Chicago Activists Take on City’s New Protest Ordinances

by Kevin Gosztola

A battle over the city of Chicago’s new ordinances passed in the run-up to planned NATO/G8 summits is brewing. Activists that have been organizing protests for the upcoming NATO summit had their march permit denied this week. Just yesterday, they appealed the decision which means organizers will be going before a city commission to argue for the city to grant a permit for a march route proposed for the NATO summit.

The G8 summit is no longer coming to Chicago on May 19. It was moved to Camp David by President Barack Obama earlier this month. But that same weekend NATO is still holding their meeting in Chicago. Thousands of people are still expected to attend and protest.


Andy Thayer, a lead organizer with Coalition Against the NATO/G8 War and Poverty Agenda (CANG8), says the denial by the city is what activists “were warning about back in December and January that these ordinances would have a direct effect on the rights of people” to exercise their First Amendment rights in the city.

CANG8 has been working to get permits for a protest since July of last year. They succeeded in forcing the city to grant them a permit for a rally and march last December. Then, Mayor Rahm Emanuel pressured the city council into passing ordinances that would help the city prepare for the upcoming May summits. These ordinances included protest restrictions that would make it much more difficult for people in Chicago to politically express themselves. The nature of the restrictions led organizers to brand them the “Sit Down, Shut Up” ordinances.

Now, the city has invoked the ordinances and denied a march permit that had already been approved by the city before the ordinances passed. (And, it should be noted the city would not have been able to deny this permit if organizers hadn’t tried to submit a new permit after the G8 was canceled.)

The appeal means the struggle for an acceptable march permit continues in the courts. A press release put out by CANG8 organizers reads, “Our appeal of the City’s permit rejection will be at 10:30 AM next Tuesday, March 27 at the courthouse located at 400 W. Superior, Room 111.” The release adds, “This is a struggle that is more important than any individual or organization. It is about restoring the right to meaningfully protest against the 1% in our City, without harassment from police of other government authorities.”

The city is obligated to offer a comparable alternative when denying a march route. They did. But the route goes through what organizers call a “First Amendment dead zone.” It goes through an area of Chicago where there would be little audience for the message of the protest.

Thayer explains the proposed alternative would miss almost all downtown pedestrian traffic. It would put the rally in the Petrillo Band Shell in Grant Park which is difficult to get to by public transportation.

The rally was originally approved for Daley Plaza, an area in the center of Chicago and accessible to all major modes of public transportation. This was where the march would begin. The city now wants it to be in a location that would be harder to get to. Additionally, the comparable alternative route is longer than the organizers’ proposed route. They want protesters to march more than three miles, which is long for a march but indicative of the fact that the city wants the march to weave through areas where there are little to no residents who would get to see and hear the message of the protest.

Essentially, the city of Chicago is using a clause in the new ordinance that says the city can reject a permit if it doesn’t have a “sufficient” amount of ‘on-duty’ personnel. In an old ordinance, the city could only reject a permit if there were not enough on-duty and off-duty personnel.

This raises the question: When would the city have enough “on-duty” personnel? Would it have enough for organizers of a St. Patrick’s Day parade that could easily become unruly as a result of the number of drunk people participating?

As Thayer concludes, this power to just nix permit applications “sends a very chilling message about the exercise of the First Amendment.” They have an obligation to “pony up” and have “enough personnel so that people can express their First Amendment rights.”

“If they were not in the position to have enough damn personnel, they should have never asked for the summits in the first place.”

What is the likelihood that the organizers prevail in the upcoming Tuesday hearing? “It’s called the mayor’s License Commission for a reason,” says Thayer.

He believes they can win, as they have before, but they need a “tremendous outpouring” of support. Everyone concerned about preserving and expanding the First Amendment in Chicago should attend the upcoming hearing.

“The city was forced to significantly scale back proposals for the ‘sit down, shut up’ ordinances,” Thayer adds. “Here is another opportunity to really push back on Mayor Emanuel’s curtailing of First Amendment rights in the city.”

This article originally appeared on The Dissenter on March 23, 2012.