In response to the NATO summit meeting in Chicago a diverse and large number of people took to the streets in protest. As is to be expected, the police also took to the streets to maintain order and to ensure that the people did not intrude on the meeting of the elites attending the event.
Obviously enough, the protesters generally wanted to get close enough to the summit so that their protests could be seen and heard by those attending. Equally obvious is the fact that the police were intent on preventing that from happening. In addition to the particular concern regarding this specific event, there is also the more general concern regarding how close protesters should be allowed to get to these sorts of events.
On the one hand, there are clearly legitimate grounds for keeping protesters a considerable distance from such events. The most obvious justifications are those based on security concerns. After all, not all protesters are peaceful and some of them might intend to have a go at those attending the event. There is also to concern that the ever-terrifying terrorists might use the protests as a cover for a terrorist attack. Given the potential for such danger, keeping the protesters a significant distance from such events can be justified on both moral and practical grounds. In terms of the moral grounds, the justification would (presumably) be that the rights of the protesters to protest close to the event would be outweighed by the rights of those attending not to be harmed. Alternatively, this could be argued on utilitarian grounds: the harm done to the protesters is outweighed by the potential harms prevented against those attending the meeting. In terms of the practical grounds, it is clearly easier to maintain security by keeping what might be regarded as the public rabble away from those attending such events.
On the other hand, a case can be made that the protesters should be allowed close (or at least closer) to such events. One argument is that the protesters do not give up their rights simply because they are engaged in a protest. Assuming that they wish to engage in their protest where they would normally have the right to be, then it would seem to follow that they should be allowed to protest there.
One obvious reply to this argument is that people do not automatically have the right to engage in protest in all places they have a right to visit. For example, a public library is open to the public, but it does not follow that people thus have a right to shout protest slogans about NATO or taxes or whatever while occupying the public library. This is because the act of protest would violate the rights of others in a way that would seem to warrant not allowing the protest. To use another example, while people have a right to access public streets and sidewalks, it is one thing to be walking, running, biking or otherwise occupying these places as an individual and quite another to be occupying these places in a group that would stop traffic and impede travel. As might be imagined, getting through crowds of protesters takes more time than driving streets that have been cleared of mere citizens. Such a delay would no doubt be annoying, even if one is in a limousine and has access to a car bar. As yet another example, the noise of the protesters might interfere with the event, even through the soundproofing of a modern building. As a final example, those attending the event might find the protests upsetting or disturbing. After all, being accused (for example) of being a war profiteer or of destroying the middle class might cause the attendees some emotional disturbances. No doubt people attending such events would prefer a quiet event without anyone shouting such things at them.
This reply can, of course, be overcome by showing that the protest does more good than harm or by showing that the right to protest outweighs the right to quiet and free travel. After all, to forbid protests simply because they might inconvenience or annoy people would be absurd. However, to allow protests regardless of the imposition on others would also be absurd.
In the case of the NATO summit meeting, the protesters would disrupt things, but being closer to the event would not seem to cause significantly more disruption than being kept away from the event. While it is true that those attending the event will face some logistical challenges getting through the crowd, this could be managed. After all, the police in large cities routinely handle large events in which celebrities, athletes and so on need to be moved through large crowds (such as at concerts and sporting events). As such, it would seem that the logistics objection would not suffice to deny the right of a close protest.
There is, of course, some legitimate concern to protesters disrupting an event. After all, being a protester does not grant a person the right to override the rights of everyone else. Of course it is also true that attending an event and being a political or economic elite does not give someone the moral right to deny others their right to protest (although it certainly can provide the means to do so). Hashing this matter out requires a fair assessment of the legitimate rights of the protesters weighed against the legitimate rights of those being protested. In the NATO summit situation, it does seem that the protesters, at least those that are citizens of the respective states involved or at least affected by said states, do have the right to protest on the basis of their involvement in the issues at hand and to make their views on this matter known to those who make the decisions that impact their lives (and deaths). Given that mere citizens are typically not invited to such events, one of the few ways to express their views directly is via protest that can be heard and seen by the people being protested. This seems to be a rather important right, at least in states that purport to be democratic. After all, the vast majority of people do not have the money needed to hire lobbyists or create super PACS. As such, one of the few avenues of political expression left open is the protest and to impose on this right is to further dampen the voices of the people.
There is, of course, also the pragmatic concern that keeping the protesters at a “safe” distance from the elites by deploying riot police to beat down intruders serves to reinforce the impression of a truly sharp class division between the mere citizens and those who control things. Seeing riot police beating protesters like pinatas to keep them away from the rich and the powerful certainly does create an impression of real class warfare which certainly cannot be good for a state that purports to be a classless democracy.