Aldermen don’t have much on their docket these days–a proposed smoking ban, possible tax hikes to sort out for next year’s budget, a multibillion-dollar O’Hare expansion, questions about who and where federal corruption investigators might turn their attention to next. So last week the council skipped debate on city issues to tackle a pressing problem: the scourge of communism. The aldermen’s initial focus was on a resolution memorializing the 1945 Warsaw uprising against the Nazi occupation.
Ted Matlak, the 32nd Ward alderman, has a boyish face and a surfer’s laid-back demeanor, but no one should doubt the intensity of his loathing of Reds. One of the first to speak on the matter, Matlak reminded his colleagues that during World War II the Russians posed as grave a threat to the Poles as the Nazis did. “The Soviet army was within striking distance of Warsaw,” Matlak said, “and they purposely waited until the uprising had been wiped out before moving in so they could set up their communist satellite more easily.”
The anticommunist activity wasn’t limited to a few minutes of eloquence on the council floor. Matlak has been working behind the scenes on a second front, this one a resolution condemning the Chinese Communist Party. His proposed measure blasts the party’s anti-Americanism, its attempts to restrict access to the Internet, its restrictions on Christian worship, and its crackdown on the Falun Gong meditation movement, and it calls for support for people who leave the party. “All persons in the United States who uphold democracy and respect human rights should help in the fight to end communist totalitarianism,” it proclaims.
Three years ago Matlak helped push through a similar resolution condemning China’s repression of Falun Gong adherents. When members of Chicago’s Chinese community recently approached him and asked him to draft another one–this one demanding religious freedom for Protestant and Catholic Chinese as well–he agreed. “I thought, ‘Why not do another one?'” he says. “It’s a resolution. It’s not like we’re declaring war.”
But resolutions like this, though purely symbolic, can make local voters happy. In this case, word spread through the Chinese community that Matlak’s was going to be taken up by the Committee on Human Relations, which is charged with honing legislation on human rights and veterans’ issues before it goes before the full council. As it happened, the schedule for the committee meeting held just before the City Council meeting last week was chock-full of anticommunist measures. In addition to Matlak’s resolution, the committee was to take up a proposal sponsored by 11th Ward alderman James Balcer that would honor the flag of precommunist Vietnam as the “Freedom and Heritage Flag” of local Vietnamese-Americans.
Chinese and Vietnamese community leaders had rallied supporters for the measures, and the committee meeting room at City Hall was packed with a standing-room-only crowd when human relations chair Billy Ocasio, of the 26th Ward, walked in. Flanked by Balcer and Tenth Ward alderman John Pope–the only other of the 14 members of the committee to show up–Ocasio began by announcing that he had some bad news: the anti-Chinese Communist Party resolution would be tabled.
The faces before him remained expectant. No one moved or said a word.
The aldermen took up their next order of business, signing off on an appointee to a city advisory council on women’s issues. Ocasio looked down at his agenda, up at the patient crowd in front of him, and swallowed. “Again, item number two”–the anti-Chinese communist resolution–“is being held. I’m sorry for the delay.”
Some people smiled, others nodded.
“Um, can anyone here translate, please?” Ocasio asked.
After a moment Richard Yin, a sales and marketing director for the vehemently anticommunist Chinese-language publication the Epoch Times (profiled this week in Hot Type), jumped up to the front mike. As he passed on Ocasio’s remarks half the people in the room began making for the door, grumbling and shaking their heads.
Ocasio moved on. “OK, item number three.”
Balcer and a contingent of Vietnamese-Americans wanted the old republican flag–the symbol of precommunist, French- and American-supported Indochina–flying at the Chicago Vietnam Veterans Fountain at Wacker and Wabash by November 11, Veterans Day. This was a way to honor the memory of all who had fought in Vietnam, Balcer argued, and to lift up the lives of all the Vietnamese who had fled to Chicago during and after the war.
Ocasio pointed out that the resolution comes at a time when the U.S. has normalized relations with the Vietnamese government. “What’s your response for the U.S. Department of State, which basically says we shouldn’t do this right now?” he asked.
“I believe, Mr. Chairman, that the fact that other cities have done this”–most notably Boston and Saint Paul–“supersedes what the State Department says,” Balcer told him.
Several Vietnamese community leaders offered testimony, including a young woman from the Vietnamese Students Association who pressed the aldermen to “take a stand.” Pope took the opportunity to spread some praise around. “Alderman Balcer is at the forefront of patriotism in this city,” he said.
Balcer asked if anyone had any objections, and people in the audience began chanting “No!” But then Ocasio relayed more disappointing news.
“Well, let me just say we received a few calls this morning,” he said. “I as a chairman would like to endorse this, but there are a few concerns we have to work out with the law department.” He promised to return to the issue before the next council meeting, on November 1.
Balcer thanked him, and the crowd broke out in applause. On his way out, Balcer denied that he was on an anticommunism kick, but he conceded that “We don’t want someone from Vietnam coming here to tell us what flag to fly. We’d tell them to hit the road.”
Ocasio was cagey about the source of the calls urging him to hold the resolution. “It was one of the administrative offices,” he said. “And an alderman’s office said to look at the language.”
Later in the hallway Ocasio called the discussion about Vietnam and communism illuminating and exciting. “I can’t wait until this comes up again,” he said. He approached Balcer and confided, “If you need me to join with you on this, I will–I just couldn’t say it in there because I’m the chairman.”
“It’s a win-win situation,” Balcer said.
“I agree,” said Ocasio.
They shook hands on it.