What Chicago can learn from last weekend's Occupy Oakland riots

January 31, 2012

Occupy Wall Street may have started out as a global movement but, in the last few months, as numerous encampments became embroiled in turf wars that were more and more local in nature, it began to look as if some of the movement’s more agglutinating issues were getting diluted. Occupy Oakland, which is practically engaged in hand to hand combat with Mayor Jean Quan, seemed the poster child for this kind of parochial diffusion. 

Last Saturday night, rioting broke out again in Oakland. On face value, it seemed the same as before: protestors trying to maintain a foothold on public space as an aggressive and widely discredited police force used excessive -- almost gleefully excessive force -- to keep them out. (There isn’t a lot of debate about what a debacle the OPD is as it verges on the edge of federal receivership, but it continues to flaunt basic rules, as happened recently when a judge found an officer guilty of deliberately covering his name tag to avoid identification by protestors.) 

But, in fact, things were quite different this time, and if anyone needs to take special notice, it’s Mayor Rahm Emanuel, whose new rules for Chicago demonstrators are an invitation to mayhem exactly on the Oakland model.

What happened in Oakland is straightforward: People got fed up. After months and months of struggling to find a place to meet -- a basic, simple Constitutional privilege known as the right to peaceful assembly -- and getting tied up in rules (some followed and some not), and laws (some enforced and some not), that were clearly designed to keep them from assembling at all, the masses decided to take over unused public space.

Again, this seems like the same tug of war between Occupy Oakland and the mayor and OPD. But here’s what was different: By continuously insisting on the right to peaceful assembly in public, Occupy Oakland and its counterparts around the world are demonstrating that public spaces, and particularly symbolic public spaces such as open air plazas, parks and convention centers, are the foundation for democracy. Where, if not in public spaces, should the people assemble to protest? Where, if not in spaces supported by public taxes, should the public gather to air its grievances?

When the people clamor -- whether it’s people whose issues we agree with  or not -- the right to express anger and frustration in public in peaceful assembly is fundamental.

Rage took over in Oakland on Saturday night, and protestors broke into and attacked City Hall. It’s not an action I condone, but it’s one I understand: The protestors were telling the mayor that no one -- not government itself -- is safe when the streets of the city aren’t safe from its own government. And the government of Oakland, with the OPD tricking and trapping demonstrators to arrest them, and arresting even journalists with OPD approved credentials, had most certainly made the city unsafe. 

On Sunday, Occupy movements in more than two dozen cities marched and rallied in solidarity with Occupy Oakland. Here in Chicago, less than 100 demonstrators led an increasingly less accommodating police escort around the Loop and stopped traffic temporarily on a few streets, including Michigan Avenue.

Of course, these things are inconvenient. Annoying. Unpredictable and, because of that, problematic. But this -- the right to protest peacefully about anything at all -- and habeus corpus (I’ll get to that another day) are the things that make America extraordinary, that make it a light and beacon throughout the world.

All of which leads me to think that Mayor Emanuel’s new rules for demonstrators in anticipation of the G-8/NATO get togethers in May, when the whole world will most definitely be watching, are just a set up for chaos of the highest order. 

The conferences are expected to draw about 10,000 participants and media, but about 50,000 international protestors. And Chicago's new parade rules -- which cover demonstrations -- now impose $1 million liability insurance to "indemnify the city against any additional or uncovered third party claims against the city arising out of or caused by the parade; and (3) agree to reimburse the city for any damage to the public way or to city property arising out of or caused by the parade." 

No insurance, no parade, no freedom of assembly -- $1 million in insurance! Talk about class divide! Talk about the 1 percent! 

Chicago Independent Media explains that there’s an exemption process: “Under the new ordinance, one can apply to the Commissioner of Transportation for a waiver of the financial requirements ‘if the application is for an activity protected by the 1st Amendment to the United States Constitution [virtually every activity is protected by the 1st Amendment] and the requirement would be so financially burdensome that it would preclude the applicant from applying for a parade permit for the proposed activity. An application for a waiver of the application fee or insurance requirement shall be made on a form prescribed by and contain reasonable proof acceptable to the commissioner.’ (But) there is no definition as to what constitutes 'reasonable proof acceptable to the commissioner'.”

Other rules limit daylight hours for demonstrations, the size of signage, and even give the Chicago police, like their disastrous Oakland counterparts, the authority to deputize.

In other words, these rules, as in Oakland, are not designed to enshrine anyone’s right to peacefully assemble and express their opinions. They are drawn precisely to do what the powers at be in Oakland have been trying to do: To intimidate, to suffocate, to frustrate.

Mayor Emanuel, the demonstrators in May won’t be so easily intimidated. The city needs a pro-active, respectful plan that considers the needs of its residents and its visitors, including the thousands of people coming here to exercise their Constitutional rights. It’s appropriate that they do that here, in the heartland of America, in the president’s hometown.

Don’t wait until frustration and rage boil over.

If you want to see what that looks like in 2012 -- not 1968 -- just take a glance at the pictures from last Saturday’s Oakland riots.