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Chicago Spring: NATO and the 1% vs. the 99%


By now, the news is over: NATO has come to and left Chicago. At least NATO showed. The meetings of the G-8 (Group of 8 most economically developed countries) didn’t even have the heart to show:  they were pulled and stuffed inside Camp David to keep them away from those “big, ol meanie protesters” who were licking their chops over a “two-fer” in Chicago.

 

How can we understand this? What happened? What was expected? And what does this mean for Chicago activists and possibly the Occupy Movement across the country?

 

It’s going to take some time for all of this to be winnowed out; unfortunately, I cannot do it, at least not now. There, hopefully, will be a myriad of reports, as activists write, distill and evaluate what they saw, they experienced, they learned. This is just my first draft, focusing on things I saw or did—not to stroke my own ego, but because these efforts were in the context of the extensive month-long mobilization against NATO, the Mayor, the 1%, capitalism, war, drones, etc. My report is limited—although it covers some developments that no one else has covered—but is as accurate as I can make it. It is meant to contribute to the whole understanding of what happened. I’m hoping others will contribute likewise, so that by the time is appropriate to give an overall evaluation, it will be based on extensive reporting from the grassroots, with multiple perspectives and experiences, and so will best be able to incorporate the overall developments.

 

So, first of all, why Chicago?  Obviously, there’s the fact that it is President Obama’s adopted hometown. However, from what I can see, with all his strengths and weaknesses, Obama does not have a giant ego, or at least not one that has to be continually stroked. But, also from what I can see, his former Chief-of-Staff, Mayor 1% Rahm Emanuel, seems to have such an ego. Among those who supposedly know, Mayor 1% has delusions of adequacy and wants to become el Presidente himself. Rahm, even before he raised $12 million for a LOCAL election and became Mayor 1%, pressed Obama to have the meetings in Chicago. He wanted to show the world HE was big enough to hold major international meetings in his little burg, and not have 1968 recreated on the streets.

 

How to do this?  Well, first off all—in a City with major problems funding schools, libraries, and mental health facilities, and major unemployment, gang and crime problems—it would be a little tacky to expect Chicago tax payers to pay for the Mayor’s grandiose schemes. So, he went to the local 1%, and eventually raised over $36 million for a two-day meeting. Not bad. But he also begged Obama for another $19 million from Federal funds, stupidly claiming that it wouldn’t cost the taxpayers anything—as if Chicago taxpayers didn’t contribute to those Federal funds!

 

To do this, he portrayed our little ville on the banks of Lake Michigan as being someplace no body knew about. The G-8/NATO meetings were to let the world find out about Chicago. They were going to entice journalists to write good things about Chicago, and the hordes were going to rush to Chicago and spend massive amounts of money to support the place-based (to use Paul Street’s nice term) section of the 1%. Well, since most of the world knows about Chicago—has no one ever heard of Al Capone or Michael Jordan or “Hoop Dreams”?—this was obviously just another “line” to be used to keep the locals quiet.

 

And Mayor 1%, and his hired gun—Chicago-NATO Host Committee Executive Director Lori Healey—even got Deloitte, the international accounting firm, to gin up some numbers to tell everyone what a lucrative time would be had by all in the city:  the estimate was $128 million in short term economic boost. Damn, they were going to create all kinds of (temporary) jobs, the touristas would pay even more, and we’d all be happy. And the place-based 1% located in the Loop salivated. Whoo, boy!  Talk about being as easy as falling off a log….

 

The only problem, however, was that they were up against a bevy of activists from all over the City who, for some strange reason, didn’t want to go along with this hysterical celebration of the greatest war-killing machine the world has ever known.

 

The organizing committee for the festivities called itself CANG8 (pronounced “Can-gate,” or Chicago Against NATO/G-8). They pulled together people and organizations from all over the greater Chicago area, including folks from the Chicago suburbs and Northwest Indiana. These folks worked for months to organize this, and did an exceptional job. (I was not part of CANG8, and didn’t attend any of their meetings, so others will have to give them their due credit—but from the “outside,” it looks HUGE!)  In any case, they brought together a myriad of networks, including a range of leftist organizations (socialist, communist, anarchist, pacifist), religious organizations (such as the American Friends Service Committee, as well as mainstream religious denominations), veterans (Iraq Veterans Against the War, Afghanistan Veterans Against the War, and the venerable Vietnam Veterans Against the War), as well as Occupy Chicago and all of its supporters and, albeit to a lot smaller extent, labor (mostly labor activists, with relatively small union participation), and myriads of independent activists. While most activists and organizations were Chicago-based, others were from around the country.

 

At one point in time, there was some dissention among this “herd” about how to proceed, although it was later overcome. There was some disagreement about uniting with “demonstration-focused” activists and/or groups versus “long-term mobilizing efforts,” and this threatened to develop into two separate marches—which would have been stupid in my opinion—but it was later overcome by a decision to have the vets lead the entire (single) march. This led to the powerful protest that surged.

 

Activities abounded, beginning at least by April 21st, although the formal protests were set to begin on May Day. Eric Ruder, a member of CANG8, gave an excellent presentation—a “Short and Irreverent History of the G8 and NATO”—at the Open University of the Left, which was placed on-line at www.youtube.com/watch?v=ixb4fgv4OKQ.

 

Building off that, as Chair of the Chicago Chapter of the National Writers Union, I got into a meeting of the City Club of Chicago that was supposed to discuss NATO. (For the City Club, read 1%.)  The aforementioned Lori Healey was to report on the NATO meetings and what they meant to Chicago. I, along with Liane Casten—a  NWU Chicago Steering Committee member who was to go with me but was sick that morning and had to pass—had expected to hear an overall, dispassionate report, listing the pros and cons of the meetings, what was going on, etc. What was presented by Healey, however, was a propagandistic report, just extolling NATO and how wonderful its economic benefits would be to the City of Chicago. The Q & A was pretty meaningless, until I got up and asked why Chicago was bringing NATO, the greatest war-killing machine in the history of the world, to the city—not only did she refuse to answer, but the Chair immediately ended the meeting. I guess we can’t have the “unwashed” asking such questions! 

 

A good, but unplanned for, side-affect of my challenging this “dog and pony” show—trust me, the name Goebbels came to mind!—but the many journalists now had something of interest to inquire about. I was interviewed by a number of media outlets, such as the Associated Press, Bloomberg News, Chicago Tribune, Chicago Sun-Times, NPR, and the ABC-TV local affiliate, Channel 7. Channel 7 aired a fairly good report once (see http://abclocal.go.com/wls/story?section=news/local&id=8642380.), and the Sun-Times did a fair one as well, although the Sun-Times included the fact that I had specifically asked why war criminals such as Condoleeza Rice and Madeleine Albright were included in the festivities. (Channel 7 was to later “interview” Albright, which they broadcast, but talking about being whores to power:  absolutely innocuous interview, and certainly did not question her about her 1996 statement that she and the Clinton Administration thought it “was worth it” that over 500,000 Iraqi children under six years of age had died due to US sanctions against Iraq after the invasion known as “Desert Storm,” which I had specifically mentioned while being interviewed by the press, including Channel 7.)

 

After that, there were some labor mobilizations. The first was around May Day, which there’s been a growing effort over the last few years to reclaim as Labor Day in Chicago—can’t say anything about it, as I had been asked to speak in St. Louis for the Gateway Greens on “Labor and the Occupy Movement,” so I wasn’t in the Chicago area that day. Yet, by that Friday, in the northwestern suburb of Rosemont near O’Hare Airport, there was the Labor Notes bi-annual conference—being held for the first time in the Chicago area—where over 1,500 labor activists, unionists and some Labor officials from all over North America attended. (There were also participants from Australia, Bangladesh, Brazil, China, Columbia, Egypt, El Salvador, France, Germany, Japan, Mali, Mexico, the Philippines, Portugal, Sweden, the UK, and Venezuela.)  There were a wide range of panels and discussions, interactions and hallway meetings there, as people were using their social networks to build for upcoming events in particularly Chi-town. The Nurses and Chicago Teachers Union seemed very well represented.

 

Our National Writers Union Chapter issued a formal statement to the press, Mayor 1%’s office, and all of Chicago’s 50 aldermen, arguing that the need to protect rights of Free Speech and Assembly for the anti-NATO protesters were paramount, far more important than stroking Mayor 1%’s ego. This was joined by other efforts, in parallel, all demanding that the cops not wear their “robo-cop” gear (as is common in Chicago demonstrations that don’t involve Labor) and demanding protections for First Amendment rights. (How much impact these efforts had is, obviously, unknown, but most of the cops did not wear the robo-cop gear throughout the main week of protest, and First Amendment rights were generally—sometimes only in the face of refusing to tolerate interference—honored.)

 

There were a couple of educational conferences that took place before NATO arrived. Occupy Chicago and the American Friends Service Committee each provided their members and allies some chances for education and interaction. (For a calendar listing of many of the events around NATO, go to http://natoprotest.org/calendar/.)

 

The National Nurses Union held a big rally in Daley Plaza in the Loop on Friday, May 18. They brought in Tom Morello (now touring as the “Nightwatchman,” but formerly of “Rage Against the Machine”), for a very militant rally. The Mayor’s office tried to jack the NNU around—cancelling a permit obtained months before at the last minute on a very transparent lie—but backed down when the NNU told them they were going to go ahead, permit or no. Morello was great, and really helped build some good energy. (See the report from Rolling Stone at www.rollingstone.com/music/news/tom-morello-gets-fired-up-at-chicago-nurses-rally-20120518.)

 

Our NWU chapter tried another tact. We decided that we would sponsor a program on “Journalistic Coverage of the NATO Meetings:  A Professional Overview.”  We tried to get a range of corporate journalists to serve as panelists, but none were available or willing. We ended up with an excellent panel—Chris Geovanis, Dr. Paul Street and Stan West—that made powerful presentations, but even with good munchies, and access to the live music that night at one of the best blues bars in Chicago, not a single corporate journalist attended.

 

To give an indication of the “depth” of events going on, we were competing that night with a concert by David Rovics, one of the best people’s musicians around, which also took place within our Logan Square neighborhood.

 

The Occupy Mental Health movement organized somewhere near 1,000 activists to go pay a personal visit to Mayor 1%’s house. According to the Sun-Times, over $14 million was spent on NATO-related social events, and yet the Mayor had closed down half of the City’s mental health facilities because they required less than $3 million to keep open for the year. People mobilized and marched to his house, protesting his hypocrisy.

 

And the big anti-NATO march was on Sunday, May 20. It was a beautiful day, although it was hot—temperatures somewhat in the high 80s-low 90s. Despite a month of “terror scares,” pre-demonstration arrests, and endless repeating of Mayor 1%’s administration rap of their concern for protester “violence,” the turn out was strong. The cops said somewhere between 1-2,000, but that’s a joke:  they had said there were 2,500 at the Nurses rally in Daley Plaza, and this was easily 3-4 times larger, if not more. The protesters were out in large numbers, and were unarmed and friendly, with only a few exceptions. (Yes, there were some who wanted to get it on with the cops, but they were pretty limited in numbers and in proportion to the march overall—and when there was cop-protester violence, it was initiated by the police, which obviously is a surprise….)

 

The “heart” of the demonstration was the decision of over 40 US military veterans who had served and fought in Iraq and Afghanistan to return their medals to NATO. The vets led the entire march. (As a former Sergeant in the USMC, 1969-73, and as a member of Vietnam Veterans Against the War, I helped provided security for the younger vets:  we wanted to keep the media away from the vets during the march, as this was a very emotionally-loaded events for these women and men, and the vets wanted to focus on events at hand. They did media interviews before and after the march.)

 

Fortunately, during the march, a decision was made to allow Amy Goodman and her team from Democracy Now! access inside our lines, and they filmed the vets in action. Their reporting, on May 21st, was by far the best account of the vets’ actions:  http://www.democracynow.org/2012/5/21/no_nato_no_war_us_veterans .

 

The corporate media—with few exceptions– did their usual poor job of reporting the demonstration and events. What was shown was some scuffling between cops and some of the Black Bloc folks, although they did not show the real violence that the cops laid on the protesters. There was relatively little discussion of the vets throwing their medals back at NATO. (For a good comparison between the people’s media and the corporate media, see Paul Street’s “Imagine a People’s Media in Chicago” at www.zcomm.org/contents/186482/print.)

 

The next day, Monday, saw a demonstration at Boeing, the gigantic military contractor. Highlight of the protest was a “die in.”   Many Boeing employees seemed not to want to come to work that day.

 

And finally, there was a major protest at the Chicago Mercantile Exchange, which had just gotten a huge tax break from the State of Illinois to supposedly keep it from leaving Chicago, and that took place on the Wednesday after the major NATO protest. One of the interesting developments is that the Chicago Teachers Union (CTU) had just overfilled the Auditorium Building with about 5,500 members to discuss current labor negotiations with the City—with strong indications that they will be ready to strike later this summer—and after their meeting, the CTU brought their members to the Merc to join the demonstration. (For arguably the best reporting on public education from a pro-union perspective, check out Substance at www.substancenews.net/.)

 

Yet how do we evaluate these efforts?  First of all, NATO was able to come and have their conference.  Certainly, we were unable to stop this, and it seems clear that people would have been killed if they had seriously tried to prevent the conference. So, NATO wins this point on the basis of massive amounts of money, intensive repressive apparatus with a will to use it, and extensive propaganda.

 

Yet, other than saying they held their meetings, what else can NATO say?  I don’t think they can say much. I saw no indication that NATO was embraced by the people of Chicago. If anything, the access restrictions and the militarization of the Loop irritated people. In fact, while waiting to talk to Dick Kay on his WCPT radio program, “Back on the Beat,” the day before the big march, the people speaking ahead of me were overwhelmingly opposed to NATO, mostly on economic grounds.

 

In fact, people were scared of the developments around the meetings, and many left town and/or did not work in the Loop. There were extensive reminders that parts of the City—including Lake Shore Drive (LSD) and part of I-55 between the Dan Ryan Freeway and LSD, as well as the area around the McCormick Convention Center—were off limits due to the conference, and there was extensive reminders of the militarization of the police (and cops brought it from out of state and Illinois State Police) all over the South Loop.

 

The “meme” that was projected in support of this was that all the “hippies” and Black Bloc folks were coming to Chicago to recreate 1968, but that “our boys in blue” were ready to protect Chicagoans—and they were prepared to use as much violence as necessary to persevere. Not a very reassuring message, in any case. The corporate media was insistent on presenting this, again and again, ad nauseum. In fact, not only was it not reassuring, but it made people apprehensive—and resulting in many who would normally visit the Loop (locals as well as tourists) staying away. The CPD also arrested some “terrorists,” in a pre-Meeting effort to discredit the protesters.

 

It seemed clear that Mayor 1% was trying to scare protesters away from protesting, while keeping the police on a relatively short leash—although, obviously, they could be released at any time it was deemed necessary.

 

Two things should be kept in mind, however. First, extensive organization around the City across the 30 some odd-day period, and excellent work by people’s media such as http://natoprotest .org and http://Chicago.indymedia.org to share with people the events that were developed around NATO, kept NATO and related issues alive across the entire period. They firmly established that there was more than one perspective about these meetings. Multiple educational fora—besides the one presented by the National Writers Union at Rosa’s Lounge, I also got to hear Medea Benjamin speak at the Heartland Café, launching her new book, Drone Warfare, and there were a number of others—and conferences allowed issues to be discussed, thought about and acted upon:  certainly, they allowed many people to come to have some understanding about the realities of NATO in ways that a one-off protest could have never done. I suggest this is a model that needs to be expanded upon, especially around any major protests:  the corporate media will inform that things are coming up, but people’s organizing must contest the “meaning” projected by the corporate media, and provide extensive educational fora beforehand.

 

The second thing is that, despite massive and continuous fear mongering about protester “violence,” which did limit somewhat the participation in the May 20 March, there were still many people—midpoint estimates seem to be around 10,000, far beyond what the police and corporate media proclaimed—who came and marched. The protesters refused to be intimidated by the (literally) thousands of cops on the street, and they were widely diverse—although predominantly white, as African Americans and Latinos are all-to-familiar with police terrorism in this City—in age, gender, occupation, politics, etc. And the protesters were not armed, were not angry, and generally enjoyed the beautiful day. Their very presence and civility effectively undercut Mayor 1%’s meme of “protester violence.”  (I’m waiting to see the City’s bill for massive overtime for the 3,100 cops assigned to protect NATO from the peaceful protesters!)

 

There was some violence, as both a small number of protesters and many cops came to rumble. It was a minor, minor part of the day. Yet, the Mayor’s “protester violence” meme was reinforced by whatever violence that emerged. While I am not a pacifist, the violence that emerged did allow the corporate media to plug back into the dominant meme, and resulted in the vets’ protest—where they literally threw their medals back at NATO—to be all but ignored. If people want to challenge the cops, that’s up to them, but I also think it is their responsibility to not undercut the larger politics of the protest:  I think they would have had a much more positive impact on the day’s activities had they disrupted the freeways not far away, or did something away from the larger march.

 

In short, Mayor 1% and his cronies can talk all the crap they want to about having a successful NATO meeting in Chicago, but I doubt we’ll ever see NATO meet in this City again.

 

Activists in this huge city came together in a way I haven’t seen in the 18 years I’ve lived in Chicago, worked out problems and difficulties, did extensive education, challenged the dominant story, developed a people’s media, interfered in the day-to-day operations of a number of organizations, and built solidarity across many barriers:  there’s no doubt in my mind that the “left”—however one wants to define it—in this City is now much more unified and aware of each other in a positive manner, as well as being more aware of people’s struggles around the world. It started in Tunisia and Egypt, spread to Wisconsin and then across the Arab world, rooted itself in Greece, exploded in Israel and the UK, and then led to the Occupy Movement. Chicago has earned placement in that firmament—and with the courage of the Iraq/Afghanistan Veterans Against the War, and their more-than-symbolic repudiation of NATO—this city won’t soon forget the response generated against NATO, the greatest war-killing machine that has ever been created.

 

And if the Chicago Teachers Union (CTU) strikes later this summer, there’s a lot of solidarity existing in this City to support the solidarity currently being developed within this union. That the CTU is emphasizing things such as equal education, more teachers and support personnel, libraries for all schools—something like 160 schools in Chicago have no libraries!—and the general well-being of all students, ahead of raises (which are also needed, especially with the proposed expanded length of the school day), suggests that some of the lessons of Madison have been learned by trade unionists—and might just get militantly expanded. The Chicago Spring hasn’t ended!

 

Kim Scipes is the Chair of the Chicago Chapter of the National Writers Union, UAW #1981, AFL-CIO. He is the author of AFL-CIO’s Secret War against Developing Country Workers:  Solidarity or Sabotage? (Lexington Books, paperback, 2011—details and 20% off cover price at http://faculty.pnc.edu/kscipes/book.htm), and author of a chapter in It Started in Wisconsin (Verso, 2011), edited by Mari Jo Buhle and Paul Buhle.  

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