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No blackouts for summit protests

- Associated Press - Wednesday, February 15, 2012

CHICAGO — Protesters will be flocking to Chicago for May's Group of 8 and NATO summits armed with smartphones, video cameras and links to social media sites they'll use for strategizing and sharing images of what's happening right in front of a police force known for responding with tough tactics.

Now a City Council member wants to forbid the police department from pulling the plug on the electronic communication during the events, taking away a tactic employed by authorities during a crackdown on democratic protests in Egypt but also in the San Francisco Bay Area during protests there last year.

"We're putting down a marker and saying this has happened in other places and we don't even want it considered here," said Alderman Ricardo Munoz, who was to propose his anti-crackdown ordinance at a Chicago City Council meeting Wednesday.

Mr. Munoz said he has no indication police are contemplating shutting down cellphone use or social media sites. And aides to Mayor Rahm Emanuel and Police Chief Garry McCarthy say 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 about it.

"Chicago has a painful history going back to the Red Squad and 1968," said Mr. 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 Group of 20 and G-8 summits in Toronto in 2010 resulted in 900 detentions.

Recent Occupy protests in Oakland, Calif., 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.

In San Francisco last year, transit officials were roundly criticized after cutting off cellphone use in subway stations to disrupt planning for a protest about a transit police shooting.

More infamously, the Egyptian government shut down all Internet access last year after demonstrators used social media to coordinate protests and circulate images of brutality during the government crackdown. The move backfired by intensifying the protests, and the government eventually fell.

Mr. Munoz's ordinance, a draft of which he gave to the Associated Press, explicitly prohibits the police from "shutting down mobile tower communications" during the summits, "using confiscated equipment to monitor or block mobile phone and Web access" and selectively blocking access to the Internet and social media sites.

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