CHICAGO (AP) — A man accused of pepper spraying pro-Palestinian protesters who gathered near an Israel solidarity rally over the weekend has been charged with hate crimes and aggravated battery, prosecutors said Wednesday.
Zevulen Ebert, 33, of Skokie, Illinois, is charged with two felony counts of aggravated battery and two felony hate crime charges, according to Cook County State’s Attorney Kim Foxx’s office. Pepper spray can irritate the eyes and cause a burning sensation and difficulty breathing.
The confrontation broke out as about 1,000 people were gathered Sunday evening at a banquet hall in a northern Chicago suburb to show solidarity with Israel, and several hundred pro-Palestinian demonstrators rallied outside, according to police and event organizers.
The pro-Palestinian protest was wrapping up when the sound of a gunshot cracked through the air, and then a few minutes later, a man pepper sprayed attendees, said organizer Hatem Abudayyeh of the U.S. Palestinian Community Network. “People were running and screaming and very, very afraid,” Abudayyeh said. “These charges are good news.”
Ebert appeared in court Wednesday and was freed with conditions by Judge Anthony Calabrese. Prosecutors did not ask for him to be detained ahead of a trial.
Under a recent change in Illinois law, state courts can no longer require cash bail as a condition of pretrial release. Judges must assess the risk of releasing defendants charged with certain serious crimes. Ebert was deemed to be low-risk.
A Chicago police officer and two other people sustained minor injuries from being pepper sprayed by an attendee, according to police in Skokie, where the protest took place.
Since the outbreak of war between Israel and Hamas earlier this month, a fatal stabbing of a Palestinian-American child in Illinois, a gun pointed at protesters in Pennsylvania, vandalism at synagogues and harassment of staff at a Palestinian restaurant all are raising fears that the war is sparking violence in the United States and spiking crimes against Jewish and Muslim communities.
Ebert’s lawyer, Hal Garfinkel, told The Associated Press by phone Wednesday that he and his client are “extraordinarily happy” that prosecutors “made the prudent choice” not to pursue pretrial detention, a decision he says shows “that they’ll have a very difficult time meeting their burden of ‘beyond a reasonable doubt’ when we go to court.”
Prosecutors alleged that Ebert was not attacked or threatened when — based on his perception of their ancestry — he targeted the protesters with pepper spray, accused Palestinians of killing babies, and made obscene middle finger gestures to Palestinian supporters.
Prosecutors in Cook County earlier this week declined to file charges against another man who fired a gun during the protest. Officials determined that the man “acted in self-defense upon being surrounded by a crowd and attacked by some of those individuals,” said a statement released by Foxx’s office on Monday.
Abudayyeh called it a “travesty of justice” that the man who shot the gun was not charged, and said he is concerned about the safety of Palestinian communities across the country.
“We’re hearing all kinds of horror stories from people in schools, and in workplaces, and in grocery stores, and in the neighborhoods,” said Abudayyeh, who is Palestinian American. “I am super concerned for my kid.”
The banquet hall event was organized by the Simon Wiesenthal Center, a Los Angeles-based Jewish human rights group.
Alison Pure-Slovin, director of the group’s Midwest regional office, said on Wednesday that the organization would have no comment on the hate crime charges until law enforcement finishes their investigation.
Savage is a corps member for the Associated Press/Report for America Statehouse News Initiative. Report for America is a nonprofit national service program that places journalists in local newsrooms to report on undercovered issues.