(Editor’s note: This article was updated on March 24 to add a comment from Judith Alexander.)

Early voting for the April 6 municipal election began March 22 at Oak Park village hall, but an anonymous campaign video and website has raised spurious claims regarding the ballot’s advisory defunding police referendum. Both the candidates endorsed in the video and those attacked in the video have denounced it.

Under the domain name votenotodefund.com and registered by an anonymous person or persons, the website is urging people to vote no on the referendum question: “Shall the village of Oak Park defund its police department?” 

The website has endorsed trustee candidates Ravi Parakkat, Stephen Morales and Lucia Robinson without their consent or prior knowledge, implying that the candidates are against police reform. The Wednesday Journal website briefly displayed an advertisement promoting those three candidates that contained a link to the website. The ad was placed by Judith Alexander, a local advocate for business development on North Avenue. Alexander says she did not know about the video when she agreed with an intermediary to have her ad linked to a third-party website. Wednesday Journal pulled the ad quickly after viewing the anonymous link to a video on the site. Alexander says she agreed with the newspaper’s decision to take down the ad.

The website also urges people not to vote for Juanta Griffin, Chibuike Enyia and Anthony Clark – the three Black trustee candidates, insinuating without credible evidence that they are in favor of defunding police.

With a focus on fearmongering, the website’s sensationalistic video shows crime statistics rising without context and without crediting the source of the information. It also shows reporting from newspaper outlets on the defund police movement, while making implications that voting against the referendum would have dire consequences for public safety. 

“There is a well-organized effort to defund the police department,” the nondescript video narrator states before referencing last August’s failed resolution to defund police, calling out by name sitting village board trustees Arti Walker-Peddakotla and Susan Buchanan for voting in favor of defunding. Walker-Peddakotla sponsored the resolution and Buchanan seconded it.

The video mentions the community activist group Freedom to Thrive Oak Park for its abolitionist reading club and for mobilizing what the narrator called a campaign to reduce the police department. The only campaign Freedom to Thrive’s website promotes is a letter writing one, sharing a template email available for residents to send to village board members.

The video’s most egregious bit of electioneering comes toward its end, with the narrator telling viewers that, with the three open trustee seats, the village board could have enough votes to pass a new defunding resolution. The narrator finishes off the video pressing people to vote for Parakkat, Morales and Robinson over Griffin, Enyia and Clark.

Parakkat, Morales and Robinson posted statements March 15 to their individual Facebook campaign pages disavowing the website and denying having any affiliation with it. Each independently shared the same sentiments with Wednesday Journal. 

“We were completely shocked to see it,” said Robinson. “I had nothing to do with it. I know they didn’t either.”

While she understands that running for elected office makes her campaign and its photos a part of the public sphere, she was unhappy the website used her likeness and her platform in that way. 

“I don’t like the use of those things without my permission, without my authorization for a very specific, very targeted message that I really, I had no input on,” she said. “I’d have to say I don’t like it. And I’m definitely not comfortable with it at all.”

Upon learning of the website, Morales told Wednesday Journal he immediately moved to inform people that he would never utilize such a political tactic. 

“That’s something that would never have come out of a campaign that I would ever try to run,” said Morales.

Morales wants to work with the police chief and the community to address crime rates. A board member of Thrive Counseling Center, Morales also believes it important that future policing models have mental health components. 

Parakkat believes policing needs to be reimagined, with active participation from both the community and the police, and clearly specified and independently verifiable success criteria. He stated he had “absolutely nothing” to do with the website and video. 

All three told Wednesday Journal they don’t know who is behind the website.

The defunding referendum was added to the ballot Jan. 19 at the urging of outgoing village trustee Dan Moroney, who withdrew from the village president race nine days after. The question was criticized by various members of the village board, who called it a political ploy. 

However, Moroney’s request was seconded by fellow outgoing trustee Deno Andrews. In a 4-3 village board vote Jan. 19, the referendum narrowly made it onto the ballot.  Andrews ended his campaign for reelection in early February.

In separate phone calls with Wednesday Journal, Moroney and Andrews both denied having any involvement with the website and any knowledge regarding the identity of website’s creator. 

The website’s copyright notice lists its owner as “Citizens Against Defunding the Police;” the name is not registered with the Illinois Board of Elections. 

Like those who were endorsed by the campaign, Clark, Enyia and Griffin also expressed distaste for the website. 

Clark called the website an effort to oppose his campaign through the spreading of misinformation.

He believes the ambiguity of the term “defund police” has led to confusion and fear but that he understands it to mean reallocation of funding, “not reduction or elimination” of the force. 

“Through proactive collaboration, the community will decide what reimagining public safety should look like for Oak Park, not me as an individual,” Clark said.

Enyia stated he has great friends who are Oak Park police officers and that he supports reallocating funds toward mental health services and bridging community between officers and youth.

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Enyia believes the referendum question was meant to stoke confusion and misdirection. 

“It attempts to fear-monger and misleads our residents into believing that a vote for me is a vote to make you less safe — which is hurtful and couldn’t be further from the truth,” said Enyia.

Griffin’s decision to run for village trustee was based on a desire to address the needs of renters and to make Oak Park a more affordable place to live. 

“Defunding the police was never my platform. I did not run for trustee to defund the police,” said Griffin.

What Griffin wants is a “fair and equitable” police department that recognizes Black people as human beings.

“I feel like Black candidates have been lumped into the same category to evoke fear in residents to vote against us.”

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