A protest escalated to property destruction on the night of Aug. 25, after a group of mostly teenagers assembled outside Oak Park Mayor Anan Abu-Taleb’s home during a virtual village board meeting where the mayor and trustees voted down a resolution to defund the Oak Park Police Department.
“My family should not be endangered because I’m serving the people,” Abu-Taleb told Wednesday Journal.
The defunding resolution was sponsored by Trustee Arti Walker-Peddakotla, whom Abu-Taleb said organized the protest.
“She’s behind it; I know that,” said Abu-Taleb.
In an email statement, Walker-Peddakotla said that she was not involved in organizing the protest.
At least 100 protesters gathered outside the mayor’s home, demanding the village board pass the resolution to hire fewer officers and reallocate village resources toward social services by 2021. The chanting got louder, and the crowd grew more irritable as the meeting progressed.
Some sat on the mayor’s porch and others went around to his backyard. The protesters reached their boiling point when the board voted 5 to 2 against the defunding measure.
The mayor told Wednesday Journal that many of the protesters may have had experiences with the police, which spurred them to protest.
“I understand why they want to protest, and I’m all for that,” Abu-Taleb said. “But one does not violate other people’s rights and civil liberties in order to seek a change.”
After the vote took place, Abu-Taleb became visibly distracted and uncomfortable while giving his comments as protesters banged windows and knocked on doors. Some of the demonstrators chanted, “Come outside!” to the mayor. Abu-Taleb said he heard “pounding” and “stamping.”
Outside in Abu-Taleb’s backyard, protesters reportedly smashed potted plants, tore up tomato cages, overturned patio furniture and threw eggs at the house. They also drew and spray-painted the sidewalks with pictures of hands raising middle fingers and pigs.
One drawing featured a pig and a mallet next to the words “Break the piggy bank” along with multiple instances and iterations of “F— the police.”
Abu-Taleb told Wednesday Journal he was home alone most of the meeting and texted his family not to come home to avoid confrontation with protesters. His wife, he said, came home anyway and at one point was confronted on their front porch by four or five young people, some without masks, who stood inches away from her face.
The protests became so distracting that the board of trustees ended up adjourning the meeting earlier despite having other police reform agenda items to discuss.
Trustees Deno Andrews, Simone Boutet, Susan Buchanan, Dan Moroney and Jim Taglia signed a joint statement to Wednesday Journal condemning the acts of vandalism. Walker-Peddakotla’s name was not on the statement.
“We call on the young people who damaged the mayor’s property to step forward and take responsibility for your actions,” the statement reads. “Political advocacy does not give you the right to commit crimes.”
Progress on police reform initiatives up for discussion that night, the trustees wrote, “have been stalled” because of the protests. According to the statement, the rally was organized by members of activist groups Freedom to Thrive Oak Park and Revolutionary Oak Park Youth League (ROYAL).
The trustees also called on the adult organizers of the rally to take responsibility for the role they played and to condemn property damage, vandalism and violence in all forms.
Trustees wrote that protesters discredited the cause and disrupted the democratic process, as well as cost the taxpayers money by acting in a way that required a response from the police and the Public Works Department.
According to the joint statement, protesters damaged more than just property. In
bulleted points, the trustees wrote that the actions of the protesters “disrupted the
democratic process,” “discredit the cause,” “dissuade people from running for office,”
and “cost the taxpayers money in requiring a police response and a public works
Walker-Peddakotla was asked to participate in the joint condemnation of property damage but refused, Abu-Taleb said.
In an email sent to the board by Walker-Peddakotla, she confirmed she had been asked to participate in the joint condemnation.
“I won’t denounce this protest just as I will not denounce the unrest that is happening in Chicago,” Walker-Peddakotla wrote. “I will never denounce an oppressed group saying, ‘Enough.'”
By not signing the statement, Abu-Taleb said he believes Walker-Peddakotla was condoning the events that took place Aug. 25.
“When you have a trustee who says it’s OK to damage people’s property,” Abu-Taleb said, “the community should know who that trustee is, and it’s Arti.”
Abu-Taleb also stated that Walker-Peddakotla’s decision not to sign was tantamount to an admission of instigating the rally.
“The fact that she did not sign that letter to condemn such action is proof that she’s behind it,” said the mayor. “If she’s not behind it, she needs to come right out and say it.”
In her email to the board, Walker-Peddakotla stated she played no part in planning or instigating the rally.
“I was not involved in organizing or planning this protest, and I will not denounce it,” the email reads.
Her email also stated that the village board was just as guilty of the disruptive activities attributed to the protesters in the trustees’ joint statement. She also marveled at the alacrity with which the board issued their condemnation.
“If only we could be so quick to denounce the damage we are doing to our youth by ignoring their experiences and their pain,” she wrote in her email.
Walker-Peddakotla has previously organized with Freedom to Thrive Oak Park, one of the organizations the board believes helped coordinate the rally. Abu-Taleb said Walker-Peddakotla is “proud to say she founded” Freedom to Thrive Oak Park.
“People have the right to thrive, yes,” said Abu-Taleb. “But you don’t have the right to be on my front porch and to damage my plants and egg my house.You don’t have the right to make me not feel safe living in my own home.”
There was minimal police presence at the protests. Oak Park Police Chief LaDon Reynolds arrived later in the evening and Commander Shatonya Johnson, in plain clothes, spent time speaking with protesters.
“Once the board meeting was over, we left the house,” Abu-Taleb said. “Based on the behavior of the protesters, we were concerned for our safety.”
The Abu-Talebs spent the next day salvaging the remains of the garden and cleaning up debris. Abu-Taleb said he remains committed to reforming policing in Oak Park and that he was open to discussing police reform with “anybody, anytime,” including the protesters, whom he believes are being misguided.
“They’re following bad leaders who are only interested in their own agenda,” he said.
A two-man crew from the Oak Park Public Works Department spent two-and-a-half hours Wednesday morning power-washing spray paint and chalk off the public sidewalks and street outside the mayor’s home.
Abu-Taleb said he and his family are “grateful for the outpouring of support from so many people that offered to help clean the house, replant the garden, sent texts, flowers and letters of support.”
As the mayor of Oak Park, Abu-Taleb said he remains committed to serving the village, evaluating opportunities for reform within the police and doing what he believes to be in the best interest of its citizens.
“People need to feel safe at home,” said Abu-Taleb. “And that’s why defunding the police will never happen on my watch.”