Ald. Ray Lopez (15th) on Thursday accused President Donald Trump of emboldening vandals to set fire to a bust of Abraham Lincoln that has stood as a symbol of freedom in West Englewood for nearly a century.
Lopez said Trump’s widely condemned decision to twice blame “both sides” for the white nationalist rally that turned deadly in Virginia has emboldened haters.
“When you have a President who, from his point of moral authority as leader of the free world, condones the actions of white supremacists, neo-Nazis … when he refuses to refute what their actions are — you embolden people to continue,” Lopez said Thursday. “Now, you’re giving them a path to come out and be as anger-filled as they want to be.”
Lopez said he learned the Lincoln bust was spray-painted black two weeks ago, then vandalized again two days ago. In the second incident, the bust was “covered in tar, wrapped in roofing paper and set on fire,” the alderman said, noting that Chicago Police are investigating.
Lopez also has fired off an email to Cultural Affairs and Special Events Commissioner Mark Kelly requesting a copy of the city’s “public art program registry.”
The alderman wants to know how many other statues and paintings the city owns that may be vulnerable, either to defacement or as targets for removal because of their ties to Confederate figures.
And he wants to open a “public discussion on the fate” of those pieces “immediately and quickly” — before vigilantes take matters into their own hands.
“I understand the deep-seated anger induced by those reminders of slavery and oppression and want our city to be ahead of the curve in addressing that emotion,” Lopez wrote in his email.
He added: “I was hoping we could get ahead of the curve and not behind the racist eight-ball that’s fueling a lot of the anger and demonstrations that we’re seeing in other parts of the country.”
Kelly could not be reached for comment.
A West Englewood resident interviewed Thursday speculated that some burn damage to the Lincoln bust may have been caused by fireworks set off on July 4th.
“People were out partying on the 4th of July and lighting fireworks off of it,” said Christopher Jackson, 22, who lives two blocks from the statue and saw the revelers also light newspapers on fire on top of the statue.
“It’s f—– up, honestly,” said Jackson, who works as a cook at a downtown eatery and chatted while waiting for a bus steps from the statue.
“You’d think people would appreciate it,” he said. “Abraham Lincoln is Abraham Lincoln. He’s one of the people who helped us. He freed the slaves. That’s a big one.”
Jackson suspects the vandals didn’t know the weathered statue, its nose chipped off, actually depicted Lincoln. “I didn’t even know until just now,” he said, adding that the statue seemed like another aspect of a blighted community dotted with run-down buildings and boarded-up homes.
“It’s insulting to leave it just like this with nobody trying to fix it,” he said.
Lopez, however, said he has no doubt that the damage was deliberate and tied to the debate that has raged across the country.
“I believe that what happened to Abraham Lincoln wasn’t just a random act of violence. It’s wasn’t just [plastered] with graffiti or tipped over. This was an intentional act to try to destroy this statue,” Lopez said. “The fire was intense. The soot is baked onto it. There was some planning and some effort to try and destroy this bust, which has been in the community for almost 100 years now.”
Lopez said he has no idea who is responsible for the apparent act of vandalism. He only knows that the message is “very hurtful” in the predominantly African-American neighborhood of West Englewood, where the Lincoln bust is located.
“We know there have been issues in the past on the Southwest Side of Chicago, when you had the Nazi headquarters in Marquette Park, which is a stone’s throw away from where this bust is,” he said.
“I want to make sure we’re able to address this so we don’t have our own citizens taking to the streets trying to topple public art.”
According to City of Chicago Cultural Historian Tim Samuelson, the sculpture was placed on the site by Swedish immigrant Gustav Philip Bloomquist, who built and operated the “Lincoln Gas Station” at this corner starting in 1928. The name of the business derived from the fact that Wolcott Avenue was named Lincoln at the time.
Bloomquist placed the sculpture on the public parkway presumably to call attention to the gas station, but an identifying plaque with his name suggests that could also reflect an immigrant’s pride in his adopted home, Samuelson wrote. Bloomquist lived nearby with his family at 6618 S. Hermitage.
He said the sculpture is of concrete. The maker is unknown, but the sculpture is an adaptation derived from the famed Augustus Saint-Gaudens “Standing Lincoln” which is in Lincoln Park just north of the Chicago History Museum.
Over the years, the bust has been informally maintained by neighborhood residents, and has changed color several times with successive re-paintings, Samuelson wrote.