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Byron Sigcho-Lopez

Ald. Byron Sigcho-Lopez (25th) speaks during a rally outside City Hall after an American flag was burned to protest U.S. support for Israel, Friday, March 22, 2024.

Provided by Matthew Kaplan

Ald. Byron Sigcho-Lopez avoids punishment from colleagues for attending a rally where a U.S. flag was burned

Progressive firebrand Ald. Byron Sigcho-Lopez held onto his leadership post Monday after City Council allies squashed an attempt from some of the council’s most conservative alderpersons to punish him for speaking at a protest where an American flag was burned.

The 29 to 16 vote came after a heated debate over First Amendment rights and political decorum. Attendees ripped papers with American flags printed on them, and several members of the public were removed by the sergeant-at-arms, including Zachary Kam, the veteran whose flag burning last month sparked the controversy. A contingent of conservative alderpersons and veterans called the special meeting to remove Sigcho-Lopez from his position as chair of the Committee on Housing and Real Estate.

Sigcho-Lopez remained defiant Monday against his critics who he accused of “political posturing” and he defended, again, the constitutional right to protest, including by burning the American flag. The flag was burned at a protest calling on officials to cancel the Democratic National Convention in Chicago this summer amid the ongoing war in Gaza.

“If any way shape or form my actions have offended anyone, especially veterans, I’ll take full accountability, but by no means am I going to condemn a veteran for using his First Amendment right,” Sigcho-Lopez, 25th Ward, said. “That I find reprehensible from veterans: not to listen to a veteran themselves.”

Sigcho-Lopez was met with both applause and shouts of “traitor” as he took his seat at the start of the meeting, which began after a 25-minute delay with 33 alderpersons present.

Ald. Chris Taliaferro, a veteran and one of the 15 members who called for the meeting, said as elected officials, alderpersons should hold themselves to a higher standard and stand with groups “that are neither far right, nor far left.”

But after speaking with Sigcho-Lopez, “I can accept his apology, and say that is enough for me,” Taliaferro, 29th Ward, said.

But others were still not satisfied.

“There’s no First Amendment right to be chair of the Housing Committee. There is no First Amendment right to be part of the mayor’s leadership team,” said Ald. Bill Conway, 34th Ward, who urged for Sigcho-Lopez’s removal as committee chair.

Last week, Mayor Brandon Johnson defended his hand-picked housing committee chair, arguing a repudiation of Sigcho-Lopez for someone else’s actions would be “be morally reprehensible and irresponsible.” Johnson likened the backlash to controversy that embroiled former president Barack Obama when controversial comments from his pastor arose. Obama later denounced the remarks.

“Someone in my leadership team like Byron Sigcho-Lopez, who has been fighting for affordable housing, makes him qualified,” Johnson said, later adding: “I don’t mean to sound super dramatic, but this is quite disturbing. That if we’re debating right now, whether or not someone’s political ideology or position should determine whether or not they get a right to serve if they’ve been duly elected.”

The effort to remove Sigcho-Lopez from his leadership post was spearheaded by some of Johnson’s most frequent critics.

Late last year, Johnson heeded calls by a different faction – particularly the council’s Black Caucus – to accept Ald. Carlos Ramirez-Rosa’s resignation as his floor leader and from his council leadership post as Zoning Committee chair. That was after Ramirez Rosa was accused of bullying colleagues out of attending a meeting regarding the city’s sanctuary status that protects undocumented immigrants and threatening to block their legislation from moving forward in the Zoning Committee he chaired. Ramirez-Rosa narrowly avoided a formal censure.

Sigcho-Lopez has said he was not present for the flag burning or aware it was going to happen. He has defended the act as freedom of speech protected by the U.S. Constitution.

The Marine veteran, Zachary Kam, recently told WBEZ he burned the flag “because the American people need to wake up to the reality of what’s happening in Palestine.” Kam served four years in the Marines, serving as a combat engineer, and records show he earned medals for serving in Afghanistan.

“There are very many people who disagree with [flag burning] and think it’s a disgrace. But there’s also many people who think that what America is doing is a disgrace. And that symbols shouldn’t matter more than reality and humanity,” he previously said.

While Johnson said burning a flag is not a form of expression “that I engage in,” he defended last week the First Amendment right to freedom of speech.

“It’s actually what makes our country unique is that I can be offended by someone’s presentation, and also recognize that they have a fundamental right to express that,” Johnson said.

An anti-war group called Behind Enemy Lines organized the protest where the flag was burned. The group has staged several other disruptive acts in recent weeks to call on Chicago leaders to cancel the DNC entirely.

The group is not affiliated with a broader coalition of pro-Palestinian organizers called March on the DNC, which is in a federal court battle with the city for permits to protests within “sight and sound” of the convention and is not calling for outright cancelation. That broader coalition is led by the U.S. Palestinian Community Network which has been at the forefront of pro-Palestine demonstrations for months. USPCN was not involved with or present for the flag burning.

Tessa Weinberg and Mariah Woelfel cover city government and politics at WBEZ.

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