Managing Dissent in Chicago
As the G8/NATO summits approach, activists protest restrictive new rules--and prepare for the spotlight.
CHICAGO – Although the world’s most powerful man calls Chicago home, the city’s boosters still have a chip on their shoulder. In 2009, their bid for the 2016 Olympics ended in failure, but Mayor Rahm Emanuel has convinced his old boss, Barack Obama, to let Chicago host the G8 and NATO summits in May. The stage is now set: Leaders of the military alliance and “Group of Eight” rich countries haven’t met in the same place at the same time since 1977.
“If you want to be a global city, you’ve got to act like a global city,” Lori Healey, executive director of the Chicago G8 & NATO host committee and a leader of the city’s Olympic bid, said in January. But as activists have learned, cities playing their global role tend to systematically squelch dissent. The U.S. Constitution guarantees freedom of speech and assembly, but not freedom from the capricious dictates of the Chicago Police Department and the Secret Service, which could nullify protest permits immediately before the summits.
On January 18, the Chicago City Council overwhelmingly passed two ordinances pushed by Emanuel that restrict protest rules and expand the mayor’s power to police the summits. Among other things, they increase fines for violating parade rules, allow the city to deputize police officers from outside Chicago for temporary duty and change the requirements for obtaining protest permits. Large signs and banners must now be approved, sidewalk protests require a permit, and permission for “large parades” will only be granted to those with a $1 million liability insurance policy. These are permanent changes in city law.
Theoretically, people can now be fined for not getting a permit before holding a picket line or spontaneous protest, according to Jeffrey Frank of the National Lawyers Guild, which is providing legal support to groups protesting the summits. “How can that not be chilling?” says Frank. “I don’t think people ought to be subject to the discretion of police officers in terms of their First Amendment rights.”
Dan Massoglia, a spokesperson for Occupy Chicago and a student at Chicago-Kent College of Law, says that although Mayor Emanuel backtracked on some proposed ordinance changes after activists’ outcry, “What essentially remains are the tools for suppressing peaceful dissent in this city for the foreseeable future. It’s bigger than Occupy Chicago. It’s a threat to all of us that would like to peaceably take to the streets — or the sidewalks — to peacefully petition our government.”
Tightening rules governing protesters ahead of major political events, however, has become standard procedure in the United States. Thirteen years after the “battle in Seattle” during a World Trade Organization meeting, “free speech zones” have become commonplace and officials habitually raise the prospect of destructive bands of anarchists to justify tightening control of public assembly. In 2004, after Georgia’s governor preemptively declared a state of emergency ahead of the G8 summit near Savannah, the nearby city of Brunswick gave police the power to halt any protest. Last year, Chicago Police Superintendent Garry McCarthy said his department, which is working with the U.S. Secret Service and other federal agencies to train 13,000 officers in “mass arrests.”
Joe Iosbaker, a leader of the Coalition Against NATO/G8 War & Poverty Agenda (CANG8), says local and federal authorities have created a climate of fear. The Chicago Symphony Orchestra, Columbia College and Roosevelt University have changed their schedules to keep patrons and students away from downtown during the summits.
“[Authorities are] painting this picture of rampaging protesters harming people on the street,” Iosbaker says. “But when they say violent protesters, we say baby strollers.” CANG8 has been granted a permit for a large rally and march through downtown Chicago on May 19, but because the summits are a “national security” event, the Secret Service can at any time block the demonstration’s route near the convention hall where the summits will take place. (Other protests during the six-day summit period are planned by Occupy Chicago and Stand Up! Chicago, a coalition of unions and community groups.)
“If the federal government swoops in and decides to cancel a significant part of our permit, then how do you expect people to react?” asks Andy Thayer, another CANG8 leader. “We will not allow the police or anyone else to intimidate us from exercising our First Amendment rights.”
Still, in a city where memories of police violence during the 1968 Democratic National Convention (DNC) linger, local and federal officials and activists may defuse some tensions through meetings planned in the weeks before the summits. (Adbusters, the Canadian magazine that sparked the Occupy movement last year, didn’t exactly help in late January when it invoked the infamous DNC police violence while calling for 50,000 people to “flock to Chicago” and set up “peaceful barricades” throughout the month of May.)
Marilyn Katz, who helped organize both the anti-Vietnam War protest during the DNC and Chicago’s first major anti-Iraq War rally in 2002, says, “Nobody should make the police the issue. If you want to be a booster for Chicago, then you should be a booster for democracy and free speech. Americans didn’t expect Egyptians to have insurance to protest.”
Jeremy Gantz is an In These Times contributing editor working at Time magazine.