Occupy Chicago: why City Hall’s iron fist hasn’t come out – so far

Some 130 people at an Occupy Chicago protest were arrested Sunday for violating a park curfew. The city and activists are trying to find solutions, but dialogue has been shaky.

By MARK GUARINO | Staff Writer Christian Science Monitor

posted October 25, 2011 at 12:59 pm EDT

Chicago – A movement branding itself as without leadership versus a city administration anxious to not repeat the mistakes of the past is making dialogue in Chicago between the two parties delicate, contributing to mounting tension that many say will need a solution upon winter’s arrival.

Until recently, Occupy Chicago, the Great Lakes version of the public protest taking place in Wall Street and now many other locations worldwide, has largely been on mute. It’s set up on a corner in the city’s downtown financial district, and for the most part, protesters have been welcomed by passersby, local police, and even Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel, who says he understands their frustration about the inequitable divisions of wealth in the neighborhoods he governs.

But arrests started a week ago and were repeated early Sunday morning for violating a park curfew. Among the 130 arrested Sunday were several volunteer nurses from National Nurses United (NNU), a national union of registered nurses, who had established a first aid station.

The protesters want the police to drop the charges of all those who were arrested and for the city to establish a permanent site where the movement can continue through the winter – much like how New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg has been working with a local property owner to allow protesters to continue operating in a private park there.

The growing conflict comes at a sensitive time for Mr. Emanuel, who is in his first year as Chicago mayor. Not only is he on a mission to showcase Chicago as a world-class place for international business, but he is also prepping the city to host two major global summits next year: the Group of Eight summit and the NATO summit, both happening in May.

The Emanuel administration is already “having difficulty trying to figure out how to deal with protesters,” and “it will be much more difficult” next May, when their numbers presumably swell, says Dick Simpson, a political science professor at the University of Illinois at Chicago.

Then there’s the legacy problem: Chicago is notorious for cracking down on civil disobedience. That reputation is rooted in the riots during the 1968 Democratic National Convention under Mayor Richard J. Daley, and it continued, to a lesser extent, under his son, Richard M. Daley. The latter Mr. Daley would not tolerate unofficial demonstrations in public streets and made it clear that any public gathering must be heavily permitted and policed – a strategy that was criticized as a way to stop protests from getting off the ground.

In the current situation, the arrests occurred after 3,000 people had been gathered in Grant Park, which had an 11 p.m. curfew, says John Mirabelli, a news affair officer with the Chicago Police Department.

On Monday, about two dozen nurses marched to City Hall to protest their arrests, which NNU executive director RoseAnn DeMoro described in a statement as “disgraceful and unconscionable.”

Professor Simpson found it “surprising” that the police chose arrests over waiving the park curfew rule. “That would have diffused the matter,” he says.

Emanuel should allow the protesters to occupy Grant Park, says Natalie Wahlberg, a spokeswoman for the Chicago activists. “All we want is a home, a 24-hour space to practice direct democracy, and he has been blocking us at every turn,” she says. “Dismiss the charges, and our relationship will greatly improve.”

For its part, the city has repeatedly reached out to people presenting themselves as Occupy representatives, says Emanuel spokeswoman Chris Mather. But, she says, city officials have been ignored or, in one instance, rebuffed by some who say the city is not talking with “the right people.”

“We haven’t put any limitation on who we talk to or meet with…. We’re happy to talk, but they have not been willing to do so,” Ms. Mather says. She adds that the city “needs to hear from them what their requests are” and that the mayor is sympathetic to the issues raised.

Sunday’s arrests, she notes, were made more than an hour after the protesters were told they were violating the park’s curfew. Also, the majority of protesters peacefully heeded the warning and left.

The city “needs to find a meaningful dialogue to settle the issue and get it resolved,” says Chicago Alderman Robert Fioretti, whose ward includes areas where some Occupy protests are taking place. He favors the city working with the movement to help the activists navigate the permit process or to help “find them public or private spaces” to base their operations.

“If we keep making arrests, all it does is tie up our legal system,” says Mr. Fioretti, who agrees with the movement’s outcry against economic disparity in the US.

Not coming up with a solution may harm the city’s business culture, which is already attuned to the summits next spring.

“I hear from a lot of businesses downtown that they don’t want to [move ahead on things] until after the summits are over,” he says. “This is a time to get it right.”

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