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Woman berated for Puerto Rican flag shirt hopes her experience 'shines a light on what’s going on with racism'

Woman berated for Puerto Rican flag shirt hopes her experience 'shines a light on what’s going on with racism'
Mia Irizarry, 24, with Chicago Alderman Roberto Maldonado after speaking to the media at Humboldt Park Boat House in Chicago on July 13. (Zbigniew Bzdak / Chicago Tribune)

The woman shown in a viral video being berated for wearing a Puerto Rican flag T-shirt said she hopes the ugly incident “shines a light on what’s going on with racism” nationwide.

But 24-year old Mia Irizarry said she is trying not to be too affected by the attention.

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“I’m a very carefree, open, forgiving spirit, and I’m hoping to just continue being that way,” she said Friday at a news conference, flanked by family and politicians.

Just hours after Irizarry spoke, the man accused of confronting her in June at a Cook County forest preserve in the Chicago area appeared in court on a felony hate crime charge and was released on his own recognizance.

Timothy Trybus’ lawyer, David Goldman, called his words that afternoon “certainly obnoxious,” but blamed a combination of alcohol and pain pills, saying Trybus had six teeth removed the previous day.

The incident occurred June 14 in Caldwell Woods Forest Preserve. But it became widely known when a video of the encounter was posted on social media, prompting condemnation from many local activists and politicians, including the governor of Puerto Rico.

In the recording, Trybus confronts and screams at Irizarry about her shirt, telling her she should not be wearing it in the United States.

Irizarry on Friday elaborated on the video, saying she had arrived at the park for her 24th birthday party. Trybus was there, and she said she asked him to move because she had a permit for the space. He asked her twice if the flag on her shirt was the Texas state flag, she said.

She said she was inspired to start recording when he stepped on the table.

“I didn’t know what was going to happen next,” Irizarry said, adding that she feared for her safety.

The apparent inaction of Forest Preserve District Police Officer Patrick Connor as Irizarry asked him for help has provoked heavy criticism. The footage showed the officer seemingly ignoring Irizarrry as she explains that the man is harassing her and that she has a permit to be in the public space.

Connor, who had been placed on desk duty June 25 during an internal investigation, resigned Wednesday amid calls for the department to terminate his employment.

Irizarry said she was disappointed the officer resigned before there was any public hearing into his conduct because she won’t be able to hear his explanation for why he “blatantly ignored” her request for help. But she said she felt “indescribable joy” that the officer won’t be in a position to turn someone else away.

“I will never get to hear from this man, this protector, [why] my safety — no, my life — had such little value to him,” she said.

On Thursday, Trybus, of Chicago, was formally accused of two counts of felony hate crime, after earlier facing much less serious charges of misdemeanor assault and misdemeanor disorderly conduct.

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In court Friday, Goldman acknowledged his client has an alcohol problem and said he’d mixed alcohol with painkillers the day of the videotaped incident.

“Almost everyone in this court has witnessed the video. It was certainly obnoxious speech,” Goldman said. “It’s almost like a Jekyll-and-Hyde situation when he drinks.”

Trybus, who was quiet during the hearing, was given a $10,000 I-bond, which requires no cash bail. Judge Earl Hoffenberg said he was taking into account that Trybus cares for a 76-year-old woman.

He will be placed on electronic home monitoring and was ordered to undergo an alcohol evaluation, and to stay away from Irizarry and all Cook County forest preserves.

Assistant State’s Attorney Robert Heilingoetter said Trybus’ “aggressive tone” seemed to have been “a direct result” of Irizarry’s shirt.

“He was raising his voice, pointing his finger in her face and getting within inches of her personal space,” the prosecutor said. “This caused Miss Irizarry to feel threatened so much so she believed she was going to be physically harmed by the defendant.”

Outside the Skokie courthouse, a man who identified himself as Trybus’ neighbor, John Bimmerle, said Trybus had helped him with his car and with feeding homeless people.

“This should no more be a hate crime than the man on the moon,” Bimmerle said. “This should be an alcohol and stupid-mouth crime. He’s not racist.”

Asked whether the officer or Trybus’ behavior was more offensive that day, Irizarry responded, “They were equally offensive.”

The incident was “an eye-opener,” Irizarry said.

“In that moment, I realized that officer and that man were treating me like a minority. They were treating me as if I was less, so to speak,” she said. “I knew if I reacted, even if it was out of self-defense, I could’ve been criminalized. I could’ve been the one to have the bad rep.”

A top official for the union that represents Connor has asked people not to rush to judgment.

“I always say this when it comes to video: The video doesn’t look good, but anybody who’s a football fan knows that the video doesn’t tell the entire story,” Tamara Cummings, general counsel for the Illinois Fraternal Order of Police Labor Council, said earlier this week. “We don’t know what was going on outside the video, and we don’t know what was going through the officer’s mind.”

Politicians and family members have praised Irizarry’s composure.

Irizarry attributed her calm to her mother, who she said is a “peaceful and calm” woman.

“I’ve had to see different adversities for my mother because she’s a woman and single mother,” Irizarry said. “I’ve seen how strong she’s been.”

She grew up in Chicago and works as a veterinary technician.

Her mother, Tessie Irizarry, said described her as shy, God-fearing and family-oriented. She said she wasn’t surprised by her daughter’s reaction on the recording.

“When they told me there was a video … the first thing out of my mouth was, I know she wasn’t cussing,” Tessie Irizarry said.

Mia Irizarry said she and her loved ones barbecued on the evening of the incident in June. Despite being disappointed by the district’s response, she said she plans to continue treating the forest preserve the same as before.

“I will go there, I will be happy there,” she said. “One officer is not the mark of all of them.”

Pratt is a Chicago Tribune staff writer and Cox a freelance writer.

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