Democratic Convention: Police State Chicago

CounterMedia Backgrounder

1968-For five days in August, the eyes of the world were on Chicago, as the streets outside the Democratic National Convention became a battleground. Hordes of Chicago cops, backed by soldiers armed with rifles, clashed with thousands of demonstrators. Scenes of cops viciously busting heads were shown on TV screens around the country and the world. What was to have been a showcase of "democracy American style" became a huge embarrassment for those who control pore and wealth in the U.S.-and a stark exposure of the iron first of bourgeois dictatorship.

1996-For four days at the end of August, parts of Chicago will be turned into an armed camp for the Democratic National Convention. Government and police officials have declared that there will be no "repeat" of 1968. They're not talking about restraining their riot cops-a T-shirt with the words "We kicked your father's ass in 1968,...wait 'til you see what we do to you!" has reportedly been very popular at police conventions. What they mean is that a huge repressive apparatus-involving police and intelligence forces from the city, state and federal levels-is being mobilized to bring down a "security" clampdown. But this has nothing to do with safety for the ordinary people. Those at the top want to make sure that only the official message from the convention hall is heard, while voices of protest outside are marginalized and silenced.

Fortress United Center

A task force of 200 people from 33 government agencies and private corporations is overseeing all security planning and operations for the DNC. They include the FBI, Secret Service, National Guard, Chicago police, the Democratic Party and private security firms.

The centerpiece of police-state Chicago during the Democratic National Convention (DNC) will be the virtual military blockade that is being put up around the United Center, the convention hall located a short distance west of the downtown Loop area. After the Secret Service conducts a sweep, a "secured zone" will be set up in a four-square-block are around the United Center, about a third of a mile in each direction. This "secured zone" will be in place through the four days of the convention. Nine streets will be closed to cars and pedestrians, some from 10 a.m. to 1:30 a.m., others around the clock. Secret Service sharpshooters will be stationed, and surveillance will be carried out from rooftops.

An additional cordoned-off area will be established around the Sheraton Hotel in the near north area of the city, where President Clinton will be staying.

The brand new "911 Center," located about a half-mile east of the United Center, will operate as the command center, coordinating intelligence and operations for the whole convention security team.

The city has been doing a "facelift" of the major street approaches to the convention site-even as they have been carrying out evictions and demolitions at the Henry Horner Homes housing project which stands in the area. This "facelift" is not only intended to present a spruced-up (and superficial image of Chicago for the cameras-it also has a clear "crowd control" aspect to it. Newly erected 3- to 4-foot-high concrete planters/barriers have been filled with dirt and trees. Residents and business people within and around the United Center "zone" told local TV news that authorities have pressured them into allowing the city to put up new wrought-iron fences on their properties.

No one without a "special pass" will be allowed into the "zone" around the United Center.

The area includes a number of 2-and 3-flat residential buildings, businesses and part of the Henry Horner Homes. Residents will have to have special security placards for their cars. And they will have those placards checked each time they want to reenter the area-"to make sure the placards belong to the car and the person," according to a Chicago police official. People schedule for an August 28 food stamp pickup day at a busy currency exchange inside the "zone" will have to go through a police security checkpoint. The city-run Miles Square medical clinic servicing low-income families in the area plans to shut its doors three hours early for the duration of the convention. One man living in the area, worried about getting his wife to a scheduled doctor's appointment without the usual taxi, was told by the police that he must call and arrange for a fire department ambulance to pick her up.

People living near the United Center have already gotten a taste of the clampdown. There have been reports that homeless people in the area are facing steeped-up harassment from cops who pick them up, tell them to "do what you want, just don't do it here" and then take them to some other part of the city. Some Horner residents living in buildings bordering the "zone" say they have been told by the police to not even walk down streets in the area that are not designated as "closed." Instead, they have to walk on the other side of the housing development, away from the side closer to the United Center. People accustomed to hanging out and talking with friends at a local grocery store have been ordered by cops to just get in and out, period. Residents report seeing police everywhere-all day, all night.

Massive Police Presence-On the Ground and in the Air

A high-profile police presence is planned for the United Center "zone", the Loop and the surrounding areas. The Chicago Sun-Times reported that the contingent of cops assigned specifically to the DNC detail will number at least as many as the 6,200 that were mobilized when the Bulls won their "four-peat" championship in June. The Sun-Times wrote that "at some point during the convention week, every one of the city's 13,500 police officers is likely to be at least tangentially involved." A core of 2,600 cops have undergone a special two-day training course in "crowd control," making mass arrests, and the use of gas masks and special shields.

Judges and prosecutors are being put on 24-hour call in preparation for mass arrests, and cops will be issued 50-count bags of plastic handcuffs. On-the-spot photos will be taken of each person arrested standing next to the cop that busted them-with the badge number of the arresting officer written on the person's arm-in order to make court identification easier.

Uniformed cops with "bomb-sniffing" dogs will be patrolling around the clock at each of the 21 downtown hotels scheduled to house convention delegates. And Police Superintendent Matt Rodriguez has promised a "greatly increased visible presence" at the free Aretha Franklin concert scheduled a few days before the DNC starts.

The entire fleet of 32 Illinois Sate Police motorcycles is being sent to Chicago for rapid deployment and response in crowded conditions. And the Coast Guard will be patrolling the shores of Lake Michigan.

These forces on the ground and water will be reinforced by flying pigs. A police department spokesman said that they will have the "potential for round-the-clock air surveillance" during the DNC with the addition of several helicopters from the Air National Guard, Highway Toll Authority, and Coast Guard, as well as four fixed-wing airplanes from the State Police.

The National Guard's OH-58, known as the "Kiowa," is a "command and control" helicopter used in surveillance and making military deployment decisions. It is reportedly equipped with a "night sun with a million candlepower," capable of illuminating a wide area. The Sun-Times wrote: "The Air One helicopter [from the state police] stationed at Midway Airport is equipped with night vision, forward-looking infrared sensors, and heat-seeking ability to locate fleeing suspects. It's also capable of videotaping events from the air, [state police spokesman] McDonald said. The four fixed-wing aircraft provide additional surveillance capability, but without all of the bells and whistles provided by the Air One." McDonald explained that the Air One, known as the "Cadillac of the air surveillance fleet," is "good for spotting people trying to get away."

Recent events-such as the crash of the TWA jumbo jet off Long Island and the explosion at Centennial Park during the Atlanta Olympics-are being seized on to hype and justify various "security precautions" around the DNC.

The city is assigning 100 city buses for use in transporting both delegates and news media to and from the convention site. All riders must have special boarding passes. The secret service has announced they will be making random sweep searches of these buses, supposedly to "look for bombs." There are plans for stepped-up security at the Chicago airports for the DNC. Already, in the wake of the Centennial Park explosion, at least 17 people have been arrested at O'Hare Airport-for making jokes about bombs.

The police department has been meeting with hotels and area retainers to review planning and coordination. According to a report in the Chicago Tribune, hotels and many of the larger stores in the famous North Michigan Avenue shopping area "will be connected to the police by a computer network that will keep data flowing between security guards and the authorities. Closed circuit television surveillance systems are installed in all of the delegate hotels, and security departments are being reminded to save the tapes recorded during the convention period."

Fencing in Protests

Many different groups and coalitions are planning demonstrations around the DNC. Along with trying to intimidate protesters with an overwhelming show of force, the authorities are also hoping to control the situation by setting up two authorized "protest pits." One is a fenced-in United Center parking lot some distance away from where the delegates will be entering and leaving. The other is much farther away in downtown Chicago in Grant Park. The only sound equipment allowed at the sites will be the PA system provided by the city-which means that officials can cut the sound off easily.

As a further measure of control, Mayor Daley set up a lottery to divvy out one-hour time slots at the official protest sites. At the lottery drawings, representatives from a major accounting firm picked out slips of paper from a barrel to distribute date and time slots.

A number of different groups have filed lawsuits against the official protest rules or asked for court injunctions to allow marches and rallies outside the "protest pits." One organizer for the Not on the Guest List coalition was quoted as saying, "The mayor is absolutely committed to providing a sanitized Chicago for the Democratic National Convention, and we're not going to let him have it."

Daley has already tried to justify police brutality against protesters in advance. The Tribune reported on Aug. 8 that Daley "said he expects some protest groups will seek confrontations with police, particularly those that oppose his plans for demonstrators to use official sites."

Advance Preparations

The authorities have been preparing for the DNC for some time. They have carried out a number of "dress rehearsals," and they have taken other measures that are not so publicized.

One such rehearsal was the World Cup soccer games held in Chicago in 1994. At a "terrorism symposium" last year at the University of Illinois at Chicago, J. "Barney" Flanagan-who headed Chicago's joint security operations during the World Cup and is a coordinator of security for the DNC-described what he called the "seven committee" approach to "terrorism." This consists of "air, sea, ports, bombs, communication integration, public defenders and emergency response." According to Flanagan, the communications committee "will tie in to Chicago's new, state-of-the-art '911' Center."

The police mobilization for the Bulls championship this June was also seen as another practice run for the DNC. Thousands of uniformed cops were out on the streets, 220 state troopers were mobilized and 200 national guard soldiers were ordered to get ready to move on short notice. A number of major highway exits were blocked off, city buses were commandeered to transport police, extra space was set aside in the city lockups and a security force of off-duty cops and sheriff's deputies patrolled the schools. One Chicago Tribune reporter-reflecting the mentality of those who feel "comforted" by the sight of massive police presence-wrote,"For a while, Chicago felt like the safest city in the world and seemed to offer a fine argument in support of the development of a good police state."

In May 1995, Mayor Daley and Police Superintendent Rodriguez called for loosening restrictions on police spying. They did not reveal specifics, and there have been no public reports of what they have actually carried out. But what did generally come out was that the authorities wanted to allow the political police more freedom to film demonstrators and protests, to make lists of people who are considered "threats" and to give such information to the federal government. Various justifications were given for why this step was necessary: "terrorist threats, "gangs" and official worries about what might happen during the DNC.

During the intense struggles of the 1960s and early '70s, the Chicago police expanded a unit of the political police widely knows as the "Red Squad." The Red Squad, working closely with the FBI's COINTELPRO operation, targeted revolutionary groups-such as Chicago's powerful Black Panther Party chapter. They also spied on a wide range of political forces-their files contained over 250,000 names and records on 14,00 different political groups. In 1981 the federal court issued a consent decree that imposed some restriction on the activities of the Red Squad. These are the restrictions that Daley and Rodriguez wanted to loosen. This move is right in step with the direction that the U.S. ruling class as a whole is moving in: powerful forces want to put the political police on a longer leash.

Who Will Protect the People?

Politicians and police officials want to convince people that extraordinary security measures-like the preparations for the DNC-are meant to protect the safety of the general public. The power structure is cynically seizing on the recent Centennial Park explosion-and other events like the neo-nazi bombing in Oklahoma City-in an attempt to mobilize public support for more of their sinister police-state moves. The masses of people have no interest in supporting such moves, and every reason to oppose them.

During the last week of August, the city of Chicago will be filled with armed enforcers of all kinds, from local cops to state police to the FBI and the Secret Service...whole areas will be locked down and sealed off from public access....anybody stepping beyond the bounds of officially allowed political expression will be threatened with heavy repression.. high tech military- style helicopters will carry out surveillance from the air...

The system's armed protectors will be occupying Chicago. Who will protect the people?

Originally published in Revolutionary Worker #869, August 18, 1996