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In Chicago, a mayor with activist roots prepares for a potentially volatile Democratic convention

In an interview, Brandon Johnson said he wouldn't tolerate chaos but stopped short of committing to remove encampments should they appear in the run-up to the convention.
Brandon Johnson portrait against a black backdrop
"If people are involved in an encampment that has put people in harm’s way, then it is my job to create a secure environment so that people are not in harm’s way," Chicago Mayor Brandon Johnson said in an interview.Mustafa Hussain for NBC News file

CHICAGO — Mayor Brandon Johnson is the first to brandish his past activism and roots as an organizer. That has helped contribute to a now well-worn worry that he won’t rein in protesters during what’s expected to be a highly charged Democratic National Convention. 

But so far, he has made few people happy before the August nominating event.

On one hand, critics argue Johnson won’t do enough to dissuade bad actors from coming to the city in the first place. On the other, protest groups are taking the city to court, complaining that it has denied their permits to march close to two main convention sites: the United Center and McCormick Place.

In an interview, Johnson, who just completed his first year in office, stressed that safety would come first but that law enforcement would also focus on de-escalation tactics and commit to giving activists room to peacefully protest. He won’t tolerate mayhem, he said. 

“If people are in harm’s way, in any way or any form, I’m going to move with precision, as well as with constitutional policing and enforcement, to make sure that we are keeping people safe,” he said.

At the same time, when he was asked about overnight encampments like the kinds that impeded operations on college campuses, Johnson wouldn’t commit to clearing them. 

“It just depends on the situation, quite frankly. If people are involved in an encampment that has put people in harm’s way, then it is my job to create a secure environment so that people are not in harm’s way,” he said. “If people are protesting peacefully, their First Amendment is protected. That’s a constitutional protection.” 

Johnson noted the convention will take place around the time schools are back in session and said he is committed to preventing choke points that would keep regular Chicagoans from going about their daily business.

While the Secret Service is heading convention security — working with Chicago police and dozens of other agencies — it won’t have jurisdiction over parts of the city outside a security perimeter, which is the fenced-off area that will require credentials to enter. 

That means it will be up to the city to patrol places like Grant Park, famous for massive protests and violent clashes with police at the 1968 Democratic convention. It has all taken on a new urgency as pro-Palestinian protests have taken over college campuses nationally, prompting some schools to cancel commencement speeches or move to online learning for the rest of the semester.  

“The Secret Service is satisfied, based on our manpower briefing, that Chicago is well-prepared from a staffing perspective to handle safety and security of the event,” agency spokesman Anthony Guglielmi said.

Since he took office, Johnson has taken actions or supported policies that have tended to side with activists. He controversially scrapped a contract for an early gunshot detection system, keeping a campaign promise to progressives who complained of overpolicing in some neighborhoods. The city's police department didn’t help remove protesters from an encampment at the University of Chicago, but it was on standby if needed. The university’s police handled the situation, and an escalation didn’t materialize. Johnson defended an ally on the City Council who attended a rally where the American flag was burned, criticizing those who questioned freedom of assembly.

Just before he took office, he grabbed national headlines for showing sympathy to a group of teenagers who disrupted the city’s downtown. 

“The issue is going to be: What is the mayor going to say and defend that is done outside of the permitted restrictions?’” said Alderman Ray Lopez, a Democrat. “Is he going to defend people who protest and destroy property without permits? Or who are causing chaos just for the sake of chaos? Is he going to defend it, or is he going to speak out against that?”  

Lopez said he has already seen evidence on social media that protesters are coming to the city only to disrupt.

"We have people who we know are being encouraged to come to Chicago who are organizing intentionally for the sole purpose of causing chaos in our city,” Lopez said.

Johnson said, "We’re not going to tolerate vandalism and chaos."

But he repeatedly stressed the importance of activism and de-escalation, and he said he trusted his police superintendent to try to ease tensions.

"Protests have led to a more equitable justice," he said.

The city’s chief operating officer, John Roberson, Johnson’s hand-picked point person from the city for the DNC, was more direct when he was asked about the city’s tolerance for protesters’ setting up overnight encampments. He said that it’s expected that current ordinances will be enforced and that “the park does close at a certain point.”  

"We’re going to make sure that you have the room and the space to exercise that right. But that does not give anyone the right to escalate to a point of violence, to escalate to a point of vandalism and destruction of property. We are going to be steadfast, and we’re going to be absolutely committed,” Roberson said. “I know our superintendent has made it absolutely clear that we will not tolerate that type of activity.” 

But protest groups are still battling with the city for better access. Numerous organizations have sought legal action, saying they have a First Amendment right to be within “sight and sound” of the United Center. 

“Frankly, it’s been disappointing, especially with someone with a reputation that he has,” Andy Thayer, a longtime Chicago activist with Bodies Outside of Unjust Laws, said of Johnson. The group is advocating for reproductive justice and for federal legislation to protect LGBTQ people. “You would expect more out of a person who comes from an activist background, but unfortunately, at least heretofore, he’s totally different.” 

“If they’re looking for the non-chaos that they say they are," Thayer added, "then they need to start respecting reasonable permit applications.”

In recent days, the city has met with representatives of various protest groups to try to come to a more suitable resolution, two sources familiar with discussions said.  

Democratic Alderman Brian Hopkins, who chairs the City Council’s Public Safety Committee, said he was encouraged by how the city responded to an encampment at the Art Institute of Chicago, which ended in arrests only as a last resort.

Hopkins, though, said he had real concerns about large groups’ staying overnight in the downtown parks, which could heighten the chance of clashes. 

“That was actually a precursor to the more infamous skirmishes between police and protesters,” Hopkins said of 1968. “It started with a dispute over Chicago police attempting to enforce the ban on staying on park district property.” 

But Hopkins said he had faith Johnson would balance the competing interests while keeping his sights on the city’s legacy.

“He has sympathy and empathy for those who take to the streets to promote their cause. But he also wants to host an event that can showcase his city,” Hopkins said. “Something that we can be proud of after it’s over, where nobody got hurt, there was no property damage, and nothing got started on fire.”

Lopez also said he fears what a drag on resources could mean for the rest of the city's neighborhoods, including those steeped with gang crime that only intensifies in the heat of summer.  

“We had street takeovers, we had shootings at parades, and that’s just a regular weekend,” Lopez said, pointing to the cancellation of the Cinco de Mayo parade amid gang gunfire. “What are we going to do when it’s August, when summer is in full swing?”

Hopkins admitted there was a staffing issue overall; the Chicago Police Department is down 2,000 officers. 

“We’re just going to have to play with cards that we have. We’re a little bit short right now. So that will manifest itself in canceled days off and additional overtime during the convention and the weeks leading up to it,” he said. 

As for the chance the areas around the convention could devolve into a free-for-all, Hopkins said he had faith in Johnson. 

“The mayor is not going to let that happen on his watch,” he said. “He understands that there’s a balancing act he’s trying to effect here. It’s not an easy thing to do.”