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


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).”

While Emanuel has published city worker salaries online along with information on the money trail of City Hall lobbyists, local reporters are insistent that he has maintained the Daley tradition of secrecy. David Kidwell of the Tribuneexplains: “City officials routinely invoke the legal right to a two-week extension to comply with records requests, only to reject them. Weeks of negotiations may follow. Like the game "Battleship" where players try to guess the location of hidden ships, officials frequently ask that requests be narrowed and then respond that such records don't exist.” Meanwhile, the administration has rendered reporting more difficult by trimming the support staff charged with press communication as part of his austerity budget. Obtaining any information outside of carefully spun drivel has become increasingly difficult in Chicago.

Chicago's Problematic Protest History

However, as worrisome as the lack of transparency is, the ramping up of political repression is even more bothersome, especially given the city’s history. Many of the current protest organizers were involved in anti-war organizing in 2003, when nine hundred people were arrested in a march that took to the iconic Lake Shore Drive on the day the Iraq war began. Still other organizers were around when the original Boss Daley deployed thousands of Chicago police officers and members of the Illinois National Guard on peaceful protesters during the Democratic National Convention of 1968. One veteran of that episode from the city’s past is Don Rose, who made the following comment to the Sun-Times regarding Emanuel’s actions: “I was one of the organizers when the whole world was watching (in ’68), and I see some unfortunate parallels here. The more pugnacious the city behaves, the more pugnacious they can expect as a response. This can be done peacefully. But mass repression appears to be on the threshold, and the city should be well beyond that by now.”

The city has proven incapable of shaking a history of repression that dates back to the origins of May Day, the international workers’ holiday, in 1886. That May 4th, a pipe bomb went off during a rally at Haymarket Square, provoking a violent police response that resulted in eight dead from amongst their own ranks, in addition to an unknown number of civilians. In the hysteria that followed, eight of the labor organizers were tried for inciting riot, and seven were sentenced to death. Five were ultimately murdered at the gallows, most notably Albert Parsons, who saw his pending execution as a state crime of passion. He said:

“You ask me why sentence of death should not be pronounced upon me, or, . . . ask me why you should give me a new trial in order that I might establish my innocence and the ends of justice be subserved. I answer you and say that this verdict is born in passion, nurtured in passion, and is the sum totality of the organized passion of the city of Chicago."

This is a passion that continues to rage in the city today, stoked by the incendiary words of authorities. Chicago Fraternal Order of Police president Michael Shields has warned that the anti-G8/NATO protests attract a “bunch of wild, anti-globalist anarchists.” He further explained: “These aren’t 14-year-old kids running wild downtown stealing iPhones. These are people who travel around the world as professional anarchists and rioters. We’re concerned not only for the safety of our own Chicago police officers but for the safety of citizens of Chicago and the security of local business properties.”  CPD superintendant Garry McCarthy has, for his part, spoken of preparations being made for “mass arrests.” He also says that his 12,000 strong force will go to 12-hour shifts that weekend, so that a third of the department could be devoted to policing the protests. Furthermore, the new ordinances allow for McCarthy to deputize additional officers from an array of public and private sources. The prospect of rent-a-cops, hired in an atmosphere of inflammatory provocation by authorities, in a city with a violently repressive past, is disconcerting to say the least.

Elite Standoff

In many ways, the standoff being orchestrated by the power elite of Chicago is a microcosm of larger political processes ongoing in the United States. The planned protests in the Windy City mirror the larger Occupy movement insofar as both address the concentration of political and economic power in a dwindling few hands. They both take exception to the fact that the world’s agenda is being set by a small group of leaders that have taken “austerity” as their principle cause in combating the current crisis of finance capital. NATO and the G-8 are the international manifestations of American military and political power, respectively. They are specifically designed to represent the agenda of the 1 percent, and so they should naturally draw the attention of the Occupy movement. Perhaps realizing this, Rahm made sure that Occupy Chicago was never permitted to blossom as in other cities, hoping to deflate potential protest in May.

As the architect of the Obama presidency and the DLC that preceded it, Emanuel is the standard-bearer of the new Democratic Party. His ruthlessness is but a symbol of a party that has too often abandoned any meaningful connection to its “New Deal” past, whilst embracing the neo-liberal agenda of the international financial and monetary organizations that the G-8 embodies. The Clinton White House began by enacting “welfare reform” and NAFTA while continuing the deregulation of Wall Street, and Obama has been a reliable supporter of Wall Street interests, having waltzed into Washington with the best-funded presidential campaign ever assembled. While maintaining this country’s imperialist military posture in the Middle East, he has expanded its covert missions and use of drone warfare. Meanwhile, he has repeatedly placed entitlement programs on the chopping block under the guise of “compromise” with an outrageous Republican Party establishment. Furthermore, he has overseen executive overstep by approving of the indefinite detention and even assassination of American citizens suspected of “terrorism.”

The truth is that the rise in political repression has nothing to do with “terrorism” and everything to do with elite fears about public response to their enforced austerity regime. As state and municipal governments, including Chicago’s, have ravaged the public commons by laying off teachers, cutting library hours, and slashing other vital services, the American people have begun pushing back in captivating fashion. As in 1968, there is a great democratic awakening ongoing in this country, as well as a vicious response from above.

Judging from Emanuel’s plans, Chicago may be headed for a repeat of history. While the ordinances are still up for a city council vote on Thursday, January 18th, this assembly has proven itself to be a marked nonentity time and time again. The austerity budget now in force passed with a 50-0 vote last year in an altogether pathetic display of political subservience. Nonetheless, protest organizer Andy Thayer believes that organizers could build the momentum necessary to sway the council to a “no” vote. He says “the only way you can stop things like this in Chicago is to do a full court press.” For starters, the Sun-Times found three potential dissenting aldermen in a report January 12th by Fran Spielman: Michele Smith, Scott Waguespack, and Ameya Pawar. However, it is hard to envision these three growing to over half of the council. In reality, this seems headed for another “rubber stamp.”

With the help of his enabler alderman, Emanuel will likely mirror Obama in the oval office by expanding executive power. Meanwhile, these two will converge in Chicago to wine and dine the world’s military, political and economic elite. While they aim to elevate the profile of their hometown, it looks like they are only going to showcase the city’s authoritarian past and present.

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