Chicago aldermen to host forum on Arab businesses closed by Mayor Lightfoot
Ald. Gilbert Villegas and other aldermen including Ald. Raymond Lopez, are hosting a public forum to allow Arab American business owners the chance to detail what happened to their businesses when they were forcibly closed last summer by Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot. The hearing will be held at the Islamic Community Center of Illinois, 6435 W Belmont Avenue, in Chicago on May 9 beginning at 11 AM. Lightfoot has blocked passage of the call for a formal hearing at City Hall.
Members of the Chicago City Council said they will host a public forum to allow members of the Arab American Community to describe the damage that Mayor Lori Lightfoot’s closure of their businesses last summer caused.
Lightfoot former a Task Force of Inspectors and Chicago Police to target Arab American owned businesses in Chicago beginning in June 2021, forcing them to close by citing frivolous code violations that included “removing a shelf,” “too little spacing between shelves,” use of an electrical extension cord, a door that was “too wide,” and many others including the use of LED Lighting.
Under normal circumstances, a city inspector making a twice annual store visit would issues code violation citations and then give the store owners several weeks to get them changed or adjusted. Code violations that were life threatening — none were cited during the Lightfoot Pogrom — would be fixed immediately.
But the Task Force consisted of top deputies from the city’s Building Department and two to three inspectors, and as many as five or six police officers creating a sense of “urgency” and “fear” among residents. The police car lights were left on during the “inspections” and customers were forced to evacuate the stores, suggesting impending danger. Large orange signs were plastered on the store windows and doors declaring that the stores have been closed.
Several aldermen introduced a resolution to investigate the closures, but Mayor Lightfoot used her majority control of the board to suppress it. That prompted Alderman Gilbert Villegas and others including Alderman Raymond Lopez to hold a public hearing outside of City Hall to investigate what happened.
Villegas said that the Public Forum would be held on Monday May 9 between 11 AM and 1 PM at Islamic Community Center of Illinois (ICCI), 6435 W Belmont Avenue said coo-organizer Hassan Nijem of the American Arab Chamber of Commerce who spearheaded the campaign to save the Arab American owned stores and force the city to reopen them.
The campaign to close the stores was not publicized by Mayor Lightfoot but word of the closures spread slowly through the community, creating fear. Many Arab American store owners were fearful that if they spoke up, their stores would be targeted, too. Only two Arab Organizations, the American Arab Chamber of Commerce and the Arab American Democratic Club, raised concerns about the closures while other Arab organizations held meetings with Mayor Lightfoot in order to minimize the negative publicity.
But the store closures were very costly. In the case of gas station locations closed, the financial losses were as much as $70,000 per month. Many Arab American stores owners lost even more revenue and were forced to layoff their employee workforce. Gas stations face a unique challenge and were forced to keep an employee at their locations 24 hours a day even tough the gas stations were closed to meet state laws regarding the placement of gasoline pumps.
Additionally, the mainstream news media, which rarely covers the Arab American community, ignored the problem completely.
By September 2021, the closures had been imposed for nearly three months and, after speaking with dozens of stores owners, the American Arab Chamber of Commerce organized two press conferences demanding that the racist store closures be publicized and that Mayor Lightfoot reverse her discriminatory orders. In an email request to Mayor Lightfoot’s to explain her discriminatory conduct, her communications team debated whether to answer the queries about the discriminatory closures or ignore them and “not respond.” They responded without addressing the issue.
Mayor Lightfoot then quickly organized a gathering of her supporters at City Hall in the Arab American community who did not protest the closures and instead listened to city officials lecture them about unverified complaints about the stores without citing documents or specifics. Lightfoot’s propaganda arm falsely claimed she was “meeting with Arab businessmen” to discuss how to bring the stores into compliance, ignoring charges of discriminatory behavior by the inspectors.
“The inspectors were racist and mean,” several of the store owners said.
The first press conference was held on Sept. 8, 2021 and it resulted in the publication of local stories in the smaller community news media.
Those stories prompted the major news media to take notice and at a second press conference was organized on Sept. 13, 2021 by the American Arab Chamber of Commerce and President Hassan Nijem that was attended by every Chicago TV station, all of the major newspapers, radio stations and several Arab World publications. Ald. Raymond Lopez attended that press conference and stood on the side of the Arab American businessmen and women.
“The media coverage gave the store owners a voice to showcase how they were victims of discrimination and Ald. Raymond Lopez helped show that this was a serious effort,” Nijem said.
“We also owe a lot to Ray Hanania who is a writer, political analyst and president of his own media company, Urban Strategies Group. Once that press conferences were held, Mayor Lightfoot was embarrassed. and the next day, literally one day later, all of the stores were ordered reopened and inspectors changed their attitudes to one of sympathy and support rather than angry and sometimes racist insults owners experienced during the original wave of closures.”
Hanania covered Chicago City Hall form nearly 17 years in the 1970s through the early 1990s, and said this would never have been done to any other community.
“It smacked of the kind of segregationist racism that plagued Chicago and the entire country during the early 190s through the 1970s. That racism sparked a civil rights movement that made it possible for Mayor Lori Lightfoot to become Chicago’s mayor,” Hanania said.
“To see her now spearhead a campaign to target Arab Americans because their community is disorganized and sometimes dysfunctional is reprehensible. Those stores contribute to our society providing food and service, and taxes int he form of the gasoline tax, the retail sales tax and property taxes, all lost during the closures. They also hire local residents and more than 500 to 700 people lost their jobs during the wave of closures. The magnitude of the closures was shocking and inspite of the coverage it received, pressure from Mayor Lightfoot and some of her quisling Arab group supporters continued to suppress the story.”
Hanania said when this kind of racism happened to one Black, Hispanic or Asian owned store, the stories were widely publicized and provoked widespread condemnation from every political corner.
Nijem said that not on Arab American organization would step up to the plate and criticize Mayor Lightfoot.
“She has many friends in the Arab American community and I don’t understand that considering the damage she did to so many Arab owned stores who pay their taxes, run their businesses legally and are law abiding citizens who have helped the communities where their stores are located,” Nijem said, noting she tried to quell the protests by hosting a “private meeting” with some Arab leaders who were supporters.
“Not one Arab organization did anything, until we stepped up and demanded action.”
Nijem said the effort to reopen the stores was supported by the Arab Chamber and the Arab American Democratic Club (AADC) headed by Samir Khalil.
At the second press conference held on September 13 in front of one of the closed gas stations, more than two dozen stores owners whose businesses were closed gathered to share their shocking stories with the news media.
Attending the second press conference was Chicago Alderman Raymond Lopez who spoke out forcefully against the closures. Lopez met with many of the store owners and listened as they related the experiences they had when their stores were closed. The presence of Alderman Lopez help raise the media’s interest in the story and exposed Mayor lightfoot’s hypocritical and discriminatory action.
Every store was told by the city that they could begin re-openning the following day on Sept. 14, after the news media publicized the shocking stories and Mayor Lightfoot’s discriminatory policies to close the Arab Owned stores.
Nijem said that a few non-Arab stores had been closed, too, during the crackdown but that appeared to be the result of city inspectors not knowing differences between Arabs and non-Arabs.
“We have many store owners that are interested in sharing their stories about how the closures damaged their businesses economically and financially,” Nijem said.
For more information, visit the American Arab Chamber of Commerce website at www.AACCUSA.org.