By Dermot Connolly
Protesters who have been demanding the resignation of Palos Township Trustee Sharon Brannigan since 2017 now want the township board to fire a private security firm hired to maintain control at meetings.
After a raucous July meeting, the board hired Monterrey Security to maintain control at the often-rowdy township meetings. Before the most recent meeting on Sept. 9, protesters held a news conference outside the Palos Township offices at 10802 S. Roberts Road to demand that the contract be canceled with the security firm.
“We are here to continue the protests that started after (Brannigan) made her racist remarks. We see the hiring of the armed security as an attempt to instill fear in us. They installed cameras and they do not silence us. We must call out the hypocrisy and racism of the township board,” said Husam Marajda, an organizer of the Resign Brannigan Coalition, an umbrella organization that includes Take on the Hate, Southsiders for Peace, and other grassroots organizations as well as Arab-American social service agencies.
The activists began protesting in July 2017 after discovering Facebook comments by Brannigan in which she criticized women who wear head coverings and questioned whether Arab and Muslims students in local schools are legal residents. She has apologized twice for the “unintentionally insensitive comments,” most recently at the meeting in July, where more than 150 activists turned out to mark the second anniversary of the protests. But they said the apologies came too late and were not sincere.
Marajda pointed out that a Brannigan supporter at one meeting said she had a gun in her purse and was simply escorted out of the meeting. But “when a group of Arabs and Muslims peacefully protest,” armed security is brought in.
“Month after month, our community has proved that we will not stop until she resigns,” said Marajda.
“When anti-Arab racism and Islamophobia occurs, protests become mandatory,” said Jazmine Salas, who is with the Chicago Alliance Against Racism. “Hiring armed security to prevent people from exercising their democratic rights is unacceptable. Armed security does not keep meetings under control. It is a threat of violence itself, targeting peaceful protesters.
“This township has refused to listen to the members of this community that elected them. Now they are trying to intimidate us. We know our rights and we will continue to exercise them until Brannigan resigns,” said Salas.
“As a taxpayer of Palos Township, I am asking they stop wasting taxpayers’ money on armed security. I have been at every meeting since July 2017 and all of our protests have been peaceful. Surely they have better things to spend money on in the township,” said Tammy Georgiou, a leader of Southwest Suburban Activists.
Palos Township Supervisor Colleen Grant Schumann said the Monterrey security guards are paid $45 per hour, and five were on duty at the meeting on Sept. 9, which lasted about an hour by the time the room was cleared.
The actual meeting was reasonably quiet, with a couple of dozen protesters in attendance. A few more watched from outside the room. Very little business was carried out and the only excitement was during the public comment section. About three protesters called for Brannigan’s resignation and the removal of the private security, while two men spoke against the protests.
One of the men, who gave his name as Tommy, comes to the monthly meetings wearing a black knit cap and dark sunglasses that obscure his identity. He maintains that this is done to protect himself, but the protesters said if Arabs did the same, they wouldn’t be allowed.
One woman accused the entire board of being “a bunch of racists” for not censuring Brannigan.
“Social change was never given or handed to people. It was demanded and it was brought upon after direct action. Having armed security in the room is a threat to everyone’s freedom of speech. It intimidates all community members from speaking or not attending in the first place. We are not going away. We will be here until she resigns,” said the woman.
Arrests of five protesters were made at the June meeting, which the activists said was unfair. But Brannigan told reporters after the meeting that she was looking forward to seeing the case come to court later this month.
“Nothing has changed since the protests began, but they were better behaved today,” she said.
“Obviously, they are not telling the truth about being peaceful,” said Grant Schumann after the meeting. She credited the security with maintaining order and allowing the board to conduct business.
However, protesters pointed out that seating in the meeting room has been reduced by about a dozen to 30, which they said limits their rights as well.
“We stopped allowing people to stand in the aisles because the fire department said that was unsafe. We do have speakers outside the room, so the crowd can listen from outside. The feedback I have gotten from residents is they are very happy with the security. They can come to the meetings without fear of being shouted down,” said Grant Schumann. “We probably should have done this before. But we tried to give the protesters the chance to abide by Robert’s Rules of Order but they didn’t.”