Photo by Anthony Caciopo
A protester at Monday's Palos Township Board of Trustees meeting placed his shoes on a table to show his disrespect as he addressed Sharon Brannigan and fellow board members. Brannigan is visible at far right; next to her is Trustee Richard C. Riley.
The monthly meeting at Palos Township headquarters Monday played out like so many before, with an overflow crowd, rallying cries and demands that Trustee Sharon Brannigan resign.
This time, the embattled trustee had something to say, albeit after the packed house had cleared out for the night.
“I’ve had about enough of this nonsense, I really have,” she said.
Brannigan has been at the center of controversy since July, 2017 when more than 100 protestors converged on the 42-seat Township meeting room at 10802 S. Roberts Road in Palos Hills.
The activists were there to challenge her about social media postings they said are bigoted toward Muslims and Middle Eastern people. They have turned out in similar numbers at each subsequent Palos Township Board of Trustees meeting.
Her multiple comments, now deleted, included speculation about the documentation of Middle Eastern students in Palos Township schools, and a comparison in dignity between First Lady Melania Trump and Middle Eastern women who wear headscarves.
Last summer, Brannigan issued a written statement which she read aloud at the monthly board meeting in an attempt to clarify her intentions. Later, she apologized by saying she was sorry if some residents felt her comments were anti-Arab or anti-Muslim.
“After deep reflection,” she said, “I can honestly say that my words were poorly crafted and my feelings were inadequately expressed. Racism and discrimination is not my intent and is not in my heart.”
Her apology was poorly received, with protestors claiming it was too little, too late and ultimately insincere. They maintain the only course of action is for her to resign.
“They can come for three more years,” Brannigan said Monday evening, in reference to protestors attending meetings for the remaining length of her elected term. “I’ve apologized three times over. If they don’t like me and don’t like what I’ve said, they can run against me. I’m not going anywhere.”
Protestors have also turned their attention to her fellow elected trustees, to Palos Township Supervisor Colleen Schumann and even to Sean Morrison, committeeman of the Palos Township Republican Organization. Morrison is also the Cook County Commissioner of the 17th District.
Each has been called upon, repeatedly, to pressure Brannigan to resign, which they say cannot be done because only voters can remove her from her elected position.
The packed monthly meetings, the often-heated rhetoric and the close quarters between the meeting attendees and the Board has Brannigan questioning safety.
“Have you asked the police why they’re not here? Probably would be a good idea to find out,” she said after the meeting. “We have requested and they have refused. I’m not going to tolerate it anymore. I want the (Palos Hills) police to be here, and if they won’t be here then the state police has to be.”
Deputy Chief Jeff Cucio of the Palos Hills Police Department told The Reporter “We have been in touch with the Township office and we’re aware of the meeting schedule,” he said. “We’re keeping an eye on the area, we understand that tensions are high, but we’re abiding by what the Township office requested.”
“We are always standing by,” he said. “We respond to every call (for assistance) that takes place in Palos Hills.”
When asked if she feels she is in any danger at the meetings, Brannigan said “There have been times that I have. In fact, tonight I think I saw a gentleman with a weapon under his jacket.”
Her comment was met with a quick response from Basem Kawar, national coordinator of the National Network of Arab American Communities.
“I’m sick of this idea that our community is violent,” he said. “Our community is not violent. Everything she is talking about is avoiding the fundamental question around racism and bigotry. All this nonsense she talks about is missing the fact that this problem was created by Trustee Sharon Brannigan. There must be accountability.”
“Hate speech translates into tangible effects on our community,” he said. “Hate speech translates into hate crimes. It’s okay for an elected official to spew that racist hate on social media? What kind of message is that sending — that it’s okay to talk down to Muslims and Arabs and immigrants and people who look different?”
Brannigan, who says she has received emails of support from across the U.S. and from as far away as England, chooses not to encourage her supporters to attend the meetings due to her concerns about security, a position scoffed at by Kawar.
Both factions claim there have been cases of abuse during or after the meetings by one or more members of the opposing side.
Word of a possible mediation meeting with a representative from the Department of Justice, as originally reported by The Reporter, has apparently not been re-ignited. The community coalition withdrew due to their claim of “bad faith” on the part of the Township by speaking about it to the media.
“We’ve tried to meet with the other side,” said Brannigan, in reference to the called-off meeting. “When they (the protestors) ask questions at tonight’s meeting about ‘why aren’t you answering us?’ — well, we have been more than willing to sit down and talk with any of the leaders. They refused to meet with the Department of Justice and we can’t do anything about that.”
“When you have your hand extended for a resolution and it’s not taken, that’s not my problem,” she said.
“Brannigan will not be part of any conversations that we are to hold with the Township, if we decide to hold any conversations,” said Kawar.
“It’s been proven over and over again that she is ill-suited to serve in public office,” he said. “It’s okay to criticize legislation but the second you single out one community over another with the shameful posts she put on social media, that’s taking the confrontation to a different level.”
“We all have to pay for our mistakes,” said Kawar. “The way the community believe she should pay for her mistakes is that she should step down.”
And will she? Before departing Palos Township headquarters after Monday’s meeting, her quick reply was “Not going to happen.”