McDonald’s protesters condemn CEO’s comments on Adam Toledo, Jaslyn Adams. ‘The CEO doesn’t understand or know our struggle.’

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McDonald’s CEO Chris Kempczinski on Tuesday addressed comments he made in a text exchange with Mayor Lori Lightfoot appearing to blame the parents of two Chicago children fatally shot earlier this year, saying his comments lacked “compassion and empathy.”

Kempczinski sent the messages, which sparked a protest Wednesday after they were recently made public, after meeting with Lightfoot at McDonald’s Chicago headquarters in April. In the texts, he said the parents of children shot in separate shootings “failed those kids.”

One happened the day before Kempczinski and Lightfoot met: a shooting in the drive-thru lane at a McDonald’s on the West Side that killed 7-year-old Jaslyn Adams. Three weeks prior, 13-year-old Adam Toledo was shot and killed by a Chicago police officer during a foot chase in Little Village.

“With both, the parents failed those kids which I know is something you can’t say. Even harder to fix,” Kempczinski wrote in the message.

In response, Lightfoot said, “Thanks, Chris. Great to see you in person. Such a great work space, and your folks were terrific. I said to Joe I would be happy reach out to the operator to offer support. He and his team members have got to be traumatized. Terrible tragedy. Thanks again, Chris.”

In a statement Tuesday, a Lightfoot spokesperson criticized the CEO’s comments.

“As the mayor has said previously, families do everything they can — moms, dads, grandparents — to love and support their children, and tragedies can still happen,” the statement said. “Victim shaming has no place in this conversation.”

The texts were released through a Freedom of Information Act request filed by Michael Kessler, a Vancouver man requesting records as part of an inquiry into a Portland, Oregon, police matter, working with Lucy Parsons Labs, a nonprofit transparency organization. An image of the portion of the FOIA records including Kempczinski’s texts was shared on Twitter.

In a note sent to McDonald’s U.S. corporate employees Tuesday morning, Kempczinski said he was reflecting on his conversation with the mayor about the recent tragedies when he wrote the message.

“When I wrote this, I was thinking through my lens as a parent and reacted viscerally. But I have not walked in the shoes of Adam’s or Jaslyn’s family and so many others who are facing a very different reality,” he said. “Not taking the time to think about this from their viewpoint was wrong, and lacked the empathy and compassion I feel for these families. This is a lesson that I will carry with me.”

The comments still angered the roughly 30 people who gathered outside McDonald’s West Town headquarters Wednesday afternoon at a protest organized by a dozen organizations, including the Chicago Fight for $15 and a Union and Little Village Community Council.

A group of kids held a banner asking Kempczinski to “take care of your workers so they can take care of us,” while others held Happy Meal-style boxes saying “McGarbage” and “Evil.”

“The CEO doesn’t understand or know our struggle. He’s blaming parents for violence on the streets and that’s not fair,” said Adriana Sanchez, a McDonald’s employee from the Back of the Yards neighborhood.

Ald. Byron Sigcho-Lopez, 25th, criticized both Kempczinski and “public elected officials who don’t condemn these kind of comments.”

“These corporations exploit our communities and then dehumanize our families. … Enough of the exploitation, enough of the ignorant racist comments,” he said.

The organizations also sent Kempczinski an open letter expressing outrage at his texts and asking him to meet with employees and community members within seven days. The letter called his comments “ignorant, racist and unacceptable coming from anyone, let alone the CEO of McDonald’s, a company that spends big to market to communities of color and purports to stand with Black lives.”

“As the leader of one of the world’s largest private employers and most iconic brands, you have a responsibility to do so much better,” the letter read.

The letter said employees have described experiencing discrimination at the company’s stores for years and while being paid “starvation wages.” Organizers also called attention to a lawsuit 77 Black former franchisees filed against the company alleging McDonald’s discriminated against them by steering them to less profitable restaurants and didn’t give them rent relief and other financial support it gave white franchisees.

The lawsuit was filed last year in the federal court for the Northern District of Illinois, and McDonald’s denied the allegations.

In the email to McDonald’s employees, Kempczinski said “it is on all of us to do better for the children of our communities. I am committed to working with civic leaders and elected officials to understand what that means for McDonald’s, and I will be asking all of you to join me in this pursuit.”

After hearing what Kempczinski said in the letter to employees, Baltazar Enriquez, president of the Little Village Community Council, said it was “a little too late to apologize with the crocodile tears.”

“He doesn’t know what it is to be poor. People like him look at our community like garbage and at the same time want to sell us their products,” Enriquez said. “We give a lot of money to his corporation. He should put that money back into our community.”

McDonald’s declined to comment on whether it had reached out to the families of Toledo and Adams.

The full text of the letter to Kempczinski is copied below:

The full text of Kempczinski’s email to employees is copied below:

Chicago Tribune’s Gregory Pratt contributed.