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Chicago Mayor Brandon Johnson defends alderman for charred American flag incident, says censure would be ‘fascist’

CHICAGO — Mayor Brandon Johnson on Thursday delivered an impassioned defense of ally Ald. Bryon Sigcho-Lopez’s appearance last week in front of a scorched American flag and dismissed calls by other City Council members to have Sigcho-Lopez removed as head of a powerful council committee.

While saying he thinks other aldermen will stop short of censuring Sigcho-Lopez because it is a “fascist” form of expression, the mayor also took care to avoid weighing in on the progressive alderman’s criticism of President Joe Biden and agreement with protesters that the Democratic National Convention in Chicago should be canceled.

Johnson said that “one of the core elements of democracy is actually having the First Amendment” when asked about Sigcho-Lopez speaking in front of a charred American flag at a pro-Palestinian rally outside City Hall this past Friday.

The mayor then compared the situation to one faced by Barack Obama when he was first running for president in 2008. At the time, excerpts of sermons by the Rev. Jeremiah Wright, Obama’s then-pastor, were publicized, including remarks in which Wright blasted the U.S. government for dishonesty, shouted “God damn America” and accused the government of creating AIDS.

“As far as people taking offense to someone’s presentation, I remember when President Obama was being ridiculed because of comments that his pastor made in the pulpit,” Johnson said. “Do we really want to have a society where someone’s comments, or someone else’s comments that happened to be in the presence of someone else, that that becomes a repudiation of that particular person? I would find that to be morally reprehensible and irresponsible.”

Though it was noted that Obama ultimately denounced the comments and later left Trinity United Church of Christ, Johnson reiterated the American right to protected speech. He also did not comment on questions surrounding Sigcho-Lopez’s views or association with the group that held the protest calling for the DNC in Chicago, where Biden is expected to be renominated this summer, to be canceled.

Sigcho-Lopez, 25th, has parroted those calls about the DNC, saying the event should be canceled in protest of the federal government’s response to the migrant humanitarian crisis that has affected Chicago and other cities. Photos from the rally show the charred flag in front of Sigcho-Lopez’s feet. It was set on fire by a Marine veteran who once flew it while on tour in Afghanistan and was protesting the Biden administration’s handling of the war between Israel and Hamas, according to organizers.

Sigcho-Lopez’s appearance at the protest and his comments at it have angered nearly a dozen council colleagues, who demanded Johnson remove Sigcho-Lopez as head of the Housing and Real Estate Committee and announced plans to hold a special City Council meeting Monday where Sigcho-Lopez could be censured. Though committee chair assignments require City Council approval, Chicago mayors, including Johnson, have traditionally exerted a de-facto power to handpick their choices.

Johnson on Thursday rejected the demand by the 11 aldermen, saying Sigcho-Lopez was “qualified” to chair the Housing Committee and was “fighting for affordable housing.”

“If people are as petulant as someone who would be unwilling to engage with someone that they disagree with, we wouldn’t be standing here today,” Johnson said. “Do you know how many conversations Black leaders have had to have with racists? It’s multiple, right? People have a right, though I may disagree with this particular presentation, if people want to march through the streets — and they have — with nooses and other forms of objects that would be offensive to people, I can be offended, but also understand the fundamental value of this country.”

The Pilsen alderman — who has strongly noted his support for Gaza in past council meetings while sporting a Palestinian keffiyeh scarf — has said he was unaware the American flag would be burned at the protest, did not see it when he arrived and was not at the protest when the act occurred.

“I fully expect that the City Council recognizes its responsibility, and that it will not move forward in the type of fascist forms of expression that have left too many of our countries in desperate peril,” Johnson said.

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.

During a news conference Wednesday condemning Sigcho-Lopez, 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 Biden of enabling genocide. He was among three veterans in City Council speaking out during the news conference.

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

Sigcho-Lopez told reporters Thursday he has received “violent threats” in the wake of the aldermen’s criticism and demanded an apology from them instead. He also said he has no “ties” to the group that organized the protest and “I never elevated or brought any attention to the flag.”

“We’re not in Russia. I don’t think the president of the United States has the same tendencies as (Russian President Vladimir) Putin — at least that’s what we thought,” Sigcho-Lopez said.

“We want to make sure that we have a healthy democracy. We have a constitutional right to protest. … I am not going to apologize for standing up for my community, for my First Amendment right to take a position on the DNC.”

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(Chicago Tribune’s Jake Sheridan contributed to this story.)

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