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Chicago to Welcome Militarized May Day?

McCormick Place, site of the upcoming NATO summit in Chicago, Illinois. Operation Red Zone, a security perimeter around the site, will be patrolled by federal law enforcement carrying "non-lethal" guns. (Photo: Chicago Man)

Part of the Series

If there is going to be a dress rehearsal for the coming NATO summit in Chicago, May Day is it. The first major mobilization of the 99 percent the month of the summit will take place on Tuesday, May 1. It will also, coincidentally or not, be the first day that police in “battle” dress hit the streets to prepare for the summit.

Operation Red Zone, a security perimeter around McCormick Place where the summits will be held and a “vast” area in downtown Chicago where federal and local government offices are located, according to the Sun-Times, will be patrolled by federal law enforcement carrying “non-lethal” guns beginning Tuesday. (Update: Today, Monday April 30, Mayor Emanuel claimed> the “red zone” would not begin on May 1, but rather “three days before NATO comes.”)

The placement of the “red zone” may overlap with the planned route of the May Day march, which will go from Union Park, on Chicago’s near southwest side, to Federal Plaza downtown.

The police force will be “highly visible,” according to Cleophas Bradley, deputy regional director with the Federal Protective Service, “but we will not be preventing anyone from entering the red zone.”

“This is the city showing us their cards,” said Crystal Vance-Guerra, an organizer with Occupy el Barrio, which operates in Chicago’s immigrant neighborhood of Pilsen. “This is how they are going to play it.”

Groups including labor unions, immigrant rights groups and Occupiers are marching under the slogan:

We are Workers. We are Students. We are Documented. We are Undocumented. We are Occupiers.

They are Detaining Us. They are Shutting Down our Clinics. They are Closing our Schools. They are Taking our Wealth. They are Busting our Unions.

Come May 1st, we are on the March! Join Us!

Andy Manos, with Occupy Chicago, told Truthout that organizers hope to have as large and peaceful of a march as possible, despite the expected police presence.

“May Day is the day to celebrate working class consciousness, to demand greater control over the means of production,” said Manos, and they want all members of the working class to be able to participate equally.

May Day, international workers’ day, has an illustrious history in Chicago. It was started in the windy city by immigrants agitating for the eight-hour day against work conditions in which workers with minimal protections worked ten or 11 hours straight.

Then in 2006, half a million immigrants flooded into the streets of Chicago as part of a work strike and economic boycott to protest anti-immigrant legislation that was being considered by Congress.

“The immigrant rights movement of 2006 actually brought back May Day in the United States as a day for workers to express their concerns and their needs within the larger society,” said Democracy Now! journalist Juan Gonzalez in a 2011 interview. “In that sense they had an important impact, as immigrant workers have always had in the United States, in pushing the labor movement forward.”

“The fact that this day is being met with the beginnings of a force that is going to be used in NATO,” said Vance-Guerra, shows an extension of the “extreme militarization of the border, and the huge fear that was created and enforced after the 2006 marches.”

What followed the years since the 2006 marches has been an increase in the militarization of immigration enforcement coupled with an increasing crackdown on immigrants. Programs like Secure Communities and E-Verify used technology to track undocumented immigrants and deport even those who did not have a criminal record, while immigration detention centers became increasingly punitive with the rise of companies like the Corrections Corporation of America.

The lack of immigration legislation on the national front- the much-vaunted DREAM Act died an untimely death in the Senate in December 2010 – and a record number of deportations under President Obama was coupled with a spike in state-level punitive immigration legislation.

Some of the technology and force deployment used in the immigration crackdown will be making their way to Chicago for the NATO summit, reports show.

State troopers are used on the border with Mexico to bolster the presence of the Border Patrol; Chicago is expected to see about 500 state troopers and 600 National Guardsmen deployed for the summit.

The Illinois State Crime Commission also said that it is looking for Iraq and Afghanistan veterans to be hired for extra security, Truthout has reported. The US Customs and Border Protection also runs a Veterans Outreach Program, for which they “actively recruit eligible veterans.”

The money pumped into high-tech border protection – including drones, Blackhawk helicopters and surveillance cameras – lines up eerily with leaked reports of aerial surveillance devices, snipers, Blackhawks and sound cannons that the city of Chicago is expected to bring for NATO.

Whether a militarized May Day will dissuade people, or bring more out onto the streets for NATO, is unknown, said Eric Ruder, an organizer with CANG8.

But “if it is militarized, things will become more concrete for a lot of people,” said Ruder. “And it’s “not entirely clear that intimidation and restrictions work,” by keeping people out of the street as the city hopes they will.

The wild card in this year’s May Day is Occupy.

“The first May Day with Occupy brings all of these issues to the fore in a way that it hasn’t been for a long time,” said Manos, with Occupy Chicago. “We are not planning large arrestful direct actions, because of the kind of intensity of Rahm Emanuel’s crackdown that is going to happen during NATO.”

But the space that Occupy opened has allowed labor rank-and-filers to come together with Occupy activists. Manos expects this to bring out a wide layer of people of May Day, regardless of how big the crowd is.

“Occupy allows people to sit in the same room,” said Manos, a member of the Occupy Chicago Labor Working Group. “The greatest thing about the work that I do is the ability to create coalitions and solidarity, and help radicalize the actions.”

“When you look at who have been the major players in the May Day Committee, we have several rank-and-filers. Not just organizers organizing, but rank-and-filers as well,” stressed Manos.

In Occupy Chicago, some people expect “that Rahm will see it [May Day] as an opportunity to try out for the next few weeks.”

The largest Occupy mobilization of 2012 so far, the April 7th Chicago Spring, which brought out between 500 and 700 participants, had a more aggressive police presence than usual, said Ruder.

“At the beginning of April 7 there were police helicopters,” said Ruder, “which struck me as sort of an aggressive move.”

Vance-Guerra, who works regularly with immigrant communities, says that activist concern should be not only on what will happen on May Day or during the NATO summit, but how this will change “the whole strategy of how to deal with protesters and organizers and marches.”

Already the “Shut Up and Sit Down” ordinance changes passed by Emanuel in January, originally sold as only for the NATO summit until the mayor admitted under pressure that they were permanent, have changed the landscape of dissent in Chicago.

“I don’t think we are going to have the number of 2006, but I think we are going to see some growth from last year. The focus of the May Day organizing group and all of those who are participating is to be as open as we can be,” said Vance-Guerra.

“If it’s a day for the 99 percent, we all need to be there. As power and wealth become concentrated in the hands of fewer and fewer, and the response against organizing become more and more militarized, we need to see really clearly the connections between all of our struggles.”