Racist targeting of Arab businesses by Lightfoot administration to be probed by City Council hearing
36th Ward Chicago Alderman Gilbert Villegas proposed a City Council investigation into a Building Department Task Force accused of harassing Arab-owned small businesses targeted by Mayor Lori Lightfoot’s racist crackdown to confront rising street gang violence.
By Ray Hanania
Chicago Alderman Gilbert Villegas of the 36th Ward called for an investigation into the conduct of a controversial Inspection Task Force team created to investigate “troubled” businesses and properties in a resolution introduced to the Chicago City Council on December 15, 2021.
Villegas, Chairman of the influential City Council Committee on Economic, Capital and Technology Development, said he was concerned with how the city’s Building Department used Chicago Police in targeting minority and ethnic businesses, including those owned by Arabs and Muslims last Summer.
The American Arab Chamber of Commerce held a press conference on Sept. 13, 2021 exposing how Mayor Lori Lightfoot and the Building Department, using a special “Inspections Task Force” that included police units, ordered the closure of hundreds of gas stations and grocery stores predominantly owned by Arab and Muslims. More than 125 Arab and Muslim owned stores were intentionally closed in a twisted policy intended to confront Chicago’s rising street gang crime.
Villegas said he was concerned by how inspectors, using police, targeted inner-city minority business owners. He defended them saying they “fill a void left by other major retailers.”
“These business owners are providing an important service to the residents of many communities where many others will not go,” said Villegas who is also co-sponsor of legislation to include Middle Eastern or North African Americans as a “minority group” which is before the City Council Committee on Contracting Oversight and Equity.
“What the city did to these businesses is included in the scope of what the hearing will investigate and they will be asked to testify.”
American Arab Chamber of Commerce President Hassan Nijem welcomed the hearing described Villegas as being one of a number of Chicago City Council members who have shown concern for Arab and Muslim business members.
“We are not asking the City of Chicago to give us special treatment. We are demanding that Mayor Lightfoot and the City treat our community equally, fairly and with the respect we deserve,” Nijem said.
“Instead, beginning sometime in June through our press conference on September 13, the city sent a Task Force of inspectors that targeted Arab and Muslims stores, mainly those opened 24 hours, inside the city and treated the owners and employees with utter disrespect and in some cases our members said with racism and discrimination.”
Nijem said that inspectors and police “swarmed” the stores and citing a wide range of questionable building code violations ordered them closed.
“When the store owners corrected the alleged code violations, the Task Force came back and identified more code violations to keep them closed,” Nijem said.
“As a consequence, many Arab and Muslim owned stores were closed for as long as three months and that was very costly. Each gas station owner lost as much as $50,000 and $75,000 a month in revenues. Worse is that the stores were forced to layoff thousands of employees, most of whom are from the neighborhoods that were served. And, the closures resulted in millions of dollars in lost gasoline and sales taxes to the state, the county and the city.”
As a result of the press conference by the American Arab Chamber of Commerce, and store owners complained about the racist conduct of building department officials, the city suspended the Task Force and re-opened all of the stores.
“If an Arab or Muslim store owner is a not treating its customers, fairly, or is refusing to work with the city to correct code violations, or is poorly managing their business, we support corrective actions to make them better. But in this case, it had nothing to do with any problems, but only with the fact that we are Arab and Muslim and easy targets for Mayor Lightfoot,” Nijem said.
“We have many stores owners who are willing to appear at the hearing to share the stories of this misguided and racist crackdown.”
Villegas said that he would welcome Arab and Muslim gas station and grocery store owners to appear before the special investigation before a joint committee of the Committee on Public Safety and the Committee on Zoning.
Villegas was elected in 2015 and was appointed by Mayor Lightfoot as her floor leader. But in a sign of his concern for how the city conducts business, he resigned in the wake of the mayor’s often harsh language and personal attacks against city council members.
Chicago Alderman Raymond Lopez has been a champion for the rights of minority store owners and participated in the Sept. 13 press conference to give Arabs and Muslims a voice that was heard.
“We reached out to many aldermen but Alderman Lopez, Alderwoman Silvana Tabares and now Alderman Gilbert Villegas are saying that this cannot continue,” Nijem said.
“We are very proud of how Hispanic and Latino members of the Chicago City Council responded immediately to our concerns. They understand what it is like to be discriminated against.”
The American Arab Chamber hosted a dinner on Dec. 9 where they presented their annual “Action” Awards to Lopez and Tabares for standing up to Lightfoot’s and the Building Department’s discriminatory practices.
Lightfoot refused to meet with the business leaders instead using a former Arab member of her election transition team to organize a meeting with low-ranking deputies who tried to silence the criticism and prevent the targeted closures from being made public.
Here is the full text of Ald. Villegas’ ordinance introduced on Dec. 15, 2021.
City Council Meeting
December 15, 2021
Joint Committee on Public Safety/ Zoning
RESOLUTION CALLING FOR A HEARING ON THE CHICAGO POLICE DEPARTMENT’S COORDINATION WITH THE DEPARTMENT OF BUILDINGS
WHEREAS, The Chicago Police Department (CPD) – Troubled Buildings Unit (TBD) is responsible for identifying problem drug, gang, and vacant buildings throughout the City and taking appropriate enforcement action when such properties violate the City Code; and
WHEREAS, In addition to the TBD, members of CPD, the City of Chicago Department of Buildings (DOB), and the City of Chicago Department of Law (DDL) formed the Strategic Task Force (STF) aiming to: (1) identify properties connected to crime, (2) ensure inspections, investigations,’ and mitigation efforts are conducted at such properties, and (3) prosecute owners of such properties if problems persist; and
WHEREAS, While cross-department coordination is necessary for efficient enforcement of the City Code, recent reports allege a disproportionate amount of properties in Black and Brown
neighborhoods have been referred by CPD to DOB in effort to discourage criminal activity, resulting in irremediable financial harm and sometimes closure of such properties, for minor
violations unrelated to crime; and
WHEREAS, Equitable enforcement of the City Code is of the utmost importance, and the City Council must review enforcement practices to determine whether it is appropriate to alter existing reporting requirements and enforcement mechanisms; now, therefore
BE IT RESOLVED, That we, the Mayor and members of the City Council of the City of Chicago, gathered here this fifteenth day of December, 2021, do hereby call upon the Committee on Public Safety and the Committee on Zoning, Landmarks and Building Standards to convene a joint hearing regarding Police Department referrals to the Department of Buildings, including investigations or inspections initiated by the Strategic Task Force and data regarding the locations of properties referred to the Department of Buildings; and
BE IT FURTHER RESOLVED, That we call upon personnel representing the Police Department and Department of Buildings with knowledge of the Strategic Task Force and data on referrals
from the Police Department to the Department of Buildings to testify at the hearing.
Alderman, 36th Ward
Dec. 15, 2021