Opinion: When an Elected Official Goes Full Racist, It’s Time To Go Negative

How a Chicago community is pushing back against the racist comments of a local official.

Bassem Kawar and Muhammad Sankari March 16, 2018

Organizers hold a teach-in about the rise of hate groups in the United States (Photo courtesy of TAKE ON HATE)

Over the past eight months, town­ship meet­ings in the south­west sub­urbs of Chica­go have turned into live­ly hubs of activism, com­mu­ni­ty protests, teach-ins and ral­lies. A coali­tion led by the Cam­paign to TAKE ON HATE (TOH), a project of the Nation­al Net­work for Arab Amer­i­can Com­mu­ni­ties, has orga­nized scores of com­mu­ni­ty mem­bers and res­i­dents to appear at every meet­ing to demand that Palos Town­ship Trustee Sharon Bran­ni­gan resign because of her hate speech tar­get­ing the Arab and Mus­lim com­mu­ni­ties of the south­west suburbs.

We determined that by focusing on removing a local official responsible for hate speech against our community, we could win a material victory against white supremacy in our own backyard.

In the Trump era, as com­mu­ni­ties face a tremen­dous rise in anti-Mus­lim, anti-Arab and anti-immi­grant racism, this diverse Chicagoland com­mu­ni­ty is show­cas­ing an impor­tant strat­e­gy: going neg­a­tive to demand the removal of an elect­ed rep­re­sen­ta­tive — instead of call­ing for the elec­tion of an alter­na­tive candidate.

The cam­paign is being waged in the Palos Town­ship, home to one of the largest Arab pop­u­la­tions in Illi­nois. The ini­tia­tive is backed by grass­roots Arab orga­ni­za­tions includ­ing the Arab Amer­i­can Action Net­work and Arab Amer­i­can Fam­i­ly Ser­vices, as well as local groups such as the Chica­go Alliance Against Racist and Polit­i­cal Repres­sion, Pales­tin­ian Amer­i­can Com­mu­ni­ty Cen­ter, South­siders for Peace, South­west Sub­ur­ban Activists and South­west Diver­si­ty Col­lab­o­ra­tive. The authors of this arti­cle are both orga­niz­ers for the campaign.

While the momen­tum is new, Brannigan’s trou­bling rhetoric is not: The trustee has made hate­ful remarks tar­get­ing Arabs, Mus­lims and immi­grants on social media since 2015. Most recent was a 2017 attack on Mid­dle East­ern stu­dents post­ed on Face­book, stat­ing: Why are all our schools fill­ing with Mid­dle East stu­dents with­out prop­er documentation?” 

In anoth­er social media post ear­li­er in 2017, Bran­ni­gan expressed her sup­port for Mela­nia Trump’s refusal to wear the head scarf while vis­it­ing Sau­di Ara­bia, stat­ing: WE AMER­I­CAN WOMEN ARE BEING REP­RE­SENT­ED WITH DIG­NI­TY.” Brannigan’s state­ment implies that wear­ing the Hijab is undignified.

In a 2015 social media post, Bran­ni­gan wrote, In the 3rd dis­trict here in Illi­nois, our demo­graph­ics include 25% Mus­lims of which very few inte­grate with­in the com­mu­ni­ties keep­ing them­selves and their activ­i­ties hid­den from the gen­er­al pop­u­la­tion.” In that same post, she added, Every­where you turn, from Orland Park to Bridgeview, those num­bers are increas­ing in leaps and bounds. We are allow­ing these peo­ple whether they have peace­ful inten­tions or not into our coun­try with­out question.”

We use the term hate speech” to describe these posts because Bran­ni­gan’s com­ments clear­ly sin­gle out Arab and Mus­lim com­mu­ni­ties, based on race, reli­gion and place of ori­gin. We also use racism” because Bran­ni­gan holds a posi­tion of struc­tur­al pow­er, so her big­otry and prej­u­dice can have mate­r­i­al con­se­quences on people’s lives.

Months after the local com­mu­ni­ty expressed mass out­rage, Bran­ni­gan issued a let­ter of apol­o­gy, stat­ing that she believes the issues have been dis­tort­ed,” and adding that she is will­ing to meet with any Arabs or Mus­lims in Palos Town­ship to dis­cuss this fur­ther and have a respon­si­ble dia­logue.” But she had every oppor­tu­ni­ty to extend her hand after the state­ments were dis­cov­ered, and nev­er did. In fact, she did the oppo­site, insist­ing that she had the right to make those state­ments, which she claims are pro­tect­ed under the First Amend­ment, and neglect­ing to rec­og­nize the impact of hate­ful speech by elect­ed offi­cials. Because her apol­o­gy is a clear exam­ple of polit­i­cal expe­di­en­cy, the coali­tion rejects it and con­tin­ues to demand her resignation.

A winnable cam­paign against white supremacy

The unique­ness of the #Resign­Bran­ni­gan cam­paign lies in two key com­po­nents: re-strate­giz­ing our response to the rise of white suprema­cy, and rethink­ing the engage­ment of his­tor­i­cal­ly mar­gin­al­ized com­mu­ni­ties in the elec­toral process.

In the cur­rent polit­i­cal moment, there is much debate about how best to counter the rise of white suprema­cy across the Unit­ed States. From its incep­tion, the #Resign­Bran­ni­gan cam­paign under­stood the con­nec­tion between hate speech and the rise in hate crimes. We deter­mined that by focus­ing on remov­ing a local offi­cial respon­si­ble for hate speech against our com­mu­ni­ty, we could win a mate­r­i­al vic­to­ry against white suprema­cy in our own backyard.

This strat­e­gy is impor­tant because it makes the threat of white suprema­cy tan­gi­ble for com­mu­ni­ties to orga­nize against. It gives us a local, winnable cam­paign that con­nects our vic­to­ry to the strug­gle against white suprema­cy every­where in the Unit­ed States. Local com­mu­ni­ties may feel over­whelmed by racist poli­cies such as the Mus­lim ban, and racist mobi­liza­tions like the one in Char­lottesville, but #Resign­Bran­ni­gan gives us an oppor­tu­ni­ty to strike a real blow against white supremacy.

The cam­paign also con­nects a his­tor­i­cal­ly mar­gin­al­ized and ignored peo­ple, the Arab com­mu­ni­ty of the south­west sub­urbs of Chica­go, to a new way of doing elec­toral orga­niz­ing: neg­a­tive cam­paign­ing. While our com­mu­ni­ty has had a small num­ber of peo­ple run for local office, with vary­ing lev­els of suc­cess, the #Resign­Bran­ni­gan cam­paign has flipped tra­di­tion­al elec­toral work on its head by call­ing for the removal of an elect­ed rep­re­sen­ta­tive instead of for the elec­tion of an alter­na­tive can­di­date. This approach has allowed our coali­tion to mobi­lize larg­er num­bers of com­mu­ni­ty mem­bers than a tra­di­tion­al elec­toral cam­paign, includ­ing non-cit­i­zens, undoc­u­ment­ed peo­ple and youth — all of whom would be unable to vote in a tra­di­tion­al election.

This tac­tic is not new or even unique to the #Resign­Bran­ni­gan cam­paign; it comes off the heels of a sim­i­lar strat­e­gy that led to a major vic­to­ry in Illi­nois, with the elec­toral defeat of Cook Coun­ty State’s Attor­ney Ani­ta Alvarez, fol­low­ing the suc­cess of the #ByeAni­ta campaign.

Our cam­paign, how­ev­er, sets its sights beyond one indi­vid­ual. In addi­tion to the demand that Bran­ni­gan resign, we are call­ing on Sean Mor­ri­son, Cook Coun­ty Com­mis­sion­er and head of the Palos Town­ship Repub­li­can Orga­ni­za­tion, to take a stand against hate speech and con­demn Bran­ni­gan. Mor­ri­son has con­demned two GOP mem­bers when polit­i­cal­ly expe­di­ent to do so — Arthur Jones, open Nazi and can­di­date for Illi­nois’ 3rd Con­gres­sion­al seat, and guber­na­to­r­i­al can­di­date Jeanne Ives, who autho­rized a racist and trans­pho­bic cam­paign adver­tise­ment. But he has remained silent on the racism of Sharon Brannigan.

Our mes­sage to Mor­ri­son — and all elect­ed rep­re­sen­ta­tives — is clear: there is no place for neu­tral­i­ty on hate speech and racism. 

Bassem Kawar is the nation­al cam­paign coor­di­na­tor for the cam­paign to TAKE ON HATE. Muham­mad Sankari is the lead youth orga­niz­er with the Arab Amer­i­can Action Network.
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