Some of the peace activists who went to the Loop on March 19 to protest the war in Iraq were surprised that the police response was inconsistent–tough on one corner, tolerant on the next. “It was a day of contrasts,” says Rachel Webster. But it probably shouldn’t have been a surprise that the cops in Millennium Park, Mayor Daley’s pet project, took the tough approach.

After weeks of haggling with city officials in and out of court over where they could rally and march in the Loop, the activists had set the main protest to start at 2 PM at Federal Plaza. But Webster, her husband Michael Simons, and several friends went down early, intending to conduct their own informal protests first. Around 9:45 AM they were in the southwest corner of Millennium Park, across the street from the Art Institute. “At this point we weren’t even protesting,” says Webster. “We weren’t planning to protest in Millennium Park. We had parked our car in the Millennium Park garage, and we were just stopping there to put text on our signs before we moved on.”

Within a few minutes several police came up to them. “They said, ‘You can’t be in Millennium Park for any kind of protest,'” says Webster. “The funny thing is, we didn’t even look like radical people. We looked like yuppies. Our signs were dedicated to people who had lost their lives in the war.”

They started to explain that they weren’t protesting, that they were merely standing in the park. The police were polite but insistent. “They said, ‘There are no protests in Millennium Park. If you go into the park you will be arrested,'” says Simons.

Webster says the police then followed them out of the park. “We didn’t get into it with them because we had other objectives for the day,” she says. She and Simons say the park was crawling with security–cops on bicycles and on foot in addition to private security guards.

Their friends headed off to other parts of the Loop, and Webster and Simons went across the street to the Art Institute. Neither of them had a permit to protest there, but they stood on the sidewalk in front of the museum and took turns holding up their signs and reading the names of Americans and Iraqis who’d died in the war.

The Art Institute security guards welcomed them. “The guards asked us not to stand on the steps, but only for safety reasons,” says Webster. “They said, ‘The steps are steep. We don’t want to see you fall.’ They thanked us for being there. They couldn’t have been nicer.”

For three hours the couple read off names. “We had a captive audience–there were people waiting in line to get into the museum,” says Webster. “They were very friendly. Only two people were negative. Many more thanked us. A young man came up and said he had just got back from Iraq and ‘I want to thank you for what you’re doing.’ Someone who had lost family in Iraq told us the names of their relatives so we could read them.”

Police cars drove past on Michigan Avenue. “But no police officers asked us to leave or asked us if we had a permit or said anything at all,” says Webster.

At around 1:30 she and Simons headed over to Federal Plaza to join the main protest. They stayed for two hours, then decided to go home. “We were really tired,” says Webster. They headed back to the Millennium Park garage with a couple friends, one named Daniel Johnson. On the corner of Adams and Michigan they ran into 20 or so police officers in riot gear.

“They said, ‘You can’t be on Michigan Avenue with those signs,'” says Webster. “I said, ‘We’re just crossing the street. We’re off duty, so to speak.’ Two of us were drinking coffee. We were clearly not protesting. We weren’t holding up our signs. It was very casual. We weren’t militant. We said, ‘We’re going to the parking garage.’ They said, ‘You can’t take those signs with you.'”

At that point Webster, Simons, and their two friends had to decide whether to put down their signs and avoid a confrontation. “I know that on some level you can’t argue with Chicago cops,” says Webster. “I understand that sometimes it’s in your best interests to just walk away. There are only so many fights you can fight, and you have to pick your battles. The difficult moment is, what do you do when you confront an authority who you think is behaving irrationally? Do you just let them continue, or do you take a stand? The thing is, we wanted to keep our signs–we’d worked hard on them, and they were good signs. But beyond that there’s just the absurdity of making us give up our signs. Daniel–I guess he’s going to live by his principles. He just kept arguing with the cops.”

Simons and Webster say Johnson didn’t curse or taunt the police, though he did raise his voice as he pointed out that it was wrong to force someone to give up the constitutionally protected right to walk along the street carrying a sign. “He was vocal about his right of free speech,” says Simons. “I felt he was right. But I didn’t feel like arguing with the cops. They weren’t going to change their minds.”

After a few minutes the police handcuffed Johnson and put him in a paddy wagon. “We stood there and watched,” says Webster. “They said, ‘Is there a reason you’re standing here?’ I said, ‘Yeah, you handcuffed our friend.’ I said, ‘Are we breaking the law by standing here?’ I think they might have been a little easier on me because I’m a woman. If I had been a man I probably would have been arrested. I was just trying to reason with them. But you can’t really reason with 20 cops on the street.”

Johnson was taken to the 18th District police station, charged with disorderly conduct, and released on bond. Simons, Webster, and the other friend left their signs on the corner and walked to the garage.

In retrospect, Webster says, “it was great at the Art Institute, but the thing at Millennium Park was scary. It’s a public space in the center of the city–how can they ban us from going in there just because we have protest signs? We weren’t even protesting–we were just standing there. Is the city’s policy that you can’t even stand in Millennium Park if you’re against the war in Iraq? I wonder what they would have done if we were counterprotesters with signs that read Support Our Troops.”

From the perspective of police officials, their handling of the March 19 protests was a success. They say there were no reports of property damage and only five misdemeanor arrests for disturbing the peace–quite a contrast with the scene in March 2003, at the start of the war, when several hundred people were arrested after the protesters marched onto Lake Shore Drive and tied up rush-hour traffic.

It’s not clear why the police were so protective of Millennium Park. As I’ve written before, the park is overseen by three government bodies–the Park District, the Mayor’s Office of Special Events, and the Department of General Services–which may be why it’s hard to find a policy on any aspect of the park. “There is no ban on protests in the park,” says Karen Ryan, a spokeswoman for the Office of Special Events who remembers that at least one protest took place in the park last fall. “We defer to the police on these matters.”

Police officials say they generally defer to the Park District. “City ordinance requires a permit to operate on Park District property,” says Robert Cargie, a police spokesman. “Even people who want to have a picnic–a big picnic–have to have a permit.”

Yet Cargie says the show of force in Millennium Park had less to do with any policy than with keeping protesters off Michigan Avenue. He says that peace activists asked the city for permission to march down Michigan to the Federal Building and that police turned them down, arguing that a march along that route would create a safety hazard. The activists went to court, but a federal judge agreed with the city. “It was deemed inappropriate to have a march on Michigan Avenue for a number of reasons,” says Cargie. “This was a Saturday–you have a lot of shoppers on Michigan Avenue. I think we did an outstanding job. People had an opportunity to voice their dissent. They just couldn’t do it on Michigan Avenue.”

So why allow Simons and Webster to protest outside the Art Institute but not even enter Millennium Park? Cargie says the police were just doing their job. “It could be that the police didn’t see us, though I doubt that,” says Webster. “Maybe they were also picking their battles.”

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Peter Thompson–Getty Images, Bruce Powell.