CHICAGO—This May world leaders will convene in Chicago for two international summits, NATO and G-8, but they won’t be coming alone. Big protests are expected to accompany the dual gatherings of economic superpowers, and authorities want to make sure there aren’t also big problems.
While much has changed since the city’s bloody 1968 Democratic Convention, Chicago officials are taking extra precautions for their 2012 world welcoming party. To mitigate any problems associated with peaceable assemblies turning ugly, Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel last month suggested tougher restrictions for protesters—including relegating assemblies to sidewalks, registration requirements for individuals and equipment, liability insurance demands, and big fines for demonstrators who fail to comply.
This is the first year since London in 1977 that both the NATO and G-8 summits have been held in one location. With so many world leaders in the Windy City at once, the upcoming double bill has been dubbed “a security challenge that no American city has ever had to face.”
Mayor Emanuel claims he’s committed to First Amendment protections, but says he also has a responsibility to ensure public safety. Last month the mayor told reporters that he would strive to achieve both objectives.
“Guys, it’s not a big deal,” Emanuel said, trying to quell concerns. “This is a one-time event. We are going to do it in an organized fashion.”
But critics say the mayor isn’t only targeting summit-meeting demonstrations. While these “one-time event” rules were originally believed to only apply to the visiting summit meetings, the mayor now says they will be a permanent fixture.
“I misspoke and I take responsibility for the confusion,” said Emanuel earlier this month clarifying the permanence of his proposed amendments in the city’s municipal code.
“He lied,” said long-time Chicago activist Andy Thayer in a recent press conference.
Organizers say the new restrictions place “onerous limits” on the right to free speech and assembly, and make putting a demonstration together nearly impossible.
While G-8/NATO host cities typically ramp up restrictions and security measures for the big event, the confusion over how long Chicago’s proposed restrictions would last has added more fuel than usual to the flame.
Thayer says that since the mayor’s changes don’t only impact anti-G-8/NATO protesters, they will directly affect anyone “who may have a beef with City Hall or private employers,” including issues over school closings, health clinic cutbacks, unfair working conditions, immigrant rights, and more.
“The opportunities for city authorities to take political revenge on demonstration organizers—while hiding behind the technical requirements of the parade ordinance—will multiply,” wrote Thayer in an article detailing the many problems he sees with the proposed changes.
Mayor Emanuel argues that the municipal code is due for an update, but a coalition of labor unions, religious leaders, and local Occupy organizers are urging city officials to reconsider what they call the Sit Down and Shut Up ordinance, and are holding a press conference outside City Hall this week just before the measure is up for vote.
“Given what the ordinance actually says, it cannot be construed as an effort to protect the integrity of G-8 and NATO conferences,” organizers wrote in a letter to City Council members. “The consequences of this attack will be far reaching, and will be felt by protesters throughout the city, most of whom will never have any connection to the protests associated with these events.”
Organizers threaten to sue the city if ordinance changes remain permanent.