Fire Department investigates claim employee drove into crowd protesting Little Village power plant demolition

State Sen. Celina Villanueva (D-Chicago) called the behavior “aggressive” and said she will follow up with fire department officials.

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Protesters outside of the Crawford Power Plant in Little Village, Friday, June 5th, 2020.

Protesters outside of the Crawford Power Plant in Little Village on Friday.

James Foster/Sun-Times

The Chicago Fire Department is investigating a claim that a department employee drove a car toward a crowd of protesters who were blocking South Pulaski Road in Little Village last week.

Shortly before 7 a.m. Friday, activists protesting the demolition of the old Crawford power plant blocked traffic at South Pulaski and West 36th Street. A man, who appeared to be wearing a fire department emergency medical technician insignia on the shoulder of his shirt, inched close enough to the protesters that they swarmed around his vehicle.

State Sen. Celina Villanueva (D-Chicago) said she viewed video of the driver’s actions and called the behavior “aggressive.” She said she will follow up with department officials.

“We are aware of the incident and to ensure the department has the full scope of what exactly occurred, we have launched an internal investigation into the matter,” department spokesman Larry Langford said in a statement.

As the activists walked into the street from both sides of South Pulaski, at least two cars sneaked through before the protesters completely blocked the road, according to organizer Kimberly Wasserman, executive director of Little Village Environmental Justice Organization.

Another vehicle entered the intersection and slowly inched toward the crowd, Wasserman said. At that point, protesters swarmed around the vehicle, a gray Chevrolet SUV, chanting “shame on you.” A video taken by one activist and reviewed by the Sun-Times showed a man wearing a Chicago Fire Department EMT patch. The altercation lasted less than a minute.

Moments later, as traffic backed up, another man stepped out of a truck with the logo Sunbelt Rentals and entered into the intersection of Pulaski and 36th, confronting protesters, pushing a woman to the ground, striking another man and swearing and yelling at the crowd. The Chevrolet SUV turned on West 36th Street and drove off.

A spokesman for Sunbelt said the company was investigating. Both incidents shook the demonstrators, Wasserman said.

“This is how a civil servant is going to behave?” Wasserman said. “He, in fact, was putting people in danger.”

Villanueva said she rushed to the protest Friday after receiving texts from residents about the two incidents.

“We’re looking at both, talking with the fire department and Sunbelt because both need to be addressed,” Villanueva said in an interview.

After viewing what appeared to be a Chicago Fire Department employee in one video, she said the driver appeared to be “aggressive” as he approached the crowd.

“It’s completely, completely wrong. You’re in public service,” she said of the man. “That’s completely uncalled for. It’s inappropriate. That can’t be given a green light.”

“We need accountability here,” said Ald. Michael Rodriguez, whose 22nd Ward includes Little Village. Rodriguez said he spoke with fire department officials about the incident.

Laura Ramirez, a Little Village resident who was among the demonstrators blocking South Pulaski Friday, corroborated Wasserman’s account of the man driving the Chevy SUV.

“He pushed into the crowd,” Ramirez said. “People were almost on top of him.”

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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