Atlantic Cities
The Big Fix

When Preparing for Major Events, How Should Cities Balance Civil Rights and Security?

When Preparing for Major Events, How Should Cities Balance Civil Rights and Security?
Reuters

The G8/NATO summit heading to Chicago this spring is still several months off, but the city's security preparations are in full swing. Officials recently expanded Mayor Rahm Emanuel's authority and increased the application requirements for protest groups in preparation for the Chicago's turn in the international spotlight this May.

The concurrent summits mark the first time the two major international events have been held simultaneously in the same city since London in the late 1970s. Some 10,000 diplomats are expected from 80 countries, as well as dozens of world leaders and tens of thousands of protesters.

According to the new ordinances, protesters must now gain pre-approval for large banners and sound equipment, access to public parks and beaches will be restricted and the minimum fine for violations will be increased from $50 to $200.

During the summit, the Chicago Police Department will be able to deputize officers from other cities if needed and Emanuel will have the authority to purchase goods and services without city council approval.

These measures have been scaled back from more draconian initial proposals. Provisions that initially upset protest groups included attempts to significantly increase fines for resisting arrest, shorten parades by 15 minutes and require protest groups to provide marshals for every 100 participants.

Emanuel has repeatedly said he will respect the rights of protesters and of free speech, and the city has already granted its first protest permit. He has also said the summits are an opportunity for Chicago to improve its worldwide visibility and attract foreign investment.

Chicago's more people-friendly security paradigm may reflect a response to the recent Occupy movement, as well as a backlash to China's air-tight security controls during the 2008 Summer Games in Beijing.

China spent $6.5 billion on security for the Olympics. For those games, some 110,000 soldiers and security personnel protected nearly three dozen venues, 10,000 athletes, 80 heads of state and some 30,000 journalists. The terror threat in Beijing was real: just days before the Opening Ceremonies, a bomb attack in Xinjiang province killed 16 policemen.

Still, many foreign visitors saw the ubiquitous security presence as overkill. The authoritarian Chinese government may have accepted the trade-off of bad PR for a secure Olympics.

London is looking to avoid this pitfall when it hosts the 2012 Olympics this summer. Cressida Dick, in charge of London's special operations security, recently told members of British parliament that the security presence would be balanced. "This is a sports event and we do not want it to be dominated by security,” she said, dismissing reports that the U.S. planned to dispatch 500 FBI agents to beef up security for its athletes.

But despite an Olympic security budget of $1.6 billion, London may need to worry about being too lax. During a trial run last month, British police smuggled a fake bomb past security personnel and onto the Olympic grounds.

The G8 and NATO summits present different problems. In a recent Facebook exchange with Olympian gymnast Bart Conner, Lori Healey, head of Chicago's G8/NATO summit team, said G8/NATO "makes the Olympics look like a cake walk!"

She was likely referring not to Beijing or London, but to her own experience as president of Chicago's 2016 Olympic bid committee. In the past decade, Healey also served as city planning commissioner and Mayor Richard M. Daley's chief of staff. For G8/NATO, she will need to treat visiting dignitaries with kid gloves, schedule various events and liaise with the White House as well as city and state governments and security personnel.

Much of Chicago's Loop is likely to be closed off and chaotic. Concerned about security and traffic congestion, Columbia College and the Chicago Symphony Orchestra have already cancelled events originally scheduled during the May 19-21 summit. Gerald Roper, former head of the Chicagoland Chamber of Commerce, has advised downtown businesses to post security outside buildings and allow employees to work from home.

For New Yorkers, Chicago's security measures may bring to mind their own annual headache: the United Nations General Assembly. Blocks-long traffic jams, closed-off streets, lines of heavily armed police officers, police checkpoints and helicopters circling overhead dominate much of Manhattan's east side for four days every September.

Meanwhile, FBI and CIA operatives kick into high gear, chasing down potential spies and possible terrorists in one of the country's most sophisticated annual intelligence-gathering operations.

Chicago's summits are sure to have a significant FBI and CIA presence, and security will be backed by the Department of Homeland Security. Yet protesters are more concerned about the local security costs — estimated between $40 million and $65 million — and the new provision that allows the CPD to deputize out-of-state officers.

During a recent discussion on Chicago's WBEZ, Anne Elizabeth Moore, an activist and columnist for Truthout.org, recalled the security at the 2008 Republican National Convention in St Paul. “There were thousands of under-trained non-local officers who basically didn't know what they were doing,” she said. “People were arrested for ridiculous things like using puppets and recycling water.”

In response, Healey said this was a common contingency measure and that only "qualified, trained, certified" officers would be brought in. She added that the planning process is in its early stages and that plans and security costs will be finalized in the months to come.

It's those classically trained officers that worry Sam Rosenfeld, a former British Army officer and expert on major event security. He says police are often unwittingly responsible for the escalation of police-protestor interactions at major events.

They show up at a peaceful demonstration en masse, wearing full riot gear, determining for many demonstrators the direction the day is likely to go. Protest movements, meanwhile, are more watchful. They are constantly observing, learning and evolving:

“Unlike many U.S. police forces who are content to use the same, broadly ineffective and costly (through litigation) tactics for managing protestors that have been in vogue in the U.S. for literally decades, the protest groups learn. Aggressively," Rosenfeld writes on the Security Debrief blog. "The Anarchists published their lessons learned document within a couple of weeks of the end of St Paul’s RNC – this is the kind of operational tempo and learning cycle that makes militaries jealous.”

Occupy protesters, much like the Seattle WTO protesters before them, imported a good deal of their non-violent jujitsu from Europe. As a result, they've been effective at maintaining good relations with local authorities and curbing aggression. In Portland, for example, Occupy marshals tried to help police detain an anarchist who had smashed a window.

But G8/NATO is likely to be a more intense gathering than the Occupy events. Adbusters is predicting 50,000 protesters from all over the world will descend on Chicago, demanding a Robin Hood tax, a binding climate change accord and other measures.

What's more, this is the first major international event the U.S. will host post-Occupy, and hard-core protesters are chomping at the bit to retake the spotlight. “These groups are advocating burning banks rather than sitting outside them,” says Rosenfeld. “Police chiefs, particularly those in and around Chicago (NATO/G8), Tampa (RNC) and Charlotte (DNC), should be taking heed.”

Presidential convention host cities Charlotte and Tampa are each installing about $50 million worth of security infrastructure, systems that are likely going to stick around long after the meetings are over, as TPM recently reported. Will Chicago's police and security personnel be able to adapt to advanced strategies from both the non-violent Occupiers and the more aggressive pros, and embrace next-generation tactics in dealing with various groups of protesters? That might be the key question for G8/NATO. A recent blog post from a Chicago cop advising officers to use black tape to cover up their name and badge number suggests the CPD may be readying for combat.

Most often, it's the unpredictable occurrences and the city's response to them that define history's conception of an event. Few locals old enough to remember the 1968 Democratic National Convention have forgotten the images of police violently clashing with demonstrators. More recently, hundreds of protesters were arrested when local police responded to an Iraq war protest in 2003.

Allen Sanderson, an economics professor at the University of Chicago, thinks the combination of amped-up professional protesters, still-seething Occupy members and an election year could turn G8/NATO into a "train wreck.” Though a Scottish government study of the 2005 G8 in Gleneagles found the meeting generated a net economic benefit of $112 million, he believes gatherings of this magnitude rarely benefit the city itself. “I think events like this should be held in Guam or possibly Lubbock, Texas, in August,” Sanderson told WBEZ, “places you don't want to go to or places that are hard to reach.”

Seems he's not alone in his thinking: the three most recent G8 summits were held in Deauville, France, Huntsville, Canada, and L'Aquila, Italy.

David Lepeska writes about urban issues and the environment for The New York Times, Monocle, and other publications. He lives in Chicago. All posts »

Join the Discussion