City, protesters go to battle over anti-war march

Posted by Mitchell - March 2, 2005 (entry 286)

(originally published in the Columbia Chronicle)
Proposed route too disruptive, city officials say
By Alicia Dorr
City Beat Editor

Members of the Chicago Coalition Against War and Racism filed a lawsuit against the city of Chicago on Feb. 22 challenging its denial of their application to march on Michigan Avenue on the anniversary of the Iraq War. Anti-war activists rejected the city’s offer to march on the route down Clark Street they used last year.

After twice being rebuffed by Chicago officials, local peace activists are taking the city to court for the right to march down Michigan Avenue on the second anniversary of the Iraq invasion.

The March 19 Chicago Coalition, an ad hoc group that came from the Chicago Coalition Against War and Racism, decided to take legal action after a revised proposal was denied by the Chicago Department of Transportation. Both proposals requested that a portion of Michigan Avenue be shut down on March 19. The city offered the group an alternate route down Clark Street after both rejections, a deal demonstrators ended up taking last year for the war’s first anniversary. The group is not going to settle for the Clark Street route this year, according to Andy Thayer, a spokesman for the group and a plaintiff in the suit filed Feb. 22 against the city.

“Sure, it’s okay to have us protest somewhere over on Clark where no one will see it take place,” Thayer said.

The fact that Michigan Avenue is one of the city’s busiest thoroughfares is the reason the group wants to protest there, and it is also the reason for the city’s denials.

Brian Steele, spokesman for CDOT, said that, after talking to city entities ranging from the police to the CTA officials decided that the demonstration would put too much strain on resources.

“There were two main issues—the impact the proposed plan would have on traffic and the amount of strain an event of this scale would put on city services,” Steele said.

The proposal would have required temporary detours in CTA bus routes and cause problems for businesses downtown, Steele said. The anniversary also falls on a weekend when two conventions are in town—the 2005 Flower and Garden Show and the International Home and Housewares Show. The coalition’s second application only included a “minor change” and was found again to be insufficient, Steele said.

Thayer disagrees, saying his group addressed the problems the city had with the first application. The coalition decided to go to the federal level by filing suit to address what Thayer sees as serious problems with the entire application process.

“The council that judged our appeal [after the first rejection] had people from the mayor’s own licensing committee on it,” Thayer said. “It was a stacked deck.”

Thayer went on to point out that the city makes more accommodations for Chicago’s annual Festival of Lights parade. Steele maintained that the group went through the same application process as any organization would, but the members of the group are skeptical.

“They can’t just favor the free speech of organizations they approve of. It’s patently undemocratic,” Thayer said.

The actions of both sides have not come as a shock to many watching the events unfold. Animosity between the two parties has been high since March 20, 2003, when Chicago police arrested hundreds of anti-war protesters after as many.

On the anniversary in 2004, police met the thousands of protesters at Federal Plaza with riot gear. Despite last year’s mostly peaceful rally it is no surprise that this anniversary is not a happy one for the city, according to Mitchell Szczepanczyk, president of Chicago Media Action, an organization that is devoted to media issues in the city.

“The city doesn’t want to scare off shoppers and business, and that decision is making a walk down Michigan Avenue the Holy Grail for [activists],” Szczepanczyk said. “The protesters probably won’t give up on this, and neither will the city.”

The Chicago Police Department has already approved a request from anti-war protesters to assemble in Federal Plaza on March 20, which they did at last year’s rally. The police department is one of the city services Chicago Department of Transportation officials said would be strained by a march on Michigan Avenue.

The lawsuit brought against the city challenges the application process for permits and appeals, which Thayer said are not fair at all. However, Steele maintains that the decisions made on this topic were reasonable.

“Our goal is to try to strike a balance between those holding an event and the many that will be impacted by it,” Steele said. “We feel the Clark Street route strikes a much better balance.”

Whether city officials like it or not, the Chicago rally is a large draw in the Midwest, according to Szczepanczyk. He did live radio coverage on the Internet from the protest last year and plans to do so again this year. Though no one knows how the day will unfold, Szczepanczyk said the stalemate between the city and the coalition may likely cause problems.

“It seems like something’s going to give this year,” Szczepanczyk said.

No matter what the outcome of the lawsuit, Thayer said that activists have not lost sight of their main purpose. The Chicago police have granted a permit to assemble at Federal Plaza again, and the group intends to do just that.

“There will definitely be a protest,” Thayer said. “We’ve already got posters out for it.”

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