Black employees of the Illinois State Toll Highway Authority were stunned when they walked in to a locker room at the state agency’s Alsip maintenance yard last August and saw a bottle dangling from a rope hanging from the ceiling.
They said it seemed to have been fashioned to resemble a noose.
They complained, and tollway officials interviewed a white co-worker who was responsible for the rope. He told them it was “a joke” having nothing to do with race.
According to Illinois Tollway records, he intended the rope and bottle to play off a scene in the 1991 movie “The Silence of the Lambs” in which a serial killer nicknamed Buffalo Bill lowers a basket to a pit where a female captive was being held and tells her, “It places the lotion in the basket.”
A poster on the ceiling from which the rope was hung from showed the actor who portrayed the serial killer in the film.
The situation exposed tensions at an agency where Black employees say racial incidents — including an instance a decade or so ago in which someone put a noose in a Black worker’s locker — are too common and often downplayed or ignored by tollway officials.
The white employee involved in the August incident continued to work at the Alsip site alongside the outraged Black colleagues until January, when he was transferred, sources say.
Until then, sources say, tollway officials said little to the Black workers about the status of complaints against the worker.
Cassaundra Rouse, the tollway’s executive director, won’t comment. Rouse’s spokeswoman says, “The Illinois Tollway does not tolerate actions that may create a hostile work environment and investigates all claims relating to the work space and environment it provides.”
Tollway officials won’t say whether the white employee faced disciplinary action.
Like the other equipment operators who drive snowplows and salt trucks and handle other roadway maintenance tasks, the worker is part of a Teamsters union chapter that has a contract with the tollway that lays out a process for what’s called “progressive” discipline.
His personnel file shows several past disciplinary actions but no mention of the rope incident.
Tollway officials initially wouldn’t turn over a photograph of the rope that was taken by a Black employee and turned over to supervisors, saying “these records are part of a pending grievance process and are exempt” from being made public.
The agency — which is overseen by a board whose members were appointed by Gov. J.B. Pritzker and which includes three union leaders — later reversed course and released the photo.
Tollway policies define “harassing conduct” as “intimidating or hostile acts” and also “denigrating jokes.”
On Tuesday, the agency released records from its internal investigation of the rope incident, including comments showing how upset some Black employees were.
One, whose name was redacted, told tollway officials, “This was an overt, poignant and intentional display of intimidation and harassment meant to impose terror.
“The narrative has been cast, the message was received, and it cannot be altered, watered down or unseen.
“This was comfortably executed on tollway property, on tollway time, with tollway equipment, in tollway apparel, under the protective umbrella of tollway management.”
Another employee called the rope incident “totally inconsiderate, regardless of the intent,” and said, “There seems to be a pattern, especially at this location.” That worker said that, upon seeing the rope, “I immediately said to myself, self, here we go again.”
One Black tollway employee tells the Chicago Sun-Times: “It happened Aug. 5. He didn’t get transferred till January. That’s five months right there that he was still in this garage. Nothing was said about it, everyone’s milling around like everything’s OK,” and nobody from management reached out to ask, “Is there anything we can do?”
“It ripped a Band-Aid off an old wound.”