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Why Emanuel's Proposed Anti-Protester Ordinances Should Concern Everyone

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Even if you have no plans to protest May's G8 & NATO summits, if you want to oppose a school closing, a greedy employer or a clinic shut-down, your rights are in the cross-hairs.

Over the past few weeks Mayor Rahm Emanuel has pulled a classic Chicago bait-and-switch.

Last month, while introducing draconian amendments to sections of the Chicago code and a wholesale rewrite of the parade permit ordinance, he in effect said, "Don't worry, this is just for those 'bad people' coming to Chicago to disrupt the G8 and NATO summits. This won't affect the good people of Chicago. Go back to sleep."

But then came the classic switch: when the actual language of the proposed legislation was produced, there were no sunset clauses in most of the proposed "temporary" measures.

A "mistake," said Rahm.

"He lied," I said at a press conference.

You can be the judge as to whether this was simply an "oops" moment for Rahm, or whether his thought process is more malevolent. As someone who's long had dealings with the City over the old permit ordinance, I can tell you that the proposed ordinance is uniformly much, much worse.

The overall effect is to put a bureaucratic stranglehold on attempts of protest organizers to give expression to the 1st amendment, so tying them up in ticky-tacky provisions, fines and possible jail time that only a masochist would organize a protest with a message that the city fathers don't want to hear.

And it's fair to assume that Mayor 1% doesn't like anti-G8/NATO protesters' messages. As congressman he had the most hawkish voting record of the Chicago-area congressional delegation, slavishly supporting Bush's Iraq War at every turn. He also was Congress's #1 recipient of campaign donations from the financial services industry, quite a feat when you consider the competition for that distinction.

Since the proposed changes to Chicago's ordinances aren't only against those "bad" anti-G8/NATO protesters, but are permanent, they would directly affect anyone who may have a beef with city hall or private employers, whether it's over school closings, health clinic cutbacks, unfair working conditions, immigrant rights or what have you. In a country where the federal government has just officially nixed habeas corpus and the Magna Carta, G8/NATO is the excuse du jour to dramatically erode the First Amendment in our city.

While last month the most widely-reported of Emanuel's proposed changes were those concerning resisting arrest, no-bid contracts and Chicago police deputizing of other "law enforcement" personnel (however that's defined), these are short amendments to existing legislation. Lost in the shuffle was a wholesale re-write of the City's parade permit ordinance, 10-8-330, and the additional of two whole new sections related to it.

The widely-reported amendments are indeed worrisome, as the no-bid contracts provision, for example, is an invitation to further enhance Chicago's well-deserved reputation for world-class graft. In a City that already doles out millions of dollars each year (see also here, here, and here) for rights abuses by its sworn police officers, the subcontracting of police authority to those "law enforcement" people with even looser supervision is an invitation to even greater police violence and other rights abuses.

And for in-town or out-of-town protesters not familiar with Chicago's fairly unique interpretation of what constitutes "resisting arrest," non-violent civil disobedience could now carry a $200-$1000 fine, up from $25-$500, in addition to more to other, more typical misdemeanor charges. Since at least 2005, Chicago, in contrast to most other areas of the country, has considered "going limp" in the face of arrest to be resisting, and has successfully prosecuted some of us on that score. To underscore this unique interpretation of resisting arrest, Emanuel's new ordinance language codifies it by stating that "'resist' shall mean passive as well as active resistance."

But aside from these provisions, the central line of Emanuel's attack is against those who organize protests, tying them into so many legal and bureaucratic knots that they have precious few resources to devote to the issues they're protesting about.

Under the proposed new parade permit ordinance, 10-8-330, minimum fines for violations would jump 20-fold, from $50 to $1000. Chicagoans rightly were aghast when Daley's sweetheart deal to privatize parking meters caused rates to jump several times over the next few years, but 20 times in one month? The maximum fine would double to $2000 and potentially include 10 days in jail.

As one who has been charged under 10-8-330 more times than I can count, I can tell you that the ordinance is used by police to punish organizers of events that they are hostile to like, say, protests against police brutality. The burden of proof in the courts where these charges almost always tried, 400 W. Superior Street, is so low that arresting officers don't even have to appear in court. Their testimony, in the form of police reports, is not subject to cross-examination, and is taken as truthful unless proven otherwise by the defense.

Aside from the penalties for violations, the new ordinance would also impose a host of new requirements on demonstration organizers, most of which would be difficult if not impossible to fulfill. This sets the stage for -- you guessed it -- piling on of more fines:

* Virtually every street protest in the downtown would be designated a "large parade" requiring $1 million liability insurance and for organizers to "agree to reimburse the city for any damage to the public way or to city property arising out of or caused by the parade";

* Large parade or not, organizers would be required to provide the city with "a description of any recording equipment, sound amplification equipment, banners, signs, or other attention-getting devices to be used in connection with the parade" at least a week in advance of the march;

* Every contingent in the march and the order in which they would appear would have to be registered at least a week in advance with the City; and,

* Demonstration organizers would be required to have one marshal for every 100 participants.

* Under a wholly new section of the municipal code (10-8-334), even gatherings on sidewalks, with no presence in the streets, would now be subject to demands that they get permits, giving the City extraordinary latitude to dictate what union and other pickets occur or get shut down by police action.

The absurdity of these requirements will be readily apparent to anyone who has ever organized a protest march. Individuals and groups unknown to you show up with their own banners, bullhorns, "attention-getting devices" and the like. Are the organizers obligated to turn away the "unregistered" participants and their gear? As for the one marshal per 100 participants requirement, a myriad of unpredictable factors like the weather, competing events and effectiveness in publicity make determining in advance how many participants will appear the loosest of guesswork.

The opportunities for City authorities to take political revenge on demonstration organizers -- while hiding behind the technical requirements of the parade ordinance -- will multiply. Already, anti-war organizers are routinely dinged for alleged minor infractions of the current ordinance, while organizers of far more disruptive non-political parades are given a pass by the police.

What this all adds up to is that with the threat of onerous fines, insurance and marshaling personnel requirements, only the wealthiest non-governmental organizations and businesses will organize protests without a degree of trepidation. As with Police Superintendent Garry McCarthy's threats of thousands of riot-clad police ringing the summits, the net effect of the proposed ordinance challenges is to chill the free exercise of the First Amendment.

With the mayor waiting to introduce these ordinance changes until the holiday season, few in the city know their provisions. A prominent reporter/political commentator I spoke to a few days ago was largely in the dark. She had contacted the City to get the language of the changes, and either by design or incompetence was not given most of the material. It's therefore fair to assume that most aldermen also don't know the content of the legislation, let alone its implications for a vibrant political culture in our city.

That's where you come in. Contact the aldermen on the committees responsible for the new legislation -- the Committee on Special Events, Cultural Affairs and Recreation (overseeing the new parade permit and public gatherings ordinances, 10-8-330 and 10-8-334) and the Committee on Budget and Government Operations (overseeing the provisions for no-bid contracts, deputizing "law enforcement," and the proposed revisions to the resisting arrest ordinance). And whether or not your alderman is on either committee, contact him or her.

Share your concerns with them about why Emanuel's proposed legislation is not the kind of retreat to a more repressive city that you would like.