Photo by Anthony CaciopoTrustee Sharon M. Brannigan looks up as she reads from a prepared statement at the board meeting Monday.
A crowd of more than 100 protestors jammed Palos Township headquarters Monday to confront an elected official who posted comments on social media that many people are interpreting as anti-Muslim.
“We refuse to be victims of hate,” said Nareman Taha, of Arab American Family Services. “Sharon Brannigan has targeted our kids, she’s targeted women with hijabs. Her words have consequences. We want her to resign.”
Brannigan’s Facebook posts on her personal page and her official page as a township trustee (all now deleted) question what she claims is a growing number of Muslim children enrolled in schools who lack documentation.
“What’s Palos doing? Why are all our schools filling with Middle Eastern students without proper documentation? What is Dan Lipinski 3rd District Rep doing about it?” the post read.
Brannigan unsuccessfully ran against Lipinski for his congressional seat in 2014.
In another now-deleted post, Brannigan expressed admiration for President Trump’s family during their visit to the Middle East in May.
“Watching President Trump and family this morning. I am so proud that they represent us! Am particularly proud that our women are not wearing the headscarves. WE AMERICAN WOMEN ARE REPRESENTED WITH DIGNITY.”
In the parking lot where the protestors assembled, Hatem Abudayyeh rejected Brannigan’s words.
“We came together as a broad coalition of Arab, Muslim and peace-and-justice organizations to say that we just don’t accept hate in our community, he said.
As Abudayyeh spoke, a large, mobile electronic billboard parked nearby flashed messages including “Hate Has No Home in Our Community.”
Abudayyeh said he was present on behalf of the National Campaign to Take on Hate. Locally, he said, he serves as the executive director of the Arab American Action Network.
“Her posts came to our attention a couple of weeks ago,” he said. “We called an emergency meeting and said we need to go to the meeting. An apology is not enough. We intend to demand that she resign. As you can see, there are Arabs and Muslims here, but there are also white people here who live in the community who are against hate.”
Among the “white” people in the crowd was Amanda Thomsen of Palos Park and her 6-year-old daughter, Hazel.
“She (Brannigan) insulted Americans,” said Thomsen. “We’re in this together. This is my neighborhood. They’re my neighbors and being here seemed like the right thing to do.”
Thomsen identified herself as one of the leaders of Pantsuit Nation Illinois.
“It’s a group of women working for change,” she explained. “We’re not happy with the current (national) administration and their take on hate.”
Hazel, who had been crying as she and her mother were approached by The Reporter, brightened up when she showed her visitor her protest sign which read “Be nice to everybody.” On the sign, she had drawn a cookie.
The meeting room at 10802 S. Roberts Road in Palos Hills was filled beyond capacity as meeting time drew near. All 42 public seats were occupied and media representatives stood along two of the four walls. At least 75 more people were unable to be in the meeting room. Some sat in a handful of chairs just outside the open doors with the majority being required to stand outside the entrance to the building.
Palos Township government provides a variety of services to all or parts of Bridgeview, Hickory Hills, Orland Park, Palos Heights, Palos Hills, Palos Park, Willow Springs and Worth.
Colleen G. Schumann, the township supervisor, called the meeting to order and, following roll call and approval of the minutes of the previous meeting, said a motion would be in order for dispensing with the agenda to a future date in order to move into the public comment portion of the meeting.
“Palos Township is a diverse community and Palos Township government is proud of the quality of service that is provided to our community,” Schumann said.
“The township government conducts business without any bias, prejudice or exclusion,” she said. “Everybody is invited, always. We are one of the most welcoming government agencies in all of the southwest suburbs.”
Following Schumann, Brannigan read from a prepared statement. She is refusing to resign.
The floor was then turned over to the public. Among the almost one-dozen attendees who chose to address the board, and Brannigan, was Vivian Khalaf.
“I’m an attorney practicing immigration law for over 25 years in Palos Hills, just a few blocks north on Roberts Road.,” she said. “My Middle Eastern children attended Conrady (Junior High School) and Stagg (High School). They are aspiring lawyers and doctors, contributing and continuing to make America great.
“It pains me to stand before you for the very first time after being in Palos for over 20 years, only to condemn the actions of Trustee Sharon Brannigan and the absence of similar condemnation on the part of the board. Silence is complicity,” she said to applause.
Sam Elmosa, of Palos Park, stood up to ask “Why can’t we all just get along?”
“Aren’t we done with this stuff?” he said. “It’s 2017. In this country, this is ridiculous. It hurts a lot of people. Yeah, you have First Amendment rights. This is the most powerful country in the world. Everybody wants to be here. We’re all equal. But she’s gotta go.”
One attendee spoke in support of Brannigan.
William Kuhlman, who described himself as a “Proud resident of Palos Hills for 20 years and a proud citizen of almost 75 years now,” said “I’m here to defend Sharon Brannigan for free speech. She only asked a simple question of a (political) representative and this is what she gets for free speech?”
Kuhlman said “I’m a proud military veteran of the United States of America. I support immigration, but legal immigration.”
Schumann was repeatedly asked if she “Rescinds her endorsement of Brannigan” and if the board intended to take any action against her.
“I cannot take responsibility for someone else’s words,” Schumann said. “They are not my words. I’ve spent time in your prayer centers. I live with neighbors that are my friends and of the community. I have no issues. I don’t endorse thoughts of hate. That’s where I’ll leave it.”
As for removal or disciplinary action against Brannigan, Schumann said “Another elected official doesn’t have the power to take someone off the board. They were elected the same as I was elected.”
“I don’t have the authority, the ability or anything by law that I can remove her from this board,” said Schumann. “This is Sharon’s call as to how she proceeds moving forward.”
Photo by Anthony Caciopo
Rush Darwish, board member of amvote.org, kicks off the rally Monday prior to the Palos Township board meeting.
Among the dozens of people unable to get into the meeting room was Oliver Kolb, of Palos Hills, who waited outside the building.
“I heard about this last minute,” he said. “I didn’t know this was actually a ‘thing’. Growing up my whole life in Palos Hills, I can’t remember ever having any kind of social issue in this town that I can remember.”
Kolb continued “When a public official makes comments like she did, it’s counterproductive and petty. I’m here to support the movement. It’s not right to say things like that and expect no feedback.”
“She needs to immediately start working toward some sort of apology,” said Kolb, who doesn’t think an apology will ultimately be enough, “but it’s what right. I do believe she should probably step down, but regardless, an apology is always a first step.”
Protestors vowed to keep pressure on Brannigan and the board, and to keep the issue in the public eye.
“We call upon her to resign, and to resign immediately,” said Khalaf during the meeting. “If she chooses not to do so, the community of Middle Easterners and non-Middle Easterners alike, Muslims and non-Muslims, will make sure she is not reelected.”
“We have the wherewithal, we have the education and the money to make sure that does not happen, should we decide,” she said.
The next general meeting of the Palos Township Board of Trustees is scheduled for 7 p.m. on Aug. 14 at 10802 S. Roberts Road, Palos Hills.