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Lightfoot defends using electronic billboards to display #SayHerName message honoring Breonna Taylor

Some aldermen criticized the mayor, saying the billboards are for public service announcement and safety alerts. “It’s a political statement,” said Ald. Anthony Napolitano (41st).

A digital billboard along the Dan Ryan Expressway with “#SayHerName” written on it in between ads near 51st and Wentworth, Thursday, Sept. 24, 2020.
Mayor Lori Lightfoot’s office came under fire for displaying a message honoring Breonna Taylor on 32 electronic billboards.
Tyler LaRiviere/Sun-Times

Mayor Lori Lightfoot was accused Friday of “hijacking” the city’s access to electronic billboards for public service announcements to make a political statement to remember Breonna Taylor.

Under fire from aldermen, the mayor’s office defended the decision to use 32 electronic billboards to display “#SayHerName” in between paid advertising. The messages started running Wednesday and will continue through Sunday.

“The city regularly uses our more than 30 electronic billboards for city initiatives, public service announcements, public safety alerts and other city messaging,” the statement said.

“This week, the city’s social media channels and electronic billboards are honoring the life of Breonna Taylor and countless other victims of systemic injustice with the display #SayHerName. During a time of healing for Chicago’s residents, we are not going to dignify comments calling this effort ‘political.’”

Ald. Anthony Napolitano (41st) said the billboard message had “nothing to do with a public service announcement. Zero. Zilch.”

“It’s not an Amber Alert or a city emergency. It’s a political statement,” said Napolitano, who has served the city as both a police officer and a firefighter.

“If you want to do it, use your campaign fund to put out a mailer to everybody. Don’t do it on a billboard. … It’s just feeding the fuel that’s going on across our nation right now. It’s blaming the police before there’s even a judge, jury and trial.”

A Kentucky grand jury on Wednesday indicted a single former police officer for shooting into neighboring apartments but did not move forward with charges against any officers for their role in Breonna Taylor’s death. Taylor, an emergency medical worker, was shot multiple times by officers who entered her home using a no-knock warrant during a narcotics investigation.

Ald. Nick Sposato (38th), whose Northwest Side ward is home to scores of Chicago police officers, accused Lightfoot of “fanning the flames” just days after holding a news conference with Gov. J.B. Pritzker and County Board President Toni Preckwinkle where officials, as Sposato put it, “blatantly lied” about the circumstances surrounding Taylor’s death.

“If it’s one [billboard], it’s one too many. I don’t think that we should be hijacking these billboards for a political message. Not only a political message, but the wrong message. A false message,” Sposato said.

“The whole ‘SayHerName’ narrative is about she was murdered. And I don’t feel, from the facts, that she was murdered. She was tragically killed. No ifs, ands or buts about it. It was a terrible thing. [But] she was not murdered. They didn’t go break the door down and start shooting up a couple Black kids that were laying in bed. … [Police officers] were fired upon. They returned fire. What are the police supposed to do — just let her boyfriend shoot and kill all of ’em?”

Ald. Tom Tunney (44th), Lightfoot’s handpicked chairman of the City Council’s Zoning Committee, said he’s “not offended” by the mayor’s “thought-provoking” message at this “unusual time.”

But, Tunney said, “It’s a gray area. … I’m not sure it crosses the line, but it gets pretty darn close.”

Fraternal Order of Police President John Catanzara has accused Lightfoot and Pritzker of spreading a false narrative about the police shooting of Breonna Taylor to drive up African American support for Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden.

On Friday, Catanzara called the mayor’s use of electronic billboards carrying the #SayHerName message more evidence of the same.

“It’s a personal service announcement. It’s not a public service announcement. It’s just a silly, pandering effort by the mayor yet again to try and get votes this election cycle for obviously Biden and [Cook County State’s Attorney Kim] Foxx. There’s no other way to slice it,” Catanzara said.

“She is an intelligent woman. Has to be, considering her career trajectory. How can she be that naïve to the facts that are in front of her face? She either is naïve, or she’s stupid — and I don’t think she’s stupid. Clearly, she’s just pandering. And shame on her. Like there’s nothing else to worry about in this city that’s going to hell in a hurry and going broke even faster than this nonsense.”

Ald. Ray Lopez (15th), Lightfoot’s most outspoken City Council critic, called the billboards a “slippery slope down a very dangerous path.”

“What if we had a Republican mayor put something like ‘Make America Great Again’ on electronic billboards? People would be furious,” Lopez said.

As for the mayor’s motives, Lopez said, “I don’t think it’s about the election as much as it is about the mayor trying to build a connection with a Black community that she has, so far, not been able to cultivate. It deflects from her inability to pass comprehensive police accountability and reform by doing these kinds of stunts.”

The 20-year electronic billboard deal with JCDecaux and its partner, Interstate Outdoor Advertising, was approved by the City Council in 2012 at the behest of then-Mayor Rahm Emanuel. It gave the city access to billboards for public service announcements.