Since January, a vandal has defaced 15 Black Lives Matter flags and 13 LGBTQ+ pride rainbow flags belonging to one Oak Park property in the 1000 block of South East Avenue. Each flag has either been slashed, sprayed with black spray paint, splashed with white latex paint or – as was the most recent case on Aug. 15 – covered in red paint.
The owners of the property are engaged in a twisted game of cat-and mouse-with the vandal, who repeatedly defiles the flags both symbolically and literally. As flags are vandalized, new flags are hung in their place. A police report is filed. The vandal damages the new flags, then those are taken down. A police report is again filed. New flags go up. Damaged flags come down. And the cycle of defiance continues.
“These flags represent the people we live next to and the people who live in our house,” said property co-owner Rob Huber. “We’ll keep putting the flags up because that’s our values. We’re not going to let someone scare us off.”
The South East Avenue property in question is currently under construction to rebuild the two-flat that was lost to a fire July 2, 2021. Before the fire, the flags hung from the porch and were never touched, according to Sarah Jolie, a family friend who co-owns the property with the Hubers.
When the property was demolished to begin reconstruction on Jan. 13, Jolie and the Huber family began hanging the flags from the chain-link construction fence blocking off their property. The flag attacks began shortly after. Jolie first chalked up the torn flags to being a construction accident or the result of inclement weather.
“Everyone else thought it was vandalism,” she said. “I didn’t because that’s just not how I’m wired.”
The first few times the vandal only defaced the Black Lives Matter flag, but subsequently branched out by attacking the rainbow flag too. Jolie could no longer operate under the assumption the damage was accidental.
She and the Huber family began buying both flags in bulk. Packages of five flags are stacked in their garage, ready to be hung at any given moment. While each vandalized flag has also been kept for posterity, no time is wasted in swapping them out on the fence for new flags.
“The people these flags represent do not need the trauma of seeing them vandalized,” Jolie said. “Even if the vandalized flags can teach other people lessons, our responsibility is to those communities.”
While their two-flat is being rebuilt, the Hubers and Jolie are living in Forest Park. Not being on the premises has made it difficult for them to catch the vandal red-handed. Instead, they rely on reports from neighbors and security camera surveillance, never knowing when the vandal will strike.
The attacker was caught once on film, but the quality was such that any defining personal characteristics of the vandal were not distinguishable. All the footage really showed, according to Jolie, was that it was a man carrying out the attacks.
Due to the consistency of the attacks, as well as the method by which they are carried out, the vandalism feels very targeted to the Huber family and Jolie. Perhaps it is the easy access of having the flags hanging from a fence instead of a porch that prompts the vandal to return.
Regardless, the neighborhood is baffled too as to why the vandal keeps returning to this particular property to destroy flags while the same ones hang at other houses on the block. Those flags are spared destruction.
“Why is this happening? It’s shocking,” said one neighbor, who wished to remain anonymous.
The Hubers and Jolie are some of the “nicest people,” according to the neighbor, which has made it harder for her to believe that they would be targeted in such manner.
The neighbor’s nine-year-old son chimed in to voice his own disapproval of the attacks and to beseech the vandal.
“Please don’t do this,” he said to the vandal, in the hopes that the message might get to him. “This isn’t good.”
For a while, Jolie was bringing attention to the vandalism by posting about them in various Oak Park community Facebook groups. She said she stopped after being “super attacked” by some people for misusing police resources by reporting each instance of property destruction.
Huber told Wednesday Journal they have been accused of “virtue signaling” by continuing to put up new flags after each act of defacement. He prefers, however, to think of it as “value signaling.”
The flags, he said, represent inclusion – inclusion for communities that have been systematically pushed aside in favor of white, cis-gender, heterosexual people. Proudly displaying these flags is a personal matter for the two-flat tenants. Huber’s daughter is a lesbian and many of their neighbors are Black.
“As a middle-aged, middle-class white man, I move through the world and see places where people aren’t sure if they’ll be welcomed,” he said. “They are welcome here.”
The vandal, Huber believes, would be a much happier person if he were to embrace inclusivity, but Huber also pities the vandal for carrying such ugliness inside himself.
Both Huber and Jolie would love to see the vandal caught, but what they would love even more is to have their flags hang unblemished by paint, tearing and prejudice. If the vandal continues, Jolie has a recurring flag order through Amazon.
“If he stops, he stops,” Jolie said. “And if he doesn’t, we’ll keep hanging them.”