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City Council blocks bid to punish Ald. Byron Sigcho-Lopez over rally where flag was burned

Ald. Sigcho-Lopez under fire by fellow Chicago councilmembers
Ald. Sigcho-Lopez under fire by fellow Chicago councilmembers 02:31

CHICAGO (CBS) -- By a nearly two-to-one margin, the City Council on Monday voted down a bid by several alderpeople to strip Ald. Byron Sigcho-Lopez of his seat as Housing Committee chair over his appearance at a protest rally where an American flag was burned last month.

Some of the council's most conservative members had sought to punish Sigcho-Lopez for speaking feet away from the remains of that burned flag, at a rally organized by what some critics have described as a far-left extremist group.

But after nearly two hours of heated debate, and after several people shouting either support or criticism of Sigcho-Lopez from the City Council gallery were forced to leave the chamber, the council voted 29-16 against an attempt to remove the alderman from his leadership position.

Sigcho-Lopez spoke at a protest rally on March 22 outside City Hall where a Marine veteran had burned an American flag. Protesters at the rally were calling for the Democratic National Convention in Chicago to be canceled.

The alderman has repeatedly said the flag was burned before he arrived, and that he did not see the remains of the flag on the ground in front of him when he spoke at the rally. While he said on Monday that he apologizes if his own actions at the rally offended anyone, he would not denounce the veteran who did burn the flag.

"I make no apologies for standing for First Amendment rights. I think some of my colleagues need to have maybe a lesson of what First Amendment rights mean," Sigcho-Lopez said. "If any way, shape, or form, my actions have offended anyone – especially the veterans – I take full accountability, but not once, by no means, I'm going to condemn a veteran for using his First Amendment right."

Ald. Bill Conway (34th), one of the alderpeople who sought to remove Sigcho-Lopez as Housing Committee chair, said while he believes Sigcho-Lopez is a "good and decent person, he felt "it strains credulity that he didn't know that the charred remains of our flag were at our feet."

"In the aftermath, he seems to have reveled in the division and fanned the flames of those who wish to incite violence in this city," Conway added.

Ald. Raymond Lopez (15th), denied that Sigcho-Lopez's critics were trying to punish him for exercising his First Amendment rights.

Lopez said, while he things flag burning as a form of protest is "repulsive," he said, "I think all of us have said ad nauseum that we understand that burning of an American flag is a guaranteed right."

Instead, Lopez and other critics of Sigcho-Lopez claimed his decision to speak at a rally organized by groups that have called for violent protests during the Democratic National Convention calls into question his character and judgment.

"That's why we are asking for accountability. If we do nothing, then we are accepting that our colleague's extremism and promotion of extreme groups that want to bring harm to our city and endanger our communities and visitors during the DNC are okay," said Ald. Gilbert Villegas (36th). "We must stand up and fight back against extremism in this country, whether it's the extreme right or the extreme left."

Ald Rosanna Rodriguez Sanchez (33rd) said explanations Sigcho-Lopez's critics gave for seeking to punish him "to me sounds like a lot of fine print."

"You can exercise your First Amendment right, but if we don't like what it says, we will seek to punish you. I want to make sure that we all understand the dangerous precedent this can set for everyone in this body and for our city in this incredibly polarized climate. We cannot pick and choose who gets to speak, or what is the comment of the remarks," she said.

Ald. Maria Hadden (49th), who co-chairs the City Council Progressive Reform Caucus, said any concerns her colleagues might have had with Sigcho-Lopez after he spoke at the rally should have been discussed with him and other allies of the mayor in private, rather than calling a special City Council meeting.

"If a member of our caucus does something or says something that has offended you, or brings you cause for concern about their leadership or about their place in this council, please call me, because let's set up a meeting," she said.

Hadden also suggested that her colleagues "just get off Twitter," where several City Council members criticized Sigcho-Lopez after the rally.

"Maybe I'll introduce a resolution in council in April to suspend everybody's Twitter account," Hadden said. "Can people please think before they tweet, speak? Can you think about your own actions? Can you think before you file a resolution for a special meeting. Can you think before you call a press conference. Can you think before you call someone anti-American, or Marxist, or socialist, or whatever the latest bad word? … fascist? Can we think before we call names?"

Ald. Brian Hopkins (2nd) said while he opposes flag burning and does not agree with the group that staged the protest rally, he said he believes his colleagues on both sides of the political spectrum need to find a way to move forward as a united legislative body.

"We have to find a way to work together with those of us who we disagree. We're moving in the wrong direction," he said. "We're going in a direction where we will no longer be a functional government, and that we cannot abide."

It's the second time in recent months that one of Mayor Brandon Johnson's progressive allies has avoided potential formal punishment from fellow alderpeople.

In November, Ald. Carlos Ramirez-Rosa (35th) avoided a formal censure after he apologized after facing accusations of bullying and threatening colleagues. Ramirez-Rosa resigned as the mayor's floor leader and as chair of the Zoning Committee after he was caught on camera trying to physically block Ald. Emma Mitts (37th) from entering a special meeting on Chicago's sanctuary city status, but avoided a symbolic rebuke from the council when Johnson cast a tie-breaking vote against a formal censure.

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