Brutal police assault on Palestinian-American teen in Chicago

Protesters from the Arab community chanting in support of Palestinian-American Hadi Abuataleh outside the Oak Lawn Police Department in the southwest suburbs of Chicago, 28 July 2022.

Reema Rustom

On 28 July, the Arab community of Chicagoland (Chicago proper and its suburbs) awoke to a viral video on Facebook showing a young Arab male being brutally beaten by three Oak Lawn police officers. (Oak Lawn is a southwest suburb of Chicago that has a large Palestinian population.)

The video, filmed the day before by a Black woman from her car, shows two officers on top of the teen, repeatedly beating him in the head and body. A third officer runs up and appears very briefly to place his knee on the child’s head or neck before the three grown men finish handcuffing their target.

The boy in the video, Hadi Abuatelah, is a 17-year-old Palestinian-American and a rising high school senior from Bridgeview, Illinois, another of the Palestinian-heavy southwest suburbs of Chicago.

As a result of the attack, Hadi sustained multiple injuries, including fractures to his pelvis and face, and internal bleeding in his brain. He was transferred to a local hospital in critical condition, and it took almost six days for his health to stabilize enough for him to be released from the hospital and into police custody.

The southwest suburbs of Chicago are home to one of the largest Palestinian communities in the United States, according to independent research from sociologist and Marquette University professor Louise Cainkar, as well as Zogby International and the Arab American Institute.

Most of the suburbs’ residents are from West Bank towns, having emigrated after the 1967 Israeli occupation of Jerusalem, the West Bank, and Gaza, but some have been in Chicagoland since even before the Nakba, or the forcible expulsion of Palestians from their homeland.

The Oak Lawn Police Department alleges that Hadi had a gun on his person and that is why they used such force. The video shows that a gun was found after the beating, but it is not at all clear where it came from.

Yet the gun has nothing to do with the criminal act committed by these three officers. In the end, it was an act rooted in racism in a community that is no stranger to systemic, structural, and institutional racism and targeting by law enforcement, other government agencies, and ultra-right and white nationalist groups.

The video, while horrifying, was not surprising to Arabs in the southwest suburbs; nearly everyone has a story about law enforcement repression or harassment.

The responses of the Oak Lawn police chief and the suburb’s Board of Trustees were disturbing. In a press conference following the surfacing of the video, Chief Daniel Vittorio insisted the officers acted within the norms of standard operating procedure, going so far as to say they would have been justified even if they had used deadly force.

As soon as the video went viral, the Arab American Action Network (AAAN) and a number of partner organizations immediately called for a community mobilization.

Over 300 Arabs and allies, in a multiracial show of unity, descended on the Oak Lawn Police Department, chanting against racist policing and calling for #Justice4Hadi. The Oak Lawn police responded to the protest by putting armed officers on rooftops and surrounding protesters with additional officers equipped with military-grade weapons and full SWAT gear.

Undeterred by this attempt to intimidate, Hadi’s family and community supporters mobilized just four days later, on 1 August, after Hadi was discharged from the hospital into Oak Lawn police custody. The AAAN called upon the community to converge again on the Oak Lawn Police Department and also to flood the department with calls to release Hadi into the custody of his parents.

Instead, Oak Lawn police further punished Hadi by transferring him to the Cook County juvenile detention center, forcing him to spend the night in lock-up under medical supervision until he was granted a hearing in front of a judge the following day.

As soon as the AAAN was notified that Hadi had been transferred, it called for a vigil and rally the next morning at the detention center. On 2 August, while community members were rallying and speaking to the press outside the detention center, hundreds of additional activists flooded the phone lines of the Cook County State’s Attorney Kim Foxx for the second day in a row, demanding that charges against Hadi be dropped and that she immediately file charges against the three officers involved in the savage assault.

Hadi appeared in front of a judge shortly after 1 p.m. as more and more community members gathered outside. The judge agreed to release Hadi into the custody of his parents, and the prosecution asked for a three-week continuance to determine how to proceed with the case. A few minutes later, Hadi walked out of the detention center alongside his family and attorneys and was greeted by massive cheers from supporters.

It was the first organizing victory in the #Justice4Hadi campaign, as the political pressure placed on the state’s attorney assisted Hadi’s legal team in securing his release.

On 5 August, the AAAN, the Black-led Chicago Alliance Against Racist and Political Repression, the Reverend Jesse Jackson’s Rainbow/PUSH Coalition, the Latinx-led Organized Communities Against Deportations, Southsiders for Peace and others doubled down on the demand that the officers who assaulted Hadi be prosecuted by the State’s Attorney’s Office and fired by the Oak Lawn Police Department, as another 100-plus community members protested at the police station.

The chief once again stationed armed officers on the rooftops and, this time, shut down the streets surrounding the station to intimidate the protesters and obstruct access to the gathering.

The #Justice4Hadi campaign has struck a nerve with the Arab community of Chicagoland because it speaks to a reality that so many know – one of targeting, harassment and racial profiling by southwest suburban police departments.

In July 2022, the AAAN published a report exposing a surveillance and data-gathering program used by Illinois law enforcement agencies. The program, named Suspicious Activity Reports (SARs), collects massive amounts of data on Arab, Muslim and other communities of color, pulling them into the US counterterrorism nexus.

The report found that police departments like Oak Lawn’s participate in the SARs program, targeting and criminalizing Arabs and Muslims for everyday activities and stereotyping us as the local face of the “enemy” abroad.

Hadi’s court date is set for 25 August, yet AAAN is still waiting for a response from the State’s Attorney’s Office on whether the three officers will be charged.

Securing the indictments, prosecution and firing of the officers who beat Hadi is of paramount importance to our communities. If the police can get away with assaulting a child, then none of the communities of color in Chicagoland are safe.

Reema Rustom lives in Chicago, is a former leader of Students for Justice in Palestine at DePaul University, and is currently a youth organizer at the Arab American Action Network.

Muhammad Sankari lives in Chicago and has been with the Arab American Action Network since 2010. He is its lead organizer and a primary writer of the network’s groundbreaking report, “Suspicious Activity Reports and the Surveillance State: The Suppression of Dissent and the Criminalization of Arabs and Muslims in Illinois.”