August 28, 1996 in Nation/World

Protesters Penned Up In Chicago

Lori Montgomery Detroit Free Press

They paced their pen, a stretch of pavement 50 feet long and 4 feet wide. They called through the iron fence - “Help keep health care alive!” - but nobody stopped to listen.

“These bars kind of taint us because people feel we’re unsavory beings or something,” said Henry Nicholas, 59, a Democratic delegate from Philadelphia who stood outside the United Center on Monday protesting his party’s decision to drop universal health care from its platform.

As fellow delegates scurried by just out of reach, Nicholas heaved a frustrated sigh.

“Hell,” he said, “this is no First Amendment right.”

As the Democrats returned for their first convention in Chicago since the riotous meeting of 1968, life was relatively good for those seeking to protest. Instead of billy clubs, the city met them with a complimentary sound system. Instead of tear gas, they were offered two hours of free parking downtown.

Still, some groups say the specter of ‘68 is haunting their efforts at free speech.

Once again, they say, city officials are trying to muzzle dissent, denying parade permits, corralling protesters into three designated pits and generally trying to line up dissenters into rows as neat as the newly planted petunias that decorate city thoroughfares.

“We were really bad off last time. They beat the hell out of us,” said Dr. Quentin Young, a 1968 demonstrator who successfully sued the city for greater access to convention delegates this time around.

But the prize - the choicest protest site in town - was the shadeless 50-foot pen, where Young’s vigil in support of universal health care was easily ignored by the delegates passing 10 feet away under a nice, cool canopy.

“Free speech is alive in Chicago,” Young said. “But it’s not particularly healthy.”

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