Chicago DSA is Defending the Right to Protest Genocide at the DNC

Chicago DSA (CDSA) won a successful campaign this spring to defend the chapter’s endorsed alderperson Byron Sigcho-Lopez from censure after he spoke at an anti-war protest that featured the burning of an American flag. CDSA leadership spoke with Democratic Left about the action’s wider political context in Chicago, how the chapter mobilized their support, and the chapter’s preparations to “welcome” the Democratic National Convention this August.

Byron Sigcho-Lopez addresses a Chicago Teachers Union (CTU) rally in 2019 | Charles Edward Miller, licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.0 Generic license
Byron Sigcho-Lopez addresses a Chicago Teachers Union (CTU) rally in 2019 | Charles Edward Miller, licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.0 Generic license

Free Speech and Failed Censure

On March 22, socialist alderperson Byron Sincho-Lopez spoke outside Chicago City Hall at a protest against the Gazan genocide and upcoming Democratic National Convention. Behind Enemy Lines, an anti-imperialist organization, led the protest and invited a veteran to burn an American flag in dissent. 

The veteran, former Marine Zachary Kam, burned an American flag that he had brought home from the occupation of Afghanistan. At the protest, Kam spoke about his action to the crowd: “Let this burn in memory of Aaron Bushnell. Let it burn because whatever values it might have stood before are clearly absent in this country now.” 

After the protest, the council’s right wing stoked social media outrage with sensationalist news coverage, both local and national. “It was an attack on free speech. If it didn’t stop, they would do this to all the other alders,” CDSA Co-Chair, Elena G. said.

Despite the right’s supposed rejection of “cancel culture,” these council members reveled in manufacturing outrage for their own political advantage. “What we hear today are the puppets of the ruling class that are trying to create political theater,” Sigcho-Lopez said in an interview with television station ABC-7

“I want to make sure that we all understand the dangerous precedent this can set for everyone in this body and for our city in this incredibly polarized climate. We cannot pick and choose who gets to speak, or what is the comment of the remarks,” said Rossana Rodriguez-Sanchez, another CDSA endorsed socialist alder.

Hundreds of Chicagoans came to Ald. Sigcho-Lopez’s defense, submitting public comments online and in person, defending the freedom to protest. Over 500 comments were submitted for public comment in support of Sigcho-Lopez, 200 from CDSA members and 300 more from people unaffiliated with the chapter. 

On April 1 the motion to censure failed overwhelmingly, 16-29. All six of CDSA endorsed alders rejected the motion with support from to liberal leaning councilmembers. Even Ald. Chris Taliaferro, the alderperson, veteran, and retired police officer who led the press conferences against Sigcho-Lopez, voted no on the motion after an Easter Sunday sit down.

Despite the controversy, the right wing censure campaign failed by all metrics.

A semi-circle with dots representing each seat on the Chicago City Council, including six red seats held by DSA alderpeople, 23 pink seats that voted against censure, and 16 grey seats who supported censure.

 

Counting to 25: Chicago’s 2024 Political Context

Sigcho-Lopez’s censure highlights the major divisions within Chicago’s city politics as well as the underhanded strategies the city’s right-wing block employs to shore up their position. 

The alderman represents Ward 25 on the Lower West Side, including the majority Latino neighborhood of Pilsen. With its vibrant arts district and affordable rent, Pilsen is a contested gentrification frontier for real estate developers. 

Sigcho-Lopez won his seat in 2019. Before this, he was the Executive Director for Pilsen Alliance, an organization that fights for affordable housing, renters and housing rights. Before his council campaign, Sigcho-Lopez organized the DSA chapters involved in a campaign to “Lift the Ban” on rent control in the Illinois statehouse. 

There is no clear majority on Chicago’s city council, but Sigcho-Lopez holds a key position on the city’s Housing Committee. After Brandon Johnson’s mayoral election in 2023, Sigcho-Lopez was appointed chair of the committee. 

“The Right hoped a PR crisis could maneuver somebody out of an important position on the body, seeking to replace him with someone who would rubber stamp for landlords and developers,” CDSA Co-Chair, Sveta S. said. “This was a cynical maneuver on behalf of the alders by those most opposed to progressive and socialist policy.” 

The alders who voted to censure Sigcho-Lopez and remove his chairship also voted against police accountability and funding mental health initiatives and came out against a ballot measure to tax real estate sales and a resolution calling for a ceasefire in Gaza. 

The censure also highlights how the genocide in Gaza has affected the city’s politics. In January, the Chicago City Council passed a ceasefire motion with a tie-breaking vote from Mayor Brandon Johnson. Chicago is the most populous city to thus far pass a ceasefire motion. 

“I think a few years ago, the news cycle that would have played out about [the censure] would have been shocking. Even if flag burning is a protected right of free speech. But after six months of US funded genocide, I don’t think it got the shock that they were anticipating,” Sveta S. said.

As the campaign to censure shows, one socialist elected can use their seat to champion mass politics and civic freedoms. And this scares right-wing reactionaries. Sigcho-Lopez has called meetings with the Chicago Housing Authority (CHA), the organization responsible for publicly owned housing in Chicago, to ensure CHA is using resources to maintain public housing and not profiting from selling city owned lots. He’s also calling for permanent housing for asylum seekers and improved living conditions at shelters. His district is home to the largest shelter for asylum seekers in Chicago.

Socialists in Office Committee

CDSA’s Socialist in Office Committee (SIO) was central to mobilizing support for Ald. Sigcho-Lopez. Chapter co-chairs first brought the campaign to the CDSA Executive Committee, the chapter’s 17-person elected body representing each of the chapter’s four branches. It quickly passed an online vote and organizers got to work.

Campaign organizers created a toolkit that asked chapter members to sign a petition, submit public comments and voice their support for Sigcho-Lopez on social media. The toolkit contextualized socialists’ historic commitment to free speech: “Socialists fought and died for basic free speech rights. We won’t go back to a time when passing out socialist fliers was illegal.” 

“I think this is a good reminder of why we’re doing this work,” Sveta S. said. “We’re housing the relationships with socialist electeds within the chapter, in a committee accountable to membership, not just personal relationships with people who know candidates or worked on their campaign. I think that’s what it’s going to take to build a proto-party.”

The chapter started their SIO committee about a year ago. Before this, the chapter tried tasking the work to the electoral committee, members on the executive committee, and the chapter co-chairs. All of these structures fell short. 

“Past relationships relied on more individuals than a collective group,” said Sarah C-R, who acts as CDSA’s South Side branch Socialist in Office representative and liaison to Ald. Sigcho-Lopez. “People were isolated in their communication, it was whatever that person was doing.”

With the formalized committee, clearer, collective channels of communication emerged. Sarah C-R meets with Sigcho-Lopez’s office every other week; the elected explains what’s going on in their ward, while the chapter liaison explains what’s going on in the chapter. The liaison is then tasked with reporting back to their branches. 

The full SIO committee convenes every other month and all the chapter’s elected representatives are invited to attend. “Some electeds tell us that we’re the organization that communicates the most of any organization that endorses them,” Sarah C-R said. 

The Looming Shadow of 1968

Rows of helmeted police advance on protesters.
Chicago police and protesters of the Democratic National Convention in Chicago’s Grant Park in 1968.

This municipal censure controversy occurred in anticipation of Democratic National Convention (DNC) and the likely conflict over the limits of free speech and protest it will spark. The DNC will take place in Chicago on August 19-22, and mainstream media has already begun comparing the 2024 Democratic Convention to the 1968 Democratic Convention. The 1968 convention saw protests against an unpopular war and an unpopular Democratic candidate, something the 2024 convention will likely repeat. 

To minimize disruption, the DNC is organizing protest zones far out of reach of the actual DNC location and activists are suing for their right to free assembly at the convention. “They’re trying to push people into Grant Park,” said Sarah C-R. Chicago’s lakefront Grant Park is six miles away from the United Center, which will host the convention.

Protesters are demanding the right to assemble within “sight and sound” of the convention.

“The progressive mayoral administration has denied their right to protest within sight and sound using the excuse that there aren’t public safety resources to facilitate a protest,” Sveta S. said. “It’s insidious, not an outright denial of free speech or protest, but making protests less inconvenient for the Democratic party.” 

This conflict over the right to protest directly further highlights the clear divide between DSA as a socialist organization and Mayor Johnson as a progressive politician. Johnson has deliberately distanced himself from DSA and socialism in general. “He never asked for DSA endorsement,” Sarah C-R said. “The chapter never considered it until some members brought a proposal. During the debate, people from [Johnson’s] campaign contacted people in DSA asking them not to pass it, as he is not a socialist. He never claimed to be a socialist nor a member.”

In contrast, Sigcho-Lopez’s speech at the Behind Enemy Lines rally, for which the failed censure attempt was levied, affirmed protesters’ right to assemble at the convention. He states, “We are going to call people to march on the DNC with or without permits. Because that’s what we need to do.”

CDSA is organizing in anticipation of the upcoming convention. At their March general meeting, the chapter passed a resolution to “Welcome the DNC.” This chartered the creation of a DNC Working Group, tasked with promoting the national “For Our Rights” platform, championing the demands of “Money For People, Not Wars,” Palestinian solidarity, a Green New Deal for public schools and the slogan “Workers Deserve More.” These demands will form the basis of a platform propagated through street canvassing and public-transit tabling. 

The chapter will join a broader coalition to march on the DNC and affirm the right to protest in sight and sound of the convention. Funds were allocated for legal observer and street medic training, empowering members to stay safe.

The chapter leadership also welcomes DSA members traveling to Chicago for the convention. Elena G. explained, “There will be socialist socials and solidarity housing. We know there’s going to be DSA members who want to take to the streets in protests.” 

The chapter anticipates the presence of elected officials such as Sigcho-Lopez at the protest, which might slow police repression but is not a guarantee. “The electeds plan on coming and attending and marching with us, and they’re able to reach their constituents and spread our message further.” Sarah C-R said. However, she was not confident this would protect protesters from police brutality because, she said, “I lived through 2020.”

With only four months until the convention , the Chicago chapter is busy preparing the socialist response to Biden’s second convention. They encourage chapters across the country to pass a resolution to protest the DNC, use the For Our Rights campaign platform to provide an alternative to the Democrats, build strong relationships with endorsed electeds through SIO structures, and use their constitutionally protected right to free speech and assembly by protesting the US war machine and the morally bankrupt Democratic party.

Sigcho-Lopez put it clearly in his floor speech. “I make no apologies for standing for First Amendment rights. I think some of my colleagues need to have, maybe, a lesson of what First Amendment rights mean.”