by Brit Schulte and Caitlin Sheehan
January 23, 2012
The City of Chicago has enacted new measures to restrict free speech and protest–but not without a fight, as Brit Schulte and Caitlin Sheehan report.
ON JANUARY 18, the Chicago City Council overwhelmingly approved Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s ordinances to give police new powers to crack down on protests ahead of the NATO/G8 joint summit coming to the city in May.
The changes to Chicago’s parade ordinance governing protests that Emanuel was demanding would have been worse if not for a campaign by unions, community groups, immigrant rights organizations and the Occupy movement in the two weeks leading up to the vote, which forced the mayor to withdraw some of the worst provisions.
Nevertheless, what remains is a dramatic attack on the right to protest. The new restrictions will be practically impossible for protest organizers to comply with. For example, protest permit applications, which are generally submitted months before planned events, must now include the “size and dimension of any sign, banner or other attention-getting device” carried by two or more people as well as the description of any sound amplification on wheels or carried by two or more people.
The law also enhances the mayor’s powers to install sophisticated surveillance cameras, and it increases the minimum fine for violating the parade ordinance increased from $50 to $200.
The mayor had to step back from much steeper increases he had previously sought. Also, his initial proposal contained a provision that sounded as if the cops could deputize practically anyone to perform police functions, but later versions specified that only “certified law enforcement personnel” could be deputized by the city.
Emanuel initially claimed his proposals were temporary measures to “deal with NATO/G8 protesters.” But the only provision that has a sunset clause is the mayor’s power to accept no-bid contracts for the summit. All the rest of the new restrictions are permanent.
The new rules redefine what constitutes a large public assembly, requiring activists to provide $1 million of liability insurance–unless they can persuade the transportation commissioner to waive the insurance requirement as an undue financial burden to free speech rights.
All told, the new restrictions on protest rights give police and city officials even more rules that they can use to target, arrest and fine demonstrators and organizers as they see fit.
Even more troubling is that these new measures come at a time that people across the city are mobilizing to defend city services from the mayor’s budget ax. Mental health clinics, libraries and schools are facing closures across the city, and the contract for the city’s teachers expires this summer.
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THE CAMPAIGN by Chicago social justice organizations was critical in showing that these measures were deeply unpopular. But Chicago’s aldermen–all members of the Democratic Party–nevertheless voted 45-4 to approve the new ordinances, all the while congratulating themselves and the mayor for their courage to “compromise” by taking out a few of the most noxious parts.
But it was the thousands of people who met with and called their representatives, mobilized to press conferences, attended hearings on the ordinances and gathered by the hundreds at City Hall on the day of the vote who forced the discussion into the open.
“This is an issue that has unified a lot of different activist organizations in the city because this affects everyone,” said Occupy activist Mike Herbert. “To require that people who use protest as a means to participate in democracy have the money to pay for insurance is taking the voice away from a certain class within our democratic system, which I think is a big problem.”
The day before the vote, a press conference organized by the Coalition Against NATO/G8 War and Poverty Agenda brought together a diverse coalition of organizations, including religious leaders, immigrant rights groups, Occupy activists and several labor unions, the Chicago Teachers Union, AFSCME, the Service Employees International Union, the Amalgamated Transit Union and National Nurses United, among them.
“I don’t believe in a cap on protest, on freedom of speech,” said Martese Chism, a registered nurse and member of National Nurses United. “I don’t think Rahm Emanuel and the aldermen have a right to do that…If it wasn’t for protest, I wouldn’t be who I am today. You know, protest is America. It’s part of America’s family.”
The high point of the fight to defend the right to protest was a demonstration at City Hall by about 200 people who vocally expressed their disgust with the ordinance. Some people arrived as early as 7 a.m. to secure a place in line so they could enter the City Council chambers.
In the hours before the council went into session, groups such as Stand Up! Chicago, a coalition of labor unions, held a press conference, and the rally began. Occupy Rogers Park staged political theater, with a papier-mâché figure of Rahm Emanuel, accompanied by a fake police bodyguard, carrying out mock arrests of protesters. Meanwhile, the line of people waiting to get into the council chambers swelled.
“I did not risk my life to come home to sell out politicians like Rahm Emanuel,” said Rory Fanning, one of the demonstrators and an Afghanistan war veteran. “I will continue to peacefully agitate and support anyone who agitates against these unjust laws passed by the fraud that is the Chicago City Council. The real fight is here at home.”
From the start, protesters were given the run-around by the police. An announcement was made around 9 a.m. that the discussion of and vote on the protest ordinances would be delayed due to an impromptu memorial ceremony for the late Maggie Daley, wife of the former mayor, and no one would be permitted inside until at least noon. Numerous people in suits walked through the velvet ropes to take their seats inside while protesters remained waiting in line.
Many protesters had to leave to get to work or class because of the delay, but others planned to return by noon in order to rally again and try to get inside for the actual discussion and vote.
However, by 11:30 a.m., ahead of the announced schedule, an Occupy activist inside the soundproofed mezzanine gallery relayed to protesters that it appeared the council had already begun discussion about the ordinance. Protesters demanded to be let in, they were told that there was a “lack of seating.”
“Let us in!” protesters began chanting. Then a police sergeant let slip that the council had officially begun to discuss the ordinance, that there were actually 20 or more empty seats, and that the city council had ordered police not to let protesters in.
The anger of the crowd reached a peak. While protesters chanted, “Let us in! Now!” at the top of their lungs and stomped their feet in time, the media appeared to videotape what was happening. The chanting only let up when police agreed to let 10 protesters inside–when less than 10 were admitted, more chanting ensued.
Voting began only minutes later with the vast majority of community members and protesters barred from the chambers. Outside, protesters chanted, “We vote no!”
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FROM THE floor of the council chamber, various aldermen gushed about the ordinance and applauded Rahm Emanuel for his initiative.
Two of Chicago’s most outspoken “progressive” aldermen defended the City Council decision. Alderman Joe Moore proclaimed himself a staunch defender of civil liberties–and then spoke in favor of the ordinance on the basis that “no rights are absolute, not even our First Amendment rights.”
Alderman Joe Moreno acknowledged receiving no less than 2,000 emails against the ordinance from constituents, but nevertheless voted in favor, citing “public safety,” his “faith in the Chicago Police Department,” and the need to “swiftly arrest” violent protesters.
For their part, protesters, having been shut out of the council chambers, held an impromptu General Assembly in the lobby of City Hall to debrief, debate and plan next steps.
The General Assembly began with a rousing speech by Andy Manos, a member of the Occupy Chicago labor committee. “When a government not only does not respond to human need, but does not respond to the people, it leaves us with no other option than to create our own forms of government and tear the old ones down!” said Manos.
Several speakers expressed anger and frustration at what had just happened and made strong arguments for adopting an appropriate strategy. In the end, the assembly voted unanimously to challenge the ordinance after it goes into effect on January 28 and to launch campaigns targeted at the aldermen who voted in favor of the ordinance.
Most importantly, protesters took inspiration from the fact that the “sit down, shut up” ordinance, which had been intended by Emanuel to stifle dissent, had instead spurred a diverse coalition of organizations and individuals to make common cause–against these ordinances but also against the heavy-handed tactics of Emanuel and the spinelessness of the city’s aldermen.
“When I first joined Occupy Chicago, way back when, I told the General Assembly that I didn’t think we should see Rahm Emanuel as the enemy,” said Ariel. “I though maybe we should look at people like Ben Bernanke and Alan Greenspan as the enemy instead. But fuck it, he’s a damn good villain.”
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