Jim Zangrilli is in his element, on a roll, working the wires. “I’ve been kind of busy, calling the media up for Wednesday’s trial. You gonna be there? No? Oh, hey, you should be there, you shouldn’t miss it, it’s going to be the event of the year. Listen to this, get this: the police are calling the burglar onto the stand, he’s going to be Oak Park’s star witness. It was a plea-bargain deal–he got tried as a juvenile instead of an adult for the home invasion, got a six-month vacation at a juvenile farm, and now he’s coming back as a good citizen, to testify against Lamar Richardson–‘Yeah, I found the handgun that I used to fire at his son in his house.’ Obviously, the village of Oak Park thinks it’s more important to get a $50 fine from Lamar Richardson than to keep a home invader off the street. I’m going to try to tie it in with the Carl Rowan thing. Did you see where Jesse Jackson–Mr. Anti-Handgun–said the shooting was justified? He said, ‘Any of us would have done what he did.’ I’m thinking about having a T-shirt made up with a picture of a handgun and ‘Carl Rowan Fan Club–Go Ahead: Swim in My Pool.'”
James Francis Zangrilli, CPA, is the kind of guy who always looks like he’s wearing a three-piece suit and tie, even when he’s dressed in a T-shirt, in this case a Chicago Police Department model he picked up at Shore Gallery, a Lincolnwood gun shop. His brown hair cut military-short, his thin, sharp features partially obscured by large glasses with squarish frames, he somehow seems smaller than his five-foot-ten, 150-pound frame. He’s calm, quiet, reserved, almost melts into the background, that is, until The Subject comes up. The general heading is Handguns, with secondary listings under Oak Park and Racism. Then he explodes with jittery energy, flinging facts, opinions, quotes; citing names, dates, places; making headlines and making trouble for people on the other side of the issue.
In 1984 Oak Park instituted a ban on the private ownership of handguns. Zangrilli’s involvement in the issue grew from a desire to defend his own right to own a handgun, but has evolved into a broader defense of civil rights, specifically those of poor blacks who want to own guns as a matter of self-defense.
Quotable rhetoric spills from him readily, like water from a faucet. “I never realized what it was to have your civil rights taken away until I had mine taken away. I wasn’t involved in civil rights–I never gave that a thought. It never affected me. Until my civil rights were taken away, I never cared about anyone else’s. Now I go into the inner city, and I work with people there, because there’s a real need there.”
He has become one of Oak Park’s most public figures, a gadfly who tangles with village officials on a regular basis and forced a reluctant village board of trustees to admit that the village president violated the village’s ethics ordinance. He is a regular debater on the gun issue around the Chicago area. Of the 76 members of the National Rifle Association’s board of directors, he is the only one from Illinois. He has been an active member of the Congress on Racial Equality (CORE) since 1986, and of the NAACP since 1987; he helped found Oak Park’s chapter of the latter. His typewriter is rarely still; his unmellifluous voice is frequently heard on radio and television.
I first met Jim Zangrilli when we were both involved in the leadership of the Oak Park Freedom Committee, a citizens’ group formed in the winter of 1984 to oppose Oak Park’s handgun ban. We came to our commitment from entirely different angles: he was a conventional conservative; I was a libertarian/feminist. Jim Zangrilli hadn’t known many feminists or blacks, and our group had both. Zangrilli learned to deal with us, and became good friends with Isiah Stroud, the black chairman of the group. I dropped out of active involvement after a few months, but Zangrilli stayed with it. Today, he and Stroud are among the few remaining people in Oak Park still actively working for the right to own a handgun. He is becoming a spokesman for gun owners” rights throughout the metropolitan area. And, increasingly, he is involved specifically with poor gun-owning blacks who find themselves in trouble with the law.
Jim Zangrilli was born 39 years ago at Oak Park Hospital and raised in a neat four-flat a few blocks to the southeast, which his parents bought more than 40 years ago. He has lived in the same building all his life, today, he and his Filipino-born wife Belen and their three children–Joey, 12, Margie, 8, and Jimmy, 4–live in an apartment created out of the two top-floor flats; they rent from his mother, now widowed, who lives downstairs.
Jim is the middle child of three: his older brother, Tom, is a former Marine who served three tours in Vietnam, returned to become involved with Vietnam Veterans Against the War, and today owns a liquor store in Berwyn; his younger sister, Joanne, is married and lives across the alley. Jim Zangrilli attended Roman Catholic schools throughout his education: elementary school at nearby Ascension, where his children are enrolled now, high school at Saint Ignatius, a bachelor’s degree in accounting from Loyola University, and a master’s degree in taxation from DePaul. Belen was a fellow student at Loyola.
“I was a real, full-fledged couch potato,” says Zangrilli of his life before the handgun issue hit Oak Park. “I was the Republican precinct captain–that’s not a highly sought-after job–but I didn’t ring doorbells. If there was a candidate I liked, I delivered literature for him. I ran as a delegate in [Congressman] Phil Crane’s presidential campaign in 1980, and I lost. I got maybe 5,000 votes in the whole district.” He laughs. “I picked up a lot of Italian votes.”
“For a long time there, I thought I was the only active person in me family,” says his mother, the former Margaret Mary Montague (“100 percent Irish,” says her son), an organizer by nature who was active in her children’s schools and Neighborhood Watch, a community crime-fighting group; untiil recently, she was the Zangrilli most likely to turn up in the local papers.
“My children weren’t active–Jim wasn’t active until they passed this stupid gun thing. He was always a good student–he graduated magna-cum laude, at the head of his class–and he would sit and study. All my kids were pretty sharp, but he was the one who worked at it. He never did go through a liberal phase.”
She’s not sure how an ethnic Roman Catholic family became conservative Republicans. “We just had a kind of a different ethic. We always have been kind of conservative people. We worked our way up. Jim’s grandfather came from Italy, and worked his way up. My husband started out as a pinsetter, a pin boy; he worked for a newspaper in the circulation department. He worked hard and he became a stockbroker.
“We’re kind of the old-fashioned family, I guess.”
The paneled walls of the kitchen are covered with framed 8-by-10 and 11-by-14 color photographs: Jim, and sometimes Belen, with Jack Kemp, with Ronald Reagan, with Oprah Winfrey, with Harold Washington, with Bob Dole, with Pat Robertson, with George Bush, with Jeanne Kirkpatrick, with Alexander Haig. Belen’s head stops several inches short of Jim Thompson’s shoulder in a picture of just the two of them, smiling in unison for the camera. Also on the kitchen wall are several awards including the Silver Star Award from the American Federation of Police. The house is strewn with stickers for gun groups and causes and with prole caps, legacies of a score of NRA fund-raising drives.
Zangrilli’s basement office–it was once his grandmother’s studio apartment, and the kitchen has a refrigerator stocked with endless cans of Diet Coke, a substance he slugs down nonstop–is strewn with newspapers, letters, and other photos of Zangrilli with celebrities, including Natan Sharansky and Caroline Kennedy–she met with Zangrilli while doing research on the Constitution. There are also repeats of some of the mostly Republican galaxy upstairs. There’s an Ollie North poster on the wall. It’s hard to find an uncluttered space. “I read 45 newspapers a week, scouring for people who have been unjustly treated for defending themselves,” he says, displaying a thick file of clippings for January and February of this year. He reads, by his own calculation, every issue of the Tribune and the Sun-Times, the Southtown Economist, the Herald, papers from Evanston, Morton Grove, Highland Park, two Oak Park papers, Police Magazine, Gun Week, Shotgun News, Point Blank, NRA Action, and the American Rifleman and American Hunter (both published by the National Rifle Association). He writes letters to the editor on a regular basis. “I used to waste my time and write letters to the Wall Street Journal. Now I just write to the local papers. The Sun-Times prints the overwhelming majority. The Tribune prints the overwhelming minority.”
The village board of trustees passed the handgun ban in 1984, rejecting calls for a referendum. When a new administration held a referendum in 1985, Oak Park voters elected to retain the handgun ban. Most of the leadership of the Oak Park Freedom Committee quickly faded into the woodwork. When Don Bennett, a local gas station owner (not an Oak Park resident), was charged with violating the handgun ban, Zangrilli, who was not among the showboats of the OPFC, but worked quietly and effectively as a fund-raiser, stepped forward. The two men had met only once before. Zangrilli called Bennett to arrange his defense, and turned the case into a cause celebre that made headlines across the country.
Bennett had raised the ire of local officials several years before, when, after seven armed robberies at his gas station at Harrison and Austin Boulevard–the dividing line between affluent Oak Park and the impoverished, black Austin neighborhood–he manned the gas pumps wearing a sidearm. Bennett was arrested in March 1986 for firing at a pair of armed robbers with a handgun he had hidden in his truck.
“After I got arrested, I didn’t know what to do,” says Bennett, who has since sold his gas station and filed suit against the village of Oak Park for their alleged harassment of him. “I owed a lot of money out. I didn’t know who to get for an attorney; I thought maybe I’d have to get a defender from the state. Then Jim came walking through the door–it was like somebody sent him to me. He started the defense fund; I went different places and made speeches, and every time I went someplace, Jim came along and collected money for the fund.
“For never knowing a person, he’s the best friend I ever had. I feel like I owe this man so much. I could never repay him.”
Don Bennett went to trial for possession of a handgun and discharging it within village limits. He was acquitted by a jury on October 21, 1986, two years to the day after the handgun ban went into effect; with Zangrilli’s stage managing he became a national figure. He appeared on Nightline along with Oak Park’s village president, Clifford T. Osborn. “We got his picture in 150 newspapers across the country when he got the Golden Eagle award” from the American Federation of Police, notes Zangrilli. “I’ve been trying to talk Don into moving in here and running for village president,” he jests. “That would get national coverage!” Bennett is now working with an electrical contractor when he works; he says his lawsuit was his own idea, but was encouraged by Zangrilli. “I’d like to win the suit, just to prove my point,” says Bennett.
Next Zangrilli and the Don Bennett Defense Fund came to the aid of Lamar Richardson, a black Oak Park home owner who was charged with violating the handgun ban when a burglar used Richardson’s weapon to fire at Richardson’s son. A short time earlier, similar charges were raised against Dan Perry, a white home owner who admitted to shooting at a home invader; the charges against Perry were dropped. Zangrilli stepped forward. “I met him a year ago,” after the incident, says Richardson. “He has comforted me as I have experienced a very trying situation. He’s intelligent, knowledgeable, assertive; he believes in a cause, and he’s willing to fight for it and even give out-of-pocket money. I believe Jim can do whatever he wants to do–he’s determined and capable. He’s very diligent about details. He makes the necessary phone calls and goes out of his way to stay on top of the lawyers, in case they drop the ball. My God, he’s a determined man–I’ve never seen anybody as determined as Jim in fighting for something he believes in.
“I believe that if it had not been for Jim Zangrilli, I would have been railroaded into pleading guilty to something I still don’t feel I was guilty of.”
Lamar Richardson’s case, like that of Don Bennett, has proven an embarrassment to the village of Oak Park, which, in hopes of avoiding a second jury trial and another possible acquittal, downgraded the possible punishment for possession of a handgun from a jail term to a fine. His trial, which was scheduled for June 22, has been postponed until August. The last-minute change disgusted Jim Zangrilli, who had already marshaled the news media.
Zangrilli’s involvement then moved beyond Oak Park to Chicago, where several years ago a freeze on handgun ownership was instituted. Paul Bunyan Smith had a shop at 69th and Winchester. Zangrilli explains, “When a stoned robber came in and shot his cashier, and shot at Smith’s daughter, Smith shot and killed the guy. He got his gun after the freeze, so it was unregistered. He’s a poor black, so the police went after him. Same thing with Robert Holloway, a 72-year-old CHA apartment dweller who shot and killed a drug-addicted home invader with an unregistered gun. But when Peter Schivarelli . . . who used to be snow chief for Bilandic, a guy who owns a 22-room mansion on the north side, shot a burglar with an unregistered handgun, the police decided not to charge him. I could give you dozens of other examples where blacks are charged and whites aren’t.
“The fact of the matter is, for every white person charged [with gun violations], some multiple of blacks and Hispanics is charged.”
Jim Zangrilli and the Don Bennett Defense Fund turned up in both the Smith and Holloway cases. “We got a lawyer and went to court with Smith, and the police dropped the charges. With Holloway, they refused to drop them. Roy Innes [of CORE] spoke out on the case; it’s still being dragged through the courts. [Robert Holloway’s] story is the real world. When I talk to people in Lake Forest and Wilmette and TV commentators who say, ‘I can’t understand why anybody would ever want a handgun,’ I tell them they should go and ask Paul Smith and Robert Holloway why anybody would ever want a handgun.”
“I had a conservative bent all my life, but my parents never owned a gun. When I graduated from college, a guy I worked with was interested, and I went shooting with him. That was when I was 21. I liked it, so he sold me a handgun. It was a Smith & Wesson .38 special with a six-inch barrel, blued. I bought a .22 target pistol when I saw the difference in the price of ammunition. A neighbor of mine was big into shooting handguns, and we went shooting twice a week between 1970 and 1975; we bought reloading equipment [to save on the cost of ammunition] together. Then we were blessed with a child, in December of ’75, and all of a sudden I didn’t have the spare time I used to have. I haven’t fired a gun in at least ten years, it’s safe to say. I’ve been meaning to take Joey out shooting with a .22 rifle. I’d like to, but I just don’t have the time.”
In 1981, when the north suburb of Morton Grove passed its handgun ban, “I didn’t get involved, because I didn’t live there. My attitude was, ‘I’ll never let that happen here.’ Now I’m actively trying to stop a handgun ban in Highland Park.”
The catalyst for Oak Park’s handgun ban was the 1983 death of Oak Park attorney James Piszczor; Piszczor and presiding divorce court judge Henry Gentile were shot in a Chicago courtroom by disabled Chicago cop Hutchie Moore with his service revolver. “Jim [Piszczor] and I were friends,” says Zangrilli, who worked with Piszczor on a local issue: “Suburban Bank bought three houses at the end of the block, and needed a zoning change to build a drive-in banking facility. This is in 1981, ’82. My mother was active in getting the neighbors together, people who had children and thought it would bring too much traffic up and down the side street. We had meetings in our basement. Jim Piszczor voluntarily served as our attorney. We lost, but after that we used to sit together on the el, we talked. You never saw the guy with out his briefcase and suit unless he had one of his kids up on his shoulder. He was a very nice guy.”
Zangrilli notes that he would like it made clear that he did not fight the ban, nor does he seek its repeal, “so that I can keep my guns. I am completely legal. I’m not doing this for me,” punctuating his words with a stabbing forefinger. Ironically, what most Oak Parkers don’t realize is that thanks to an almost entirely unpublicized component of Oak Park’s antihandgun ordinance, anyone willing to sign up with the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms as a collector and plunk down $30 for a Federal Firearms Owner’s License can legally collect and hold virtually any kind of weapon she or he pleases for the next three years. This might be construed as benefiting the well endowed in terms of money and information (and, indeed, after the provision was inserted into the proposed ordinance, one of the Freedom Committee’s wealthiest and most generous members abruptly dropped from view, presumably because he would no longer be personally affected by the law). Jim Zangrilli’s license expires January 1, 1991, and describes him as “Type 03, Collector of Curios & Relics.”
Zangrilli was one of the organizing members of the Oak Park Freedom Committee and became treasurer by virtue of being a CPA. “During the campaign I kept a low profile,” he recalls, although he was occasionally given to such theatrical gestures as speaking to the village board with a briefcase stuffed with petitions handcuffed to his wrist; he also wore a bulletproof vest to those meetings, meetings the local SWAT team was ordered to attend. “After we lost the referendum, everyone else dropped away.” Zangrilli became the de facto spokesman for the progun position in Oak Park, and he no longer waited for the news media to come to him-he went to the news media.
When Jim Zangrilli summons the press, they listen. He has an enviable record when it comes to getting coverage, whether for Don Bennett’s getting an award from a police organization or for his own complaints about the village president’s ethics.
“I never sought media attention–I sought media attention to the issue. The more chance we get to tell our point of view, the more chance we have to win converts. After I did the Merri Dee show, which is a black TV show, where the hostess was antigun, a black clerk in a store came up to me, and told me she saw it and listened. She told me, ‘I have changed my position 180 degrees. I was always terrified of guns, and I thought there was no reason they should be in the United States. You changed my mind.’ That means a lot to me.
Does Zangrilli manipulate the news media to publicize his cause? He denies it. “The Chicago media is there for good stories. If it’s a good, legitimate story they’ll be there and give both sides. I call them in advance, and I give them the names and phone numbers of the opposite side. I’ve been totally up-front and honest with them.”
“I am amazed by his ability to manipulate the media,” says Dan Haley, “especially the downtown television stations, and get them to turn out for any event or pseudo-event.” Haley is the editor of Oak Park’s Wednesday journal, one of two local weeklies, and one that does not give Zangrilli a great deal of coverage. “I thought by now they would be wise to him and the spin he puts on things. I think Jim Zangrilli is one of the most destructive and dangerous forces to come out of Oak Park in many years. He has a very specific agenda or goal: he will latch on to most any event or potential controversy and try to work it in to his own cause–guns and handguns and putting Oak Park into a bad light.”
Haley attributes the media’s willingness to cover Zangrilli’s events to “an anti-Oak Park backlash. Oak Park walked on water for the last 15 years, with integration and all the other things we patted ourselves on the back for. Now they’re ready to come out for anything that will put Oak Park in a bad light; the [village] government hasn’t helped in the last year or so.”
“I think he knows what piques the media’s interest,” says Tribune reporter Andy Fegelman, who covers Oak Park. “He seems to sort of find the unique element. It’s not hard to pull the media out with something like a controversy like handgun control; the issue itself lends itself to interest, and he comes up with different angles.
“It’s not always Jim Zangrilli; it’s the situation itself. He just makes sure it’s publicized. Obviously, it’s a good story when a community is banning handguns, an individual uses one in self-defense and is arrested for it. He’s grabbing after legitimate things–with the ethics ordinance, he found something there–that no one else in the community is going to go after.”
A black news media source who has dealt with him frequently but declined to be quoted by name bristled at the suggestion of being used: “He has always seemed to be a very honest person to me.”
“I guess I’m his board of directors,” says Isiah Stroud, a slender black accountant who wears his hair in a sort of flat-topped pompadour. Stroud, known to his friends as Ike, was chairman of the Oak Park Freedom Committee and a founder of Oak Park’s chapter of the NAACP. “He passes things by me. He came along one night with this design for a Don Bennett T-shirt: here’s Don Bennett, holding a couple of guns, and a bandolier across his chest, and it says ‘Don Bennett–he fights for your gun rights.'” He laughs. “I say, ‘Jim, don’t you think this is a little extreme?’ and Jim says ‘Whaddya mean?’ ‘He looks like a terrorist!’ I tell him. And Jim says, ‘This is what people want.’ I tell him I think it’s too much. So he comes back with the T-shirts, and he’s taken off the bandolier. That’s all.
“In the case of Robert Holloway [the 72-year-old CHA resident], Jim went to a high-crime neighborhood and tracked this guy down by himself [after reading about him in the paper]. On other occasions, he went to places in the city where you really don’t want to be, especially if you’re white, tracking down the victims of crime. As far as I’m concerned, his efforts should be commended.”
Does Zangrilli manipulate the press? “He used to have such a rapport with the press,” Stroud responds. “Now, he is the press. He walks around with a receiver all the time and calls people with items he thinks are newsworthy. There was a shooting a while ago [in Oak Park], and Jim got there 20 minutes, a half hour after it happened. He monitors the police band, and he gets the news out.
“You have to separate his ideas from his commitment to being involved. Jim is not an orchestrator–when something happens, he jumps in if it’s something he believes in . . . Jim has kind of followed the chain of events, and followed them undyingly.
“Jim is one of the closest friends in my life. He’s very dear to me. He raised nearly every penny [the Freedom Committee] raised. During the peak, his wife was fighting for her life with a tumor on her brain; Jim made the decision to send her to the Mayo Clinic. He called me from the hospital right after the laser surgery–‘How’s the campaign?’ The man never gives up. He never gives up–never gives up.”
State representative Anthony Young has known Zangrilli for three and a half years. “I came under attack when I was new in office, in 1985, for voting against handgun bans,” says Young, whose district encompasses a corner of Oak Park and much of Chicago’s crime-ridden west side. “I was attacked in the local papers, and Jim Zangrilli sought me out to offer his support and assistance. He has kept me abreast of civil rights issues dealing with crime issues. It’s a first, basic right–I believe citizens have the right to self-defense, especially here on the west side [where police protection is not always the best]. Jim Zangrilli has been very diligent; he has a wealth of information in terms of this one issue–he probably knows as much about it as anybody else in the state of Illinois.
“I think the Carl Rowan situation is typical of those who are out front promoting a ban on handguns. [Rowan is the liberal syndicated columnist who recently shot an intruder at his home.] Without naming any names, a large number of my colleagues vote for handgun bans because they don’t want the political flak, even though they don’t think it’s the best thing. Some of them have told me, “Well, I’m not giving up mine!” but they don’t want the political heat.
“There are always loopholes to protect a certain class of people.”
Is Jim Zangrilli genuinely devoted to civil rights, or is he using blacks as a way to get attention for his stance on guns? “The idea of Jim Zangrilli as a civil rights leader is one of the more ludicrous I’ve ever come across,” says Wednesday Journal’s Haley. “He’s off the deep end. I don’t mean he’s nuts, I mean he’s lost his perspective. He will now try to use any situation to achieve his end. If he can use [blacks], he’ll do it. It’s like he has no shame in terms of what forces he’ll pull together to achieve his end.”
“It’s not like he’s out there fighting for fair housing or anything,” says another reporter who deals with him regularly and declines to be named. Isiah Stroud says, “I think he should take ahold of other issues, and broaden his interest, but I feel Jim has a deep commitment, he has a deep regard for civil rights. Morally, he feels very strongly about using his talents to see that minorities’ concerns are addressed. Even though he’s focused on the gun issue, it’s deeper rooted.
“Jim brought it to my attention that gun bans were being used against blacks before World War I, even. He’s involved with victims. I can believe his swing toward civil rights, because Jim has been very strongly anticrime from the beginning. He looked at the victims; they’re primarily poor and economically oppressed. There are more strict gun laws in the larger cities, where there are the biggest concentrations of blacks, and it’s not a coincidence.”
“I don’t think he sees any color,” says Lamar Richardson. “He gave me the identical support he gave Don Bennett. I don’t think Bennett got one ounce more of Jim Zangrilli’s care and concern.”
“It’s been called to my attention many times that many whites who champion civil rights put labels on [issues for their own purposes],” says the nameless black news media source. “But I don’t think he’s trying to exploit it.”
“Mr. Zangrilli’s motives have never really mattered to me,” says state representative Anthony Young, coldly. “He brings me information and facts. I’ve been told he only cares about gun issues. Well, I care about civil rights, and the facts he brings me are true. [Questions about his motives] shouldn’t cloud the issue that these laws are discriminatorily enforced.”
When Zangrilli gets away from the gun issue, he does sometimes step out of line. The First Church of Christ Scientist in Oak Park recently turned down a promissory-note-laden offer for their building from a black church in Austin in favor of an all-cash bid from a white buyer who plans to turn the structure into a cultural center; Zangrilli called the church members racist. Zangrilli himself dismisses suggestions that he should become involved in other civil rights issues, such as fair housing. “There are all kinds of agencies and people, money and grants for people working in a bunch of other [civil rights] areas, but almost nobody working for the most basic civil right: to self-defense in your own home or business. If I had the time, I would love to work on getting more police protection, ambulance service, things like that, to the inner city. That’s another subject you never hear anybody hit on. It’s the easiest thing in the world to go join in with 10,000 other people to work on fair housing, when almost nobody is working for the most basic: life, liberty, happiness–you can’t have any of those three if you can’t defend life.”
Merri Dee is the hostess of a talk show on WGN TV called Heart of Chicago, which airs at 6:30 AM Saturdays. She is also the victim of handgun crime. Abducted at gunpoint from her studio, with a guest who was then murdered, the handsome, vivacious black woman was shot twice in the head and left for dead. She has multiple physical problems stemming from the tragedy that will plague her for the rest of her life, though they’re not visible to TV viewers. “I’m still feisty!” she notes with a laugh. Dee subsequently became a worker and speaker for victims’ rights and was instrumental in getting a bill for those rights through Springfield. (“That was one of the proudest days of my life, when that passed,” she says.) She had become more accustomed to taking an advocacy role than being the moderator when it came to the gun issue. She did not enjoy having Jim Zangrilli appear on Heart of Chicago.
“It was a very hard show for me to do,” she says. “I would have preferred not to do it, but that was not my choice.”
When Zangrilli talked about blacks needing handguns for self-defense, she says, “I did something I shouldn’t have done as the host. I snapped back at him a little bit. I told him, ‘If you’re so interested in blacks, I’ve got a lot of them that can use your help.’
“I didn’t believe him [about civil rights]. Anyone can come and tell me, ‘I’m so interested in black folks.’ I questioned his sincerity. I question anybody’s sincerity who hasn’t been around for me. I’m cautious about anybody who’s suddenly gung ho but wasn’t there before.”
She has her own theory about Jim Zangrilli’s interest in blacks. “I think he’s into finding another platform to make [himself] and the NRA look good. When we were off camera, I said to him, ‘So, you’re moving ahead in the organization, eh?’ He looked at me funny and said, ‘Why would you say a thing like that?’ Well, he has to have something in his mind. It’s easy to use poor folks.”
“A white liberal woman called me during the gun campaign here in Oak Park, didn’t give her name,” says Jim Zangrilli, taking a swig of Diet Coke. He’s sitting in front of the air conditioner at his kitchen table on a sultry June evening. “She told me, ‘We know that black people are not responsible to own guns. We love black people, and we love children, and we wouldn’t give either one guns.’ White liberals say they’re against cheap handguns; they want to keep them out of the wrong hands, and make it so that only wealthy people can have them, black or white. Their concern is for urban areas–their concern is racist and elitist.”
Mark Karlin was Jim Zangrilli’s sparring partner on Heart of Chicago, and on a Roy Leonard Show “that was supposed to be an hour program, but ended up being two and a half hours.” A resident of Wilmette, he is on the board of the Illinois Council Against Handgun Violence.
“I think he’s a very articulate spokesperson for the National Rifle Association,” Karlin says of Zangrilli. “He talks the NRA line and agrees with what they support.
“Debates about handguns can be at such a high emotional pitch; there’s a lot of emotional investment in the handgun debate. Jim is invested in an emotional position–very clearly so. But Jim is a person who doesn’t necessarily carry his fervor about guns over to when the debate is concluded; I felt I could talk with him comfortably after the debate was over. That’s not always the case; there have been times when I felt a lot of hostility, when I felt actually threatened. There were fireworks during Roy Leonard, but I felt no residual hostility when the debate was over.
“He’s irresponsible when he says that handgun control is a way wealthy white people hold down black people. He’s trying to imply that this is a class issue. . . . I think it’s a threat to the public welfare when someone starts making statements like that. I don’t think uniting people on a basis of fear is any way to conduct a public policy campaign.
“Jim fundamentally believes the NRA line that a gun is just an inanimate object–neither good nor bad. He has a military attitude to what is really a political social issue.
“Sometimes with a debate there’s more fire than light. Jim will have an answer, even if it’s not always to the question at hand.”
Roy Innes is the national chairman of CORE, the Congress on Racial Equality. Jim Zangrilli is, he says, one of CORE’s most valued members.
“This guy is an asset,” he says. “This guy is one of the most valuable assistants and counselors I have. The guy is a dynamo. He does a very good research job. The guy pays his dues and has guts. He spends his own money and gives up his own time. You give me a hundred Jim Zangrillis across the country, and I’ll solve the racial problem this year, I’ll solve it in 1988.”
Asked if Zangrilli is using civil rights for his own purposes, Innes roars. “That’s ridiculous, I know this man, he’s traveled with me on assignments. It bothers me how the Jim Zangrillis of this world are questioned and have to document themselves, and the bums of this world don’t have to, when they’re profiting off the movement. There are too many movement bums in this country, especially in Chicago, if you get my drift. Jim Zangrilli has done as much [for civil rights] as any black in Chicago.”
Innes also maintains that Zangrilli’s commitment to civil rights extends beyond guns. “He worked with me very effectively in Washington, D.C., on a First Amendment conference that had nothing to do with guns. The guy is a good CORE man–he’s one of the most effective colleagues I have in the movement.”
“Give me one reason, other than elitism and racism, that Sara Brady [the wife of Reagan’s former press secretary James Brady] and the other anti-gunners go against cheap handguns,” says Zangrilli. “A criminal, like any other professional, buys the best equipment he can get. Cheap handguns are for poor people’s self-defense.”
Belen Rimando Zangrilli looks younger than her 40 years. Her family came here from the Philippines in 1962. Lately, her husband spends most of his holiday time at other men’s court dates, and for the last two years, since Jim was elected to the board of directors of the NRA, the family vacation has been a trip to the NRA’s annual convention. She says it’s fine with her.
“At first I didn’t really mind; it was his first involvement with politics, and I thought, ‘It’s something to keep him busy.'” When the campaign got rancorous, “I admired him for his beliefs, his principles. When I had a brain infection, during the campaign, he was flying back and forth to Rochester [Minnesota], his job, the kids. I encouraged him to stay with it; I felt they needed him. Where I came from, when Marcos came, they confiscated the guns, and only the rich were able to keep theirs. I felt he was fighting for a good cause.”
Despite some early sniping from neighbors active on the antigun side, she says she’s still friendly with them. “Our kids are having a harder time.”
She seems unperturbed by the neverending campaign. “After four and a half years, I know he really believes in what he’s doing. He will fight for it, no matter what. He works to one, two in the morning to do it.” Isn’t the time commitment hard on her? “We have time together–once a week, no matter what, we go out, every Friday night; we make a date. He makes time with the kids–he comes up and puts them to bed, and reads to them.”
When does Zangrilli get time for himself? “I don’t have any other hobbies,” he replies. “I don’t have the time or desire to own a house, own a boat, belong to a country club, any of that stuff. This is my thing.”
“He has it in for people who don’t do what he wants them to do,” says Eric Linden, news editor of Wednesday Journal. “He has no patience for people who disagree with him. I don’t think he has it in for Oak Park, but he wants to repeal the gun ban, and he won’t stop at anything. That includes very personal attacks.” Zangrilli has been known to particularly go for village trustees who tangle with him, often during the public comment period at board meetings.
“I called [trustee] Patty Andrews’s husband, who is a police officer, her ‘personal Gestapo agent,'” Zangrilli recalls.
“I have no wish to comment on Mr. Zangrilli,” says Andrews.
When police answered the call that led to the arrest of Lamar Richardson on gun charges, trustee William Staszak was along for the ride, entered the house, and handled things there, say Zangrilli and Richardson. “He was in my house; he violated my privacy,” says Richardson. “I called him ‘Jimmy the Greek Staszak’ after he said there were too many black faces in Oak Park,” says Zangrilli. “He threatened to sue me for libel, but he said he didn’t want to put his family through that.”
Asked to comment on Zangrilli, Staszak replies, “I don’t think I’m going to. I just really don’t want to have any comment on that subject.”
Zangrilli’s biggest feud is with village president Clifford T. Osborn. Osborn appeared on Nightline in December of 1986 with Don Bennett. “Koppel asked Osborn if burglary rates [in Oak Park] were up since the ban, and Osborn said no, there was no change. He said it twice,” states Zangrilli. So Zangrilli went to the next village board meeting and, as is his wont, launched a vituperative attack against Osborn. Osborn attacked back; he insists that he was discussing Oak Park’s overall crime rate, not burglary statistics in particular.
It later came out that Osborn, a hardliner on the law-breaking aspect of the Lamar Richardson case, had engaged in behavior in violation of the village’s ethics ordinance. Osborn accepted a weekend in Indianapolis as the guest of Robert Irsay, owner of both the Colts football team and property on the Oak Park Mall. Irsay wanted the village board to vote to tear up the failing mall and reopen the street to vehicular traffic; the conflict of interest seemed clear. Zangrilli and Isiah Stroud pressed for a hearing of the village board, and, though no punishment was exacted, the trustees concluded that Osborn had violated the ethics ordinance; Osborn has filed a court appeal of the board’s ruling.
Osborn’s reply to a request for a comment on Jim Zangrilli and his motivations: “I really don’t want to talk about him, I don’t know why he does these things. . . . I have no question about his motivation, no question about his rationale—I have absolutely no way of knowing what his rationale is. . . . I don’t want to talk to you. . . . I’m afraid that either through your manipulativeness or my stupidity, I’ll say something and look like I’m–I have no comment on Mr. Zangrilli. At all. I have no comment, whatever.”
Says another village official, who refuses to be quoted by name, “If you say anything about [Zangrilli], he’ll come back at you like a house afire. His verbal personal attacks are just something I don’t want to get into. He fights dirty.”
Trustee Susan Helfer, a candidate for village president in next spring’s elections, has never had a run-in with Jim Zangrilli, and she doesn’t feel that his high-decibel approach to his foes on the board has any effect on their deliberations. “It bothers me when any kind of attack on anybody is that blatant and outright, and sometimes outrageous, whether the person being harangued seems to deserve it or not. It loses effect when it’s always at that tenor or level, that haranguing level. . . . Somewhere, there might be something in it that’s true. It’s difficult to tell, because your hot button is pushed.
“I think the gun issue is at the bottom of the issue. I have the feeling that he wants to be a trustee or [village] president–that’s the rumor around town.”
“I think he should run for office–state representative or state senator,” says Isiah Stroud. “Oak Park could have used a Jim Zangrilli to help Oak Park, rather than have an ongoing relationship that hurts both sides.”
“I keep tellin’ him he ought to run for village president or something,” says Don Bennett. “He says, ‘I like doing what I’m doing.'”
Zangrilli laughs off the suggestion that he might run for village office. “I have no plans to, that I know of–but I don’t mind if they worry.”
“I don’t think Jim is motivated by [a desire for] vengeance against Oak Park,” says Ike Stroud. “If that’s the case, why is he in Chicago? Why is he in Highland Park? He wants to ensure that people have their rights.
“I don’t see any bitterness in Jim Zangrilli. I see a waking up: ‘This is what I believe in, this is what I’m working for.’ He’s found an undying line of electricity from his conviction. I think if he was swallowed up by hatred or vengeance, he’d be dried up. I don’t think you can last on vengeance and hatred–those are short run.”
“I think he’s sincere in his advocacy of gun ownership, and I think he’s basically a nice guy,” says Mark Karlin, “although he’s guilty of fostering many misconceptions which are invalid.”
“This guy is the kind of man CORE needs more of,” says Roy Innes. “His commitment is deep and it is real.”
“I’m a bit cynical on [Zangrilli’s sincerity], but I believe it’s all directed to the gun ban,” says Eric Linden. “I think he’s sincere, and cares about civil rights and those issues–but I think he sees a big advantage in getting the gun ban issue out in public [by using civil rights].”
“He likes to be involved in things,” says Don Bennett. “It takes up more than his spare time. I was in business for 18 years, and I never had time to do things for people. Jim really changed my outlook on things. Now I sacrifice things and travel to help people, too.”
“In reality, I really don’t care what anybody thinks,” says Jim Zangrilli. “My only goal is the end result.”
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Loren Santow.