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Man attacks Little Village protesters as coal plant demolition resumes

The protesters are furious that the demolition continues after the botched implosion of a smokestack over Easter weekend.

The demolition of the old Crawford power plant in Little Village resumed early Friday morning as protesters chanted, blocked traffic on a busy section of South Pulaski Road and drew the wrath of a truck driver who stepped out of his vehicle and began attacking community organizers in the middle of the street.

The chaotic scene was calmed a short time later after Chicago police officers arrived to direct traffic and keep the more than two dozen protesters confined to the sidewalk across the street from the demolition site.

Organizers are furious that demolition continues after the botched implosion of an almost 400-foot smokestack that blanketed the community in a thick cloud of dust Easter weekend. They’ve asked Mayor Lori Lightfoot to stop the demolition during the COVID-19 pandemic, noting that the majority-Latino neighborhood has an inordinately high number of coronavirus cases and deaths, but the mayor has said the partially destroyed structure is unstable and must come down.

Demolition of the Crawford Power Plant in Little Village, Friday, June 5th, 2020.
Demolition of the Crawford Power Plant in Little Village, Friday, June 5th, 2020.
James Foster/For the Sun-Times

The coal plant is being torn down to make way for a distribution warehouse that will be leased to retailer Target. Community organizers, who fought years ago to shut down the coal power plant, complain that the new facility will inundate the community with hundreds of diesel-fueled trucks every day, polluting a community that already is among the worst in the state for poor air quality. They have called for the city to stop the development, led by Hilco Redevelopment Partners, but Lighftoot has said the project will go forward.

“We’re out here because we wanted to send a message to Hilco and the city of Chicago that we don’t think this is the appropriate time to continue to demolish the building, during a pandemic in the zip code with the highest number of people who tested positive for COVID-19,” said Kim Wasserman, executive director of Little Village Environmental Justice Organization.

The tensest moment Friday morning began just before 7 a.m. when a man driving a truck that carried the logo of Sunbelt Rentals stepped onto the street and began arguing with activists who had blocked traffic both directions during a busy time on South Pulaski Road at West 36th Street in front of the Crawford plant. The man was seen shouting in the face of a woman who was protesting with her young daughter before he shoved her to the ground in the middle of Pulaksi Road.

The man, who said he was trying to get to work, then raised his fists, kicked at and struck at least one protester with his hands before returning to his truck and turning on West 36th Street.

“We are investigating the situation,” said Sunbelt spokesman Bryan Gassler, who declined to comment further.

“He thinks he has the right to this street more than the people who live in the neighborhood,” said the woman, who declined to give her name.

Protesters outside of the Crawford Power Plant in Little Village, Friday, June 5th, 2020.
Protesters outside of the Crawford Power Plant in Little Village, Friday, June 5th, 2020.
James Foster/Sun-Times

Racial tensions have flared between Latinos and African Americans in Little Village this week. On Friday, the altercation was between a white truck driver and the mostly Latino protesters.

Much of the activists’ anger was directed at Hilco or Lightfoot, with one sign reading “Mayor Lightfoot’s lies are costing Little Village lives,” but some of the rhetoric blasted Target. “Don’t Target Us,” read one sign.

“We’re starting to call out Target,” said Wasserman, who vowed to keep organizing public pressure campaigns toward the retailer, Hilco and Lightfoot.

Protesters gathered at 6 a.m., about a half hour before demolition began. Unlike the Easter weekend debacle, the demolition appeared to be proceeding without any serious incidents.

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