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Rahm Ramps up the Repression in Chicago: New Protest Rules Ahead of the G-8/NATO Meetings

How Mayor Rahm Emanuel and elites intend to defend the city against free speech.

Ahead of the overlapping G-8 and NATO summits in Chicago scheduled for May 19th-21st, Mayor Rahm Emanuel has ramped up the repression of principled dissent in a city that has quite the history of it. Just three months after closing down Occupy Chicago before it could even develop an overnight encampment, “Rahmbo” has introduced two new ordinances that would overhaul the city’s existing laws dealing with protests and parades. Dubbed by Occupy Chicago as the “Sit Down and Shut Up” ordinance, the measures include increased fines for resisting arrest, reduced opening hours for public parks, and much stricter parade regulations. Together, they appear to be an effort to stifle free speech under the guise of defending the public from unwieldy “anarchists.”

The mayor is keen to avoid adversity around meetings designed to elevate the status of a city long bent on shaking its “Second City” image. On the heels of Obama’s election in 2008, Chicago’s political establishment has sought to parlay electoral triumph into a watershed moment for the city’s economic elite. After a disastrously failed Olympics bid, these twin meetings present the best opportunity to “showcase our extraordinary city to the world,” as Emanuel puts it. However, if these measures are any indication, it may be Chicago’s shameful tradition of political repression that will be drawing all of the attention around the summits.

New Fines and Ordinances

One ordinance ups the minimum fine for resisting arrest from $25 to $200, while the other adds an array of inordinately burdensome filing requirements to the existing parade law. Examples of the new obligations in the second ordinance include a mandate that organizers account for all “recording equipment, sound amplification equipment, banners, signs, or other attention-getting devices to be used in connection with the parade” at least a week prior. Furthermore, organizers will be required to appoint one “parade marshal” for every one hundred participants. As such, the ordinance does not draw a distinction between festival parades and political marches, which is distressing given that it is virtually impossible to accurately predict the number of participants in the latter, let alone control who might show up with a banner or a bullhorn. Compliance with the stipulations of this ordinance will be virtually impossible, and, yet, violations will see minimum fines increase 20-fold from $50 to $1000.

The mayor initially described the changes as temporary measures designed to address the presumed influx of protesters from throughout the world, though organizers adeptly noticed that the ordinances’ language would suggest otherwise. In fact, the only temporary change is the stipulation regarding the related spending authority. When the inconsistency was raised to Emanuel in a Press Conference, he replied: “I misspoke, and I take responsibility for the confusion.” However, some protest organizers believe he made no “mistake,” and instead was intentionally being misleading. One organizer, Andy Thayer, told me: “This thing was permanent right from the start. He wanted to sneak it through like (the city’s parking meter privatization) by introducing it just before Christmas.” Thayer sees the rule changes as less about maintaining order during the meetings and more about silencing oppositional voices: “They are using this to harass people with messages that they don’t like.” He went on to describe this as a “thuggish” move on Emanuel’s part, reminiscent of the behavior of his predecessor, the second Richard Daley.

The continuity in political character comes despite vapid campaign promises about changing course. In winning the first Daley-free election since 1987, Emanuel said he would usher in “the most open, accountable, and transparent government that the City of Chicago has ever seen.” This is about the equivalent of Theo Epstein promising to create the greatest Cubs team of all time. The bar has not exactly been set very high, as local investigative reporter Mick Dumke relates: “Mayor Daley’s greatest exercise in transparency was his decision to publicly disclose every Freedom of Information Act request submitted to the city. When he announced the initiative, Daley could hardly stop giggling long enough to claim it was about opening up government, not fucking with reporters (ibid).”