturday, the residents who spent their summer lining up to speak at park district board meetings, writing letters to city officials, and collecting petition signatures were still—perhaps at peace in each other’s company. They set blankets down over patches of green and settled in for a long afternoon featuring a variety show of their own. 

The next song was an acoustic cover of the 1937 folk song “Hello Stranger” by Chicago-based “tape explorer” Magic Ian. Rapper Veg@ P played a set from his newly released EP D@zed and Confused. Johnny Marshall performed some stand-up. The Black queer punk trio Bussy Kween Power Trip gave an exhilarating performance. Slowly, the crowd of bobbing heads grew. 

I found myself starstruck by The Breathing Light, an Alabama-bred, unapologetic Afropunk trio. 

Their electric sound sent shockwaves through the air. Drummer Dwayne Robinson wore a shirt that had a Blue Lives Matter flag with the words “Burn this flag” underneath. Their presence was fitting for a much larger stage at a festival like the one occupying     Douglass Park. 

“A lot of it has to do with what it means to be a successful band,” front man Kyle Ozero told me. “Some people think it makes you successful to play at a show like Riot Fest . . . but we don’t care enough about that.”

The band was fearless about the repercussions of speaking out against one of the largest independently owned music festivals in the country. Speaking out is actually their brand. 

Pointing to his shirt, Ozero told a story of when he pissed some people off after visiting Hollywood Forever, the iconic resting place of Hollywood’s biggest stars.

“I made a sign and got in front of Johnny Ramone’s grave site and called him a racist,” Ozero said, with obvious pride. With Riot Fest, it’s nothing different for the band. 

“It’s disappointing to see punk-inspired, counterculture-inspired bands playing at a fest like that,” Julie Aziza, another band member, said. “Even for it to be named Riot Fest as though it’s something radical . . . it’s ‘gentrification fest’ at this point.” 

On a bench, Jorge Angel, a resident who’s been living across the street from Douglass Park for ten years, sat pensively.

“We’re hoping to get more signatures,” he said in Spanish, nodding to the table in front of him with stacks of petitions. As of publication, Concerned Citizens of Riot Fest in Douglass Park, which Angel is active with, has gathered close to 3,000 signatures in support of removing the large music festivals from Douglass Park. 

But Angel was frustrated from an incident earlier that day when he was standing outside his porch with two kids on his watch. Parked in front of his house, he says, were two Riot Fest-goers snorting what appeared to be cocaine off the hood of their cars. 

“I have nothing against people who do that,” he said. “I just think they need to respect the residents who live here.” 

Several tables with local vendors were spread throughout the grass. Some were selling handmade jewelry, scarves, and candles. A group of abolitionists known as the Chi Capys were selling T-shirts for donations to people who are incarcerated. 

One vendor who asked to speak anonymously said they used to go to Riot Fest before the festival was kicked out of Humboldt Park by angry residents, but they stopped going when the makeup of the audience changed. 

“It’s mostly white people now, and they’re rude and disrespectful,” they said. “They don’t take into consideration the people around the neighborhood in addition to the lack of organization by the festival.”

As day turned to night, the crowd simmered. Many stood attentively, as if waiting for a signal. Others lay peacefully on the grass—dreaming of a better tomorrow. 

“Do you have hope?” I asked Jorge Angel. 

“Yes,” he said without pausing. “We’re growing in numbers, and I’m confident this will be the last year of Riot Fest.”