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Chicago vs. anti-war activists, year VII

February 2, 9:42 PM

by Sergio Barreto, Chicago Progressive Examiner - LINK

GLN permalink posted Feburary 3, 2009

On Jan. 5, a permit application for a demonstration observing the 6th anniversary of the Iraq war was filed by activist Bob Schwartz. The requested date was Saturday, March 14, and the location was Pilsen, the heart of the city's Latino community.

Schwartz was actually fronting for Andy Thayer, leading gay rights and anti-war organizer with a long history of challenging the city on civil liberties matters (1, 2, 3, 4). Alas, the ploy for leniency didn't fly; the city denied the permit request, and they addressed the rejection letter to Thayer.

Andy Thayer

Andy Thayer

According to the letter from Michael Simon of the Chicago Department of Transportation, the proposed march route - Cermak Road to Harrison Park by way of Damen Avenue and 18th Street - "would substantially and unnecessarily interfere with traffic in the area contiguous to the activity and the disruption of traffic could not be mitigated with available city resources." Simon authorized the march to be held on a different date and with an alternate route that didn't include busy 18th Street.

The authorized date, March 7, was unacceptable to the activists because it was too far away from the actual anniversary of the war, March 19. Negotiating with Thayer by phone, Simon said the St. Patrick's Day Parade had dibs on Saturday the 14th, the South Side Irish Parade had dibs on Sunday the 15th, and the city couldn't accommodate the anti-war event on either day.

Simon also suggested Saturday, March 21, as an alternate date, and Thayer refused because a major anti-war event many local activists plan to attend is scheduled for that day in Washington, D.C.

Simon held firm; Thayer appealed the decision and proceeded to act as attorney (he is an administrative assistant at the civil rights law office of Loevy & Loevy) in a hearing held on Jan. 22. Simon testified that the St. Patrick's Day Parade and the South Side Irish Parade qualified as traditional parades under Section 10-8-325(i) of the Chicago Municipal Code, which reads, in part:

"Where a parade has been conducted on or about a certain date, on a substantially similar route, and in connection with a specific holiday or consistent theme, for at least the prior five years, it shall be referred to herein as a traditional parade, and it shall be given a preference to continue on that date and route for the purpose of protecting the expectations and enjoyment of the public.

The ordinance goes on to say that when two events claiming to be traditional parades request permits for the same date, the city must hold a lottery to decide who gets the permit. Anti-war marches have been held on or near Michigan Avenue since March 2003, and Simon argued that by relocating the event to Pilsen - a decision that was made in order to work more closely with immigrant rights activists - the organizers forfeited the traditional parade classification, hence the St. Patrick's Day Parade and the South Side Irish Parade were given precedence.

Simon also testified that all three applications were filed on Jan. 5, but the activists' application was the only one date-stamped Jan. 5; the others were date-stamped Jan. 7. Simon said his assistant failed to time-stamp those applications on the day they were received, and Administrative Law Officer Raymond J. Prosser, who ruled over the case, bought the explanation.

Police Commander Frank Gross of the Special Events and Liaison Section testified that he personally reviewed all three applications and concluded that he didn't have the resources to handle three major events in the same weekend because the Police Department is facing significant budget cuts and restraints; he said he faxed Simon a request that no further permits be granted for the weekend of March 14-15.

The city also put on the stand Antonio McFadden, a Chicago Transit Authority general manager who testified that the route requested by the activists would affect seven bus routes, while the city's proposed alternative would only affect three bus routes and place less demands on the CTA. However, he didn't discuss the level of disruption that would be caused by the St. Patrick's Day Parade or the South Side Irish Parade.

Thayer argued that all this talk about logistical difficulties was a smokescreen to cover up an attempt to stifle constitutionally protected protest activity. He pointed out that the city has allowed the simultaneous scheduling on Aug. 8 of 2009 of no less than three major events: Lollapalooza, which by the city's own estimate has an average daily attendance of 65,000; the Bud Billiken Parade, which draws hundreds of thousands to the South Side and disrupts more than a dozen bus lines for long periods of time; and the Independence of Ecuador Parade in Albany Park. By contrast, the anti-war march in question is expected to draw about 2,500.

On cross-examination, Thayer got Simon to admit that he had processed more than 18,000 permit applications in his 9-year career, had rejected only about 20 to 25 of them, and six or more of the rejections were for anti-war events. In statistical terms, this means that he had only rejected roughly 0.10 percent of applications, but 20 to 30 percent of the rejections were for anti-war actions.

The hearing ended without a decision, but according to Thayer, Simon indicated that he would be amenable to a compromise. "He said, 'Hey Andy, let's talk about this on the phone, let's see if we can work this out' [...] Apparently his lawyers came down on him like a ton of bricks, because the call then that I did get was three lawyers on a conference call, representing the CPD [Chicago Police Department] and other outfits associated with the city. When I tried then calling Mike [Simon], the callback I got then was from his lawyer." Sensing defeat, Thayer asked Pilsen activists to schedule a meeting with 24th Ward Alderman Danny Solis to seek his help.

When the hearing resumed on Jan. 26, Thayer brought to the stand Pilsen organizers Laura Paz and Magna Castaneda. They both testified to the importance of holding the event on March 14, and to the significance of marching on 18th Street for maximum visibility and due to the street's significance to the latino community. Then they darted out of the hearing to a 1 p.m. meeting with Ald. Solis along with other activists, including Gloria Barrios, who has gained national notoriety thanks to her struggle to uncover the truth about her daughter's death at Sheppard Air Force Base in Texas.

The alderman was very polite, holding a bilingual meeting to accommodate Barrios and another Spanish-speaking woman. But even if his heart was in the right place, Solis - who was appointed by Richard M. Daley in 1996 and is described by his own Web site as a "staunch ally" of the mayor - clearly didn't feel that this issue was worth rocking the apple cart.

He listened to the activists, but time and again he came to City Hall's defense. "I think the city has been one of the most progressive in the nation on this issue [the Iraq war]," he said at one point. When Paz stated that this would be a peaceful event with no need for a large police presence - a perennial complaint from activists - Solis responded that police would be on hand mainly to direct traffic, "not because they're concerned about your being rowdy." That didn't sit well with Paz, whose daughter was swept up in the mass arrest of March 20, 2003.

Solis expressed a degree of willingness to appeal for access to 18th Street, but ultimately he made it clear that he wouldn't challenge the city's decision on the date. "If you have the parade on March 7, I think everything you want you can have regarding the march route," he said.

As the meeting and the downtown hearing ended, everyone went home expecting the worst. Two days later Thayer received Prosser's decision (pdf) and was stunned to learn that the permit had been granted. The 14-page decision conceded all the legal arguments made by the city, but in the end Prosser ruled for the activists on a technicality. The city is required to respond to permit applications by fax or phone and by mail within five business days; if the response is not timely the permit must be automatically granted. The last date for a timely reply to the application was Jan. 14; a denial letter sent by Simon's assistant was postmarked Jan. 14, but a denial wasn't issued by fax until the 15th.

Prosser concluded that his hands were tied by the timeliness factor:

"Therefore, I find that I have no discretion in this matter, and, as a result, the parade permit at issue must be granted."

There was much jubilation when Thayer announced the unexpected victory to the anti-war coalition, but the joy was short-lived. Apparently one can't go up against St. Patrick in this Irish-run town and get away with it, because Thayer learned on Monday that the city had filed an appeal against Prosser's ruling.

The appeal hearing will be held Tuesday afternoon, and Thayer is consulting with National Lawyers Guild attorneys and trying to get a bona fide lawyer in court; he's also taking the case to the court of public opinion with a press conference. "The City is playing very, very nasty right now," he said. "And I, for one, am in no mood to roll over for them."


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