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Video shows retired Chicago judge swinging at protester after Columbus statue defaced

The encounter, which took place Saturday in Little Italy, came during a heated argument about the Italian explorer and racism.

A retired Cook County judge took a swing at a protester Saturday during a confrontation steps from a statue of Christopher Columbus in Little Italy that hours earlier had been defaced with paint.

Robert Bertucci, who oversaw both criminal and civil cases during his career, is seen in a video talking with a young male protester at Arrigo Park, 801 S. Loomis, when the encounter became heated. Bertucci, identified by multiple sources who viewed the video, then took a swing, but didn’t land a punch.

Chicago police officers witnessed the entire encounter and immediately restrained Bertucci, but ultimately let him go, the video shows.

A Chicago Police Department spokesperson declined to comment on the video.

Bertucci is still a practicing attorney, according to his bio on the Serpico, Petrosino, DiPiero & O’Shea law firm’s website. Bertucci was a Cook County judge for 25 years before retiring in 2018, according to the site, which also lists Bertucci as a professional dispute mediator. He did not return messages seeking comment.

The protester who dodged the punch, who asked not to be named, said he was still unsure about pursuing criminal charges against Bertucci.

And though he’s been involved in activism for five years, he said the incident with Bertucci will only harden his resolve.

“Going forward, I definitely feel like this is going to be something that is going to push me to feel more…ready to fight this battle,” he said. “Sometimes it does feel hopeless but there’s been a lot of support that I’ve gotten, more than hate, and it’s clear to me [that] the people who got my back understand me.”

The incident happened Saturday, a day after a nearby Columbus statue had been splattered with balloons filled with blue and pink paint. The Chicago Park District said it had spent $4,500 to clean the statue.

Despite being defaced nearly every year, the damage done to the statue struck a particular nerve as heated debates swirled in the community over whether the monument should stay or go. The defacement spurred some Italian American residents to stand guard at the statue over the weekend, with many viewing it as an attack on their heritage.

About 15 demonstrators encountered the residents after they had finished a march through the neighborhood.

Tooka Zokaie, 26, an activist who filmed the encounter, said the young man in the video and Bertucci had been discussing “Columbus and the idea of institutional racism.” Zokaie, who started a petition to remove the statue, has lived in Little Italy for about a year.

Workers with We Save Art clean paint from a Christopher Columbus statue located in Arrigo Park at 801 S. Loomis St. on June 15, 2020.
Workers with We Save Art clean paint from a Christopher Columbus statue located in Arrigo Park at 801 S. Loomis St., Monday, June 15, 2020.
Tyler LaRiviere/Sun-Times

In the video, Bertucci can be seen calling the young male protester a “hypocrite,” although it’s unclear why. The protester then recounts to Bertucci the racism he suffered as a youth in suburban Mount Prospect, including having the N-word written on his school locker. Bertucci at one point calls what happened “horrible.”

The protester then can be seen coming closer to Bertucci, pointing at him and asking if anything like that had happened to him, the video shows. “All you are is bothered by hypocrisy,” he screams.

Bertucci, who had early told the protester not to spit on him, then steps toward him and swings.

“Don’t spit on me,” Bertucci appears to say in the video, after he was held back by police. “Don’t get close to me.”

Zokaie denied the young man intentionally spit on Bertucci.

“He just needed to make a reason fast, so he said he got spit on, or maybe he thought he got spit on, or how dare someone raise their voice to me,” said Zokaie, who works in public health disease prevention.

“I don’t think he even cared that he did it in front of cops,” she said.

She believes Bertucci should be held accountable.

“We just want there to be some sort of accountability, he should be cited or have it on his record in some way,” she said.

She believes if things were reversed and the young man had swung at the judge, he would have been arrested and charged.

Zokaie said Saturday’s protest had been peaceful until the encounter. The small group of protesters disbanded as counter protesters yelled at them and the atmosphere seemed to be getting more volatile, she said.

Another counter protester at the statue can be seen in a separate video telling protesters to go back to “section eight” housing, a reference to public housing, and to “go to f- - - - - - work, like everybody else does.”

Zokaie said that though she understands some Italian Americans see the statue as a source of pride, it makes a lot of people who see Columbus as a historical figure who ushered in genocide and slavery to North America feel unwelcome.

“This has nothing to do with anti-Italian sentiment,” she said, noting that a statue of many other Italians who’ve contributed to society in a variety of ways could replace the bust of Columbus.

Contributing: Manny Ramos