The Chicago City Council’s sergeant-at-arms is laying down the law in a belated attempt to stop members of the public from engaging in raucous, profane and threatening behavior that has left alderpersons fearing for their safety during meetings.
The migrant crisis has exacerbated the tension fueled by anger over Mayor Brandon Johnson’s plan to build winterized base camps to get new arrivals off the floors of police stations and O’Hare Airport before temperatures plummet.
The war between Israel and Hamas has added even more fuel to the fire, forcing Johnson to clear the chambers during a chaotic Oct. 13 meeting when the Council passed a resolution condemning Hamas’ attack in Israel.
Ald. Debra Silverstein (50th), the Council’s only Jewish member, was verbally abused and threatened for sponsoring that resolution. She also sits in the back row of the Council chambers, leaving her within arm’s length of an angry crowd.
Sergeant-at-arms Alvin Starks has apparently seen enough.
He has drafted a series of rules that must now be followed during the public comment section that precedes every Council and committee meeting. The rules also hold for the duration of those meetings.
The rules would ban:
• Profane, vulgar, threatening, abusive or disruptive language
• Demeaning, discriminatory or harassing behavior and speech directed towards others
• Banners, flyers or signs
• Backpacks, large bags and sharp objects. Instead, members of the public must carry “clear bags not tinted in color” smaller than 12-by-6 inches, and even those bags will be “subject to search.”
• Food and beverages, including metal water bottles or canisters.
Those in the gallery must remain seated, standing only when delivering public comment. They must silence their cellphones, use small handheld devices only when seated and avoid interfering with the “view or hearing” of others in attendance.
Anyone violating those rules of decorum will first be asked to “cease such disruptive conduct.” Those who refuse to comply will be “subject to removal.”
Health and Human Relations Committee Chair Rossana Rodriguez Sanchez (33rd) read the new rules before chairing a meeting of that committee Tuesday. At one point, she threatened to use the new rules to eject a member of the public who violated them.
“Can you please refrain from speaking while others are speaking and using profane language?” Rodriguez Sanchez said during public comment that featured a defense of her use of the term, “From the river to the sea” to describe her support for Palestinians in the Israel-Hamas War.
Ald. Pat Dowell (3rd), chairwoman of the Finance Committee, also read the new rules at the start of that committee’s meeting Tuesday.
Ald. Ray Lopez (15th) applauded the sergeant-at-arms for attempting to rein in unruly behavior — but argued Johnson’s “permissiveness” has made the job infinitely more difficult.
“The mayor’s been very lax in what he allows members of the public and members of his leadership team to get away with. Aldermen — in particular alderwomen — are shouted over, degraded and insulted by members of the public without so much as a banging of the gavel by the mayor during City Council meetings,” Lopez said Tuesday.
“That sends a signal to the public that they can get away with disrespecting the female and minority members,” he said. “He has been like a permissive parent, unwilling to hold their child accountable. The impact of that has been felt by every member of the Council. Do I think it’s too late? Absolutely not. But the mayor has to show resolve that he does not tolerate this behavior anymore, and that there will be repercussions.”
Johnson, a former paid organizer for the Chicago Teachers Union, was himself leading demonstrations at City Hall not too long ago.
“He understands the value of making a scene, clearly,” Lopez said. “He knows that will embolden people, if they feel they’re being shut out, to rise up. That is what set him on this trajectory to the mayor’s office. And I’m sure he doesn’t want to embolden more people to follow the same path that he did to rise to power.”
Silverstein could not be reached for comment.
Lopez said Silverstein is among members “sitting along the back rail” who have “vocalized their concerns about being at arm’s length from individuals who are beyond raucous, fully enraged, and if they so choose, could grab or leap over the bar without notice.”