Activists sue Johnson administration over DNC protests, say city isn’t ready

As protests surge across America just months before the Democratic National Convention in Chicago, activists representing LGBTQ+ and women’s reproductive rights say Mayor Brandon Johnson’s administration is violating their First Amendment rights and is unprepared for the onslaught of dissidents headed to the city this August.

The claims were made as Bodies Outside of Unjust Laws filed a federal lawsuit Thursday alleging the city wrongfully denied permits for the group to protest by the Water Tower on Michigan Avenue, an area where many Democratic delegates will be staying during the Aug. 19-22 convention.

Joined by the ACLU of Illinois, activists with the LGBTQ+ and women’s reproductive rights organization said that while they support the Democratic Party over Republicans it’s essential for protesters to be heard to ensure their perspectives are reflected by the party both during and after the convention.

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“In this important election year, it’s vital that Democrats listen to the priorities of their supporters who are desperate for the protection of their health and safety and the ability to decide the direction of their own lives,” Anne Rumberger, an activist with the group, said after the lawsuit was filed.

With abortion access being one of the main issues Democrats hope will drive voters to the polls, Andy Thayer, another activist with the coalition, said the lawsuit is about “preserving democracy.”

“For half a century the Democrats allowed the constitutional right to abortion and other rights to be eroded bit by bit until we lost them,” he said. “That’s why we have to be in the streets, using the media attention on the DNC to force the Democrats to live up to their verbal promises.”

The lawsuit comes as several contentious issues continue to roil the nation and the Democratic Party, most notably the ongoing war between Israel and Hamas that has sparked protests on college campuses.

Ed Yohnka, a spokesman for the ACLU of Illinois, which filed Thursday’s lawsuit, warned that the city of Chicago was not prepared for the protests headed here.

“Despite suggestions by some Chicago officials that the city is prepared for the Democratic National Convention, we are here today because they are not,” Yohnka said. “Sadly, the city has not created a clear, transparent plan for welcoming those who want to come to demonstrate and express themselves on the issues of our day.”

DNC organizers have sought to downplay the disunity in the Democratic coalition while at the same time promising that protesters’ First Amendment rights will be protected. They’ve expressed confidence in the ability of the U.S. Secret Service, the Chicago Police Department and other law enforcement agencies to maintain order.

Bodies Outside of Unjust Laws is one of several groups seeking the right to protest at the convention, in which more than 50,000 people are expected to descend upon the city, including 5,000 nominating delegates. Political conventions have typically been the site of mass protests, but Johnson’s administration has blocked every protest permit requested near the convention’s United Center headquarters.

A pro-Palestinian group last month was part of a similar lawsuit against the city, and group leaders promised that protesters would “make life miserable” for DNC organizers.

Bodies Outside of Unjust Laws applied for a permit on the first day applications opened on Jan. 2 and received an official rejection letter on Jan. 22. The group appealed the Johnson administration’s decision at an administrative hearing, but was denied.

The group’s planned protest was set for Aug. 18, the Sunday before the DNC kicks off, at the Jane M. Byrne Plaza, previously known as Water Tower Park. Many of the convention’s delegates will stay at hotels downtown and be in the Michigan Avenue area.

Johnson’s Department of Transportation offered the group an alternative route: a two-block march up a tree-lined stretch of Columbus Drive in the middle of Grant Park from Roosevelt Road to Jackson Drive. The site is nearly 4 miles from the United Center.

City officials declined to comment on the pending lawsuit. A spokesperson said that if a permit is denied, the applicant is given an alternative route that accounts for police resources, security and other additional factors.

Thayer said Bodies Outside of Unjust Laws will not let the mayor stop them from advocating for “full reproductive justice.” They plan to march, he said, “permit or no permit.”

Rebecca Glenberg, senior supervising attorney for the ACLU, said that under the First Amendment, Bodies Outside of Unjust Laws has the “right to an alternate route that still allows (them) to reach (their) intended audience.”

“Rather than make room for speech, Chicago has denied our clients and others permits to march where delegates can see them. These permit denials are unconstitutional,” Glenberg said Thursday.

Johnson has repeatedly promised to provide demonstrators with a fair platform, in keeping with his past participation in large demonstrations and support for their importance in progressive movements.

But the city has argued in court that Chicago does not have enough police to protect the parade, keep protesters in check and regulate traffic, records show. Chicago is set to receive $75 million from the federal government for convention security. Still, confusion remains around safety and logistics for the event.

Yohnka said the city is trying to avoid “chaos” like the riots that erupted outside the Democratic National Convention in 1968 under then-Mayor Richard J. Daley when anti-Vietnam War protesters and the Black liberation movement organized mass demonstrations.

“One of the things that’s really precarious right now in this country is we seem to be having a dialogue that somehow any kind of demonstration or protest is equated with danger,” Yohnka said. “There are demonstrations that take place every single day in this city that are not unsafe.”

Kristi Keorkunian, a member of the group and co-founder of Stop Trans Genocide Chicago, stressed that the group is marching for comprehensive and inclusive health care policies.

“What year is this? In the third-largest city in the United States, we have to fight for our right to get close enough to our politicians for them to actually hear us?” she asked.

Chicago Tribune reporters Jake Sheridan, Rebecca Johnson and Alysa Guffey contributed.