August 18, 2008

Peace Activists Literally Fenced In at 2008 Chicago Air And Water Show

CHICAGO, August 18 -- In a brazen move against freedom of speech and against the Chicago peace movement, Chicago Police held peace activists at the 2008 Chicago Air and Water Show inside a fenced-off "free speech zone", as one police officer termed it. The "free speech zone", surrounded by a three- and-a-half-foot-high impromptu metal barrier serving as a makeshift fence, sat just south of eastern base of the North Avenue foot bridge, near the intersection of North Avenue and Lake Shore Drive.

Peace activists and antiwar critics against the Air and Water Show have been a regular presence at the Show since 1993, who traditionally assemble near the North Avenue bridge. Activists and critics routinely decried the event's rampant commercialism and critiquing the Air and Water Show as being a giant commercial for the military and as a bonanza for military recruitment.

Until recently, activists who assembled at the Air And Water Show could assemble and interact with other attendees unimpeded. However, in the 2008 Show, activists were ordered to remain within the confines of the "free speech zone", roughly eight feet away from the sidewalk and on a hard-to- walk-on sandy surface. Police said that individuals who left the "free speech zone" would be arrested.

The presence of the "free speech zone" made it much harder for passersby to interact with activists, placing the burden of effort to interact wholly on the passerby. Peace activists nevertheless still spoke with passersby who approached the fence and handed out flyers and brochures insofar as possible -- despite the fence and despite armed police officers standing guard at the fence and along the North Avenue foot bridge.

Officially stated reasons for placing the fencing for this protest are mixed and have roused suspicion. "[Officials] say that the corporate counsel determined that we represent an impediment to traffic," said Jay Becker, an activist with the Chicago chapter of the activist group World Can't Wait. "That would be about twelve of us, in a group officially estimated at, I don't know, half a million people. The twelve of us are an impediment to public safety and traffic? I don't think so." When this reporter asked one police officer as to why the fencing is put in place for the activists, the police officer responded that the activists didn't have a permit, even though past peace protests at the Air And Water Show were not fenced off despite not having a permit.

The whole situation is fraught with further double-standards. Throughout the Air and Water Show, displays for a host of commercial and military entities and services were openly available and openly distributing flyers, yet police questioned activists for merely handing out flyers as "protesting" the Air And Water Show.

Activists strongly believed that the fence and affiliated crackdown is connected with stifling organized opposition to the ongoing U.S. war in Iraq, whose costs in lives and dollars have escalated, and to the military, whose recruitment efforts have seen a downturn. "I think they want to suppress voices in opposition to the Air and Water Show, voices in opposition to the war," Becker also said.

Legal avenues to challenge the constitutionality of the fence and the "free speech zone" are not hopeful. "The ACLU has informed us that they have never won a free-speech-zone case. Thus, if we are arrested, we are on our own," said Ron Kunde of Chicago Media Action. "It would help if we had some legal representation. We really feel abandoned." [Disclosure: The author of this article is an active member of Chicago Media Action.]