Alderman’s ‘cancel DNC’ calls in front of burnt American flag spark criticism after veteran’s fiery protest

Alderman’s ‘cancel DNC’ calls in front of burnt American flag spark criticism after veteran’s fiery protest

The charred white stars and blackened, red stripes were all that remained of a burnt American flag on the sidewalk as Ald. Byron Sigcho-Lopez, 25th, spoke Friday evening during a protest outside City Hall.

The fact Sigcho-Lopez — a progressive ally of Mayor Brandon Johnson who has called for the Democratic National Convention in Chicago to be canceled and criticized President Joe Biden’s handling of the war between Israel and Hamas — attended the rally wasn’t much of a surprise.

But his appearance with the scorched flag that protesters said was once flown during a military tour in Afghanistan by a veteran who burned it Friday to protest Biden’s handling of the war in Gaza has since incensed several of the alderman’s council colleagues. When pictures of Sigcho-Lopez speaking in front of the charred flag were spotted online, several aldermen harshly criticized him on social media over the weekend and have since said they may even consider a council censure vote.

Nine aldermen announced plans to hold a news conference Wednesday at City Hall to call for a special City Council meeting about the matter.

Sigcho-Lopez “is anti-American and divisive as can be,” Ald. Scott Waguespack wrote in a post on X, formerly Twitter, Saturday. “While burning and desecrating our country’s flag is not illegal, it is his right to be despicable and on par for him.”

But since the weekend flap, Sigcho-Lopez has said he wasn’t at the protest when the flag was burned and he’s panned his critics as “reactionary voices.” Social media posts that suggested he burned the flag himself are “misinformation,” he said.

“Nothing could be further from the truth,” Sigcho-Lopez said Monday following an unrelated news conference in Pilsen.

Video footage of the Gaza-focused rally outside City Hall shows a man setting fire to the American flag and, later, military medals. Protesters also called for the Democratic National Convention to be canceled. Sigcho-Lopez does not appear in those videos.

The man who burned the flag, later identified by the protest’s organizers as Zachary Kam, said he flew it while on tour as a Marine in Afghanistan.

“Let it burn, because whatever values it might have stood for before are clearly absent from those who run this country,” he told the crowd as flames reduced the flag to threads and ash.

Earlier this week, Sigcho-Lopez read a statement he attributed to Kam. The outspoken alderman, who has marked his support for Gazans in past council meetings, joined the protest to criticize the Democratic Party’s failure to take a clear stance calling on the federal government to do more to support efforts by Chicago and other cities to deal with the ongoing migrant crisis.

He also echoed calls for the city to cancel the Democratic National Convention, citing the potential it has to heighten Chicago’s migrant crisis if Texas Gov. Greg Abbott ramps up migrant busloads.

“I wasn’t aware that this had happened before I was there,” Sigcho-Lopez said of the flag burning, despite the fact that the burnt flag can be seen in photos from the rally resting just feet in front of him as he spoke. “I hope that we have the same eagerness to condemn genocide, to condemn the lack of support to immigrant communities.”

When asked if he supported the flag burning, the alderman avoided criticizing the veteran’s act and said he did not know the protest’s organizers had approved the burning.

“This is his First Amendment right. Some of my colleagues were questioning the First Amendment right,” he said. “I wasn’t there. I wasn’t a witness of it.”

Ald. Gilbert Villegas, 36th, a Marine combat veteran, said that even though flag burning is legal, the actions taken Friday weren’t right.

“He has the right to do that, but we also have the right to question and critique folks who do that ourselves,” Villegas said.

Sigcho-Lopez should have been more aware of where he was speaking and be willing to apologize afterward, Villegas said. He also should not actively oppose the DNC, which the vast majority of aldermen are excited about and view as an opportunity to show off Chicago to national and international visitors and viewers on television, Villegas added.

“He’s an elected official in the United States of America. We are held to higher standards,” Villegas said.

Sigcho-Lopez and Villegas spoke after Villegas publicly criticized Sigcho-Lopez on social media, Villegas said, but the conversation ended quickly after their disagreements continued.

Marine and Army National Guard veteran Ald. Chris Taliaferro, 29th, said he was in “disbelief” when he saw the images of the flag smoldering in front of City Hall. He wants to hear Sigcho-Lopez explain what happened and is considering pushing for a special full City Council meeting and a censure vote, he said.

Aldermen came close to censuring Ald. Carlos Ramirez-Rosa, 35th, in November after Ramirez-Rosa was accused of bullying and threatening colleagues while he was chairman of the council’s Zoning Committee. The controversy caused Ramirez-Rosa to lose his chairmanship but Johnson cast the tie-breaking vote to save Ramirez-Rosa, a close ally, from the symbolic dishonor.

“It flies in the face of those that have served this country and defended this country under a flag that stands for democracy and freedom,” Taliaferro said. “I respect the way he advocates for his community and for people in the city, but sometimes things can be taken too far.”