If 2020 was a Greek tragedy, then 2021 was its sequel. From a narrative standpoint, 2021 shared many of the same dramatic themes as 2020 but fell short in originality and, as a whole, felt largely derivative.
It was about as much fun as “Daddy’s Home 2” – an unwanted and unnecessary sequel to a movie no one liked in the first place. Not even John Lithgow, delightful as he is, could save that disaster, made worse with the addition of Mel Gibson. It was doomed from the start – as was this past year it turned out.
COVID-19 reigned as the principal antagonist in 2020 and 2021. It continued to rear its ugly head, popping up in new forms, to remind us all that, like Mel Gibson, it’s unfortunately still here. Please proceed with caution.
National tensions play locally
Six days into the new year, the nation’s focus was turned to Washington, D.C., as insurrectionists scaled the U.S. Capitol building. On the same day in Oak Park a brick was reportedly thrown at the window of Black-owned Live Café.
The incident became big news, not only because it happened on the same day as the Jan. 6 insurrection. Live Café was serving as the campaign headquarters for three Black candidates for Oak Park village trustee, two of whom faced campaign challenge hearings that day. The brick also carried a message. Scrawled on the paper attached to the brick were the words “No n — on the ballot.”
Chicago television news crews, and this Wednesday Journal reporter, descended upon Live Café, now known as Brewpoint Craft, the following day to hear Live Café proprietor Resheeda Graham Washington speak of the attack.
“Our souls are damaged by this offense,” Graham-Washington told the large and masked crowd. “This damage, this harm – it sits in the seat alongside 401 years of trauma.”
Police combed through hours of footage from nearby security cameras, but the café’s own security cameras had been turned off to mitigate costs due to the pandemic. A police investigation into the incident was determined to be inconclusive a month later.
Candidates face ballot challenges
The hearings for the campaign challenges against Oak Park village trustee candidates Anthony Clark and Chibuike Enyia were only the beginning of a long, messy election season. While both candidates were challenged by Kevin Peppard, the Oak Park Municipal Officers Electoral Board dismissed Peppard’s case against Enyia. He went on to win a seat on the village board.
What transpired at Clark’s hearings was more tumultuous. Clark faced a challenge to his residency, with Peppard claiming Clark lived in suburban Lombard and not Oak Park. Despite the community’s vocal support for Clark, the electoral board ruled in favor of Peppard Jan. 25. That ruling failed to stick and the electoral board reversed its decision Jan. 28.
Election feud and anonymous tactics
Clark was unable to shake controversy, however. A feud broke out between Clark and on-again-off-again village president candidate Simone Boutet. Believing she was behind Peppard’s challenge, Clark sent Boutet a text message on Jan. 4, stating, “I know you are behind this & funding [redacted]. So go as far as you would like to go & I will be sure to do so as well. All the truths will be exposed. Good luck with your race.”
Four days later Boutet, a white woman who sees herself as a racial equity advocate, filed a police report against Clark, a Black man, for harassment. The text became a matter of public record. Refusing to comment to the press, Boutet instead turned to social media, where she posted a series of diatribes against Clark to Facebook.
She officially withdrew her candidacy for village president on Jan. 17, but it was not the sitting village trustee’s first time dropping out of the race. Boutet previously announced she was ending her campaign Sept. 9 to join a family business in Washington state, but reentered the race Sept. 22, citing the recent death of Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg as inspiration.
The political whiplash was surely felt by the three village trustee candidates aligned with Boutet’s Unite Oak Park slate: Lucia Robinson, Ravi Parakkat and Stephen Morales. While Robinson and Parakkat won village board seats Morales failed in his bid.
All six Oak Park village trustee candidates found themselves embroiled in an anonymous anti-defund police campaign. Shortly after early voting began March 22, a website and an attached video focused on fearmongering launched to persuade voters to vote against a non-binding referendum to defund the Oak Park Police Department. Mailers from the anonymous campaign were also sent to voters.
Under the domain name, votenotodefund.com, now deactivated, the campaign endorsed Morales, Parakkat and Robinson as pro-police candidates, while propagating the idea that Enyia, Clark and Juanta Griffin, all of whom are Black, would defund the police upon taking office. Both the candidates endorsed in the video and those attacked in the video denounced the rogue effort.
The person or persons behind the campaign remain unknown. The domain name was registered to an anonymous person and the campaign itself did not file with the Illinois Board of Elections.
In a race against Cate Readling, a local activist, Village Clerk Vicki Scaman became village president while Parakkat, Robinson and Enyia joined the village board as trustees. Together, they ushered in a new era in Oak Park politics, one marked by politeness and diplomacy.
In River Forest, Village President Cathy Adduci won a third term, defeating sitting River Forest trustee Patty Henek. While many thought the race would be closer, Adduci handily won, receiving 64.8% of votes.
Comings and goings
As the weather warmed, the relentless pain of living in a pandemic world seemed to subside a bit. Public swimming pools and playgrounds reopened though Oak Park had no Fourth of July fireworks or parade. A fairly normalized Farmers Market also returned.
July also saw the addition of Pawficer Howie to the Oak Park Police Department. The canine was brought on to assist in community engagement and officer wellness. His loving snuggles are actually a form of deep pressure therapy that works to relax a person’s nervous system.
His arrival was undoubtedly a high point, but it wasn’t the only news to come out of the Oak Park department last summer. In June, the village of Oak Park entered into a contract worth $35,240 with CISYNC LLC, a firm specializing in public safety visualizations and data mining, to review the police department’s recordkeeping. On June 23, Oak Park Police Chief LaDon Reynolds was announced as the Biden administration nominee for Senate confirmation as U.S. Marshal for Northern Illinois. But he has stayed mum on the status of his candidacy. As of Dec. 27, the chief had “no new information” to share.
Village Manager Cara Pavlicek announced she was leaving Oak Park in June to serve as village manager in north suburban Northbrook. She departed in August and her deputy was appointed Interim Village Manager. The person who will assume the position permanently is set to be hired in early 2022.
Oak Park took its health department on the road with the August launch of its mobile vaccination station, the brainchild of Public Health Director Theresa Chapple-McGruder. The van was a fixture at such downtown Oak Park event series as Thursday Night Out, where volunteers encouraged skeptics to get inoculated against COVID-19. The mobile health department also made stops at local schools.
Death and trauma
There was much sadness in Oak Park during 2022. Oak Park Township Clerk Greg White died in late July after a short illness. White served as township clerk for 24 years and deputy township clerk for 10. He is remembered for his loyalty and dedication to the mission of the township.
The nationwide increase in violent crime contributed to feelings of grief and despair. Oak Parkers were on edge over increasing incidents of gunfire in various parts of the village. On Aug. 7, the body of 15-year-old Melissa Rendon was found in an Oak Park alley. The Chicago teen had reportedly been drugged and raped over a period of hours with footage of the assault posted to Snapchat. Sergio Hernandez, 40, was charged with criminal sexual assault, aggravated criminal sexual abuse and concealment of a death, while Joslia Williams, 18, was charged with child pornography and concealment of a death. Hernandez and Williams are both from Chicago.
Former Oak Park resident Heather Mack was released from prison in Indonesia and deported to the United States in early November. Upon landing at O’Hare International Airport, she was arrested by the FBI. Mack’s release and return were particularly bitter for Oak Parkers, as the infamous “Suitcase Killer” and her boyfriend-turned-accomplice lived in Oak Park prior to being charged with the brutal murder of Mack’s mother.
Coming back from COVID
COVID-19 loosened and tightened its chokehold periodically in 2021. The Delta variant of COVID-19 was overshadowed by the newer Omicron variant, which became the dominant strain by year-end. The virus’s economic impact was still substantial and the American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) seeks to mitigate it.
ARPA caused much excitement in River Forest and Oak Park this year. River Forest announced that it will receive $1.3 million through the federal recovery program. Oak Park expects to take in $38.1 million in ARPA funds.
The Oak Park village board voted in July to use $14 million of its share to reimburse the village for lost revenue due to COVID-19, but the rest is still up for grabs. The Park District of Oak Park and the Oak Park Economic Development Corporation (OPEDC) are both after slices of the village’s ARPA pie. The park district has requested $2 million to replenish its capital improvement fund, while OPEDC wants $500,000 to invest in Black-owned businesses. The village board plans to discuss the requests in the new year.