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Dana Ballout and Joslin Woods/MEDILL

Many Chicagoans remember the 1968 riots and are apprehensive of the upcoming G-8 and NATO protests. But are the two events even comparable?

Occupy Chicago protesters in court: Reminiscent of '68

by Joslin Woods and Dana Ballout
Feb 15, 2012

This is not like 1968 …well maybe just a little.

Occupy Chicago protesters and other onlookers packed a courtroom on the 13th floor of the Daley Center Wednesday for a hearing to dismiss charges against 93 protesters who were arrested in October for violating a park curfew.

This comes 44 years after the arrest of the famous Chicago 7 following the 1968 Democratic National Convention.

The court cases of the arrested Occupiers were consolidated into what their lawyers said is the largest consolidation in Chicago in recent memory.

About 300 Occupy Chicago protesters were arrested at Grant Park on two different weekends in October after they tried to spend the night, violating a city ordinance that closes the park from 11 p.m. to 6 a.m.

While the police could have issued tickets for the violations, they were arrested, said Sarah Gelsomino, a National Lawyers Guild Attorney with the People’s Law Office in Chicago.

“They arrested them, held them overnight and treated them like criminals,” Gelsomino said.

The National Lawyers’ Guild represented the majority of the protesters filing to dismiss charges, while Chicago attorney Thomas Durkin represented about a dozen of Occupy Chicago members from the University of Chicago.

In light of the continuing Occupy Chicago movement and upcoming G-8 and NATO summits, the City of Chicago’s memories of large-scale protests have resurfaced. Adbusters, a Canada-based non-profit organization, is trying to mobilize protesters for the G-8 and NATO summits by using an image of police violence from the riots at the 1968 Democratic National Convention.

That year, thousands flooded the streets of Chicago during the Democratic National Convention and were beaten by police. Many arrests were made, most notably seven leaders of the demonstrations who were charged with conspiracy and violating the anti-riot clauses of the Civil Rights Act of 1968. The leaders, later known as the Chicago 7, were eventually acquitted.

Andrew McFarland, professor of political science at the University of Illinois at Chicago, said the violence between Chicago police and protesters during the 1968 demonstrations is not comparable to the relationship between Occupy Chicago activists and police today.

“There was sheer open hostility between the city of Chicago and protesters,” McFarland said. “They hated each other.”

Occupy Chicago protesters agreed, and said unlike 1968, their experience with the police has been mostly positive.

“In Grant Park, any kind of roughness by the police came from [Mayor] Rahm, not the police – by and large the police were accommodating, much more than in other cities,” said Mark Saulys, a member of the Occupy Chicago press committee.

Andrea Ford, a graduate student in the anthropology department at the University of Chicago, spent the night in jail with 173 other Occupy Chicago protesters during the first night of the October arrests.

“A lot of the police officers expressed sympathy and solidarity both at the protest and when we were in jail,” Ford said.

Although Occupy Chicago protesters said they have not experienced the same police oppression as happened in 1968, they do see some comparisons between the political movements then and now.

“A lot of us want to make the comparison because implicitly there are similar concepts and ideologies,” said Jeremy Siegman, a political science and anthropology graduate student from the University of Chicago, who was among those arrested at Grant Park.

“Language and imagery that we use is similar to the ’60s,” Siegman added.

Bernard Harcourt, chair of the political science department at the University of Chicago, said the Occupy movement is inventing a new form of civil disobedience, which he calls political disobedience, by not respecting the legitimacy of political and legal institutions.

“The Occupy movement resists setting forth any kind of platform for reform or making demands, for seeking election or engaging in partisan politics, for endorsing candidates, for endorsing anything,” Harcourt said.

“In some sense it is pure protest, it is pure resistance,” he said.

In today’s hearing before Associate Judge Thomas Donnelly, Durkin argued that the city did not provide the protesters with an alternate space to express themselves when kicked out of the park, which is what the First Amendment demands. The park’s curfew cannot be used to curtail freedom of speech in the city, he added.

The prosecution countered by saying the First Amendment requires that alternate channels need to be available for freedom of speech, but that there is no requirement that the city provide these services.

CBS2 Chicago reported that the judge did not decide whether to dismiss the charges and instead wants more information.