Welcome to the civil-liberties-free zone

January 9, 2012

Rahm Emanuel's clampdown on civil liberties goes beyond his goal of silencing opposition to next May's gathering of the global 1 percent, says Shaun Harkin.

CHICAGO MAYOR Rahm Emanuel wants to set up his own personal police state to accommodate the warmongers and budget-slashers who will attend a conference of the global 1 percent in Chicago in May.

Emanuel is giddy about the "opportunity" to host simultaneous gatherings of the U.S.-dominated NATO military alliance and the Group of Eight (G8) club of powerful industrial nations also dominated by the U.S., set for May 19-21. The last time both entities met together was in 1977 in London.

"From a city perspective, this will be an opportunity to showcase what is great about the greatest city in the greatest country," said Emanuel. "It's an opportunity for the city of Chicago economically, but also a message internationally about why Chicago is a city that's on the move, and if you're thinking of investing, Chicago is a place to invest."

Meanwhile, civil liberties will become a scarce commodity.

In December, Emanuel introduced a package of proposed ordinances, to be voted on by the Chicago City Council, that demand dramatically higher fines for anyone arrested during the summits, more surveillance cameras and the daily closure of city parks and playgrounds until 6 a.m.

Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel
Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel (Kevin Gebhardt)

The ordinances would also increase minimum fines from $25 to $250 for anyone found "resisting arrest"--and the law is careful to specify that "passively" resisting, such as going limp in classic civil-disobedience style, is also included. Maximum fines would increase from $500 to $1,000, and in some cases to $2,000.

The spineless Chicago City Council--which recently rubberstamped Emanuel's job-busting and social-services-slashing budget with a 50-0 vote--is set to vote on the ordinances on January 18.

The new ordinances would also empower Chicago Police Superintendent Garry McCarthy to "deputize law enforcement personnel"; make cooperative agreements with a host of state, federal and local law enforcement agencies; and forge agreements with "public or private entities concerning placement, installation, maintenance or use of video, audio telecommunications, or other similar equipment."

This last measure would buttress the city's existing "Big Brother" surveillance network, augmenting more than 10,000 public and private surveillance cameras--the most extensive and integrated system in the nation, according to experts.

Emanuel's proposals are also clearly intended to "neutralize" any number of other potential headaches. For one, Emanuel wants to set up new hurdles for Occupy Chicago, which has plans for a spring mobilization in early April. In the fall, Emanuel ordered mass arrests that successfully thwarted Occupy Chicago's repeated efforts to establish an encampment in a public space.

But Emanuel is also faced with growing protests among teachers, nurses and community activists faced with school closures, and cuts to city mental health services and other programs.

According to the Chicago Reporter, "Police Superintendent Garry McCarthy said the department is treating the Occupy Chicago protests as a bit of a dry run, and they've considered the way they've dealt with protesters so far to be a success."

From the first announcement that the joint summits would be held in Chicago, there has also been a systematic media campaign to smear social justice protesters as hell-bent on "violence" and "destruction." In particular, the Chicago Sun-Times ran sensational front-page articles featuring burning buildings and confrontational scenes.

Emanuel wants to use a media-generated hysteria to justify the massive security operation and discourage wider participation in the protests.

SPENDING TENS of millions of dollars on security and feasts for powerful politicians and officials who oversaw the wars in Afghanistan, Iraq and Libya, or who imposed austerity across the world will be hard for many people to stomach.

This is especially true in a city where the mayor has forced through layoffs of librarians, the closure of desperately needed mental-health clinics and schools, and other cuts to the city's already battered social safety net. And Emanuel is planning for more, with massive concessions demanded from Chicago teachers and transit workers.

But despite the intimidation and demonization, networks of Chicago-based and national activists have been organizing since August to challenge the twin entities of the G8 and NATO, as well as the assault on civil liberties.

Mass protests, a People's Summit and many other events and actions are being planned by students, trade unionists, antiwar organizers, faith-based activists, Occupiers, anti-eviction activists and many others. These groups have joined forces to say no to the NATO/G8 agenda, and to put forward an alternative based on equality, democracy and solidarity.

But as far as Emanuel is concerned, this runs contrary to his own plans to host an event that caters to the interests of the city's corporate elite--and those of his former boss, President Barack Obama, who Emanuel served as White House chief of staff until he left in October 2010 to run for mayor.

By mid-May, the 2012 presidential election will be in full swing, and Democrats are hoping that Obama's prospects for reelection will be enhanced by playing a central role in the summits. According to an anonymous administration official, the NATO/G8 meetings offer Obama "with the opportunity to continue his leadership of our most important security alliance, to fulfill commitments made by allied leaders in Lisbon in November 2010, and to sustain our joint work to revitalize NATO to prepare it to effectively meet challenges of the 21st century."

The White House thus hopes to use the Chicago summit to reassert the global role of the U.S. in both economic and military terms.

Officials will tout what they consider the Obama administration's foreign policy achievements, including support for regime change in Libya and ending the war in Iraq. Economically, the summit presents the U.S. with a bully pulpit to lecture Europe on how to avoid an imposion of the eurozone economy that would drag down the world economy.

Pivotal, too, for the U.S. is the exclusion of China--the clear rival to the U.S. in coming decades, economically and politically--from both bodies.

Though there are fears that its economic growth will slow in the next couple of years, China now has more billionaires than any other country except the U.S., along with $2 trillion in foreign assets--while the U.S. has $2.5 trillion in net debts. China is the world's leading manufacturer and looks set to become the world's primary importer by 2014--a massive turnaround from 2000 when U.S. imports were six times China's, according to the Economist.

China's growth, the economic crisis and the quagmire in Iraq and Afghanistan have combined to exacerbate the sense of anxiety among U.S. policymakers and the broader public about "American decline." A Pew Global Attitudes Survey captures this statistically: when asked which country is the world's leading economic power, 43 percent of Americans answered China, while only 38 percent believe the U.S. is still number one.

So what could be better for the U.S. and President Obama than a global platform staged in Chicago to present their message about what needs to be done.

But here's what they don't say: The global 1 percent have become even richer in recent years, and they want to stop anything that might disrupt the growth of their staggering vast wealth. So elite will gather to justify austerity for the purpose of stabilizing world capitalism, defend the concentration of wealth and power among the tiny few--and pay lip service to reducing hunger, climate change and inequality.

Writing from Kabul in Afghanistan, veteran peace campaigner Kathy Kelly captured the disconnect between those who embrace the G8 and NATO and those who feel the brunt of its dictates:

Hillary Clinton, President Obama, former war-hawk representative Emanuel and other undisputed militarists in government seem to see Chicago as a city obsessed with power, a city determined above all to be tough and strong. Carl Sandburg famously depicted Chicago as the city of big shoulders, and it often seems too easy for political leaders and generals to confuse the strength involved in shouldering shared burdens with the very different kind of "toughness" that drives a fist or a nightstick.

NATO/G8 summits have been met with protests wherever they have been held. In 2001, at the height of the global justice movement, hundreds of thousands demonstrated in Genoa, Italy, to show their opposition to G8 policies. With this in mind, Chicago's mayor is ready to go to any length to protect the architects of war and global inequality.

But his efforts aren't going unnoticed. John Kass, a conservative Chicago Tribune columnist, criticized Emanuel's "ruthless amassing of new powers" by comparing him to a Roman dictator:

[T]here seems to be a new, imperial Rahm on the horizon: Emperor Rahmulus. Rahmulus wants more power over police, so that his police chief may immediately deputize members of other law enforcement agencies should Rahmulus decree. This means he might be able to deputize the Melrose Park cops--perhaps even the Melrose Park Fire Department--if he feels the need.

And he wants more control over contracts, transforming the already-neutered Chicago City Council from eunuchs to ghosts. "I'm doing what is appropriate for a unique event with a unique attention to the city," Emanuel told reporters last week. "We'll do it to make sure we have an orderly process. This is not a big deal. This is a one-time event...This is temporary, and this is just for this conference."

Oh, sure. It's just temporary. The last guy who said new powers were only temporary was Emperor Palpatine from the Star Wars saga...

In fact, Emanuel's dispatch of the City Council is only a means to an end, says Kass:

The mayor will have sweeping contract powers to take care of this one and that one because he feels like it, with little if any legislative oversight. And that befits a political system where "democracy" is largely symbolic, as it was in Albania for most of the last century.

So we'll have heads of state gathering in Chicago to nibble hors d'oeuvres with Rahm's business friends, and they'll make contacts and deals and more business. Taxpayers will pick up much of the cost. The suits will praise President Barack Obama's Chicago. And if history is our guide, then young protesters will be dragged away, their heads bouncing along the curbs.

Kass' assessment is on the money. In fact, Emanuel has acknowledged that he has no intention of making "temporary" any of the measures designed to clamp down on civil liberties.

TO FUND the massive security operation, Emanuel was handed a $54.6 million grant by his friends in the federal government. The mayor's office won't say how much it wants to raise in addition to this federal funding, or how it will spend any contributions, but it has tapped seasoned corporate networkers, including former Sara Lee Corp. CEO John Bryan, to lead the effort.

Within corporate and political circles, Emanuel's fundraising skills are seen as legendary. According to reporter Shia Kapos:

Before he headed out of town for the holidays, Mayor Rahm Emanuel tied up a loose end of business. He secured a $2 million sponsorship donation for the upcoming NATO and G8 summits, which will land in Chicago in mid-May. Add that to the $50 million or so already in the bank.

Yep, the latest infusion should put to rest any question of whether businesses want their names attached to an event that draws protests. Christie Hefner, the former Playboy Enterprises Inc. CEO who now serves as executive chairman of Tucson, Ariz.-based Canyon Ranch Enterprises Inc., said as much at a recent Executives' Club of Chicago meeting.

The media's collaboration in the whole spectacle of trumpeting the summit while demonizing protesters shouldn't come as a surprise--especially at the Sun-Times, whose board has a longstanding relationship with the city's new boss. According to Crain's Chicago Business reporter Greg Hinz:

At least eight of the 12 board members of the new company [that owns the Sun-Times], Wrapports LLC, have donated to Mr. Emanuel's campaign fund in the past year, collectively plunking down $241,000 that I found in a quick survey of Board of Elections disclosures. Included: $25,000 from the Sun-Times' new chairman, Michael Ferro Jr., and $105,000 from Mr. Emanuel's frequent visitor at City Hall, Grosvenor Capital Management L.P. chief Michael Sacks.

City officials have made organizing extremely difficult by stalling on repeated attempts to discuss march and rally permits. However, NATO/G8 activists have joined with Occupy Chicago to "Occupy City Hall" and other actions to demand the right to protest and other basic civil liberties.

Persistence is paying off. The Coalition Against NATO/G8 War and Poverty Agenda celebrated a victory when City Hall was forced to backtrack on denying permits for Daley Plaza in downtown Chicago. MB Real Estate, the company managing Daley Plaza for the city, had earlier announced it would not be issuing any permits during May 15-22, but more recently, the city's Public Building Commission wrote to the American Civil Liberties Union to say that "Daley Plaza will be open to public assembly and public activity" during the summits.

In the coming weeks and months, the struggle to defend the right to assemble and protest will be crucial. In the next week, for example, Chicago unions, religious groups, Occupy activists and students will be spearheading a campaign to get Chicago aldermen to vote against Emanuel's proposed ordinances when they come to a vote in the City Council on January 18.

We should do everything we can to mobilize those from near and far who want to show the representatives of the global 1 percent that they and their policies are not welcome in Chicago--or anywhere.

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