CHICAGO -- The tug of war between activists planning to rally during the NATO Summit in Chicago and a new mayor determined to keep order in a city with a checkered past of protests has come down to a parade route.
After long insisting there would be enough police to keep order during the gathering of U.S. and European leaders in May, city officials now say there won't be enough officers to watch a large march along the requested route. The claim has raised eyebrows because officials, all the way up to President Barack Obama, expressed confidence in Chicago's ability to handle the summit – and the thousands of expected protesters.
It is the latest chapter in a dispute between Mayor Rahm Emanuel, who was granted extraordinary powers to maintain order during the two-day event, and activists intent on portraying him as an enemy of free speech as they harken back to the city's less than flattering history of quashing protests.
On Tuesday, a group of activists will appeal a city transportation department ruling that turned down their request to hold the march May 20. Organizers are promising to file a lawsuit if the city rules against them.
Activists were originally granted a permit to hold a parade that Saturday, May 19, to coincide with the G-8 Summit, a meeting of world leaders that is smaller but routinely attracts huge protests.
But when the White House moved that event from Chicago to Camp David, the president's well-guarded retreat near Washington, activists asked to move the march back a day to coincide with the NATO Summit. They wanted the same route running past Daley Plaza, a central gathering spot in the heart of the city's government and business district.
The request was denied by the Chicago Transportation Department's leader.
"The commissioner finds that there are not available at the time of the parade a sufficient number of on-duty police officers, or other city employees authorized to regulate traffic, to police and protect lawful participants in the parade and non-participants," Mike Simon, assistant commissioner of the department, wrote to activist organizer Andy Thayer of the Coalition Against the NATO/G8 War & Poverty Agenda.
City officials said the NATO Summit would be far larger than the G-8 Summit, since more than 50 heads of state and as many as 5,000 NATO delegates are scheduled to attend. City law department spokesman Roderick Drew said traffic issues would be far greater that Sunday, May 20, since dozens of heads of state and their security teams would be using downtown streets.
"Saturday, eight heads of state would have been fine; Sunday with 50 plus is not," he said.
Emanuel supported the decision, saying the route would need to be changed if protesters wanted to march that Sunday.
Activists scoffed at the claims, questioning how the city would have enough officers to handle a march Saturday but not Sunday – especially since the original parade permit was granted when the city was still scheduled to host back-to-back international summits.
"It defies logic," Thayer said. "Ultimately the city is ... pursuing a political agenda of denying meaningful First Amendment expression of anti-war views."
He said the city's suggested alternative route isn't a solution, largely because it keeps the protesters several blocks away from Daley Plaza. Thayer believes the permit denial was designed to keep the numbers of marchers down. The suggested route is also longer, cutting into time protesters will be allowed to rally outside the convention center where the summit is being held.
He and others also note the city's history dealing with protests, dating back to 1968 when police famously struck protesters with billy clubs during the Democratic National Convention. The city paid more than $6 million this year to settle a lawsuit stemming from the mass arrests made during a protest of the Iraq War in 2003.
The current fights adds up, Thayer contends, to Emanuel's effort to muzzle dissent that started when the mayor proposed increasing the maximum fine for resisting arrest from $200 to $1,000. Ultimately, Emanuel backed down from that plan after City Council members voiced concerns about clamping down on free speech.
Emanuel, Obama's former chief of staff who became Chicago's mayor last year, has repeatedly said he sees no conflict between people's right to express themselves and his responsibility to enforce the law. He has also made clear to Chicagoans and to the White House that his city could handle security for two summits.
Chicago Police Superintendent Garry McCarthy agreed. A City Council ordinance pushed through by Emanuel gave McCarthy authority to deputize out-of-state police, but McCarthy said he likely won't have to bring in other officers for the event.
Last week, Emanuel steered clear of suggestions that there weren't enough police to allow the protesters to march the day they're now requesting. Instead, he repeated a familiar refrain that the police department has transferred hundreds of officers from clerical jobs to street duty during his time as mayor.
But the manpower issue is contentious. Many officers are complaining that if McCarthy slashes his budget by $190 million, as he said the mayor has asked him to do, it would mean layoffs in a department already struggling to keep the city safe. That helps explain why the transportation official's letter to Thayer attracted the police officers' union.
"Clearly, the transportation department understands that there is not enough manpower," said Mike Shields, the union president. "At least one hand of the government understands that, while the other hand – the police department – is in complete denial about our manpower shortage."