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News / Nation & World

‘This will not be 1968.’ Chicago police prepare for DNC as whole world watches once again.

By Dan Petrella, A.D. Quig and Sam Charles, Dan Petrella, A.D. Quig and Sam Charles, Chicago Tribune
Published: June 15, 2024, 1:04pm

It’s not 1968.

But after anti-war, pro-Palestinian demonstrations roiled college campuses this spring and led to clashes between protesters and police, the specter of the chaos surrounding that summer’s Democratic National Convention in Chicago looms as the party returns in August to mark the renomination of President Joe Biden.

To be sure, the landscape is vastly different than it was in the late 1960s, even amid resurgent political violence driven predominantly by the far right. Nevertheless, the influx of potentially tens of thousands of protesters into Chicago during the Aug. 19-22 convention, some of whom have vowed to take to the streets without city permits, raises questions about how prepared Chicago police are for any ensuing unrest.

While similar concerns arose ahead of the last Chicago DNC in 1996, as well as the NATO summit in 2012, divisions among the Democratic coalition are deeper this year, with progressives upset over Biden’s ongoing support for Israel in its war against Hamas as well as his recent order clamping down on migrant crossings at the southern border.

Policing has changed substantially over the past several decades, especially for large gatherings such as national political conventions.

Still, with the whole world watching Chicago once again, avoiding any echoes of 1968 — when blue-helmeted officers beat protesting Yippies and working journalists alike in what a government report later termed a “police riot” — will be an important test for a department that remains under a federal consent decree over its long-running “pattern and practice” of civil rights violations.

In the lead-up to this year’s convention, organizers and police officials have downplayed concerns about possible unrest and sought to dispel any comparisons to the events that culminated in the infamous “Battle of Michigan Avenue.”

“This will not be 1968,” said Chicago police Superintendent Larry Snelling while acknowledging he understands the comparison given national protests of the Israel-Hamas war. “Our response as a Chicago Police Department will be a lot more deliberate … a lot more controlled because our officers are being trained in the best way possible to respond to any level of civil unrest.”

It’s not just the Police Department that has a lot riding on a peaceful convention.

The political stakes are high, both for Biden as he seeks to again defeat former Republican President Donald Trump and for local Democrats who will play prominent roles at the party gathering and in managing the situation outside.

That’s particularly true for Illinois Gov. J.B. Pritzker, who was pivotal in bringing the convention to Chicago and will use the event to elevate his national profile as a key Biden surrogate and potential future White House contender, as well as Mayor Brandon Johnson, who has perhaps a greater affinity with those planning to protest than with the police under his command who are charged with keeping order.

“If you’re Biden and the Democratic Party and the mayor of Chicago, you just want peace and calm and stability,” said Andrew Baer, a University of Alabama at Birmingham history professor who studies policing and social movements. “You don’t want the bad optics of either suppressing a protest or the protest embarrassing the coronation of Biden.”

Despite changes in both policing practices and the political environment, “there’s clearly a through line from ‘68, through the (Cmdr. Jon) Burge era, into the 2000s and up to the present day,” said Baer, author of “Beyond the Usual Beating: The Jon Burge Police Torture Scandal and Social Movements for Police Accountability in Chicago.”

Today, as then, there is a sense among many police of feeling “misunderstood and kind of unnecessarily tampered with” by outside forces, Baer said.

“That degree of always-simmering resentment felt by police rank and file, and the Fraternal Order of Police and the unions, and the supervisors and administrators of the Police Department always makes for a potentially explosive environment, whether it’s at a street arrest or a public protest or national political convention,” he said.

‘2020 snuck up on us’

One need not look all the way back to 1968 to see what can go wrong when hordes of protesters and lines of cops meet in the streets.

Indeed, the training Snelling’s officers have been undergoing ahead of the DNC was spurred not only by Chicago’s selection as the host city but also by the department’s response to widespread civil unrest in 2020.

Officers in Chicago were unprepared for the simultaneous and unpredictable nature of large protests and chaos that erupted over three days after George Floyd’s murder at the hands of a Minneapolis police officer in late May of that year. While the department improved its response to other incidents in the weeks that followed, protests over the city’s Christopher Columbus statues and also high-profile police shootings highlighted similar struggles.

“2020 snuck up on us,” Snelling acknowledged in a recent Chicago Tribune interview. “Let’s tell the cold, hard truth. We did not have the level of preparedness to deal with something that was that random that popped up on us.”

The department is applying lessons learned from the 2020 response in preparation for the DNC, Snelling said.

While CPD took issue with some of the findings in a recent inspector general report on policy and training updates since the 2020 unrest, Snelling said any use of force or pepper spray during the DNC would be “proportional” to the reality on the ground.

“We’re not just going to walk in and spray a crowd of people. Even if they’re breaking the law, if they’re peaceful, we’re not going to use OC (pepper) spray,” Snelling said. “Now, if we have an all-out fight, where people are attacking police officers, are attacking each other, and we need to use OC spray, that call will be made by a higher authority based on the totality of circumstances and what’s occurring in the field in that time.”

The situation on the ground should be much different in August for a number of reasons, not least of which is the major role the U.S. Secret Service will play in controlling the areas surrounding the major convention venues, the United Center and McCormick Place.

Like every major party convention since 2000, this summer’s DNC — along with the Republican National Convention a month earlier in Milwaukee — is designated a National Special Security Event, making the Secret Service the lead agency for security planning. Each convention host city also received $75 million from Congress to help cover equipment and other security costs.

“We’ve got a tremendous working relationship with Chicago police, as well as a multitude of other agencies, both local and federal, that will be contributing to this whole-of-government approach that we’re taking,” Secret Service Director Kimberly Cheatle told reporters during a visit last week that included tours of the convention venues.

Outside the yet-to-be-finalized security zones around the venues, where most if not all the protests are expected to take place, Chicago police will be running the show, however. The convention will come near the end of what are typically more violent summer months as well as after large-scale events like Lollapalooza and the NASCAR street race.

In an effort to relieve some of the tension building ahead of the DNC, lawyers for the Johnson administration indicated in federal court Thursday they were preparing to offer a deal to protesters who’d sued the city over its alleged efforts to block marches within “sight and sound” of the convention venue.

While private negotiations remain ongoing, the city indicated protesters would be offered a “United Center-adjacent route.”

Regardless of the outcome of those discussions, the city will have to manage the movement of an estimated 50,000 delegates, staff and public officials to and from the convention venues south of downtown and on the West Side, in addition to handling security checkpoints and traffic rerouting to accommodate Biden, who is expected to attend the convention on the final day.

CPD’s task of working with other organizations and maintaining order will come with the city under a national and international spotlight it didn’t have to contend with in 2020, when protests were taking place across the country, said Cara Hendrickson, the former chief of the Illinois attorney general’s public interest division, where she helped negotiate the consent decree.

“The way CPD and other law enforcement agencies respond will be very visible to Chicagoans and the world,” she said. “It’s a very public test of law enforcement’s current ability to keep people safe.”

Trying to assure the public

Despite assurances of readiness from the top brass, one veteran CPD supervisor, speaking on a condition of anonymity for concern of reprisal, gave a blunt assessment of the department’s readiness to tamp down on summer gun violence on top of its DNC responsibilities.

“Our strategy is eight hours ahead, right?” the supervisor told the Tribune in mid-May. “It’s very short-term and there’s no long-term planning to this, but if you ask them then they’ll say there is, but they won’t tell you what.”

In 1968, of course, Mayor Richard J. Daley also sought to assure the public and his fellow Democrats the situation in Chicago would be under control, though he focused more on maintaining order than allowing room for dissenting voices.

That year’s gathering at the International Amphitheatre in the New City neighborhood came amid widespread protests over the Vietnam War, a backlash so strong that President Lyndon Johnson chose not to seek reelection. It also came just months after the assassination of Democratic presidential hopeful Robert Kennedy and violent uprisings that April in Chicago and elsewhere in the wake of the Rev. Martin Luther King’s assassination.

“Leading in, Daley was talking about how he was going to uphold law and order in Chicago,” said Heather Hendershot, a Northwestern University communications professor and author of the recent book “When the News Broke: Chicago 1968 and the Polarizing of America.”

While Daley was “Mr. Democrat,” his rhetoric echoed that of GOP nominee Richard Nixon, whose campaign capitalized on the ensuing disorder in Chicago to win in November, Hendershot said.

“(Daley) sent out this message that, ‘We are prepared to do whatever we have to do to maintain order in Chicago. We will keep our city safe,’ this kind of thing,” she said. “And people knew there was going to be a lot of violence, and it really scared a lot of people away.”

The result was a crowd of only about 10,000 predominantly white protesters during the 1968 DNC, Hendershot said, a group that was outnumbered by police and members of the National Guard.

The protests this year could be substantially larger, Hendershot said, pointing to the more than 100,000 people who protested President George W. Bush and the Iraq War during the 2004 RNC in New York.

Somewhat encouraging, though, is that this year Johnson and police officials are “not releasing a bunch of press releases to scare people or to say, ‘We’re going to have law and order,’” she said. “They will occasionally say something like, ‘We will engage in constitutional policing, which, obviously, is what all policing should be.”

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But what policing should be doesn’t always match reality when officers are confronted with large groups of protesters in unpredictable settings.

The George Floyd protests in 2020 created a no-win for cops, protesters and nearby businesses, according to three separate reports — CPD’s own after-action report, a scathing probe by the city’s inspector general, and a 464-page special report covering the summer’s incidents from the independent monitoring team responsible for tracking the city’s progress in the court-ordered consent decree.

Cops were left vulnerable, exhausted and under-resourced, in part because the department had not prepared for that scale of unrest since 2012, when Chicago hosted the NATO summit.

Officers struggled to control disorganized crowds and distinguish between protesters protected under the First Amendment and those responsible for looting, vandalism or assaulting cops. Many cops were deployed without protective gear, radios or bullhorns to communicate dispersal orders. At times, equipment failed in the field during lengthy shifts. Some cops were left without adequate or timely transportation to transfer arrestees or move other cops to a place to rest, use restrooms, eat or drink.

One officer described the department’s strategy during the George Floyd protests as Whac-A-Mole, with self-guided platoons of officers putting out metaphorical fires while still leaving others smoldering.

Accountability measures lapsed as well. Some officers were unfamiliar with the department’s mass arrest policies, resulting in some arrestees suspected of looting, arson or violence being released or having charges dropped. Some officers also covered or removed their name tags or badges, turned off their body-worn cameras, were deployed without them or had the camera batteries die on them in the field.

The independent monitoring team reported hearing from community members that “officers were verbally abusive toward them; pushed and shoved them; tackled them to the ground; pushed them down stairs; pulled their hair; struck them with batons, fists, or other nearby objects; hit them after they were ‘kettled’ with nowhere to go or after being handcuffed; and sprayed them with pepper spray (OC spray) without reason.”

Misconduct settlements stemming from the protests have been costly for taxpayers.

On top of tens of millions spent on overtime and damage to local businesses, a WTTW analysis found the city had paid $5.6 for settlements and attorney fees. As of April, 32 lawsuits related to officer misconduct had been paid out. Thirteen were pending in federal court.

Following 2020, CPD has been “training, working, preparing, revising orders,” and working with parties involved in the consent decree to update mass arrest and use of force policies, Snelling said. The department is also working to ensure officers “get as much time off as possible” in the weeks leading up to the DNC to ensure “we have the maximum manpower that we can have out there” while not pulling officers from the city’s most violent neighborhood beats.

Command staff members have been through “multiple days of training for field force operations” to know how to guide manpower. The department has set aside 1,370 “flex” body cameras across several area offices, purchased 40 passenger vans, and additional radios to distribute to each police district.

Lessons of 2020

Even so, the city’s inspector general recently highlighted shortcomings in those plans, including opaque written policies about the use of pepper spray and kettling, which is the act of corralling crowds into a closed space. The city’s crowd-control policies also contain “outdated” theories that assume bad actors are present and that people in mass gatherings are inclined to act like a mob, the IG said.

Snelling denied the department used kettling tactics but nonetheless said the lessons of 2020 are being applied to this summer’s preparations.

DNC training has already been tested at protests, including at several college campuses across the city, Snelling said, noting that most “ended with no violence.”

“Even in situations where we’ve had to make arrests, we gave these people multiple, multiple opportunities to voluntarily comply and leave,” Snelling said. “Only as a last resort we made arrests.”

CPD on Thursday invited members of the press to McCormick Place to observe about 150 officers take part in training exercises tailored for the expected protests and potential unrest during the DNC. Drills focused on defensive tactics, crowd control and medical aid, as well as officer wellness.

Snelling said the department also will use a “line relief” tactic to provide cops reprieves when needed.

“These are human beings who are standing out here, having insults hurled at them, probably things thrown at them,” Snelling said Thursday. “At some point, the human nature kicks in and the possibility or the likelihood of making a mistake becomes greater. This is why now we have that line relief where we can take those officers off the front line and bring in a fresh batch of officers who can deal with the situation.”

Given the possibility of mass arrests, officers also are receiving training on properly processing suspects taken into custody in potentially volatile situations.

Will there be mass arrests?

But some planning to protest the convention are taking issue with comments Snelling made at a separate media briefing earlier last week.

“First Amendment protection is only there if you’re not committing a crime,” Snelling said. “You can be acting out peacefully and still breaking the law.”

Hatem Abudayyeh, executive director of the U.S. Palestinian Community Network, said after a court hearing Thursday that Snelling’s words were “very concerning.”

“This sounds like nothing more than a threat from a police department that has a history of violence against protesters,” said Abudayyeh, whose group is one of the organizations suing the city over its previous plans to keep protesters away from the main convention sites.

Civil liberties advocates also have taken issue with the department’s latest policy on mass arrests. In April, a coalition of the community groups that triggered the consent decree asked the judge overseeing the agreement to block the Police Department from implementing the mass arrest policy drafted earlier this year.

The American Civil Liberties Union of Illinois and other groups argue the new proposal is overly broad, fails to make proper accommodations for people with disabilities and non-English speakers, and marks a step back from a First Amendment policy negotiated after the “violent and unconstitutional response” to the 2020 protests, according to the filing.

The groups are asking Judge Rebecca Pallmeyer to intervene swiftly because “CPD officers are already being trained on the infirm policy for the DNC.”

Meanwhile, Hendrickson, now the executive director of the public interest group Impact for Equity, notes that police leaders will have the complex task of not only coordinating with other city departments but other law enforcement entities.

CPD “is going to be called upon to make difficult judgment calls rapidly, in real time, over the course of many days or weeks. And understanding who has responsibility for making those decisions, who is the backup to the person who has the responsibility to make those decisions if they’re not available. … I don’t know the answers to those questions at this point,” Hendrickson said.

Snelling said plans are still being worked out for the role outside agencies — the National Guard, the Cook County sheriff’s office, Illinois State Police or other local police departments — would play, but said they would not be charged with managing crowds.

“We want to put them in other areas where they can protect certain venues,” he said. “That frees up Chicago police officers who have been very well trained to go out there and deal with the possibility of civil unrest.”

‘We’re ready’

If the past is precedent, Johnson — an organizer who has said he values demonstrations — would be directly in charge of making major decisions on how to respond to potential unrest.

Mayor Lori Lightfoot made the final call to raise downtown bridges, use pepper spray, enact a citywide curfew and call in the National Guard during the 2020 protests. Johnson has repeatedly said violence or vandalism would not be tolerated, but has emphasized “the fundamental right of our democracy, the First Amendment, is protected.”

Snelling said he is in “constant contact” about preparations with Johnson and his deputy mayor for community safety, Garien Gatewood. Raising bridges and enacting curfews in 2020 were a response to riot activity, not protected First Amendment protests, he said.

“We will not allow people to come here and destroy our city,” Snelling said. “We’re ready. We’re prepared to deal with whatever comes our way. But we would love for everything to end peacefully. Do we expect that that’s going to happen? No. That’s our wish.”

On the political side, Democrats have been quick to voice their support for Chicago police and the larger security effort — and to shift the focus to the GOP convention in Milwaukee, which could attract some of the same right-wing groups that instigated the Jan. 6, 2021, insurrection at the U.S. Capitol.

The Democratic National Convention Committee declined to make convention chair Minyon Moore available for an interview. But in a statement, convention spokeswoman Emily Soong echoed what organizers have been saying for months in response to questions about protests and possible disruptions:

“Peaceful protest has been a fixture of political conventions for decades, and while Donald Trump and MAGA Republicans stoke political violence, we will continue to support the ongoing security coordination at all levels of government to keep the city safe for delegates, visitors, media, and all Chicagoans, including those exercising their right to make their voices heard.”

For Pritzker, who courted the convention before the deadly Oct. 7 Hamas attack on Israel sparked a war that has divided Democrats, the gathering is a chance to show his mettle on the national stage, said Chris Mooney, an emeritus professor of political science at the University of Illinois at Chicago.

That will be particularly true in the face of possible mass protests, he said.

“Even though he … didn’t expect this, didn’t think of it when he was lobbying for this (convention), he has earned himself the opportunity to show how excellent he is as a public leader,” Mooney said.