Don’t Let Chicago Make Free Speech a Crime

A BROAD coalition is mobilizing to defend basic rights and liberties from Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel, who is pushing for new laws that would give the city sweeping powers that criminalize protests of all sorts.

In late December, Emanuel proposed a number of changes to the city's ordinance governing parades, as well as a new ordinance that specifically targets protests. Initially, he claimed these were only temporary changes designed to help law enforcement deal with demonstrations against the upcoming joint summit of the Group of 8 nations and the NATO military alliance, set for Chicago in May.

Later, Emanuel was forced to acknowledge that the changes he proposes are permanent. Now he has scheduled a vote on his anti-protest proposals in the City Council–on Wednesday, January 18.

The proposals include burdensome permit requirements for even small sidewalk protests, including a demand that organizers provide, months ahead of time, "a description of any recording equipment, sound amplification equipment, banners, signs or other attention-getting devices." And fines for "resisting arrest" by "passive" means, such as going limp in classic civil-disobedience fashion, would increase dramatically.

The upshot is that almost any organization or group of individuals that wishes to express dissent could quickly find themselves on the wrong side of the law–and subject to arrest and heavy fines.

In response to the outcry against his assault on civil liberties–conservative Chicago Tribune columnist John Cass, for example, denounced him as "Emperor Rahmulus"–Emanuel revised his initial proposal. The city also announced last week that it was granting activists' application for a permit for a May 19 march to protest the NATO/G8 summit.

But despite claims in the media that Emanuel made significant concessions in his revisions, nearly all of the most egregious measures have been left intact, according to activists.

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IN RECENT weeks, labor unions, religious leaders, community groups, Occupy activists and civil liberties defenders have joined forces to organize a campaign against this assault on basic First Amendment rights to free speech and assembly.

The coalition will hold a press conference on Tuesday, January 17, at City Hall at 9 a.m., and it is calling on people from around Chicago, the country and the world to contact the mayor's office that same day to register their disapproval of this attempt to muzzle demonstrations. The next day, activists plan to pack city council chambers when Chicago's aldermen are expected to vote.

These actions were spearheaded by the Coalition Against NATO/G8 War and Poverty Agenda (CANG8), but the effort has grown far larger, with participation from a wide array of groups.

This attack on civil liberties is especially ominous at a time when groups of all sorts–unions, community organizations, public school teachers, health care providers–are faced with the need to mobilize to defend jobs and services from the mayor's budget ax. In recent months, Emanuel has announced the closing of half of the city's mental health clinics, plans to close several public schools, and demands for harsh concessions from teachers in upcoming contract negotiations.

Civil rights leader Rev. Jesse Jackson was among those who lent his support to the challenge to Emanuel's plans. As he said in a statement of solidarity:

Human rights earned by years of struggle and hope must not be vanquished in a moment of fear. And so we march to preserve that which is intrinsic to the integrity of our nation and our self-worth. I appeal to the mayor to honor time-honored principles of our democracy. The right to fight for our rights is what democracy looks like. So long as our fight is nonviolent and transparent, our rights must be honored.

Chicago Teachers Union President Karen Lewis likewise added her voice to the outcry:

We teach our students that free speech, public protest and civic participation are the hallmarks of democracy in our nation. The plan to restrict Chicagoans' First Amendment rights and impose huge fines on those who dare to stand up for what they believe sends the wrong message to over 400,000 Chicago public school students who've been taught our civil liberties exist so we might keep those we entrust with our democratic process accessible and accountable.

Emanuel has had to respond to the outcry about his broadside against the right to dissent, according to Joe Iosbaker, an organizer with CANG8. "The tide of opposition to the mayor's assault on civil liberties is the reason that the city has granted our permit to march on May 19 during the summit where NATO will discuss its plans for war and the G8 will figure out how to further attack the living standards of working people," said Iosbaker. "But we will keep bringing pressure to bear until the mayor stops trying to push through his 'sit-down-and-shut-up' ordinance that targets the right to dissent for all Chicagoans."?

Many different forces are joining in the fight against Emanuel and the attack on our rights. For example, union nurses were at the center of the Occupy Chicago's attempt to establish an encampment, and several were arrested when Emanuel's police force moved in on two successive weekends.

"From the perspective of a nurse who was arrested while providing first-aid care to protesters, Mayor Emanuel's aggressive treatment of peaceful protesters this past year has been disgraceful," said registered nurse Martese Chism. "And with his proposed ordinance changes, he wants to further repress the 99 percent by attacking our constitutional rights of free speech and assembly."

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A STATEMENT by Occupy Chicago outlines the stakes in this battle. As it declares, the proposed ordinance changes contain:

a host of bureaucratic tools, created by and for the 1 percent to relegate, abridge, fine, arrest and silence our speech. It is an attempt to bully and intimidate with increased police power and fines the brave working people who demand the ability to participate democratically in the organizing of our society. It is an attempt by the 1 percent to restrict and regulate the voice of the people when it upsets the structure that put them in power.

The timing of the ordinance demonstrates that it has nothing to do with public safety, but that its sole purpose is to stifle the voice and trample upon the constitutional liberties of all the people of Chicago.

Some 40 years ago, in his "Letter from Birmingham Jail," Martin Luther King Jr. pointed out how city officials and the laws they enact can be used to perpetuate injustice:

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 maintain segregation and to deny citizens the First-Amendment privilege of peaceful assembly and protest.

This is exactly the threat we face in Chicago today. And it is the reason why a broad coalition of people and organizations are standing together to demand that Rahm Emanuel and the city respect the basic civil liberties that generations have fought to win and expand.


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