Published on August 26, 2011 by the Associated Press
By TAMMY WEBBER
With nine months to go, dozens of groups will gather Sunday to organize what could be the largest demonstrations in Chicago in years. They say tens of thousands of people may converge for the May meetings between members of NATO and the Group of Eight — France, Germany, Italy, Japan, Canada, Russia and the United Kingdom and the U.S. The meetings will include discussions about the future of coalition operations in Afghanistan.
The summit will put Chicago in the international spotlight and, some say, test new Mayor Rahm Emanuel and his police force.
While some world summit protests have turned unruly and violent, the organizers of Sunday’s event — retirees, gay rights activists, even the recycling manager at a local university — say they expect peaceful demonstrations and any trouble would come from provocateurs or police themselves.
“Our goal is a legal, permitted, family friendly march where people can come and have their voices heard in a safe environment,” said Pat Hunt, of Chicago Area Code Pink and Chicago Area Peace Action.
John Russick, a curator at the Chicago Historical Society, said demonstrations have always been a part of Chicago history. Some weren’t so peaceful, like the infamous 1968 Democratic National Convention, when police violently clashed with an estimated 10,000 protesters, and others were relatively problem-free, including those involving equal housing, gay rights and even the 1996 Democratic National Convention.
“One of the most interesting aspects of Chicago history is the dynamic of city politics and demonstrations; it’s part of our culture and has been for long time,” Russick said. “Chicago has strong commitment to civil liberties but also has a history of wanting to keep the peace. It will be interesting how these two things balance out when the G8 is here.”
City officials said it’s too early to talk about specifics, but they’re committed to keeping the city safe while assuring protesters have a voice.
Emanuel told The Associated Press in a written statement that the summits are “a tremendous opportunity for Chicago to showcase itself to the world … (and) a major responsibility that we take very seriously.”
He said part of the city’s planning effort includes ensuring First Amendment rights.
But Hunt said Chicago police in the recent past have tried to confine protests to free-speech “zones” and arrested peaceful demonstrators.
“We’re pretty clear what the challenges are. We’ve been there, (though) certainly not on this scale,” Hunt said. “So we’ll get more bodies and ramp it up.”
The planning starts Sunday, when representatives of more than 50 groups are scheduled to meet at the Chicago-Kent College of Law to vote on an organizational structure for a coalition, set goals and establish work groups with the goal of bringing in as many people as possible to protest policies they say promote war and poverty.
“We thought we needed to bring all the forces together nationally and internationally in Chicago to protest … the twin heads of a lot of the problems in our society,” said Ashley Smith, of the New York-based United National Antiwar Committee.
It’s not unusual for activists to begin planning months ahead of big demonstrations, said UNAC co-coordinator Joe Lombardo, a retired state worker from New York who protested the G20 summit in Pittsburgh. But in Chicago “it’s clear we’re going to have a civil liberties fight” for permits and other issues, making it imperative to begin now, he said.
Part of their concern, organizers say, stems from the arrest of more than 900 demonstrators during a 2003 march to protest the war in Afghanistan. A federal judge ruled earlier this year that police acted “without justification,” sending the case back to a lower court for trial. The city said marchers didn’t have a permit and ignored orders to disperse, but the judge said the city had allowed he march to proceed without a permit.
What’s more, Chicago Police Supt. Garry McCarthy was quoted in published reports last month saying he was scouting staging areas for protesters during the summits, and the department was training its 13,000 officers to make mass arrests.
Those planning the world summit protests said they sent Emanuel a letter demanding the city grant them permits to rally and march, guarantee their civil liberties will be protected and promise law enforcement won’t spy on or infiltrate their groups. Emanuel spokeswoman Jennifer Martinez said she didn’t know if Emanuel received the letter or would respond, but she said it was too early to grant permits.
Activists said if there is any civil disobedience in Chicago, it will be peaceful.
“We will not be the ones to initiate or perpetrate any violence,” said Smith, from the anti-war committee. “We will back off from any violence.”
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