A banner celebrating Gay Pride Month for the past week in downtown Riverside caused a bit of a stir, prompting angry phone calls to village officials over the weekend and then calls and emails expressing support on June 22, the day it was taken down.
The rainbow banner, which had stood in Guthrie Park beginning June 15 came down on June 22, because the spot, which is typically used to advertise upcoming events, had been reserved earlier.
But it also appears the placement of the banner ran counter to the village’s rules for such displays, because the group responsible for the banner is politically partisan.
“In this case there was an oversight,” said Riverside Police Chief Thomas Weitzel, who since June 16 has been acting village manager in the absence of Village Manager Jessica Frances, who is on vacation.
“As far as how we are going to handle the group if they are politically aligned, we will not allow politically affiliated banners that are strictly put in public parks to promote a political agenda.”
The rainbow banner included the name of the organization responsible for it, Action for a Better Tomorrow. According to the organization’s website, it began as a Facebook group, but now has chapters in Chicago and the suburbs that host events, such as virtual town halls and meet-and-greets with political figures, such as Democratic candidates for governor Daniel Biss and Chris Kennedy.
Action for a Better Tomorrow also urges its members to take political action, such as writing letters to the editor to local newspapers to oppose the repeal and replacement of the Affordable Care Act, and providing members with talking points to use in the letters.
Other actions include asking members to write representatives in Congress to demand the resignation of U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions and to call for a comprehensive investigation into ties between President Donald Trump and Russia.
The organization’s West Suburban Chapter submitted an application to display the banner in early June. Just who filled out the application, which was obtained by the Landmark via a Freedom of Information request, is unclear, because the village redacted the person’s name and contact information.
Action for a Better Tomorrow, in an emailed response to the Landmark through a Riverside member of its West Suburban Chapter, said the banner “is a statement of inclusion, a reflection of Riverside’s character and values. The response to the banner from Riverside’s vibrant, welcoming community has been overwhelmingly positive, and we look forward to working with residents and other local groups to build upon our community’s commitment to equality for all.”
According to Weitzel, the village will “redo the [application] form to ensure that we are following all legal requirements and mandates.”
In addition, the village is changing the approval process for the banner applications. Weitzel said that right now, the banner applications get forwarded to the Public Works Department, where they get reviewed, though Weitzel did not indicate exactly who is responsible for that review. Public works employees hang the banners.
The village’s rules for banners call for them to be “limited to village civic organizations (e.g. Boys Scouts, Garden Club, governmental jurisdictions, church organizations and not-for-profit charitable organizations).”
“In this particular case, the banner was approved and the approval process took place at lower than at the department head level,” Weitzel said. “This is one area that we will change immediately. Going forward, a department head will review banner applications before they are approved.”
Weitzel said the village began receiving calls protesting the display of the rainbow banner almost immediately after it went up, and calls kept coming through the weekend.
“All of them, from the get-go were extremely angry and belligerent,” Weitzel said. “Everyone who called me was full of hate.”
Weitzel said the people who called claimed to be Riverside residents, but most blocked their numbers from appearing on Weitzel’s caller ID. One number that did come through, said Weitzel, had a 303 area code. Two callers Chicago, Weitzel said, phone one after another and appeared to be reading from a similar “script.”
“They didn’t hide their feelings, make no mistake,” Weitzel said. “But I’m not going to remove it based on threats and based on hate. I’m not going to do that.”
By June 21, when word of those calls began filtering out into the community, local social media posts encouraged people who supported the banner and its message to call the Riverside village offices. Between emails and phone calls, about a dozen people in support had contacted the village by 9 a.m. on June 22.
Some of the callers apparently believed the banner was taken down in response to the negative calls from prior days. However, the banner application obtained by the Landmark indicates that although Action for a Better Tomorrow requested that the banner remain up until June 30, that date was scratched out and changed to June 22, reportedly to accommodate a banner from Friends of the Fourth, which had submitted an earlier application.
This story has been updated to include a statement from Action for a Better Tomorrow.