January 24, 2012

Speaking truth to power

Interrupting Rahm Emanuel is an appropriate response to recent measures limiting protest in Chicago.

Members of UChicago Occupy interrupted Rahm Emanuel during his visit to the University of Chicago last Thursday afternoon. It is important to note that not all the members of UChicago Occupy were in favor of the protest, and that the views represented here are solely those of the author.

When Emanuel first began to respond to a question about sex, student members of the group took the moment to register their outrage at the ongoing war on the public being waged by Chicago’s mayor.

Last Wednesday, Emanuel and his City Council approved a set of ordinances that will permanently restrict protest in Chicago. Emanuel’s opposition to our constitutional right to stand up and speak out, when all levels of government are currently incapable of standing up and speaking on behalf of the 99%, effectively deprives us of the only remaining avenue of expression we have.

His ordinances, which were only slightly amended after rapid mobilization by the ever-vigilant Occupy Chicago, CANG8, and numerous neighborhood organizations and occupations, passed by a huge margin. The pressure activists brought to bear caused Emanuel to raise the maximum fine for even passive resistance (“going limp”) to $200, rather than his planned $1,000. A small victory, but a victory nonetheless.

Emanuel, however, now enjoys no-vote spending powers to install surveillance equipment in Chicago, empower outside police to interpret and enforce the restrictions on free speech, and hire at-will security forces through no-bid contracting. This virtually guarantees that taxpayers will be forced to cover the lawsuits that will likely occur as an army of security forces (federal, state, and private) descends on Chicago with the distinct possibility of violating protesters’ rights, intimidating those bold enough to speak out, and arresting and fining many with impunity.

As Chicago  Indymedia reports, Emanuel has empowered himself to hire “anyone he wants, be they rent-a-cops, Blackwater goons on domestic duty, or whatever. For a city that has great problems keeping its directly sworn officers in check, this looser authority is an even greater license for abuse.”

Permanent additions require permit applicants to supply a “parade marshal” for every 100 protesters, and to take out $1 million insurance policies; given the spontaneous and open nature of political protest, these are impossible requirements that ensure violations every step of the way.

A host of other seemingly trivial permanent ordinances will have the practical effect of guaranteeing all future protests will in some way be breaking laws, despite the peaceful examples repeatedly set by Occupy Chicago. The ordinances outlaw spontaneous sidewalk picketing favored by teachers and unions, require registration and permission for all “attention getting devices,” and therefore deliberately undermine spontaneous public expressions of political outrage well beyond NATO/G8-related restrictions. It is telling that Emanuel pushed these ordinances through in a rapid and secretive process, demonstrated by his holding a closed door meeting last Tuesday, a day before the ordinances passed.

As Professor Bernard Harcourt of the U of C points out, there is great hypocrisy in arresting Occupiers and expanding restrictions, “especially when you consider the disparate treatment that political expression receives in Chicago. Recall, for instance, how different things were in Grant Park on election night 2008. Huge tents were pitched, commercial sound systems pounded rhythms and political discourse, enormous TVs streamed political imagery. More than 150,000 people blocked the streets and ‘occupied’ Grant Park–congregating, celebrating, debating and discussing politics.”

Emanuel’s loyalty to the wealthiest 1% has been reaffirmed through this silencing of the diverse voices of opposition, and by his willingness to slash and burn his way through public spending, while rewarding the malfeasance of financial institutions with tax breaks.

We have not forgotten Emanuel’s years of service to Goldman Sachs, his hostility toward Palestine, or his war on Chicago’s most vulnerable populations. Emanuel is presiding over the closing of dozens of schools, the laying-off of thousands of teachers, and the closing of half the city’s public mental health clinics, disproportionately located within low-income communities. And all the while, he continues on his path of making Chicago “attractive” to big business by raiding the public treasury through sponsoring state tax breaks and local amenities, while ignoring infrastructure issues.

Emanuel claims his Chicago is a victim of the recession. Yet one of his first acts in office was to solicit the NATO/G8 summit, which will cost taxpayers hundreds of millions of dollars. He then insisted on costly measures aimed at beating down protests critical of his expenditures and cuts, and hypocritically demanded unlimited spending rights on security for his pet-project.

For all these reasons and more—and there are many more—we briefly appropriated the panel’s discussion space, knowing full well how we might be received by the University community: As obstructionists of open, respectful, and critical discussion. Leaving aside the ribald, frat-boy discourse that took place amongst the panelists, what is meant by “discussion” here is only the privilege enjoyed by the elites of a private institution, one which aims to churn out as many statesmen as it possibly can; “respectful” channels acceptable to mainstream (read: elite) opinion do not allow for structural change or generative critique any more than they allow for truly divergent views to diffuse from the periphery.

Emanuel may think he can get away with the creation of a police state by pointing to overblown coverage of minor episodes of vandalism during previous summits, but these permanent ordinances will not be tolerated. After he has wasted hundreds of millions of our precious public dollars in repressing us, we will still be here, standing proud and seeking a more balanced and open system of expression.Christopher Ivan is a graduate student in the MAPSS program.