DOUGLAS — Drivers again packed the streets of Chicago on Thursday to get free gas — and though some said the scene wasn’t as chaotic as last week, there were still long lines and traffic issues.
The man behind it all, millionaire Willie Wilson, stopped by stations and pumped gas for some drivers. He’s gotten national attention for the giveaways — which have drawn praise and criticism, with some saying they were a traffic-snarling stunt to benefit the repeat political candidate while others say they helped drivers while gas prices have surged.
Wilson dismissed the criticism — and confirmed he’s mulling another mayoral run. He lost mayoral elections in 2015 and 2019, getting less than 11 percent of the vote and not making it to the runoff election both times. He also made a failed presidential bid in 2016.
“I’m going to do whatever it takes to do good,” Wilson said Thursday at one of the giveaway stations. “If I do run, I’ll make my decision in the next two weeks. A lot of people asked me to run for mayor of the city of Chicago again, and I’ve been considering it, and it’ll be the next two to three weeks we’ll make that decision.”
Wilson said he’s also considering holding another giveaway in the next few months if prices go up.
For this week’s giveaway, the city partnered with Wilson and his team to help things run smoothly, with police officers at the giveaway stations. Wilson’s team also set up aides at participating stations to direct drivers and try to prevent problems. And the city laid down ground rules — line no lining up before the giveaway started — to try to make things more organized.
Drivers still lined up for hours beforehand, and there were traffic issues. At some sites, officers asked Wilson’s aides to stop the giveaway early.
But drivers said they were grateful for the free gas.
Demi Walker, of the South Loop, got in line at 3:30 a.m. at a BP station at 342 E. 35th St. in Douglas, she said. The free gas was key for her because she’s unemployed and has been providing Uber rides to supplement her income, she said.
“I need some assistance. It’s very important. And I appreciate it,” Walker said.
Tony Williams said he arrived about 3 a.m. at the Douglas station, eating snacks to pass the time. He saw some drivers cut each other in the line and said the event was “not really organized,” but he was thankful.
“With the prices soaring up like this, the fill-up makes a big difference,” Williams said.
Drivers have experienced weeks of wallet-breaking prices at the pump. Russia invading Ukraine has sent prices to record highs, leaving some without a way of affordably traveling for work, school and other needs.
Wilson, a former mayoral candidate who’s made millions selling medical supplies, said he was holding the gas giveaways to help people. He dismissed criticism over last week’s chaotic giveaway.
“People don’t say nothing when you got gridlock and traffic when they’re going to the Bulls game or the Sox game,” Wilson said last week. “You good, they’re going to talk about you; you do bad, they’re going to talk about you. Let me do good, and let them talk about it.”
For this week’s giveaway, drivers weren’t supposed to line up ahead of time and were supposed to get stickers on their cars to indicate their place in line.
Many drivers broke those rules, lining up early to ensure they’d be able to get gas.
At the Douglas station, drivers parked in the bike lane and the giveaway started before drivers were given stickers. Once officers did hand out stickers, a woman — who’d been there since 5 a.m. — hopped out of her car to dance and celebrate that she was No. 22.
Drivers said the giveaway was going smoother than last week’s.
“I’m definitely going to get my gas, and I’m definitely going to vote for Willie Wilson, too,” said Rick Greene, who’d gotten in line at 5 a.m. and got his car at 7:25 a.m. “You gotta make sure you have enough gas to sit in the line then. You got to plan for it.”
Greene said he drives his girlfriend to work every day, and the giveaway will help him get back and forth for three or four days.
Tony and Francis Kizhakkekutta, who manage and own the BP station, wore Wilson T-shirts and said they’d been working with the millionaire’s team to coordinate the giveaway and keep it organized.
Wilson invited all the participating station owners to his home, where they covered how the giveaway would be done, Tony Kizhakkekutta said.
“We had to make sure that one person was at each pump, so when people come they don’t have to get out the car, and just go,” Tony Kizhakkekutta said. “And just be nice to people. And that’s it.”
Other station owners experienced problems, though. Joby Phillip, who owns a BP on Halsted and 31st streets, wasn’t participating in the giveaway — but his station was wrongly listed on some materials for the event and people came by for free gas thursday.
“I know nothing about a gas giveaway,” Phillip said. “I didn’t even know how something like that would work.”
Officers came by the station in the morning, trying to make a plan with Phillip, he said. He explained he wasn’t part of the event and asked them to remove barriers that might confuse customers.
But drivers were already lined up two blocks down by 4:30 a.m., and officers had to tell them the station wasn’t giving away gas, Phillip said.
Phillip had to print out signs that clarified the station wasn’t part of the giveaway and put them at all the pumps.
At a giveaway location at Irving Park Road and Western Avenue, drivers lined up before 4:30 a.m. at the BP station, said pastor Thomas Garcia, a representative for Wilson.
Madeline Rios, of Wicker Park, said she arrived about 3 a.m., and it was “chaotic” as drivers tried to get tickets to secure their place in line. Things were more orderly once the giveaway started at 7 a.m., she said.
Rios said the giveaway helped her because she’s retired and on a tight budget.
Donnell Turman typically goes to the station for gas; on Thursday morning, he noticed his gas warning light was on, so pulled in , unaware the giveaway was going on. Garcia and a city worker told Turman he needed a sticker, but they gave him free gas when he showed them his warning light.
“I didn’t know about this. I saw an opening in the line and cut in,” Turman said.
The free gas on a near-empty tank was a “blessing,” Turman said.
Officers there asked Wilson’s aides to cut short the giveaway at about 8 a.m. because traffic was backed up to Addison Street. The giveaway continued.
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