By moving the G8 meeting to Camp David, President Obama deflated or delayed the rebirth of the Occupy movement once hoped for by Adbusters and many radical activists here in Chicago. But a positive scenario remains possible, depending on choices made in the next 72 hours.
There are the occasional lunatics, like the man with the hand-lettered poster saying "Victory for the Taliban" or the mysterious affinity group doing graffiti on police cars. A sectarian streak infects some at the vanguard organizing the weekend protests, whose main goal seems to be convincing people that it doesn't matter who is elected this November (since Obama and Romney represent the One Percent and will continue the Afghanistan war). In the view of this vanguard, the American public is deluded in being divided 50-50, and need their false consciousness lifted by a weekend of harangues.
Friday marked a positive beginning as several thousand nurses rallied at Daley Plaza to call for a "Robin Hood" tax on Wall Street speculators, a policy now supported by the French and German presidents among many others. According to inside accounts of the Obama administration, the president himself privately favored exploring the Robin Hood tax until it was blocked by Larry Summers and Tim Geithner.
As for Afghanistan, the center of swirling internal debates, Obama is determined to project the promise that the war is "winding down." Presidential statements are inherently confusing since so many audiences are being addressed. The withdrawal deadline is much too slow for the peace movement, but the pressure is growing in opinion polls and Congressional resolutions for an accelerated heading into 2014.
This leaves an interesting option for all concerned. Though it may seem quixotic and contrary to politics-as-usual, the Chicago authorities (led by Obama and Mayor Rahm Emanuel) could orchestrate an outcome that promises ending another war and transferring of billions of dollars into healthcare, which is what the nurses, peace demonstrators, and most NATO constituencies want. After building up an intimidating police presence, they could shift gears and get behind the peaceful protests. Both Obama and Emanuel are fully aware of the need to transfer spending away from Afghanistan and into needs of cities like Chicago.
The worst-case scenarios of the FBI – that secret terrorists are infiltrating into Chicago – will have to be discounted, not easy for a politician who fears being blamed if something goes wrong (which it might). The same overblown rhetoric led an earlier Mayor Daley in 1968 to believe that the Yippie chemists could insert LSD into the water supply and that Chicago's blacks would stage an uprising while suppressing pot and protest in Lincoln Park was diverting the police.
There may be a reason for the police to make some arrests in the next two days, but far below the dire predictions of past months. The overwhelming majority of demonstrators will be peaceful, and capable of "policing" themselves through consensus, especially if police avoid any provocation. The marches on Saturday and Sunday will be led by some disciplined Iraq and Afghanistan veterans who plan to reject their medals. Any side skirmishing with the cops would deflect from the veterans' message.
This positive possibility began to unfold this week, as City Hall reversed itself twice before finally allowing the nurses' rally to proceed at Daley Plaza, complete with the incendiary lyrics of Tom Morello, who himself declared emotionally that he would never bring harm to his hometown. It was a triumph of sanity instead of self-fulfilling over-reaction. In 1968, Morello's lyrics would have earned him a conspiracy indictment.
Fantasy? Perhaps, even probably. But an underlying reason for the NATO summit in Chicago is to polish the city's reputation as an international center of profit and power. Chicago's politicians, including Obama and Emanuel, know very well how the city's reputation has been permanently impacted by the 1886 Haymarket Square killings and the 1968 Democratic convention debacle. One way to diminish that stain is by hosting a NATO meeting where peace is announced, and a sea of protesters are treated with respect.
Everything might go wrong. But it could be a perfect storm.