Protest, repression, and the summits

Rahm Emanuel's plan to host the NATO and G8 summits in Chicago this Spring and what activists can expect

CHICAGO’S NEW mayor, former White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel, has demonstrated a brazen disregard for civil liberties as he prepares the city for the upcoming NATO and G8 summits in May. This fits into an emerging national pattern of intolerance for civil liberties and the right to protest, exhibited most starkly by the police attacks on the Occupy movement encampments from New York to Berkeley over the past months. But the movement has not been defeated. A broad coalition of activists, including trade unionists, students, and antiwar, social justice, and anti-eviction campaigners—inspired by the Occupy movement and the mass outpouring of popular support it enjoyed—have been involved in organizing efforts to protest the NATO and G8 summits for months.

Though only recently elected mayor, Emanuel is far from a political neophyte. The former Obama administration White House Chief of staff was, according to Noam Chomsky,

one of the strongest supporters of the Iraq invasion among House Democrats and like Biden, a long-term Washington insider. Emanuel is one of the biggest recipients of Wall Street campaign contributions. The Center for Responsive Politics reports that he “was the top House recipient in the 2008 election cycle of contributions from hedge funds, private equity firms and the larger securities/investment industry.” Since being elected to Congress in 2002, he “has received more money from individuals and PACs in the securities and investment business than any other industry”; these are also the among Obama’s top donors. His task was to oversee Obama’s approach to the worst financial crisis since the 1930s, for which his and Obama’s funders share ample responsibility.1

Emanuel was chief fundraiser for Mayor Richard M. Daley, Chicago’s corrupt, decades-long former boss, in his successful 1989 run for the mayor’s office. He served as a senior advisor to President Bill Clinton for five years during which he was one of the most vociferous advocates for the job-obliterating North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA). Though without any prior experience, he was appointed to managing director at a Chicago-based investment-banking firm, making a cool $16.2 million in two and a half years there.

Financing efforts for the NATO and G8 summits offer a window into Emanuel’s web of political and economic connections. Initially, Emanuel was handed a $54.6 million federal grant for a massive security operation. The mayor’s office won’t say how much more it wants to raise or how it will spend the contributions, but it has tapped seasoned corporate networkers, including former Sara Lee Corporation CEO John Bryan, to lead the fundraising effort.

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

The Sun-Times’ role is no surprise, given the board’s intimate relationship with the city’s new boss. Greg Hinz at Crain’s Chicago Business reports that

at least eight of the 12 board members of the new company, 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….

Mr. Sacks also serves as vice-chairman of World Business Chicago, the city’s economic-development arm and the agency in charge of raising tens of millions of dollars Chicago will need to host next year’s NATO/G8 summit here.

Also on the WBC board is private-equity mogul Bruce Rauner who, as the Sun-Times once put it, “helped make Mayor Rahm Emanuel a millionaire” when he worked with Mr. Emanuel on a corporate acquisition during the brief period his honor was an investment banker.2

Spending tens of millions of dollars on security for powerful politicians who’ve overseen the brutal occupation of Afghanistan and the bombing of Libya—and on opulent feasts for officials who have inflicted waves of austerity across the world—will be hard to stomach. This is true especially in a city where the mayor is attempting to force through lay-offs of librarians, closure of desperately needed mental health clinics and schools, cuts to city social services, massive concessions from Chicago teachers and transit workers—all at time when unemployment is predicted to climb to 11.6 percent in the metro area.

Reasserting US power
Emanuel outlined his rationale for bringing NATO/G8 to Chicago by saying: “From a city perspective, this will be an opportunity to showcase what is great about the greatest city in the greatest country.... 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.”3

Without doubt, having Chicago host such a high-powered assembly can reinvigorate the city’s corporate credentials as well as augment Emanuel’s own reputation as an international political mover and shaker. However, the joint summit is crucial in a number of more fundamental ways.

Firstly, by May, the 2012 general election will be in full swing. Democrats hope casting President Barack Obama in a central summit role at such a pivotal moment in international politics will enhance his re-election prospects. A US official described the importance of the summit to the White House in providing “President Obama with 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.”4

Though European leaders and the IMF claim they have reached an agreement to fiscally strengthen the eurozone and contain the Greek crisis, what happens next remains uncertain and potentially volatile. A European meltdown would send financial tremors to every continent, and the anemic recovery in the United States could easily go into reverse, potentially shattering a second term for Obama. Some 20 percent of US exports are bound for the European market, and it is estimated that 15 to 20 percent of corporate revenues of companies in Standard & Poor’s 500-stock index are generated in Europe, and more than 50 percent of US overseas assets are held there.5

US credibility and leadership has been severely damaged by the disastrous occupations of Iraq and Afghanistan and by Wall Street’s central role in causing the global financial meltdown. The Obama White House has sought to re-brand US foreign policy and reposition the United States as the indispensable nation.

The United States hopes to use the summit to reassert its global role and tout the Obama administration’s so-called foreign policy achievements: support for regime change in Libya, encouragement for Arab democracy, and ending the war in Iraq. Economically, Obama will have a pulpit to present a US-inspired vision to bring the world economy out of malaise and to call China to account for currency manipulation and “unfair” trade practices.

Zbigniew Brzezinski, the influential former US national security director, writes in a recent essay:

The United States’ central challenge over the next several decades is to revitalize itself, while promoting a larger West and buttressing a complex balance in the East that can accommodate China’s rising global status. A successful effort by the US to enlarge the West, making it the world’s most stable and democratic zone, would seek to combine power with principle. A cooperative larger West—extending from North America and Europe through Eurasia (by eventually embracing Russia and Turkey), all the way to Japan and South Korea-would advance the appeal of West’s core principles for other cultures, thus encouraging the gradual emergence of a universal democratic political culture.6

Without a stronger West centered on US power, warns Brzezinski, “dire consequences” will ensue. The aim, then, is to figure out how to encircle and limit China’s growing clout both regionally and globally. Rhetoric on the part of US officials criticizing China has sharpened recently based on reports of its military modernization and naval expansion into the contested Pacific Ocean. There is an effort on the part of the United States to strengthen its regional alliances in order to check China’s interests in the South China Sea, the Middle East, Africa, and elsewhere, and a clear sense that China’s meteoric economic rise must be countered. As the Wall Street Journal reports:

The U.S. is taking the trade fight to the front door of Fortress China, a step that could hold more promise for companies than the endless debate over the value of the Yuan.

Prodded by corporate chiefs across the country, U.S. trade officials have launched a coordinated attack on the core of America’s commercial conflict with China: the heavily protected and subsidized Chinese state-owned enterprises that are pounding U.S. companies not just in China but in competition globally.7

Though there are fears China’s economic growth will slow in the next couple of years, it’s estimated China might now have more billionaires than the US. It has $2 trillion in foreign assets whereas the US has $2.5 trillion in net debts. It is the world’s leading manufacturer and looks set to become the world’s primary importer by 2014, representing a massive turnaround from 2000 when US imports were six times China’s.8

China’s growth and the sense of worry about American decline, exacerbated by disastrous wars and the Great Recession, is captured by a recent Pew Global Attitudes Survey: when asked who was the leading economic power 43 percent of Americans polled answered China while only 38 percent believed the United States was still number one.9

Chicago’s NATO and G8 summits will be geared toward consolidating the status quo, justifying austerity to stabilize world capitalism, defending the concentration of wealth and power amongst a tiny elite, and paying lip service to reducing hunger, addressing climate change, overcoming inequality, and supporting democracy.

Writing from Kabul, veteran peace campaigner Kathy Kelly captured the disconnect between those who embrace NATO/G8 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.10

Protest and repression
Over the past few months, mayors across the country, virtually all of them Democratic Party politicians, have unleashed harsh police attacks to clear the Occupy encampments, including one in Oakland that nearly killed an Iraq war veteran. Rahm Emanuel did these mayors one better—he arrested more than 300 people to prevent an encampment from ever happening. 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”11—a dry run, of course, for the NATO-G8 summit protests and any public protests against the Mayor’s austerity measures. These dry runs have been backed up by legal muscle.

On January 18, the Chicago City Council overwhelmingly approved Emanuel’s ordinances giving the city and police new powers to crack down on protests. Emanuel first  claimed the ordinances were temporary, but then reversed himself and admitted they were permanent. One commentary noted,

The new restrictions will be practically impossible for protest organizers to comply with. For example, protest permit applications, which are generally submitted months before planned events, must now include the “size and dimension of any sign, banner or other attention-getting device” carried by two or more people as well as the description of any sound amplification on wheels or carried by two or more people. The law also enhances the mayor’s powers to install sophisticated surveillance cameras, and it increases the minimum fine for violating the parade ordinance from $50 to $200….

The new rules redefine what constitutes a large public assembly, requiring activists to provide $1 million of liability insurance—unless they can persuade the transportation commissioner to waive the insurance requirement as an undue financial burden to free speech rights.

All told, the new restrictions on protest rights give police and city officials even more rules that they can use to target, arrest and fine demonstrators and organizers as they see fit.

Even more troubling is that these new measures come at a time that people across the city are mobilizing to defend city services from the mayor’s budget ax. Mental health clinics, libraries and schools are facing closures across the city, and the contract for the city’s teachers expires this summer.12

The Chicago Tribune described the changes as a “parade ordinance power grab.” John Kass, a conservative Tribune columnist, criticized Emanuel’s “ruthless amassing of new powers” by comparing him to a Roman dictator:

But there seems to be a new, imperial Rahm on the horizon:
Emperor Rahmulus…

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.13

Mayor Emanuel’s attempt to rip up democratic rights in Chicago is part of an ongoing expansion of the US apparatus of state repression. Immediately after 9/11, Arabs and Muslims were rounded up across the country and interrogated. The USA PATRIOT Act, signed into law October 26, 2001, targeted “domestic terrorism,” but in reality, codified state victimization and demonization of Arabs and Muslims in the United States and imposed wide-ranging restriction on civil liberties for all.

Since mass demonstrations in 2006 to demand legalization for undocumented immigrants, a host of draconian new laws and initiatives have been implemented at the local, state, and federal level. The twisted outcome of these policies has seen the “pro-legalization” Obama administration deport more undocumented immigrants than the administration of George W. Bush, whose party is widely regarded as nativist.

In September 2010 the Obama administration signed off on FBI raids on the homes of antiwar activists in Chicago and Minneapolis on charges of materially aiding foreign terrorist organizations.14

Most recently, President Obama endorsed and signed into law the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA), which includes provisions authorizing the military to jail and hold indefinitely anyone in the world it considers a terrorist suspect, including US citizens.

The explosive growth of the US Occupy movement and its resilience forced the US state to reveal its iron fist to a new generation of activists. The Department of Homeland Security participated in an 18-city mayoral conference to discuss how to deal with the Occupy movement. The outcome: a nationally coordinated police crackdown aimed at breaking up the encampments in November last year.15

For a decade the US state has used it apparatus of violence on other nation-states in the “war on terror” and targeted Muslims, Arabs, and undocumented immigrants in the war at home; alongside the persistent criminalization and imprisonment of African-Americans. The focus now is on the movement of the 99 percent.

In 1999, the US political establishment and the Clinton White House were caught off-guard when demonstrations of 50,000 global justice activists and trade unionists in Seattle forced the disruption of the World Trade Organization (WTO) Ministerial Conference at the tail-end of the US economic boom. The success of the protests sent shockwaves internationally and inspired the growth and radicalization of the movement against corporate globalization.

Since the Battle in Seattle, police surveillance and security operations in preparation for contested summits and conventions have been massively increased. For example, at the 2003 Free Trade Agreement of the Americas (FTAA) summit, Miami officials required permits for gatherings of more than six people, and protesters, many of them union workers, faced intimidating numbers of riot police. According to one report, “the police used tear gas, pepper spray and concussion grenades to systematically drive protesters into the ‘green zone’ near the union rally. There, rows of riot cops trained their rifles with plastic bullets at the heads of workers at point blank range.”16 At the 2009 Pittsburgh G20 summit, security was similarly heavy after an ACLU lawsuit forced the city of Pittsburgh to finally grant protest permits. At the summit police used a Long Range Acoustic Device (LRAD), or sound cannon, for the first time on US demonstrators.

Investigative journalists Andrew Becker and G.W. Shulz, who analyzed the militarization of local police forces fuelled by $34 billion in federal grants since September 2011, reported:

No one can say exactly what has been purchased in total across the country or how it’s being used, because the federal government doesn’t keep close track. State and local governments don’t maintain uniform records. But a review of records from 41 states obtained through open-government requests, and interviews with more than two-dozen current and former police officials and terrorism experts, shows police departments around the U.S. have transformed into small army-like forces.17

The year 2011 witnessed a flood of resistance to corporate rule across the United States, from the Wisconsin and Midwest labor uprisings to Occupy Wall Street. With an agenda of more austerity, the shredding of social safety nets, union busting, foreclosures, massive levels of student debt, and rising inequality, the US ruling class is preparing for more resistance. The Wall Street Journal reported that cities across the country are planning to change laws in preparation for forthcoming protests. Many of these “temporary” changes, as in Chicago, will become permanent.18

Emanuel has promised protesters’ rights will be protected and the law will be enforced. But, Chicago has a sordid history of political repression and police violence. In 1886 following  May Day mass strikes for the eight hour day, police killings of striking workers, and an anonymous bomb explosion, Chicago mayor Carter H. Harrison issued a proclamation banning crowds and authorizing the police to break up any and all gatherings.

When the murder of Martin Luther King on April 4, 1968, sparked riots across African-American neighborhoods in Chicago, Democratic mayor Richard J. Daley ordered the police to “shoot to kill” protesters. In 1971 Chicago police raided the apartment of and murdered Black Panther Party leader Fred Hampton as part of COINTELPRO.

Police violence at the Democratic National Convention in August 1968 remains an enduring image. There, Daley ordered a police attack on thousands of protesters in Lincoln Park when they refused to leave at the 11:00 pm curfew. The whole world watched as police attacked and savagely beat demonstrators.19

Any May 2012 scenes reminiscent of 1968 would be disastrous and hurt the US attempts at rebranding. Violent repression to promote “democracy” and “American core principles” abroad, coupled with violent repression at home would severely undermine this. However, allowing protesters free rein would appear weak while governments all over the world are dealing with mass protests against austerity measures. What happens in Chicago will also shape the 2012 election campaign and its outcome.

Defending the right to protest
With so much at stake, defending the right to protest is absolutely crucial. Some activists, however, are dismissive of permitted marches. Victor Serge, the French revolutionist in his book What Every Radical Should Know About State Repression, takes up this question:

To respect legality such as this is not to be fooled by it. Nonetheless, it would be equally disastrous to ignore it. The advantages for the workers’ movement are the greater the less one is fooled. The right to exist and act legally is, for the organizations of the proletariat, something which must constantly be re-won and extended. We stress this because sometimes among good revolutionaries there emerges the diametrically opposite of fetishizing legality—due to a kind of tendency to make the least political effort (it is easier to conspire than to lead mass action) they have a certain disdain for legal action.20

The point of the protests is to increase the capacity of the working class to self-organize—to broaden and deepen the level of mass participation. Therefore, the starting point should not be “What is the most radical action we can organize?” but, “What kinds of activities and political demands can mobilize the widest section of the working class, the oppressed, and others, thus strengthening our capacity to wage our struggles more effectively?”

The defense of civil liberties and opposition to the policies of NATO and the G8 can provide a focus to deepen the connections between multiple working class, student, and social struggles; a means to further politicize, educate, and train wider layers of activists through debating movement building and system changing strategies and tactics; and, crucially, discussing what an alternative to a world dominated by the 1 percent could and should look like. Our side faces enormous challenges, but we have begun to resist.


  1. Noam Chomsky, Hopes and Prospects (Chicago: Haymarket Books, 2010), 216–17.
  2. Greg Hinz, “Rahm has deep financial ties to new Sun-Times  owners,” Crain’s Chicago Business, December 22, 2011.
  3. “Obama bringing world leaders to Chicago for NATO, G-8 meetings,” Chicago Sun-Times, June 22, 2011.
  4. Ibid.
  5. Catherine Rampell, “The Euro Zone and the U.S.: A Primer’,” New York Times, November 14, 2011.
  6. Zibigniew Brzezinski, “Balancing the East, Upgrading the West: US Grand Strategy in an Age of Upheaval,” Foreign Affairs 91:1 (January/February 2012), 97.
  7. John Bussey, “US attacks China Inc.,” Wall Street Journal, February 3, 2012.
  8. ‘How to get a date: The year when the Chinese economy will truly eclipse America’s is in sight,” Economist, December 31, 2011.
  9. “U.S. seen as less Important, China as more powerful,” Pew Research Center, December 3, 2011.
  10. Kathy Kelly, “Big shoulders in Chicago and Kabul,” Huffington Post, December 12, 2011.
  11. Quoted in Shaun Harkin, “Welcome to the civil-liberties free zone,” Socialist Worker, January 9, 2012.
  12. Brit Schulte and Caitlin Sheehan, “Emanuel gets his clampdown,” Socialist Worker, January 23, 2012.
  13. John Kass, “Oh, Rahmfather, where have you gone?” Chicago Tribune, December 18, 2011.
  14. Nicole Colson and Shaun Harkin, “Activists targeted in FBI raids,” Socialist Worker, September 27, 2010.
  15. Naomi Wolf, “The shocking truth about the crackdown on Occupy,” Guardian, November 25, 2011.
  16. Lee Sustar, “The police state of Florida,” International Socialist Review 33, January–February 2004.
  17. Andrew Becker and G.W. Schultz, “Local cops ready for war with Homeland Security-funded military weapons,” Daily Beast, December 21, 2011.
  18. Jack Nicas, “Protest put cities on alert,” Wall Street Journal, January 11, 2012.
  19. Chris Harman, The Fire Last Time: 1968 and After (London, Chicago & Sydney: Bookmarks, 1999), 55–83.
  20. Victor Serge, What every radical should know about state repression: A guide for activists (Melbourne, New York: Ocean Press, 2005), 87.