As 2024 DNC Host, Chicago Can’t Seem to Live Down the 1968 Protests - The World News

As 2024 DNC Host, Chicago Can’t Seem to Live Down the 1968 Protests

Mayor Brandon Johnson of Chicago understands the comparison to 1968. Once again, the city is gearing up to host a late-summer Democratic National Convention amid a backdrop of fury and antiwar campus protests from the party’s younger, leftist flank.

But that is where the parallel ends for Mr. Johnson.

“We’re a different city. I’m a different mayor. And our Police Department is in a much different place than it was in 1968,” he said in an interview last week.

Mr. Johnson, a 48-year-old Democrat who has served one year in office, stressed that this was not the same Chicago as the one that erupted into chaos during the 1968 convention. Then, police officers attacked protesters with billy clubs, dragging them out of Grant Park in a show of bloody force. This time, the Chicago Police Department is undergoing extensive training and preparation, officials said, including de-escalation techniques, as they do before other protests and large events.

And Mr. Johnson, who was elected mayor after a career as a social studies teacher, labor organizer and county commissioner, drew a sharp distinction between himself and Mayor Richard J. Daley, the powerful leader who ran Chicago during the 1968 convention and whose own Police Department stoked tensions and violence.

“We’ve been through these type of challenges before,” Mr. Johnson said. “But the difference is who’s in charge right now,” he said, adding that he had been part of “countless peaceful demonstrations” throughout his life.

The August convention, which a few protesters have argued for canceling altogether, presents a particular political balancing act for Mr. Johnson, who was elected with support from Chicago’s most liberal segment. He must satisfy his heavily progressive base, including voters who sympathize with the goals of antiwar demonstrators, and also a broad contingent of Chicagoans who want to keep the city safe and free of major disruptions.

Already, the pro-Palestinian protests that have emerged on campuses across the country, including in Chicago, seemed to be revealing glimpses of the mayor’s approach. On Tuesday morning, as University of Chicago police officers in helmets and shields dismantled a pro-Palestinian encampment that had been stationed on the university quad for more than a week, Mr. Johnson’s office issued a statement signaling the mayor’s discomfort with the university’s actions, saying that his office had communicated “serious safety and operational concerns” about the plan.

A university spokesman added that the Chicago Police Department had declined a request to help remove the encampment.

And the mayor’s confidence that Chicago will host a “peaceful, vibrant, energetic” convention for four days in August is in contrast with the tensions already building beyond college campuses: Organizations protesting Israel’s invasion of Gaza have regularly marched through downtown Chicago in recent months and vowed to do so in larger numbers in August.

Last week, the American Civil Liberties Union of Illinois filed a federal lawsuit against the city on behalf of a protest group, arguing that Chicago officials were infringing on activists’ First Amendment rights by denying permits to march close to the convention, which will take place from Aug. 19 to Aug. 22. Groups have been offered Grant Park, near Lake Michigan, as a protest venue, but they have objected that it is too far from the United Center, one of the convention sites, about three miles away.

The campus demonstrations and clashes have only intensified concerns that discord within the Democratic Party will carry over to national convention, which will draw President Biden, members of Congress, governors and thousands of party delegates, in addition to news outlets from all over the world.

Byron Sigcho-Lopez, a City Council member in Chicago who is an outspoken member of the Progressive Caucus, said he believed the convention should not be held in Chicago, considering the growing frustration over President Biden’s handling of the conflict in the Middle East since Hamas attacked Israel on Oct. 7. The council is officially nonpartisan but overwhelmingly Democratic, with some independents.

“I think it will be tremendously challenging,” he said, adding that he supported the pro-Palestinian protesters but that he was particularly concerned about violence from counterprotesters with extremist roots. “They intend to create chaos in our city and create violence in our city.”

Hatem Abudayyeh, the national chair of the U.S. Palestinian Community Network, said his group had planned to join protests outside the D.N.C. even before the war in Gaza began last fall. But as fighting continues overseas, Palestinian issues have become the focus of planned demonstrations in Chicago, rather than one cause among many.

“The scope of this thing changed in October,” said Mr. Abudayyeh, who lives in the Chicago area, which has one of the country’s largest populations of Palestinian Americans.

Mr. Abudayyeh’s group has protested repeatedly in recent months, interrupting events by members of Congress, blocking traffic and protesting members of the D.N.C.’s executive committee when they visited Chicago.

“We’re putting them on notice that anytime they come here between now and August — and, of course, in that week of August — that they should expect that we’re going to be there to protest,” he said.

Andy Thayer, an activist in Chicago and a member of the group Bodies Outside of Unjust Laws, said that his organization, which advocates reproductive and gay rights, planned to march where they wanted, “permit or no permit.”

“If the city wants to look really bad, they’ll try to take action against us that day,” he said. “We want strong protests that put our issues front and center.”

Mr. Thayer said he did not expect physical clashes from his group, but believed that a fear of violence from demonstrations was being used as an excuse to deny protesters their First Amendment rights.

Daniel O’Shea, a former high-ranking official for the Chicago Police Department, said that law enforcement would be watching for signs of agitators who join a protest with the intent to disrupt it or break the law.

“That’s the hard part,” he said, noting that those people might try to conceal their identities or carry backpacks with objects to attack police officers.

Security for the convention is coordinated by the U.S. Secret Service, which has been preparing with federal, state and local agencies for more than a year.

Anthony Guglielmi, a spokesman for the Secret Service, said that the agency was working to establish perimeters around the convention sites, the United Center and McCormick Place. A command center to coordinate all of the security aspects of the convention will be placed in an undisclosed location outside of Chicago.

Mr. Guglielmi, also a former Chicago Police Department official, pointed out that the city was accustomed to hosting mass gatherings, including parades, sports championships, concerts and even former President Barack Obama’s election night extravaganza, which drew tens of thousands of people to Grant Park. Chicago hosted its most recent Democratic National Convention in 1996.

“There’s no city in the United States better prepared and equipped to handle protests and demonstrations than Chicago,” Mr. Guglielmi said, adding that law enforcement was “not going to tolerate unlawful or destructive behavior.”

Though the city and its police force have both changed since 1968, complaints about police misconduct persist, and the department is currently operating under a court-enforced consent decree.

Many in Chicago see hosting the convention as an opportunity, said Bill Conway, a City Council member whose ward includes parts of downtown and the Near West Side.

“We are, first off, making sure that we’re prepared and are able to work through the standard inconveniences that come from having an event of this magnitude just nearby,” he said. “But businesses are very excited about the hospitality benefit of having tens of thousands of visitors.”

Chicago will receive $75 million in federal funding to help offset security costs for the convention. Matt Hill, a spokesman for the Democratic National Convention, said in a statement: “Peaceful protest is fundamental to American democracy and has been a fixture of political conventions for decades.”

City officials are speeding up beautification projects around Chicago, improving streetscapes and removing graffiti near the expressways, hoping that the city will be shining by August.

They also said that they hoped Chicagoans would get involved with the convention rather than leave the city to avoid the fuss. Mr. Johnson vowed minimal disruption to residents, who will still be going to work and out to restaurants, and riding trains.

For the mayor, the convention carries both opportunity and risk, with the images that emerge from it potentially shaping perceptions of Mr. Johnson’s leadership for years to come.

“You have thousands of delegates from around the country and around the world who will be in the city of Chicago, and I want to make sure that they’re able to see the fullness of our city, the beauty of our city, the soul of our city,” Mr. Johnson said.

Chicago’s last time in such a spotlight, the NATO summit in 2012, received mostly positive reviews. Protesters came in large numbers and arrests were made, but skirmishes with the police were mostly contained. There was no significant property damage.

Garry F. McCarthy, the city’s police superintendent in 2012, said that months of training, police infiltration of activist groups to collect intelligence, and the strategic use of bicycles by officers to redirect protest marches helped keep order that year. He also said that having officers start the day in their normal patrol uniforms, rather than in riot gear, helped tamp down tensions, even though it baffled some on his command staff.

“They prepared for a riot because they expected one,” said Chief McCarthy, who now leads the Police Department in Willow Springs, Ill., a small suburb. “And I said: ‘If you want a riot, we can create one. Let’s try to de-escalate everything, because confrontation begets confrontation.’”

Chief McCarthy, who was fired by Chicago’s mayor in 2015 over his response to the fatal police shooting of Laquan McDonald, said city leaders had not sought him out for advice on this year’s convention. He said the playbook and experiences from NATO in 2012 could help, though he worried that the tensions over Gaza would make a challenging policing task even harder.

“I think it’s going to be very tough for the Chicago Police Department,” he said, adding, “My expectation is that you’re going to see people from all over the country, maybe even all over the world.”

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