Balcer persuades old colleagues: Attacks on military should be hate crimes

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Retired alderman Jim Balcer (right) talks to his replacement, Ald. Patrick Daley Thompson (11th), after convincing a joint City Council committee to designate attacks on military personnel as “hate crimes.” Before the vote, Thompson welcomed Balcer back to the Council chambers: “I’d like to thank you for retiring.” | Fran Spielman/Sun-Times

Before a political retirement that paved the way for the next generation of Daleys, Jim Balcer was the City Council’s champion for veterans. As a Vietnam War vet and a proud Marine, he ended every speech on the Council floor with the words: “Semper fidelis,” always faithful.

On Tuesday, the 240th anniversary of his beloved Marine Corps, Balcer made a triumphant return to his old political stomping grounds to champion another issue important to vets just in time for Veteran’s Day.

At Balcer’s behest, the City Council’s Finance and Public Safety Committees approved an ordinance designating attacks against military personnel as “hate crimes.”

“Just when I thought I was out, they pulled me back in,” Balcer said, doing his best imitation of Michael Corleone in the movie, “The Godfather III.”

Balcer ticked off a long list of attacks against military personnel across the nation, including the one that left five people dead and two injured at a recruiting station and nearby U.S. Navy facility in Chattanooga, Tn.  But, the most recent violence Balcer could cite against Chicago recruiting stations and selective service offices  occurred in 1969 during the height of the Vietnam War.

And the most recent local hate crimes against military personnel the former alderman could recall took place in 1999. That’s when local bars refused to serve men and women in uniform and Balcer experienced the same thing after donning his old Marine uniform.

Still, Balcer argued that there’s a need for the local ordinance sponsored by Finance Committee Chairman Edward Burke (14th).

“You had four Marines and a Navy personnel killed in Tennessee because they’re in the military.  Someone has to do something. At least start it and do something. Make people aware of it,” Balcer said.

“If someone has this in the back of their head, they’ll think about not doing something against the military [in Chicago]. It is shameful when you wear the uniform of this country and you’re subject to having 500 people around you, having Molotov cocktails thrown at recruiting stations. Having your tires slashed. I’m not saying everyone is bad. But, there are groups out there that go after the military.”

Currently, Chicago’s hate crime ordinance covers crimes based on race, color, gender, religion, national origin, age, sexual orientation, mental or physical disability. The new language adds “active or prior military status” and raises the fines for crimes against military personnel—from $200-to-$500.

Burke noted that, since 2008, at least 35 service men and women have been killed and many of their colleagues have been injured simply for their association with the U.S. military. The attacks occurred in: Fort Bliss and Ford Hood, Texas; the U.S. Naval Station in Norfolk, Va.; the Washington (D.C.) Naval Yard; Arkansas; and New York’s Time Square, he said.

“That list of attacks is chilling and unacceptable. As community leaders and legislators, we must acknowledge our own duty to protect our troops … and utilize every power in our authority to do so,” Burke said.

The alderman said he was amazed to learn that 300 city employees are currently on military leave while serving in the armed forces.

“Military personnel — highly visible in both dress and demeanor — are particularly vulnerable to attack,” Burke said.

“When these or any other service men and women return home—whether on leave or as veterans, we must continue to recognize their service by ensuring their safety and security. Service members shoulder a heavy load in the protection of this country. This effort recognized our solemn responsibility to ensure their protections as well.”

Fifteen months ago, Balcer blamed the strain of vertigo and post-traumatic stress disorder for his decision not to seek re-election, categorically denying he was forced out to make way for Patrick Daley Thompson, nephew of former Mayor Richard M. Daley and grandson of former Mayor Richard J. Daley.

“No one said, ‘Jim, you’ve got to leave.’ Never. Warming the seat? The seat’s on fire. I’ve been there for 17 years,” Balcer, now 65, said then.

“I was not forced out under any circumstances. I could have run for re-election. I chose not to. … I have vertigo, which is very tough on me, and PTSD. This was a very hard decision for me to make, but my family and my health came first.”

Thompson stuck to the script, adding, “You don’t push a Marine out…. His decision was his and his family’s.”

On Tuesday, Thompson welcomed his predecessor back to the City Council chambers.

“I want to thank him for retiring,” Thompson said.

Balcer replied, “I left because of PTSD  and vertigo. It’s been tough on me. But, my pleasure.”

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