Ald. Sigcho-Lopez survives Housing Committee ouster attempt after flag-burning controversy

An effort to remove Ald. Byron Sigcho-Lopez as Housing Committee chair for appearing at a City Hall rally where an American flag was burned to protest U.S. support for Israel was snuffed out Monday after a private apology, a public forgiveness and a divided vote.

The leadership coup failed by a 29-16 vote taken after a defiant, yet somewhat contrite Sigcho-Lopez (25th) reported he met on Easter Sunday with Ald. Chris Taliaferro (29th), a military veteran who spearheaded the call for his resignation.

Sigcho-Lopez said he "apologized even for the way" his presence at the March 22 rally outside City Hall has been represented or interpreted. Ald. Bill Conway (34th), an active Naval intelligence officer, and Ald. Gilbert Villegas (36th), another veteran who champions veterans’ issues in the Council, also attended that meeting, convened by Mayor Brandon Johnson.

"If, in any way shape or form, my actions have offended anyone — especially veterans — I’ll take full accountability," Sigcho-Lopez said. "But not once — by no means — am I going to condemn a veteran for using his First Amendment right."

The flag had been burned by Marine Corps veteran Zachary Kam, who served in Afghanistan, and who was at City Hall on Monday.

Chicago Ald. Byron Sigcho-Lopez (25th Ward) rises to speak in his own defense at City Hall in Chicago on Monday, April 1, 2024, during a special meeting of the Chicago City Council called to determine if Sigcho-Lopez should be removed from his positi

Taliaferro thanked Sigcho-Lopez for his "passionate speech" and said his apology is "enough for me."

"When my colleague and I spoke, I forgave him for what I had in my heart," Taliaferro said. "We have to be careful at times when we exercise our rights. … The way we do that sometimes causes harm to others."

Taliaferro then turned to Sigcho-Lopez to "ask for forgiveness, because I’m not a perfect man."

"I condemn any threats made against you or your family. It’s uncalled for, and it’s reprehensible," Taliaferro told Sigcho-Lopez, who had said he received death threats.

"We’re gonna advocate for some things they may disagree with. But it does not rise to a level where you should threaten a man and his family. And so I condemn that. I say with a heart and as a man that I am willing to apologize for that to you if, in any way, I had any role in that because I certainly do not want anyone sending death threats to you and your family," Taliaferro said.

The tone of forgiveness and resurrection was not enough to satisfy Conway and Villegas.

Though present at that Easter meeting, they didn’t come away singing "Kumbaya."

Conway said the claim by Sigcho-Lopez that he arrived at the rally after the flag was burned and didn’t see the charred remains on the ground a few feet in front of him when he spoke "strains credulity."

"The First Amendment protects our right to speak, but it doesn’t avoid those consequences as city leaders. There’s no First Amendment right to be chair of the Housing Committee. There’s no First Amendment right to be part of the mayor’s leadership team," Conway said.

Conway said Sigcho-Lopez "seems to have reveled in the division and fanned the flames of those who wish to incite violence in this city and he continued to do so today. He wagged his finger at myself and Ald. Villegas throughout the public comment. Therefore, I firmly believe he should be removed."

Ald. Ray Lopez (15th) also supported removal.

It came down to "character and judgment," Lopez said. Turning to Johnson, he declared: "What is at stake … is the integrity of your agenda when your leaders’ motives are questioned."

Ald. Rossana Rodriguez Sanchez (33rd) condemned the ouster movement as "political persecution" and said it "needs to stop."

After the meeting, Johnson put out a statement: "I believe strongly in the democratic process and was pleased to see Ald. Sigcho-Lopez and Ald. Taliaferro reaching a mutual understanding and moving forward."

Sigcho-Lopez had arrived at the meeting to a mixed reception, with shouts of "traitor" from some and applause from others. The embattled alderperson turned to his supporters and applauded back.

Johnson presided over Monday’s raucous meeting and called for decorum repeatedly amid shouting and jeering from the gallery.

Near the end of the public comment period, a few protesters stood up and ripped apart images of the American flag printed on paper, then called for the United States to stop selling weapons to Israel and for a cease-fire in the Israel-Hamas war.

Chanting "free Palestine," they were escorted out, leaving a trail of jagged scraps of red, white and blue paper behind them.

Ald. Maria Hadden (49th) said others on the Council have said or done things she found "deeply offensive … but I didn’t feel like I had the need, nor the right, to call them out and say they shouldn’t be in a leadership position."

After all, Hadden said, "we are hired by our voters and, ultimately, our constituents will have the say in who represents them."

Villegas said the conduct in this case went beyond offensive. The "extreme groups" with whom Sigcho-Lopez appeared are a "clear an present danger to society," Villegas said.

"Legitimizing the extremism by a leader in this body is dangerous. It sends the wrong message to our residents. That’s why we’re asking for accountability," he added.

"We saw how fragile this democracy is on Jan. 6 at our nation’s Capitol, and we must do everything possible to ensure we fight to protect it. An ember can cause a forest fire. We must put out those embers of hate before they become those forest fires that destroy democracy."