Among the Activists Plotting to Disrupt the DNC
Chicago’s streets have been roiled by pro-Palestinian demonstrators, like this one on April 15. Now, activists are planning “the biggest, baddest historical march” for when the DNC comes to town in August. (Photo by Jacek Boczarski/Anadolu via Getty Images)

Among the Activists Plotting to Disrupt the DNC

‘We’ve got to give them a 1968 kind of welcome.’

CHICAGO — In a room full of 450 far-left activists, a leader with the Freedom Road Socialist Organization kicks off a chant: “Protest is a right—not just for the rich and white.”

“Have you heard that the Democratic National Convention is coming to Chicago?” Joe Iosbaker asks the crowd. “Are we going to let ’em come here without a protest? This is Chicago, goddamn it—we’ve got to give them a 1968 kind of welcome.”

In 1968, the Democratic Convention in Chicago was a bloodbath, with 600 arrests in one street battle that was broadcast all over the world. And the group that met here last Saturday, in the local headquarters of the Teamsters Union, wants to repeat history when Joe Biden is named the presidential nominee at the DNC this August. They oppose the president they call “Genocide Joe” for backing Israel in its war against Hamas. 

“If we don’t get a permit, are we still going to march?” Iosbaker asked the crowd, who responded with a chorus of “Yeah!”

“Are we still gonna march within sight and sound? Are we gonna let Genocide Joe come here and not hear us and see us? No! From Chicago to Palestine, protesting is not a crime.” 

Over a single day, the “March on DNC 2024” conference gathered 75 organizations to discuss how they plan to disrupt the convention. Speakers told the crowd how to flood the streets without getting arrested, how to spot members of the Secret Service, and how to say “Death to America” in Farsi. At one point, when news of Iran’s attack on Israel spread throughout the room, the crowd erupted in cheers.

Later that day, Jerry Boyle, an attorney and volunteer for the National Lawyers Guild, a nonprofit that says it acts “as the legal arm of social movements and the conscience of the legal profession,” gave a pep talk on how to “know your power” and overwhelm the police. 

“My colleagues will be here later today talking about your rights,” Boyle told the crowd. “Think of it more about power and the risk you present to the police.” 

He told attendees to look out for police carrying “mass arrest kits,” which he says contain supplies like “a bunch of flex cuffs and all the paperwork” for a bust.

“I’m not here to tell you what the law is,” Boyle told the crowd. “I’m here to tell you what you can get away with.” 

The event attracted some unsavory characters. Four speakers have had their homes raided by the FBI for their alleged ties to terrorist groups, and one attendee, Jesse Nevel, was federally charged for “working on behalf of the Russian government.” One “anarchist” distributed his homemade magazine that included drawings of machetes and the essay “In Defense of Looting.” 

The Left Is Planning Its Own January 6 at the DNCAmong the Activists Plotting to Disrupt the DNC
An anarchist at the conference passed around copies of his ’zine, which included drawings of machetes.

The prospect that the convention could devolve into the kind of anarchy actively being plotted at this conference has Chicago Democrats worried, several party insiders told The Free Press. Four politicians said they fear the city—and especially the administration of Mayor Brandon Johnson—aren’t prepared for the protests.

Alderman Gilbert Villegas, also a Democrat, said these anti-DNC groups are “like January 6th” in their mission to obstruct a key part of the American political process. “They are looking to recruit veterans to resist the quote, unquote empire,” he said of the groups aiming to, in his words, “create chaos” this summer.

He added he’s “concerned about the safety” of the more than 50,000 visitors expected to visit Chicago for the convention, which will be held at the United Center from August 19–22. The Department of Homeland Security is monitoring the threat, according to ABC News, which obtained a bulletin warning that foreign and domestic subversives “may view these events as an opportunity to influence or disrupt the U.S. political process.”

Alderman Anthony Beale says these anti-Israel activists already pose a threat—and have since October 7, when they started showing up to City Hall in droves, often shouting over legislators and refusing to leave the building. 

“They are yelling and screaming,” said Beale, who represents the city’s far South Side. “Some of my colleagues have been spit on. This is outrageous and it’s being tolerated.”

Among the Activists Plotting to Disrupt the DNC
Pro-Palestine demonstrators rally in the lobby of Chicago’s City Hall on January 31, 2024. (Photo by Scott Olson via Getty Images)

One of those people doing the yelling and screaming is himself an elected official: Byron Sigcho-Lopez, a member of the Chicago City Council.

An alderman on the leadership team of Democratic Mayor Johnson, Sigcho-Lopez was at the March on DNC 2024 conference. He walked up to the podium around 3 p.m., dressed in a shirt trimmed with African kente cloth, and addressed the group as his “comrades” and “freedom fighters.”

“We are committed to fight back. We’re not going to be intimidated,” he shouted. “Let’s see us on the streets. Democracy is defended in the streets.”

Sigcho-Lopez, an elected Democrat and self-described socialist, has agitated for resistance to the DNC before. Last month, he stood before a crowd at City Hall, calling for a “march on the DNC, with or without permits.” 

“Everybody knows what is gonna happen in both conventions: Trump and Biden—bad and worse,” he told a crowd of protesters shrouded in keffiyehs and surgical masks. 

The March rally was organized by Behind Enemy Lines, an “anti-imperialist movement” that has promoted Samidoun, an organization banned in Germany for celebrating the October 7 attacks. Sigcho-Lopez spoke after a speaker set fire to an American flag in honor of Aaron Bushnell, the Air Force soldier who self-immolated in front of the Israeli embassy in D.C. to protest “the genocide” in Gaza.

Now, the city council is divided over how to handle Sigcho-Lopez. Earlier this month, a coalition of moderate aldermen tried—and failed—to remove him from his position on the council’s Housing Committee in a 16–29 vote. A spokesperson for Sigcho-Lopez told The Free Press “the alderman is not associated” with Behind Enemy Lines and “was not present for when the flag was burned.”

The Left Is Planning Its Own January 6 at the DNCAmong the Activists Plotting to Disrupt the DNC
Democratic alderman Byron Sigcho-Lopez at the March event organized by Behind Enemy Lines. (Photo via Instagram)

When asked if he supported Sigcho-Lopez’s appearance at the event, Mayor Johnson told a local reporter, “I support the First Amendment.” 

Illinois governor J.B. Pritzker also defended Sigcho-Lopez on free speech grounds, saying he doesn’t agree with his behavior, but he “will defend to the death his right to say those things.” 

“I wouldn’t have done it and I wouldn’t encourage anyone to do it, but it’s his right to do it,” the governor said. 

And yet, the politicians who spoke to The Free Press said no one is challenging Sigcho-Lopez’s right to express his opinions. Rather, they want to know why one of the city’s leading Democrats would desire to sabotage his own party’s convention, and why the governor is hiding behind the First Amendment rather than simply condemning his behavior on political or moral grounds.

“The governor’s responsibility is one of public safety at a major, important event for Chicago on the national stage,” Austin Berg, vice president of marketing for the Illinois Policy Institute, told The Free Press. “This is not a question of free speech. It’s about whether visitors will be safe during the convention.”

Paul Vallas, the former CEO of Chicago Public Schools who nearly won the mayor’s race against Johnson in 2023, agreed.

“We are hosting the DNC and you have Democratic members of the city council literally calling for a boycott of the DNC,” he said. “That’s not exactly the type of leadership you need.” 

Back at the conference, about a hundred activists are passing around a clipboard with a sign-up “to supervise and protect organized disruption that’s happening on the streets.” These “marshals,” as they are called by the activists, provide medical care, scurry up and down a procession to deliver information, and lure police into confrontations, said Sief Salameh, a member of the U.S. Palestinian Community Network. (On October 7, the network published a press release describing the terrorist attacks by Hamas as “self-defense operations.”)

Salameh says he aims to have one marshal for every five hundred protesters, who will help the crowd take over the street. A private link to a “Marshal Training Guide” was given to the group, offering techniques for blocking traffic during an “unpermitted march,” including forming a “line between cops and marchers” and bringing “vocal attention to violent, harassing cops (i.e., shout ‘shame, shame’ while pointing at cops).” 

The marshals, Salameh said, will “make our community feel safe because we understand the police are not there to protect us.”

“We do not dissuade or push back against any direct actions or disruptions,” Salameh said of the marshal program. “I mean, there’s an overarching goal of a march. But again, we are not there to police our community.” 

Meanwhile, about a hundred activists are nodding their heads as they listen to Mick Kelly describe the “city” they will “build” at Union Park, which is adjacent to the United Center. By the end of the day, organizers had raised at least $24,000 from attendees to “build the biggest, baddest historical march” that has ever come to this city, said Kobi Guillory, the spokesperson for the coalition that organized the conference.

Among the Activists Plotting to Disrupt the DNC
A group of activists at the “March on DNC 2024” conference pose for a photo while chanting “education is a right, not just for the rich and white.” (Photo by Olivia Reingold)

“We’re going to build infrastructure there that’s real, and that can handle tens of thousands of people,” says Kelly, a member of the Freedom Road Socialist Organization whose home was raided by the FBI in 2010 in a search for possible links to “designated foreign terrorist organizations.” 

Kelly, a 66-year-old with gray hair in a ponytail, says that “every single thing that happens has to be planned ahead of time,” down to how many porta potties to rent, the credentialing process for speakers, and the plan for “a sound leadership body.” 

“We’re actually on track to do something that’s historic,” he said. “But the foundation for doing historic things is being practical.”

When The Free Press reached out to the National Lawyers Guild to ask if the organization encourages protesters to break the law, the director of communications said, “We are a member-based organization, and our chapters run autonomously,” directing us to contact the guild’s Chicago branch. When contacted, the Chicago branch did not respond. Nor did representatives for the Freedom Road Socialist Organization or for the U.S. Palestinian Community Network.

Rep. Ritchie Torres, a Democrat from the Bronx, is now warning that the radicals could endanger not just the DNC—but Biden’s reelection chances in November.

“Donald Trump has no greater friend than the Free Palestine movement, which seems intent on undermining Joe Biden by any means necessary,” Torres told The Free Press. “It’s shocking to see self-proclaimed Democrats declare war on the sitting president.”

Olivia Reingold (@Olivia_Reingold) and Eli Lake (@EliLake) are reporters for The Free Press.

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