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Blocked DNC protest permits spark lawsuit as convention pressure builds

Activist groups hoping to “make life miserable” for the Democratic National Convention’s organizers and attendees filed a federal lawsuit Friday alleging Chicago violated their First Amendment rights by blocking their protest plans.

“The tens of thousands of people that are coming — not only from the Midwest, but all across the country — will be marching on the DNC, permit or not,” Hatem Abudayyeh, executive director of the U.S. Palestinian Community Network, said at a Federal Plaza news conference Friday after groups affiliated with their protest filed the suit.

The city has so far blocked every protest permit requested near the August convention’s United Center headquarters, despite Mayor Brandon Johnson’s promises that demonstrators will have a fair platform and security. Instead, the city has offered each group the same two-block route through Grant Park — a proposal the groups allege doesn’t fulfill their right to be within “sight and sound” of the convention.

The most recent denials came from an administrative judge who blocked two pro-Palestinian anti-war protests in a Wednesday decision. The lawsuit is just another outcropping of the rising political pressure from forces who see opportunity in the attention set to come to Chicago and plan to take advantage of it regardless of court rulings and permits.

Protest ordinances require the city to offer an alternative protest route with similar visibility, timing and location when it rejects a protest permit application, said attorney Chris Williams, who is representing several denied groups. But city representatives have not met with protesters to negotiate routes and have instead suggested groups seeking permits could face legal penalties for making duplicative applications, he added.

“The First Amendment is not important when everybody agrees, but it’s critical when there are disagreements,” Williams said.

The city has repeatedly argued in court that Chicago does not have enough police to protect the parade, keep protesters in check and regulate traffic, records show.

Demonstrators have long signaled their aim to disrupt the convention, chasing after host committee Executive Director Christy George for months. As George led a first-look United Center tour for media in January, a handful of pro-Palestinian demonstrators rallied outside. In early February, her talk show appearance at The Hideout was repeatedly interrupted as more pro-Palestinian activists unfurled banners and flags. Weeks later, as she chatted inside the Union League Club, a 100-strong group rallied on the sidewalk to demand Democrats commit to spending federal money to solve Chicago’s homelessness issue.

The convention’s growing heat has also touched Mayor Brandon Johnson. On Wednesday, the mayor stared from behind the lectern as a man interrupted a City Council meeting yelling for Johnson to “Cancel the DNC,” screaming, “No Genocide Joe in Chicago” a reference to pro-Palestinian groups’ contention President Joe Biden is complicit in the mass killing of civilians in Gaza — as security guards pushed him out.

Asked earlier this month how he views the possibility of demonstrations overshadowing the DNC, Johnson said his administration “firmly believes” in the right to assemble and is confident groups will be able to demonstrate. Protests are a part of any democracy, he said, flagging his own past participation in large demonstrations and the importance they play in progressive movements.

“I’m not here without that movement,” he said. “We just want to make sure that it is done in a safe and secure area so that that right to assemble doesn’t get taken over by individuals who may have other interests.”

“I don’t want people to live in fear that we cannot have a convention where a reasonable amount of protests and dissonance takes place,” Johnson said, adding that vandalism won’t be tolerated.

As the Chicago Department of Transportation denied each protest permit, it offered each applicant the same alternate route: a 2-block march up a tree-lined stretch of Columbus Drive in the middle of Grant Park from Roosevelt Road to Jackson Drive.

That route “is a joke,” said Andy Thayer, an organizer with the Bodies Outside of Unjust Laws coalition planning a march for the LGBTQ+ community and women’s reproductive rights.

“It’s worse than anything that even Rahm or Mayor Daley would have proposed. I think it speaks volumes about Mayor Johnson breaking one of his promises to be more transparent, more open to all of the people of Chicago and not just the select few.”

Thayer pledged his group will march on the route it proposed — from Water Tower Park to the southern end of Grant Park on Michigan Avenue — with or without a permit.

“We mean business”

For Abudayyeh, an organizer behind many of the over 20 large pro-Palestinian protests that have shut down Chicago streets, the DNC is an opportunity to show top congressional and White House Democrats “that we mean business.”

“That we are going to make life miserable for them. And that we are going to threaten the thing that they care about most,” Abudayyeh said.

Jae Franklin, of Anti-War Committee Chicago, holds a sign before a news conference announcing a federal lawsuit against the city of Chicago over the denial of protest permits on March 22, 2024. (Vincent Alban/Chicago Tribune)Protesters in his camp will be unbothered by the possibility their attacks on Biden could help hand Donald Trump the presidency, Abudayyeh said. Even if war isn’t still raging in Gaza, Chicago’s large Palestinian population will show up to push for aid to rebuild the devastated area, he added.

Abudayyeh’s group played a key role in pushing the City Council to make Chicago the largest American city to call for a cease-fire in late January. In Tuesday’s primary election, so far nearly 30,000 Chicago voters chose a write-in option in the Democratic presidential primary, a likely nod to the national effort to use ballots to further signal disapproval of Biden’s handling of the war in Gaza — and a potential sign of still well-backed local frustration. Mail-in ballots are still being counted.

“I am guaranteeing tens of thousands of people in the streets with thousands of Palestinian flags, with Palestinians from all walks of life, from all over the country,” Abudayyeh said. He is hopeful that Johnson, who helped push the cease-fire resolution through the council, will also facilitate protest permits.

By failing to respond to an appeal in time, the city inadvertently granted one protest permit that would take some marchers from Humboldt Park right to the United Center’s sidewalks. The apparent accident gives the Poor People’s Army, a group that protests at every major convention, its first-ever permit.

“It was divine intervention,” the group’s national coordinator Cheri Honkala said.

The demonstration will be nonviolent, with plans to request a citizen’s arrest of Democratic Party leaders and use civil disobedience if necessary, Honkala said.

Williams said a permit appeal hearing this week revealed the DNC is involved in planning security. He believes organizers are trying to prevent protesters from directly confronting Biden about the war in Gaza, he said.

In a statement, a DNC spokesperson said event organizers embrace the right to protest: “The freedom to make your voice heard is a core tenet of our political system, and unlike Republicans, Democrats will continue to celebrate the diversity of our party as a strength, not a weakness.”

The city is set to receive $75 million from the federal government for convention security. Federal authorities plan to set up a so-far unannounced security perimeter around the United Center, while Chicago Police Department leaders responsible for security outside the area have said planning and training focused on “constitutional policing” are long underway.

Chicago Tribune reporter Kate Armanini contributed.