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Democrats Want to Limit Protests at the Chicago Convention. Activists Have Other Plans

7 minute read

In roughly 100 days, President Joe Biden is set to stand on a stage in Chicago's United Center and accept his party's presidential nomination. The organizers of this year's Democratic National Convention hope America will focus its attention at that moment on Biden's words and the cheers and enthusiasm of the crowd in the arena.

But many Democrats fear that voters' attention will be at best divided between the heavily stage-managed activities in the arena and the chaos unfolding just outside it. 

More than 70 organizations have joined a coalition to “March on the DNC” when Biden and others in his administration arrive in Chicago. Protest organizers predict it will be the largest protest for Palestinian rights in Chicago’s history, with tens of thousands of people showing up from across the country.

“Our goal is to send a message to Biden that he and his party have been complicit in the genocide that he has had the power since October to stop by turning off the tap of money and weapons to Israel,” says Hatem Abudayyeh, chair of the U.S. Palestinian Community Network and a spokesperson for the Coalition to March on the DNC.

The group was denied a permit to hold protest marches within blocks of the DNC. Organizers say they plan to march near the convention site with or without a permit and have sued the city alleging First Amendment violations. They say the city’s proposed alternative location—four miles away from United Center—is unacceptable as it will mean they won’t be seen or heard by those attending the convention.

Protest leaders hope to harness the energy that has powered pro-Palestinian protests on dozens of college campuses in recent weeks, most of which are expected to largely wind down as soon as the spring semester ends. Columbia University and the University of Southern California are among the institutions that canceled commencement ceremonies due to the unrest. For protest leaders the DNC will provide an even bigger national stage.

Read more: What America’s Student Photojournalists Saw at the Campus Protests

“We are very sensitive to the environment that we’re walking in here in Chicago,” DNC Chair Minyon Moore, a longtime Democratic strategist, said at a news conference in April. “We know that these protesters are coming. We’re trying to create an environment where everyone is welcome. We do protect First Amendment rights, but we also want to reassure you that the people are excited about this convention coming.”

For Biden, how he handles the escalating protests could shape the political landscape as he works to cast himself as running a more orderly and competent federal government than former President Donald Trump did. To help ensure the event goes smoothly, Biden added a trusted aide, Louisa Terrell, to the convention’s leadership team. Terrell started working for Biden two decades ago and most recently served as his director of legislative affairs.

While the campus protests have drawn global attention, Biden’s advisers don't believe the Israel-Hamas conflict is the main priority for young voters in this election. Yet they are keenly aware that managing the fallout from these demonstrations remains crucial to maintaining support from young people and Muslim Americans.

“What Biden has done to allow that to happen is inexcusable and unforgivable,” Abudayyeh says. “And none of us in the Palestinian and Arab community in this country will ever forgive him or his party…There's nothing that comes out of this President's mouth anymore that anyone from my community cares about.”

Whether that anger will still burn as strongly in four months is an open question. Biden officials have been working for months to obtain a ceasefire in the Gaza conflict. And Biden just announced he would withhold certain weapons from Israel over concerns that the Israelis might use them in Rafah, where more than one million civilians are sheltering. Yet protest organizers anticipate that frustration with Biden will not ebb over the summer after his months of support for a military campaign in which more than 30,000 people in Gaza have died.

Protesters have been a fixture at party conventions for decades, and are expected to also show up at the Republican National Convention in Milwaukee in July. Yet some Republicans predict the DNC protests will be far more intense and more politically damaging. Montana Senator Steve Daines, who heads the National Republican Senatorial Committee, told a group of reporters last week that he thinks the pro-Palestine protests could be a “big problem for Democrats in August in Chicago.”

For decades, every Democrat and Republican political convention has been declared a “national special security event” by the Department of Homeland Security. That designation puts the Secret Service in charge of coordinating safety planning with the FBI, FEMA, police in Chicago and other federal and state and local agencies. In March, Congress allocated $75 million for both the DNC and RNC for security. 

DNC organizers are focused on securing the area around McCormick Place, the convention center along the shore of Lake Michigan where official party meetings will take place, and around United Center, the home arena for the Bulls and the Blackhawks and the location for most of the evening proceedings that will draw the biggest audiences. The exact borders of the security perimeter for those locations will be announced at the end of July, said a person familiar with the planning who spoke on the condition of anonymity to describe internal discussions.

In Chicago, security training started last year to prepare for many different scenarios, including preparations for “civil disturbances” and how to share information quickly during an emergency, according to a statement provided by the Secret Service’s Chicago field office. By the time the Democrats' convention starts in August, security agencies will have conducted multiple “tabletop” exercises for potential emergencies and led security forces through 400 hours of training, according to the Secret Service.

Chicago Police Department Superintendent Larry Snelling said in March that Chicago police “will protect all those exercising their first amendment rights” in and around the convention. “What we will not tolerate is criminal activity,” he added. “Violence, vandalism will not be tolerated.”

Last month, when pro-Palestinian demonstrators blocked the road into Chicago’s O’Hare airport, police removed protestors from the roadway within 90 minutes. Illinois Governor J.B. Pritzker later told CNN that the action showed that the Chicago police were ready for protests around the convention in August.

The impending confrontation between pro-Palestinian protesters and authorities at the Democratic National Convention in Chicago has drawn comparisons to 1968 Democratic convention in Chicago, where a violent police crackdown on anti-Vietnam War protesters gained national attention and hurt the party’s nominee, Hubert Humphrey.

Read More: ‘Violence Was Inevitable’: How 7 Key Players Remember the Chaos of 1968’s Democratic National Convention Protests

“We wanted to stop the war, and we thought the best way to do that would be to make as much trouble as possible for the Democrats,” Michael Kazin, who attended the DNC protest in 1968 as a member of Students for a Democratic Society, recently recalled to TIME. “I think we succeeded in turning off a lot of Americans in the middle from voting for Democrats.” Later that year, Republican Richard Nixon won the White House, further escalated the U.S. involvement in Vietnam and started the selective service draft.

Kazin, who is now a history professor at Georgetown University and the author of "What It Took to Win: A History of the Democratic Party," recalled most Americans at the time sided with the police over the protesters, even as images of police brutality by the Chicago Police Department during the riot drew outrage.

But the parallels for Democrats between 2024 and 1968 go beyond a robust protest movement and a convention in Chicago. Kazin points to how Humphrey ultimately lost to Nixon amid domestic angst over the Vietnam War.

“Joe Biden is a liberal Democrat, as Hubert Humphrey was, and he's tried to do a lot domestically that people on the left generally like,” he says, “but at the same time, they don't like his foreign policy, which is similar to what was going on in the mid-to-late 60s.”

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Write to Nik Popli at nik.popli@time.com