Free speech has no curfew

October 24, 2011

The city is still cracking down on Occupy Chicago, report Eric Ruder and Eric Kerl.

SOME 3,000 people from all walks of life marched to Grant Park on October 22 to set up an expanded encampment for Occupy Chicago--but for the second week in a row, Chicago's Democratic Party mayor and his police force responded with mass arrests.

Though marchers reached the space they wanted to use for an encampment, police told them they had to leave by 11 p.m. When protesters refused, police arrested about 130 people.

In the four weeks since Occupy Chicago began, protesters have gathered in front of the Federal Reserve Bank of Chicago in the heart of the city's financial district, but narrow sidewalks and restrictive rules imposed by police made an actual encampment impossible. The cops insisted that protesters keep moving throughout the night and not set up any structures, making sleep and shelter from the elements impossible.

On October 15, about 4,000 people marched to a planned new site for Occupy Chicago in a small section of Grant Park, the city's vast lakefront park area. Police ordered the demonstrators to leave by the park's closing time of 11 p.m.--about 170 people were arrested.

Defiant Occupy Chicago protesters were arrested after refusing to leave Grant Park
Defiant Occupy Chicago protesters were arrested after refusing to leave Grant Park (Chris Bentley)

This weekend's mobilization was designed to send a clear message: Free speech doesn't have a curfew. There's no practical reason why the city shouldn't allow protesters to stay overnight in Grant Park--just as there was no good reason why the Occupy Wall Street encampment in New York City needed to be cleared so Zuccotti Park could be "cleaned," as New York City Michael Bloomberg was compelled to admit after thousands of people mobilized to defend the occupation.

But Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel--President Barack Obama's former right-hand man and one of the most powerful figures in the Democratic Party--has made it clear that protesters won't have the right to freedom of speech and assembly in his city.

To underline the point, Chicago police--reportedly on orders from Emanuel himself--kept those arrested on the second weekend behind bars for as long as possible. Some remained in lockup as this article was being published.

According to those arrested, conditions behind bars were difficult--there was little food, the cells were cold, and many weren't informed of their rights, given a phone call or provided with an explanation of the charges they faced. "It's very clear that our rights to assemble and occupy a space semi-permanently are not existent at this point," one protester told reporters.

What you can do

National Nurses United is asking supporters to call Mayor Rahm Emanuel's office at 312-744-5000 to demand the immediate dismissal of all charges against protesters and an end to the harassment of people peacefully exercising their free-speech rights.

NNU nurses are planning to picket the mayor's office at 10 a.m. on October 24, at City Hall's LaSalle Street entrance.

The Coalition Against NATO/G8 in Chicago plans to hold an "Occupy City Hall" action on October 26 to demand the right to free speech and assembly for Occupy Chicago in its effort to set up an encampment and for activists who want the city to grant a permit for a mass march within sight and sound of the NATO/G8 summit.

But that's something many Occupy activists across the U.S., from Boston to San Francisco and Cincinnati to Orlando, are discovering--as far as the authorities are concerned, it's a crime to speak out.

IN CHICAGO, when marchers arrived at Grant Park October 22, the occupation of the square began in high spirits, as activists formed a drum circle with singing and dancing. Others gathered to share readings from past struggle included in Howard Zinn and Anthony Arnove's Voices of People's History of the United States.

But there was also tension in the air. Many wondered if there were sufficient numbers to hold the square. Occupy Chicago's direct action committee brought the question before the entire crowd: Should we stay and attempt to occupy the square with the hundreds of protesters who remained, or move to another location that would be less visible, but without a curfew?

After people were asked to physically divide out according to their opinion--and the crowd was shown to be about evenly divided--passionate debates filled the air.

One powerful argument came from a member of National Nurses United (NNU), whose union had erected an emergency medical tent in the center of the square where protesters had assembled. She argued that the nurses had come to occupy and would keep their tent on the square as long as possible.

The nurses' tent became the focal point for an occupation of 150 to 200 activists, who surrounded it and linked arms. Other activists gathered around the perimeter of the square and chanted in solidarity with the occupiers--among them, members of the United Steelworkers, student activists and others.

Organized labor's show of strength in New York City was decisive in stopping Mayor Bloomberg's attempt to remove occupiers from Zuccotti Park. In Chicago, labor didn't mobilize on the scale that many had hoped for.

Still, many union members came on their own. "I've been out of work for almost two years," said Larry Coutts, a union sprinkler fitter from a Chicago suburb. "There's just no jobs out there. And the politicians' priorities are all wrong. Instead of saving the banks, we should be focused on saving people's jobs and homes."

Melanie Jurek, a sophomore at DePaul University, heard about the protest from friends on Facebook. "I just felt like I needed to be part of this movement," she said. "Everything seems so messed up, and my generation doesn't have anything going for it. We have to do something or it will just get worse."

But if the younger generation feels like it has nothing to look forward to, the older generation is desperate about the present. "I've had it," said Gina Chandler, who retired after years of work cleaning homes. "People like me work all their lives. And once we're old, we still can't rest. We can't afford to. I'm 67 years old, and I have to find a job just to afford my apartment. I'm glad these young people are doing this."

BETWEEN THE two mass arrests, some 300 Chicago activists face misdemeanor charges, and Occupy Chicago is beginning a campaign to demand both a place to set up camp and that the city drop charges against peaceful protesters exercising their First Amendment rights.

The NNU issued a statement that condemned "Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel for his decision to arrest nurse volunteers, as well as peaceful protesters, in a late-night crackdown."

As NNU Executive Director Rose Ann DeMoro said, "Even in wartime, combatants respect the work of nurses and other first responders. Yet Mayor Emanuel and Chicago seem to care as little about that tradition as they do in protecting the constitutional rights of free speech and assembly. These arrests are disgraceful and unconscionable, and will not deter our nurses from continuing this mission, setting up the station again and continuing to support the protests."

One reason for Emanuel's hard-line approach to protesters is the upcoming NATO-G8 summit set for Chicago in May, where the leaders of the global 1 percent will make their plans for dealing with the 99 percent. Activists from Chicago and across the U.S. have already begun planning for demonstrations and counter-summits--and Emanuel and his police want to send a message, as the Chicago Tribune explained:

[P]olice decided they could not allow protesters to spend the night in Grant Park because it would be harder to get them out later and set a bad precedent for dealing with demonstrators expected to come to Chicago during the G-8 and NATO summits to be held in May, a police source said early this week. Mayor Rahm Emanuel said this week that he consulted with Police Superintendent Garry McCarthy before the arrests were made.

Instead of spending millions to host a conference of the global 1 percent, Emanuel should stop denying free speech and assembly rights to the Occupy movement.

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