Mayor Rahm Emanuel's administration pulled the plug Tuesday on the only NATO protest planned for a workday in the Loop business district, revoking permission for a May 18 Daley Plaza rally barely a week before world leaders are to arrive in Chicago.
The National Nurses United group that planned the demonstration and other protest groups called the move a violation of free speech and said it fits a pattern of City Hall trying to marginalize demonstrations against the May 20-21 gathering.
"If the nurses are a threat to Rahm Emanuel, then heaven help the U.S.," said RoseAnn DeMoro, executive director of National Nurses United. "He's been trying to move us into an obscure forum."
In a May 8 letter to the nurses group, the city said the group's midday parade along Michigan Avenue downtown can go on as planned with one major difference - instead of ending with a rally in the heart of the Loop, participants must swing east and gather in Grant Park for their rally.
The city said it needed to move the rally because organizers promoted the event so much that it was likely to exceed the group's attendance estimate of 1,000 people. The city also noted that the group had added an appearance by singer Tom Morello, former guitarist for Rage Against the Machine.
"The addition to your event of a performance by a popular, nationally known musician who regularly draws large crowds under similar circumstances, along with the active recruitment of other organizations to join in your event, will likely increase the number of participants in your event far beyond the number estimated on your application," wrote Mike Simon, assistant commissioner of the city's Department of Transportation.
A larger crowd on a workday in the Loop could strain city resources, administration officials said, citing aggravating factors including the Crosstown Series pitting the White Sox against the Cubs several miles away in Wrigley Field.
"You're talking about a downtown area on a workday," said Roderick Drew, spokesman for the city Law Department.
In the letter, the city said the group's attempts to promote the rally meant it could exceed the maximum capacity of Daley Plaza, which the city said is 5,000 people.
It was the second NATO-related protest moved out of Daley Plaza since President Barack Obama announced that the G-8 economic summit, originally scheduled to run back-to-back with NATO in Chicago, was being moved to Camp David, Md.
The nurses association had held the permit for the rally since February, and the group put out a news release April 20 announcing the addition of Morello, who has long performed with left-wing polemic rock groups.
The city had approached the nurses group about the changes but did not act until Tuesday. The group consulted the American Civil Liberties Union about challenging the move in court but has not made a decision. But they planned to protest the move at City Hall at noon Wednesday, said Chuck Idelson, a spokesman for the California-based group.
Protest organizers argue that the city is discriminating against the demonstration because the mayor doesn't like the message of the nurses march. National Nurses United is specifically advocating for a transaction tax on Wall Street deals.
Protesters point to other rallies in the recent past that have been allowed to crowd thousands of people into the confined spaces of downtown streets.
"The city has accommodated many overflow crowds there. It's infuriating," said Andy Thayer, organizer of a May 20 anti-war protest that was originally scheduled for Daley Plaza on May 19, the first day of the G-8 meeting.
But when Thayer applied to have the same rally for an estimated 5,000 people a day later, the city balked and cited similar reasons to push the demonstration to Grant Park.
An April 2011 union rally in support of Wisconsin workers was allowed to use Daley Plaza even though it overflowed the plaza and surrounding streets, according to a Tribune account of the event. Likewise, a 2010 May Day march attended by an estimated 8,000 people was allowed to end at the plaza.
When the Blackhawks won the Stanley Cup in 2010, the city permitted a workday parade through the streets of the Loop that drew a sea of humanity that officials estimated to be as many as 2 million people. In 2009, the city allowed Oprah Winfrey to shut down North Michigan Avenue for 21/2 days in order to film her TV show before 20,000 people standing in the street for a program that included a live performance by the Black Eyed Peas.
Morello, who grew up in north suburban Libertyville, said he's used to government agencies taking a confrontational tack with causes he supports.
"It's interesting to be blacklisted in my own hometown," Morello joked. "At the same time it's not going to stop anything we do, the number of people who come out in the streets ... or the songs I'm going to play."
On Tuesday night, city and host committee officials wrapped up their series of pre-NATO community briefings meant to reassure residents that the summit and demonstrations will cause only minor inconveniences to their routines.
Despite myriad road closings, a security perimeter and other restrictions prompted by dozens of heavily guarded motorcades rolling through the city, the Secret Service's Frank Benedetto said life would be "as close to normal as possible."
Police Superintendent Garry McCarthy told Loop business leaders at the meeting that the police response to any NATO demonstrations "will be very fluid and agile."
After the meeting, he said the department was involved in discussions about the nurses permit change but declined to discuss details.
"There's a whole bunch of issues that surround it," McCarthy said. "It has to do with transportation and a hundred other things."
Tribune reporter Ryan Haggerty contributed.
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