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A Chicago alderman wants to make sure the city doesn't look more like Egypt later this spring when leaders from around the world visit for a pair of international summits.
"This is the first G8/NATO summits on American soil in the age of Twitter, and we want to be sure people are able to communicate because communication is good," said Ald. Ricardo Muñoz (22nd). "That way we're able to get safe information out to people, people will be able to communicate, and people will be able to organize better in order to avoid these protesters."
Chicago's City Council did not take action on Muñoz's proposal, introduced Wednesday.
Muñoz said he has no indication that authorities in Chicago are contemplating shutting down cellphone use or social media sites for the double-header of summits that begin May 19 but wants to be proactive.
"This is basically just an ordinance setting down the policy that we won't do it. What's happened in the past is that usually governments tend to want to be be restrictive as a knee-jerk reaction. What we're saying is that we don't want this to be one of the tools in your toolbox," he said.
In Egypt last year, the government of the Mediterranean country blocked social media and the Internet during democratic protests.
Domestically, transit officials in the San Francisco Bay area were roundly criticized after cutting off cellphone use in subway stations to disrupt planning for a protest over a transit police shooting. Bay Area Rapid Transit officials defended the action as legal but later passed a policy to allow such a move only in response to extraordinary threats.
BART was the first and only government agency in the U.S. to block electronic communications as a way to quell social unrest, but its ensuing policy was also the only one of its kind, according to Linda Lye, an American Civil Liberties Union attorney.
Aides to Mayor Rahm Emanuel and Police Chief Garry McCarthy said the leaders have no plans to put any restrictions on communications. But the alderman’s determination to take the tactic off the table is an acknowledgment that the front line at mass protests is increasingly technological as officials and protesters search for a balance between security and freedom of speech.
It also illustrates a growing nervousness about clashes during the summits in a city where the police force is dogged by memories of officers beating protesters with clubs during the 1968 Democratic National Convention. More recently, the police were admonished by a judge for the way they arrested masses of demonstrators during a 2003 Iraq War protest, and the city announced last week it was paying more than $6 million to settle a lawsuit over it.
“Chicago has a painful history going back to the Red Squad and 1968,” said Munoz, referring to a police intelligence unit that into the 1970s spied on everyone from anti-war activists to the PTA.
While police handled Occupy Chicago protests last year without a major incident, larger-scale protests at summits of world leaders have occasionally resulted in violent scenes. Outside a World Trade Organization summit in 1999, police fired tear gas and rubber bullets into massive crowds and 600 were arrested. The G-20 and G-8 summits in Toronto in 2010 witnessed 900 detentions.
Recent Occupy protests in Oakland have resulted in rock-throwing, police use of tear gas and hundreds of arrests. In one tense standoff, riot police temporarily confiscated the protesters’ sound system.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.