Aldermen call for Ald. Byron Sigcho-Lopez to resign committee chair over appearance with charred US flag

Nearly a dozen members of Chicago’s City Council Wednesday demanded Mayor Brandon Johnson call for removing ally Ald. Byron Sigcho-Lopez as head of the council’s Housing Committee as punishment for the alderman speaking in front of a charred American flag at a pro-Palestinian rally outside City Hall this past Friday.

While it’s unclear how closely Johnson will heed the call for action, the clamor came as the group of aldermen held a heated news conference at City Hall, where all three veterans on the council and several colleagues blasted as “reprehensible” Sigcho-Lopez’s participation in the demonstration where protest organizers say a veteran set fire to the American flag. The aldermanic group also pledged to hold a special council meeting, now scheduled for Monday, if Sigcho-Lopez isn’t held accountable.

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“We are demanding that our mayor, Brandon Johnson, call for his resignation as chair of the Housing Committee,” said Ald. Silvana Tabares, 23rd. As mayor, Johnson has tremendous sway over which aldermen head the council committees. A Johnson spokesperson declined to comment on the removal calls.

But just as Tabares made the demand, a group of pro-Palestinian protesters and Sigcho-Lopez supporters standing nearby broke into chants. The shouts, calling the more than 30,000 deaths in Gaza “genocide,” halted the news conference for several minutes.

Sigcho-Lopez’s appearance with the scorched flag came last Friday at a demonstration outside City Hall held by a Gaza-focused group calling for the Democratic National Convention in Chicago to be canceled or aggressively protested. The flag was set on fire by a Marine veteran who once flew it while on tour in Afghanistan, according to organizers.

The Little Village alderman, who has strongly noted his support for Gazans in past council meetings, has said he was unaware the flag would be burned, did not see it when he arrived and was not at the protest when the act occurred. He attended the protest to criticize the Democratic Party’s lack of support for migrants and has joined calls for the DNC to be canceled.

Following the news conference by the 11 aldermen, Sigcho-Lopez shot back at his critics in a statement that accused them of being motivated by campaign contributors who “prefer to keep their 80,000 units of available housing vacant while veterans and families sleep on the streets.”

“When they start living up to the proud American values of justice and liberty for *all human beings*, then they’ll have the moral standing to question my commitment to uplifting American people,” he wrote in a text.

Harsh debate over Israel’s attacks in Gaza following Hamas’ October surprise attack have brought disorder to the City Council for months. Loud protests during council meetings have twice led to security clearing spectators before aldermen narrowly passed a symbolic resolution calling for a cease-fire in late January.

Amid the sharp rebukes from aldermen and protester shouts on Wednesday, council members defended their criticism of Sigcho-Lopez as necessary.

“Yes, this is divisive, this is a distraction,” said Ald. Raymond Lopez, 15th. “It’s authored by Byron Sigcho-Lopez, who should be worrying about the migrant shelter in his ward, who should be worried about finding housing options for those who are housed there. Those are the things we should be working on.”

Marine and Army National Guard veteran Ald. Chris Taliaferro, 29th, said Sigcho-Lopez overstepped when he spoke in front of not only the charred flag but also a sign accusing Democratic President Joe Biden of enabling genocide. Like several other veterans who spoke Wednesday, Taliaferro invoked the image of flag-draped coffins carrying soldiers killed in active duty as he spoke about the flag’s meaning.

“His conduct and his speech were reprehensible to the point where we are demanding he account for his actions,” Taliaferro said.

Taliaferro carefully avoided taking a stance on whether council members will seek to formally censure Sigcho-Lopez, but said Sigcho-Lopez needs to explain his actions before the full City Council.

Whether or not Taliaferro and others will be able to force the issue is unclear. While the coalition criticizing Sigcho-Lopez was able to get a special full City Council meeting scheduled with 15 aldermen signing on, the group is not currently large enough to establish a quorum to begin such a meeting. A notice shared by the City Clerk Anna Valencia’s office showed the meeting would discuss removing Sigcho-Lopez from his committee chairmanship.

Ald. Rossana Rodriguez Sanchez, 33rd, criticized the scheduled meeting as a “dangerous precedent” by conservative aldermen “to remove a council member because they disagree with actions taken by someone else at protest in which he spoke.”

“This is an incredibly authoritarian move and should have everyone concerned,” said Rodriguez Sanchez, a Sigcho-Lopez ally.

In addition to Tabares and Taliaferro, the news conference was attended by Aldermen Nick Sposato, 38th; Marty Quinn, 13th; Felix Cardona Jr., 31st; Debra Silverstein, 50th; Raymond Lopez, 15th; Brendan Reilly, 42nd; Anthony Napolitano, 41st; Gilbert Villegas, 36th; and Bill Conway, 34th.

Conway, an active Navy reservist, said he took an oath to defend freedoms, including the freedom to burn flags.

“I have fought to protect his right to be reprehensible. And I’d do it again. Byron has the right to be inflammatory,” Conway said. “But he has a bigger responsibility as a committee chair and member of the mayor’s leadership team because this job isn’t about elevating people who want to burn everything down. It’s about bringing people together to build our communities up.”

Villegas, a Marine combat veteran, said he understands the frustration the veteran who set the flag on fire feels, citing his own struggles finding employment after returning to civilian life. But Sigcho-Lopez is held to another, higher standard, he said.

He called on Sigcho-Lopez to apologize and advance an ordinance that would give veterans better access to the city’s affordable housing in an effort to address homelessness among veterans. The ordinance has been lingering in Sigcho-Lopez’s Housing Committee for months, Villegas said. Sigcho-Lopez said he has not stalled the ordinance. The two aldermen have been in meetings discussing the issue and it is still being reviewed, Sigcho-Lopez said.