On Monday, I had the honor of joining in our nation's celebration of the life and legacy of one of the great protesters of the last century. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. marched, and led historic marches of thousands, through the streets of city after city -- Selma, Memphis, Washington, D.C., and Chicago -- in a quest for justice that shook our society to its foundations and changed our lives indelibly. Watching footage of those marches, a phrase came to mind, born of similar struggles: this is what democracy looks like.
Today the Chicago City Council will consider measures that would impose severe restrictions and excessive constraints on the freedom to engage in the very activities that we honored yesterday and that we claim to cherish as a nation born of protest. Mayor Emanuel's proposed changes to the ordinances governing our right to protest fly in the face of Dr. King's legacy.
The contradiction between the legacy of Rev. King and these threatened constraints is striking.
As the coalition of community and labor organizations that issued the recent Open Letter to Chicago Aldermen on this critical matter observed:
Had these restrictions been in place during Rev. King's lifetime, much of the civil rights movement could have been squelched -- with the result that we would be living in a much less free, much less diverse country today.
As Dr. King wrote in his "Letter from a Birmingham Jail":
Sometimes a law is just on its face and unjust in its application. For instance, I have been arrested on a charge of parading without a permit. Now, there is nothing wrong in having an ordinance which requires a permit for a parade. But such an ordinance becomes unjust when it is used to... deny citizens the First-Amendment privilege of peaceful assembly and protest.
The contradiction is striking.
Make no mistake: these enhanced measures would disproportionately impact working and low-income people -- those who can least afford it -- and are an assault on labor rights. As the Open Letter to Aldermen points out, the measures would:
• limit the basic rights of workers to engage in concerted activity and collective action
• hamper the ability of community organizations to engage in public protest
• diminish or curtail completely the ability of striking workers to form a picket line
• prevent homeowners from protesting illegal foreclosures
This would dishonor the life and legacy of Dr. King, just two days after our nation honored his life and legacy.
The contradiction is striking.
The timing of these proposed measures is disturbing. At a moment when income inequality is growing, foreclosures are on the rise, unemployment and underemployment remain rampant, attacks on the rights of workers continue, and the economic pain of millions of ordinary people deepens -- conditions that push people into the streets to protest -- the mayor wants to curtail the right to protest and deter the very people suffering the most from saying anything about it.
This is not what democracy looks like.
It was just a month ago that TIME magazine -- not exactly an insurrectionary publication -- named 'The Protester' its Person of the Year for 2011. From the democratic uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt that sparked a wave of protest throughout the region, to the Battle of Madison -- the fight over the rights of public sector workers in Wisconsin, Indiana, Ohio and beyond that drew tens of thousands of Americans into the streets and state capitols, and the Occupy movement, which has galvanized an impressive range of people across the country to stand up against the obscene inequalities in our economic system: 2011 was a forceful reminder, TIME's editors wrote, that protesters -- "citizen multitudes [who take] to the streets without weapons to declare themselves opposed" -- are "prime makers of history."
As the Chicago Tribune noted in its recent editorial opposing the mayor's proposed changes to the protest ordinances, Philadelphia police officers are required to read the 1st Amendment before starting a shift. Mayor Emanuel would do well to follow their example. And before the city's aldermen vote on these measures Wednesday, let us hope that they take a moment to glance at that text and meditate on its enduring significance for us today.