On the night of April 11, neighbors noticed that a vandal had defaced the mural on the Circle Avenue bridge again, spray painting over a section that reads “No Human is Illegal” for the second time in three months.

This incident followed an act of hate in October 2018, when a black woman’s garage was scratched with Nazi symbols and the phrase “White Power.” 

“If you’re not part of a community that is typically considered a minority, you may not understand how hurtful this type of action is,” said Forest Park resident Betty Alzamora. “I’m hearing this as a woman of color, and this is a big deal.”

When the resident’s garage was defaced, a group of concerned citizens — and the nonprofit Suburban Unity Alliance — planted encouraging signs on her lawn.

The last time a vandal spray painted the mural along Circle Avenue bridge, which was painted by children, Alzamora said there was “a lot of outrage” on social media but a muted response from the village.

A resident filed a police report after that incident on Jan. 16. After about three weeks of waiting, residents painted over the mural themselves, brushing on a green background with prominent white letters spelling out the original message of “No Human Is Illegal.”

“While we don’t want to call out the incident itself — we don’t want to give oxygen to perpetrators seeking attention and trying to trigger a response — we are a welcoming village and, when things happen, we want to vigilant in trying to rectify it,” Alzamora said. “We want the community to come together. 

“We’re not saying anybody in the village is not empathetic, but a timely response and public acknowledgement is needed.”

This time, a vandal defaced again the message, using a darker paint and spraying the area more heavily. Alzamora filed a police report but also alerted Village Administrator Tim Gillian.

Just hours after notifying the village, public works officials painted over area with white paint, prepping it for resident Amy Binns-Calvey and her husband to repaint the welcoming sign that night.

Alzamora credits the village’s faster response time to a culture shift brought by new council members and Mayor-elect Rory Hoskins, who all will take office on May 13. Hoskins succeeds Mayor Anthony Calderone, who is retiring after 20 years of service.

“Pre-election, you told me I had to wait for a process. Now I think the election is over and there has been some change,” Alzamora said.

Gillian credited his and village staff’s faster response time to the fact that he had already been “working with concerned residents on the best way to deal with these issues,” after Alzamora connected with him about the last hate speech incident in late January.

This time, he added, he was informed immediately of the incident via email. Last time he said he found out about it on Facebook, although Police Chief Thomas Aftanas said the department notifies public works and Gillian about hate instances such as these.

“I am sure I can speak for the mayor and all commissioners when I say this act of graffiti is shameful and has no place in Forest Park,” Gillian said via email. “We are proud of the welcoming nature of our community and work consistently to uphold that image.”

Hoskins agreed with Gillian’s assessment, adding that he believed the discourse in the town is changing. He said he believed the community was also planning a public gathering to acknowledge the hate act.

“When one person is attacked, we all feel attacked,” he said, adding: “We’re a very engaged community these days. People want to be involved and one way people are involved is expression through art, and protecting that art, and participating in village, civic life. I think local government is reacting to people’s desire to be engaged.”

Binns-Calvey painted over the hate speech the night after residents spotted the vandalism. She said she believes the vandal’s actions echoed the rhetoric of President Donald Trump, which she said encourages majority communities to fear minorities and immigrants.

“It’s threatening a vulnerable population and it’s a clear message,” Binns-Calvey said. “When you say ‘No human is illegal’ that’s referring to people who are categorizing people as ‘other,’ and it’s a factual statement that a person cannot be illegal. A person’s status might be in question. So when you’re defacing that one block, you’re absolutely making a statement out of it.”

She said that last time, after a resident made a police report, the village “was just kind of silent, it was weird to me. I wanted some more of an acknowledgment that it was hate speech.”

She said she believes Forest Park police officers should notify village staff when hate speech incidents occur, and also categorize the acts differently than “criminal defacement of property,” which is how both incidents are charged on police reports.

“If they have a way to categorize it as a hate crime [they should because], it’s definitely more threatening than some kids tagging a wall. It’s something different, it’s a targeted message to a vulnerable population,” Binns-Calvey said. “I think that there needs to be a way for the village to respond and say it’s sad it’s occurring.”

She said that when incidents like this occur, residents should file a police report and notify the village’s Diversity Commission. Kate Webster, commission’s chair, said the group can help connect residents with the right person at village hall.

But she said that the long-term goal should be for the village council to create a formal, transparent policy for reporting and resolving public acts of hate. She called the village’s fast response this time “very reassuring.”

“It’s not random, because there are many other squares they could have spray painted, so it’s very clearly that it’s spray painting that section out and clearly directed towards that,” she said.

Webster added: “To someone who doesn’t understand why this is offensive, I would ask questions. See where they’re at on the national conversation, how knowledgeable they are, I don’t want to make an assumption. I’ll share why this is really problematic and derogatory for a large group of people. I would be very open, ask questions to see where they’re at. Share that when you call somebody an illegal, you’re erasing part of their identity and who they are.” 

CONTACT: ntepper@wjinc.com