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The Price of Free Speech

Can Rob MacDonald triumph over the city's buzz killers?

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By Neal Pollack

By now, Rob MacDonald knows he's not welcome in Chicago. Since he arrived a year and a half ago, the city has tried just about everything to get rid of him, routinely denying him permits for political demonstrations and even hauling him into court. But he's still here and still driving the city crazy.

MacDonald's perhaps best known as a member of the Chicago Five. He was arrested last August along with four other activists and charged with felony mob action and aggravated battery against two police officers. The incidents allegedly took place during the Democratic National Convention at a march organized to protest, among other things, the government's war on drugs. While the court found all five defendants not guilty, MacDonald says they still paid a price. "We all lost sanity, lost weight. They punished us for organizing. It was a nightmare."

MacDonald's not surprised by his continued troubles. He was originally sent here by the group Cures Not Wars and the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws. Upon his arrival, he held a well-attended news conference in which he promised to cancel protests planned for the convention if Mayor Daley would endorse the Frankfurt Resolution, a proclamation advocating the decriminalization of drugs, the legal separation of marijuana from hard drugs, and the treatment of drug addiction as a physical illness, not a social pathology. The resolution, signed in the early 90s by dozens of mayors from such big European cities as Amsterdam, Hamburg, Rotterdam, Basel, Lucerne, and Zagreb, states, "A drug policy which attempts to combat drug addiction solely by criminal law and compulsion to abstinence has failed." For his efforts, MacDonald received a letter from the mayor's office that said, in essence, no way. The city did, however, invite him to attend a community policing conference.

His troubles with the city haven't stopped him from agitating. This spring, MacDonald inherited Hemp Fest, a high-profile gathering of pot activists formerly known as the Windy City Weedfest. When MacDonald and fellow Chicago Five defendant Bonnie Tocwish decided to move the fest away from its most recent home in the Soldier Field parking lot, they applied for a permit to hold Hemp Fest in Grant Park. The Park District denied their application for several sketchy reasons, including the fact that celebrants could possibly tear up the grass and that MacDonald wasn't a member of a "legally recognized organization."

On May 10 and 11, Hemp Fest went on as planned, sort of, since the Park District never gave them permission to hold their festival. MacDonald did manage to obtain a permit for a march, which drew more than a thousand people to the Metropolitan Correctional Center. About 50 pot-related arrests occurred later in Grant Park, and some participants complained of police harassment. MacDonald claimed the city had again violated his First Amendment rights by denying him the proper permits.

"That's too bad," said Mayor Daley at a subsequent press conference.

Still, MacDonald pressed ahead. He says he's filed six lawsuits against the city for police spying, unjust prosecution, unfair permit policies, and other acts of repression. "It's funny that they make us an opposition, because we're just a bunch of poor, young, unemployed activists," says MacDonald, who's 34. "The fact that they're so offended and freaked out over our positions is really rather amazing. Things are so retarded here that you can't even articulate what you want because you're trying to establish the right to articulate."

MacDonald has another event scheduled for this weekend--the Festival of Life. The first festival was held during the 1968 Democratic convention, and last year MacDonald and others resurrected the happening in Grant Park (where he was arrested in the first place). The city, naturally, does not want him to proceed.

MacDonald says he didn't bother applying for a permit this time. He went straight to a federal judge and asked for an injunction. The Park District had repeatedly told him he'd never get another permit because he had allowed "loitering" at last summer's festival and because a couple of people had been ticketed for "illegal alcohol consumption," meaning they'd brought booze into the park themselves.

Last Friday, U.S. District Court Magistrate Arlander Keys granted MacDonald the injunction. Keys said that the Park District's permit policy is "riddled with opportunities for subjectivity and abuse....Such subjective stifling of any person's speech cannot be permitted under the First Amendment, for any reason, least of all because the permit seeker has in the past caused minor civil unrest. In fact, that is exactly what the First Amendment seeks to prevent."

That's basically what MacDonald has been saying all along. "If we can't have our rallies, if we can't have our festivals, it's hard to outreach and organize and get opportunities to express ourselves, " he says. "We want to get our message through. If they would allow us to do what we want to do, there would be no lawsuit."

Joan Fencik, the Park District's legal counsel, says this weekend is already reserved for the Air and Water Show, and on Saturday night there'll be a concert by the Grant Park Symphony Orchestra. There's no room for the Festival of Life. "It will be difficult to accommodate them," she says.

No matter what he does, MacDonald says, the city obviously just hates his guts. But he doesn't care. Judge Keys told MacDonald he could request as many injunctions for as many public events as he wants. Until the Park District changes its permit policy, they can't stop him.

Throughout the 80s, MacDonald attended the University of Connecticut, where he worked as a DJ at the campus radio station. This was during the glory days of Tipper Gore's Parents' Music Resource Center, and MacDonald was always getting thrown off the air for playing songs with "offensive" lyrics. On the side he ran an art and performance center and made some money promoting hard-core rock bands. Ever the rabble-rouser, he thought it would be amusing to book the controversial rap group 2 Live Crew for a show in a small Connecticut town called Stafford Springs. He also thought the perfect venue would be a white biker bar. When the police heard about the show, they demanded a $7,000 "use fee" for protection. MacDonald says he encouraged the bar's owner to call the ACLU, which had been defending 2 Live Crew in its Florida obscenity trial. The use fee law was eventually overturned in the courts, MacDonald says, and the concert was pretty wild.

Later, MacDonald drifted to the City University of New York, where he was elected to the student government. When the city tried to cut CUNY's budget, MacDonald helped organize thousands of students for a march across the Brooklyn Bridge. "Free speech, free gathering, free education, that's what I'm into," he says. "Basically, it's populist culture." New York mayor Rudolph Giuliani began his "Quality of Life" program, clearing the streets of homeless people and panhandlers, and MacDonald kept busy protesting that plan as well as related actions, like police sweeps in Tompkins Square Park.

MacDonald gradually got involved in Cures Not Wars, a group founded by former Yippie Dana Beal that advocates the "harm reduction" approach to drug policy. It closely follows the politics of the Frankfurt Resolution.

So MacDonald came here with an agenda, and Mayor Daley apparently knew about it. Daley supports President Clinton's drug enforcement policy, which is known as ACAD, for American Cities Against Drugs. ACAD was adopted in 1995 by the U.S. Conference of Mayors while Daley was the conference's president. It promotes "zero tolerance" for drug addiction and harsh criminal penalties for both drug users and dealers. MacDonald says one of his own goals is to find doctors willing to utilize a 1978 Illinois law permitting the use of marijuana for research purposes, something that he hopes would lead to a liberalization of the state's marijuana laws generally. He thinks Daley will fight it.

MacDonald says his troubles with the city exist precisely because he advocates a position that Daley strongly opposes. "I think the city is so against free speech and free assembly because it doesn't want to allow people to create their own political network, which would then threaten the power of the central administration. They have to start loosening up on their fears of this countercultural revolution that they fear will occur if people use pot medically and then personally. And that's exactly what their fear is."

This year's Festival of Life may be MacDonald's last, at least for a while. He and Tocwish have been passing out flyers at the Taste of Chicago, the Bud Billiken Parade, Blues Fest, HORDE, Furthur, Smokin' Grooves, and the Lilith Fair--wherever there might be people sympathetic to legalized marijuana. Pot is everywhere, MacDonald says, it's just illegal. "Everyone would rather come out than lie," he says. "That's what we do at these marijuana festivals. It's a big huge coming-out thing." But it's not all about the right to smoke: the event will also address environmentalism, housing and health care, police brutality, and free speech.

Earlier this week MacDonald was negotiating with the Park District to allow the Festival of Life to take place. It's scheduled to begin at "high noon" this Saturday at Buckingham Fountain. MacDonald will then lead a 1 PM "Stop the Drug War" march down Congress Avenue to the Metropolitan Correctional Center. A rally in the Federal Plaza and a march down Michigan Avenue will follow. Then it's back to Grant Park, where festivities will continue until 9 PM and resume the following day from noon to 9 PM.

If all goes well this weekend--and there's no guarantee it will--MacDonald will return to New York this fall to finish his degree in philosophy and comparative literature at CUNY. If something does go wrong, MacDonald says, he's more than ready to take on the city.

"Mayor Daley has to understand that power isn't just something that one is born into and by divine right gets to dictate the law. That is the entire sensibility that the American Revolution was against. There is God-given liberty to all. We all have liberty, and there are rules and...institutions that must be respected. Power goes back to the people. It doesn't go back to individuals from privileged backgrounds or families. That's un-American. I'm sorry. I'm an American, and I'm not going to tolerate, on my own soil, un-American activity. Hah! Who ever thought I'd say that?" o

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Rob MacDonald photo by J.B. Spector.

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