After months of complaints about the conduct of Arlington Heights police, four protesters pleaded guilty Tuesday to misdemeanor battery charges for their roles in a demonstration last fall outside a meeting of the Chicago Minuteman Project.
The Chicago group is affiliated with a controversial national militia that patrols the U.S.-Mexico border to detect and report illegal immigrants.
The four protesters--Kara Norlander, 24; Rehana Khan, 24; Cynthia Gomez, 28; and Eric Zenke, 18, all of Chicago-- were arrested after police said they assaulted officers.
The guilty pleas, entered at a hearing in the Rolling Meadows branch of Cook County Circuit Court, left both law-enforcement officials and protesters claiming victory.
Supporters had waged a media campaign on behalf of the protesters, especially Khan, who complained that her civil rights were violated because when she was arrested, police removed the head scarf, or hijab, worn by observant Muslim women. Supporters also had urged sympathizers to call in to protest to the Village of Arlington Heights and the state's attorney's office.
"This is an important victory for those of us who believe the Minutemen is the new Ku Klux Klan," said lawyer Jed Stone, who represented Norlander.
Lance Northcutt, an assistant state's attorney, said the pleas vindicated the Arlington Heights police officers.
"This case was highly politicized, more than it should have been," he said. "It's absurd to suggest they are innocent, when they pleaded guilty."
As part of the plea deal, the misdemeanor charges of battery to a police officer were reduced to simple battery, and the charges of resisting arrest were dropped.
Judge Hyman Reibman sentenced each defendant to a year of court supervision, 240 hours of community service and court fees.
The fifth protester arrested, Marco Quiroz-Rojas of Chicago, was not present at the hearing and has fled the area, prosecutors said.
To the defense lawyers who had argued before sentencing that the demonstrators were right in their cause, Reibman said his courtroom "is not a forum for politics or for any person's agenda."
"I recognize the 1st Amendment rights of all citizens," Reibman said. "But those rights do not allow for the criminal violation of laws."
Stone said in court that his client was "a courageous social activist who came to Arlington Heights to protest a dangerous vigilante group."
The Minutemen, hailed by some as patriots who help the government and criticized by others as racist vigilantes, drew more than 100 supporters to the meeting last October at the Christian Liberty Academy, 502 W. Euclid Ave., Arlington Heights.
Rick Biesada, a spokesman for the Chicago Minuteman Project, said protesters were making it impossible for his group to assemble peacefully.
"We had one group of law-abiding citizens who came to conduct a logical meeting on immigration inform," he said. "They were swearing at us, refusing us our right to assemble. It was all about hate."
As the meeting progressed, the protests intensified, and several demonstrators formed a human chain to block Minuteman supporters from entering, Northcutt said.
Norlander struck and cut a police officer, drawing blood, Northcutt said. Zenke struck another officer in the chest. As officers tried to arrest Norlander, more than 50 protesters encircled them, and Khan struck an officer in the forearm and shoulder with a closed fist. Gomez also struck an officer, Northcutt said.
With the strong support of the Chicago chapter of the Council on American-Islamic Relations, Khan's allegations have made national headlines.
Khan said afterward that the removal of her hijab was a clear violation of her civil rights.
"It's very disrespectful," she said. "To me, my head scarf is a sign that I am a Muslim."
Ahmed Rehab, Executive Director of the local chapter of the Council on American-Islamic Relations, said that for a Muslim woman, having a hijab taken off is synonymous with having a blouse ripped off.
Arlington Heights village attorney Ernest Blomquist III said police were following standard procedures that call for removing scarves, hats, belts and shoestrings , which may be used as weapons or to hide weapons, from people under arrest.
He added that a scarf could be used by someone in custody to strangle an officer or commit suicide.
"With all of the rhetoric going on on both sides of this controversy, I don't want it to be lost that four officers were assaulted," Blomquist said.
"We are happy that the system works. We are happy that it's over."