Chicago Fire Department clears employee in Little Village protest probe

But a truck driver who attacked activists is no longer working for Sunbelt Rentals

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Chicago Fire Department investigators determined that an employee did not move aggressively with his car toward a crowd of protesters in Little Village earlier this month.

The department investigated a complaint that stemmed from a protest on South Pulaski Road at West 36th Street in front of the old Crawford power plant. Activists, protesting the demolition of the plant, complained that the driver, who appeared to be a fire department emergency medical technician, drove toward them as they blocked both directions of South Pulaski Road the morning of June 5. 

“Internal affairs has found the allegation not sustained,” said CFD spokesman Larry Langford. Drone video footage reviewed by department investigators showed the unnamed employee was trying to cross the blocked street but officials determined the man was not being aggressive, he said.

Community groups have protested the ongoing demolition since the botched Easter weekend implosion that left a wide swath of Little Village coated in dust. The morning of the June 5 protest, the fire department employee’s car was surrounded by protesters in the street who chanted “shame on you” for moving toward them. The entire episode was about a minute, however, as another man stepped out of his truck at the same intersection and attacked protesters. That altercation, caught on video, showed the man driving a truck with Sunbelt Rentals logo on it. 

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State Sen. Celina Villanueva, who represents the area, said that Sunbelt told her the man was no longer working for the company.

As for the fire department’s decision, Villanueva is furious.

“It was good to see that Sunbelt addressed the violent actions of that employee,” Villanueva said in a statement to the Chicago Sun-Times. “I am frustrated that the Chicago Fire Department refuses to do the same.”

Villanueva said she discussed the matter with fire department officials, and “it was clear that they believe their employee did not act aggressively … inching your car through a crowd of people is a direct threat to their lives. This employee needs to be held accountable, and their policies and procedures on de-escalation need to be reviewed and revised.”

Another politician expressed his dismay.

“I have concerns with the fire department and with the way the employee handled that situation,” said Ald. Mike Rodriguez, whose 22nd Ward includes Little Village. “He still needs to be held accountable for that. I want to make sure our fire department is well versed in de-escalation. Him inching forward was not de-escalation.” 

Kim Wasserman, executive director of Little Village Environmental Justice Organization, called the fire department’s ruling on the employee “ridiculous” and described his actions as “flagrant.”

Langford said the man, who was driving a private vehicle, was trying to cross the street.

“I do not see his movements as aggressive,” he said.

Those who witnessed the event said there was no dispute that the Sunbelt truck driver was aggressive. He pushed a woman down to the ground, hit a male protester with his fist and kicked at other activists while screaming at them. 

A spokesman for Sunbelt declined to comment on the employee.

Brett Chase’s reporting on the environment and public health is made possible by a grant from The Chicago Community Trust.

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