The name “Sharon Brannigan” means absolutely nothing to most people, and likely would not have been known beyond this small corridor of Palos Township in Southwest Suburban Chicago. Sharon Brannigan is a flower shop owner turned small-time politician. She had been elected uncontested to the position of Trustee in 2013, as Chairman of Public Services and Health. Brannigan since has run a lackluster campaign as a Republican challenger in the 3rd District to unseat Congressman Daniel Lipinski (D. IL) in 2014. Having failed to make any significant move on a national level, Brannigan settled in to administer the Township’s health programs.
Her political life stayed uneventful, until she used her Palos Township social media platform to make disparaging Anti-Arab and Anti-Muslim statements. Palos Township is home to one of Chicago’s largest Arab/Muslim enclaves (approximately 30% of the population). It’s often referred to as “Little Palestine.” There is a growing population of Palestinian Arab Muslims and Christians in the Southwest Suburbs of Chicago. At issue is whether a person who hates or uses hate speech toward a significant population of her constituency can serve those constituents. Her comments often attack women and children, and despite a primarily female presence at these meetings, she still seeks out only male leadership.
Brannigan’s statements are not very sophisticated, or challenging to interpret. They reflect someone who is quite threatened by the growing Arab and Muslim population, but also someone who felt emboldened by the current political climate to voice that discontent. Her statements reflect the general unease among the non-Arab residents of Palos Township about the growing number of Arab and Muslim residents. Furthermore, they echo a thread of anti-Arab, anti-Muslim discourse initiated from the highest office in the land, and, unfortunately, supported by the lowest rungs of society. However unsophisticated her statements and positions may read, they highlight a discourse of fear-mongering and hate speech that has largely characterized current political speech.
Ultimately, her statements drew the attention and ire of quite a few Palos Township residents, specifically the local Arab and Muslim population. Since July 2017, protesters have expressed their discontent at Brannigan’s statements. Her refusal to address the residents’ concerns and her repeated denial of any wrongdoing has created this untenable situation that is not going away.
Six months ago, when I walked the six blocks from my house to the Palos Township Hall, I did not expect to see anybody there. Like most local political trustee meetings, I expected to see maybe a dozen angry residents expressing their displeasure. However, multiple groups attended to show support and solidarity with residents: Take on Hate, Arab American Action Network, Southwest Suburban Activists, Mi Gente, and more. Due to the overbearing heat, and a lack of proper seating, some residents brought bottles of water and handed them out to the crowd. A real sense of community hovered among the protesters. Two Trump supporters in “Make America Great Again” hats joined in. One spewed obscenities at children holding signs. The other took time to discuss the issues with some of the residents.
I believed Brannigan would see the size of the response, tuck tail, and apologize for her comments. I believe the community may have forgiven her and moved on, especially if we had seen real contrition. However, Trustee Brannigan dug her heels in, asserted that it was her First Amendment Right to express whatever views she wanted to, and stated that she would not relinquish her position for any reason. However, after the July 2017 meeting, she was forced to step down from a separate Cook County position, though “lack of attendance” was the officially provided reason.
Despite being forewarned before the August 2017 meeting that we would have a sizable turnout to demonstrate against Trustee Brannigan’s statements, the Board of Trustees took no action to accommodate residents. They knew we were coming. A man stood alone across the street with a cardboard sign telling ISIS to get out.
They scheduled the third meeting for September 11th, no doubt to scare Arab and Muslim residents from attending. Yet, again, over a hundred residents showed up, but still no real attempt to accommodate them was made. Instead, the Board acquired a speaker that was hooked up outside to satisfy Illinois State regulations that all residents should be allowed to hear the meeting. After that meeting, at the urging of her political colleagues and superiors, Brannigan issued her first lackluster apology.
During the month of October, the Board rescheduled at least three meetings. They claimed to be working on finding a venue large enough to hold at least one hundred people. However, venues in the area refused their request once they found out about the political action against Trustee Brannigan. Ultimately, they held a secret meeting to approve their pensions. They scheduled a November meeting giving less than a week’s notice, and on the school district’s parent/teacher conference night, to ensure a low turnout. Yet, people showed up, and they were angry at the chicanery by the Palos Township Board.
At the November meeting, Sharon Brannigan issued another lame apology, explaining her reasoning for writing hateful comments about Arabs and Muslims, and placing blame on reader misinterpretation of her intentions. She further said she would like to sit down with our leaders, our imams. Her comments went from condescending and paternalistic to full blown ridiculous when she referred to Muslim women’s scarves as “hajeeb”.
Finally, at the December meeting, all things did come to a head. Residents no longer wanted Palos Township to operate in a “business as usual” manner. Immediately after the Pledge of Allegiance, residents began chanting “Hey Hey, Ho Ho, Sharon Brannigan has to go.” The voices boomed in the small space. A smattering of Brannigan supporters–primarily white, middle-class, elderly women–tried to show their support for her, but they were heavily outnumbered. One elderly woman called a young protester a “camel jockey” and then threatened her with a gun. When both parties were taken out by Palos Hills police, the cops failed to get the elderly woman’s name, despite her explicit threat. Likewise, another elderly Brannigan supporter slapped a protester. Palos Hills police failed to record that woman’s name as well.
As we move into a new year, Sharon Brannigan retains her seat, and residents still remain resolute that she must resign. On her Facebook page, she recently posted an article by a well-known Arab American writer who supports her, and all things Republican and conservative. She bemoans how this has been a long six months for her. One must question the fitness of a politician who uses hate speech to boost her popularity among racists, but laments the consequences.