Protesters in Chicago’s southwest suburbs are marking a contentious anniversary this week, one that reflects the political climate of the nation and that has attracted the attention of the U.S. Department of Justice.
Every month for the past year, activists have shown up at the usually sleepy Palos Township government meetings to demand that trustee Sharon Brannigan resign for what they say are racist comments she made on social media.
“Throughout this year, they thought this campaign would only be a phase, they thought we would all forget and move on,” Jinan Chehade told fellow protesters through a megaphone in the Palos Township parking lot Monday evening before the board’s regular monthly meeting. “But it’s been one year, and none of us have forgot, none of us have moved on.”
Chehade, an organizer with the national Campaign to Take on Hate, vowed the fight will continue “until justice is served, until Sharon resigns, and until our community gets the representation it deserves.” The fight to get Brannigan to resign is one of a handful of anti-racism campaigns the National Network for Arab American Communities is focused on; others are in Anaheim, California; Dearborn, Michigan; and Bay Ridge, Brooklyn.
For the protesters, who come from inside and outside the community, the fight over Brannigan’s resignation has become a touchstone, part of a fight against broader national policies, including travel bans and immigrant detentions — and right here in protesters’ own backyard.
At issue are comments Brannigan made on social media, in some cases, several years ago. She’s complained that local Muslims don’t integrate, “keeping themselves and their activities hidden from the general population.”
“We are allowing these people whether they have peaceful intentions or not into our country without question,” Brannigan said in a post about the 3rd Congressional District, where she ran as the Republican candidate in 2014.
In another post, Brannigan questioned, “What’s Palos doing? Why are all our schools filling with Middle East students without proper documentation?”
More recently, Brannigan praised First Lady Melania Trump for not wearing a headscarf on a trip to Saudi Arabia. “WE AMERICAN WOMEN ARE BEING REPRESENTED WITH DIGNITY!” she wrote.
Palos Township, which includes all or parts of Bridgeview, Worth, Palos Hills, Orland Park, and other towns, is one of the most heavily Arab and Muslim areas of metropolitan Chicago.
Township government often flies under the radar. Before the Sharon Brannigan controversy, Palos Township’s monthly meetings rarely attracted more than one or two citizens, often concerned about things like potholes.
Now, the trustees file into meetings to a chorus of boos and hisses. They’ve had to purchase a sound system and speakers to accommodate overflow crowds.
This week, a man who introduced himself as Omar said he’s been watching the meetings month after month. He said he finally felt compelled to show up and speak.
“There’s a few things I want to tell you, Sharon,” he said. “You’re in a public setting — you can’t say stuff like that. It hurts to my core. My mom wears a scarf — you’re saying that women who wear scarves don’t have dignity. My mom has more dignity in her fingernails than you do in your whole body.”
“You made a big mistake, you have to pay for what you do, ” he said. Protesters have also pressured Brannigan’s fellow trustees to push for her resignation.
Brannigan rarely addresses the crowds. Last month, she paged through a magazine while speakers lambasted her, then abruptly left the meeting.
Brannigan: ‘I have apologized’
“I have apologized,” Brannigan said after Monday’s meeting. She insists she will not resign.
In her apology, posted last September to her congressional campaign website, Brannigan wrote that “racism and discrimination is not my intent and is not in my heart.”
“Although my comments were not intended as being anti-Arab or anti-Muslim, I acknowledge that some residents felt they were and for that I am sorry,” she wrote.
Activists have roundly rejected that apology.
In an email, Brannigan said the protesters are the “new face of the Democrat party. Fascists who scream, whine and cry until they get what they want.”
“If you don’t like me, if you don’t like what I’ve said, then run against me. I have two and a half more years.”
Brannigan says her stance on federal immigration policy has been misinterpreted as being racist toward local immigrant communities.
Both sides say the federal government has become involved in this fight, with the U.S. Department of Justice’s Community Relations Service trying to mediate a resolution. That recently fell apart, both sides say. The Community Relations Service is the Justice Department’s "peacemaker" for community conflicts and tensions based on race, national origin, gender, religion and disability.
“The opposition does not want to meet,” said Brannigan. “Well, I cannot do anything more. If my hand is outstretched to have a conversation with you, I will be more than happy to. I have said that from the beginning.”
Activists say there’s only one outcome they want — Brannigan’s resignation.
They say it’s exhausting coming out every month, but they plan to keep going until they get what they want.
The audio version of this story aired July 10, 2018.